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A Review of Renaissance. By Os Guinness.

Jan 13, 2015

IVP, 2014.

One need not agree with everything Os Guinness says to be deeply impressed by his insights, his big-picture thinking, and his concern for the church. We get more of this in his latest volume, which has the subtitle, “The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times.”

The book sets out to answer this question: “Can the Christian church in the advanced modern world be renewed and restored even now and be sufficiently changed to have a hope of again changing the world through the power of the gospel? Or is all such talk merely whistling in the dark – pointless, naive and irresponsible?”

Much of his case is laid out in the first chapter, with following chapters looking at matters in more detail. So let me mainly focus on his opening chapter. In it he makes the case that the West is at a crossroads because the Western church is indeed at a crossroads, and how both will travel in the years ahead is not all that clear.

“Only God knows,” he says. “My own best assessment is that we are in a time of momentous transition, for we are living in the twilight of five hundred years of Western dominance of the world.” But “at this juncture, the West has cut itself off from its own Jewish and Christian roots – the faith, the ideas, the ethics and the way of life that made it the West.”

Thus the West can no longer stand against its opponents, and it is at sea in terms of what it even thinks of itself. It has lost its identity as it has lost its roots. What made the West great is no longer with us, and it now faces a very uncertain future:

The West has beaten back the totalitarian pretensions of both Hitler’s would-be master race in Germany and Stalin’s would-be master class in the Soviet Union. But it now stands weak and unsure of itself before its three current menaces: first, the equally totalitarian, would-be master faith of Islamism from the Middle East; second, the increasingly totalitarian philosophy and zero-sum strategies of illiberal liberalism; and third, the self-destructive cultural chaos of the West’s own chosen ideas and lifestyles that are destroying its identity and sapping its former strength.

And the consequences of all this are nothing less than monumental:

Western cultural elites have disregarded God for more than two centuries, but for a while the effects were mostly confined to their own circles. At first, they disregarded God. Then they deliberately desecrated Western tradition and lived in ways that would have spelled disaster if they had been followed more closely. But now in the early twenty-first century, their movement from disregard to desecration to decadence is going mainstream, and the United States is only the lead society among those close to the tipping point.
Soon, as the legalization and then normalization of polyamory, polygamy, pedophilia and incest follow the same logic as that of abortion and homosexuality, the socially destructive consequences of these trends will reverberate throughout society until social chaos is beyond recovery. We can only pray there will be a return to God and sanity before the terrible sentence is pronounced: ‘God has given them over’ to the consequences of their own settled choices.

As mentioned, as the church goes, so goes the West. It is because so much of the Western church no longer resembles what it is supposed to look like that the West has began to disintegrate so severely and so frighteningly. Guinness has written much over the years about this issue. Here he continues his critique of the church:

A striking symptom of the church’s problems in the West today is that fact that in a country such as the United States, Christians are still the overwhelming majority of citizens, but the American way of life has moved far away from the life of Jesus – which means simply that the Christians who are the majority are living a way of life closer to the world than to the way of Jesus. In a word, they are worldly and therefore incapable of shaping their culture.

This has been the big problem with the Western church. Instead of transforming the surrounding culture and being a force of cultural renewal, it has allowed the surrounding culture to transform it, rendering it salt-less, lightless and lifeless. The clash between the world and the church has largely been won by the former:

The truth is that the greatest enemy of the Western church is not the state or any ideology such as atheism, but the world and the spirit of the age. Anything less than a full-blooded expression of the Christian faith has no chance of standing firm against the assaults and seductions of the advanced modern world. So when the church becomes worldly, she betrays her Lord, and she also fails to live up to her calling to be dangerously different and thus to provide deliverance from the world by a power that is not of the world.

If the West is on the ropes, and perhaps out for the count, at least it can do all it can to warn the rest of the world not to follow its mistakes. Because I am in Malaysia as I write this, his advice in this regard is worth repeating. In the second chapter he talks about the Western church’s responsibility to the rest of the world’s churches:

We who are Christians in the advanced modern world have a duty to share the story of our own dealings with modernity with our sisters and brothers in the Global South who are yet to face its full impact. The overall challenge of modernity is summarized in the gravedigger thesis – the idea that the Western church was the single strongest source of the ideas that shaped the rise of the modern world, yet the Western church has become culturally captive to the world to which it gave rise. In so doing, it has become its own gravedigger.

Having just recently sat with a group of Asian church leaders around a board room table, I felt compelled to share with them this passage from the end of his book. He is talking about the ongoing need of church reformation, and says this:

The Reformation, in other words, did not come [fully] then, and our much needed reformation today will not come, when Christian leaders sit around a board table with yellow pads and outline their vision from “mission” to “measurable outcomes.” Rather, it will come when men and women of God wrestle with God as Jacob wrestled with the angel – wrestling with God, with their consciences, with their times and with the state of the church in their times, until out of that intense wrestling comes an experience of God that is shattering and all-decisive, and the source of what may later once again be termed a reformation. “I will not let you go unless you bless.”

Until we get serious about God, and seek him until we have seen him break through in new and tangible ways, the Western church looks to be about over. And if that is the case, the West is about over too. But it need not end this way. How the church in the West responds in this time of crisis is paramount.

