Book Review: Renaissance, by Os Guinness
Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. IVP Books, 2014. 192 pp. $16.00.
Jesus once told his disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” In an increasingly secularized West, we have yet to see all the ways in which followers of Christ will be “hated.” The changing political and cultural landscape has removed any incentive for being a nominal Christian (a good thing). However, it has also diminished influence Christians have within culture and led to more opposition to Christianity (not a good thing). It’s not easy to participate in the civic discourse when you’re regarded as a bigot for agreeing with Jesus.
So, how should Christians respond?
There is hope, Os Guinness says, and this hope encourages Christians to roll up their sleeves and to act. His book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times introduces the reader to some of the church’s current challenges and how we got here, and then establishes a few building blocks for moving forward.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
As its subtitle evinces, this book is about the power of the gospel however dark the times. That said, Guinness knows the Western church throughout history has proven susceptible to secularization, corruption, and division (115). He writes, “There is no perfect Christian culture, so there is no golden age behind us. Our golden age lies ahead—when, and only when, our Lord returns” (122).
RAISING DRY BONES
But knowing our golden age lies ahead doesn’t mean we give up and rest on our albeit future laurels. In chapter one, Guinness looks at our current situation and compares it to St. Augustine. Augustine, who lived through the decline and sack of Rome by the Visigoths, trusted God, lived faithfully, and laid out a vision for future generations.
In this, he is a model for us, and Guinness sees today as “our Augustinian moment.” With this in mind, he lays out three factors that will shape the world to come: globalization (chapter 2), whether the worldwide Christian church will demonstrate a faith that escapes cultural captivity (chapters 3 & 4), and the all-decisive factor that God is sovereign (chapters 5 & 6).
Guinness’ concern is not for a Christian civilization but for Christianity itself, mainly in the West (18). The power of Christianity to influence culture rests in its practice of truth, its ability to faithfully and fruitfully live out the gospel. To that end, Guinness is convinced that a critical mass of believers living out the ideas found in God’s Word has the power to influence the surrounding culture (75). One need only look back to a history spotted with such influence—a history filled with Christians giving themselves to efforts like philanthropy, reform movements (abolishing slavery, fighting for religious freedom, reforming prisons, resisting the evils of Nazism, freeing prisoners of sex trafficking), the founding of universities, and championing for human dignity (69). Christians have been and should continue to be known by such world-defying commitments. After all, the greatest danger for the church is the world, for when it becomes like the world, it loses its voice, its power, its saltiness.
But what sets Christianity apart from other ideologies and religions? Why can Christians have hope amid such challenges? One answer is that Christians can learn and grow. Consider how English sociologist David Martin contrasted Christianity and Marxism. Martin writes, “It is a paradox that a system which claimed that the beginning of all criticism was the criticism of religion should have ended up with a form of religion which was the end of criticism.” Marxism, in other words, had no resources within itself for correcting itself. Christianity, on the other hand, possesses a doctrine of its own failure, which in turn serves as the source of ongoing self-criticism and renewal (79). Where the church has erred she has the means, by God’s grace, to repent and once again live out the truths of the gospel.
How does renewal happen?
In chapter five, Guinness takes a brief tour of recent scholarship on how to “change the world.” These ideas are worth paying attention to, but ultimate change, Guinness argues, will come not by man’s infallible plans and vision statements but as a by-product of godly living. In other words, as individual Christians live out the Christian life in their respective spheres (parent, engineer, artist, teacher, etc.), God picks up each life as a different color of paint. By itself, each life may seem mere, but in the hands of a sovereign God, each color is another shade of a masterpiece. One thinks of the Preacher’s words in Ecclesiastes: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.”
So, is there hope for a Christian renaissance or renewal in the West? Yes! With appropriate humility, Guinness looks back to the example of Ezekiel 37. There, the prophet stood before a pile of dry bones. When the Lord asked the prophet, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel can only answer, “O Lord GOD, You know.” God made the bones come to life. Why? Because God can. This must be our posture to the question of renewal. We know God can but he owes us nothing, so we must answer, “O Lord, You know.” Guinness wisely concludes, “We wait for God’s answer, but as we wait, we work” (148).
This, I think, is where Guinness is at his best in the book. The decline of the church in the West calls for a hope-filled and humble response. We should neither despairingly throw in the towel (God is sovereign) nor assume we are the ones writing history. For the church to have hope moving forward, we are called to “define our faith, our lives, and all we are . . . by the standard of Jesus Christ our Lord, the precepts of the good news of the kingdom, and the authority of the Holy Scriptures” (135).
For those who pick up the book, let me end with two cautions and a commendation.
First, Guinness talks of the church and the individual Christian interchangeably throughout the book. This may sound like a minor semantic issue, but it has important implications. As you read through the New Testament, there are times the individual is addressed (“Husbands, love your wives”) and times the church as a whole is addressed (“In humility count others more significant”). To flatten that distinction blurs things—not everyone should be an engineer or artist or pastor. If we take what the Bible instructs individuals to do and apply it to the church indiscriminately, we risk losing the unique calling and authority of the church.
Second, I have concern about the way the Roman Catholic Church is discussed. Guinness rightly affirms the necessity of the reformation and definition of the gospel (160). But when he asks if Pope Francis will “restore the church’s humility, so that such vast institutional power will prove the true servant of the gospel” (129), I think he brings more overlap between Rome and evangelicalism than is there. No doubt, we can agree and partner with our Catholic friends on what the Bible says regarding a number of social ills. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the Catholic Church, in their official teachings, disagrees with Protestants on the most important issue: the gospel.
Guinness has sounded a clarion call to be more than just hearers of God’s word. The reader is left to do the hard work of mining the Scriptures and prayerfully figuring out the countless ways to apply God’s word in their job, family life, ministry— in every area of life. We need not isolate ourselves in a Christian bubble nor hand over the language of social action to liberals. The world is filled with ills that call for thoughtful biblical responses and action. The Christian is not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation. So we labor in every area of life to be faithful, and leave the results to God.