Guinness says he is guardedly optimistic about our future: The church “has a proven record of being the greatest people-changing and world-changing force in history.” Yes, God has done it before and he can do it again. May he do so in the West today.

But it will take sacrifice and commitment on our part to make it happen. This volume helps us to see the bigger picture as we seek to make all this a reality. We can again see a renewed and restored church having a great impact on the rest of the world. Or the Western church may keep sliding into oblivion. The choice is in many ways our own.

(Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

[1344 words]

10 Responses to A Review of Renaissance. By Os Guinness.

  • It’s interesting to see the response of the West to
    Islam’s most recent Western terrorist attack (in the Middle East it naturally continues unabated). It actually seems to be provoking people to weigh up the cost of free speech and the freedoms that Christianity ingrained in and purchased for the West.

    This is perhaps a pivotal moment for the West as the issue of repealing 18c is raised again here in Aust when it seemed here to stay.

    If mainstream secular Australia is opening an eye, hopefully the church is also waking up. It’s nice when the church leads the charge but at this stage I’m willing to take any positive sign.

    Perhaps there is yet hope for the West?

  • Hi, Bill. Very good and necessary article. It has been said before but always needs repeated that as Christians we are in the world but not of it. We are only pilgrims here but also ambassadors on behalf of our Lord. Also for those who have not read the poem “The Church walking with the World” it is well worth the read.
    www.imarc.cc/edit/church_world.html

  • Perhaps one thing we could do is to pray that God will quickly send another Whitefield, supported by another Wesley, a Rowland, an Edwards, plus a few more like-minded and gifted men. Another Luther and Calvin and Cranmer would also be a great wake-up for the church, if she is willing to listen.

    God of course has sent renewal and revival in various ways in the past and although of course it happens exactly when he wills it, we should still pray for it to occur. The article above is very timely and a good reminder.

  • Or how about this for a radical idea.
    Stop following the world and its ridiculous and silly ideas that get thrown into the dustbin each other day for something new and instead, shock horror, wait for it, follow what the Bible says.

  • Hi Bill,

    Very sobering article. Simon makes some great points. The secular West knows what has happened is wrong but doesn’t know why because it has moved away from the absolutes of God. It is powerless to act because it can’t justify any course of action because it doesn’t know if it is right or wrong to do so.

    It has given up its’ own freedom to protect the freedom of those who would ultimately take away the freedom of the West.

    There are no absolutes in the West and a cult that at least has some, though they are wrong, is bending the West to its’ will.

    This is where the Church is falling down because it is starting to mimic secular society and therefore has no voice. May God help us regain it.

    My wife and I have had to make a stand in our family over an issue and we have been brutally attacked by both atheist and Christian members over our lack of tolerance. They have no answer though when we stand on God’s Word and the requirement to be intolerant of sin against His absolutes. It has been very painful but we know we have done the right thing for once. I think the Church has to face this dilemma and it won’t be done by hashtags and pointless rallies.

    I think the shaking is coming. I hope we all have the courage and faith to stand the course.

    I apologise for the obtuse sounding points. I hope you and your readers can translate them into fluent English.

  • It’s very interesting that the fastest growing group of Christians are now the Chinese and most of Christianity’s growth has occurred in non-Western countries such as Vietnam, Korea and Nigeria.

  • www.thelastreformation.com/come-out-of-the-the-box.html

    This man is calling christians back to a biblical christianity like no one I have heard in a long time. Though his stance is radical, I believe it is radical because it correctly represents Jesus. Uncomfortable? Yes. Truth? I believe so.

    Keep fasting and praying, boldly preaching the gospel, healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead in the name of Jesus.

  • Some of the things said and written in Sharon’s link above are worth listening to, but I’m sorry to say that I think some are misleading. Basing our Christian life mainly on the book of Acts is a bit hazardous. The written notes beneath one of the videos that says that Jesus didn’t come with much theology is plainly wrong, and the statement ignores the epistles which are of course Jesus’ teachings. The emphasis on healing is also misleading. Martin Luther is dismissed a bit unfairly too, especially with regard to the central doctrine of justification by faith alone which he brought back to prominence.

    We certainly do need more men to preach the gospel with power, and that power will be shown by the conversion of sinners and changed lives and an increasing honouring of God amongst Christians. We do of course need more ordinary Christians living their faith out in godly lives and being always ready to explain their faith to anyone who shows interest.

  • Hi Bill,

    Thank you for comments. May the Lord renew and restore His church soon. The time seems short. It is our only hope.

    Thank you Sharon Stay for web site of the last reformation.

  • Thanks Bill. I’ve purchased it, as I do as many as I can of the books you recommend (including primary sources on Islam) – I love his encouraging quote from G. K. Chesterton’s “Everlasting Man”: “At least five times the faith has gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.” Re. the West’s response to Islam, I was staggered to hear on the ABC news this morning, a Muslim cleric lecturing our government for not spending money promised to help de-radicalise people radicalised by “his” religion. It is passing perverse that Jihadist terrorism only raises the profile and influence of Islam in our nation and plunders the public purse.

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