Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. Os Guinness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: Against the doomsayers speaking of the darkness of the times, Guinness remains hopeful for a spiritual and cultural renaissance in the west, rooted in the power of the Christian message; and he charts the tasks of faithful witness that precede this and the contours of such a renaissance.
Renaissance. Often the ideas of renaissance and the Christian faith are placed in opposition to one another with enlightenment, high culture and reason on one side and faith and superstition on the other.
Guinness begins this book with arguing that in fact, renaissance is a deeply Christian idea, signifying a rebirth, a renewal that is in fact at the heart of the message of the Christian faith. Thus, unlike some who decry what they see as a declining western culture and at the same time, the eclipse of western Christianity, Guinness remains hopeful for the possibility of spiritual and cultural renewal in the west, and the global impact of the Christian faith.
He sees the church as at an “Augustinian moment” where one age and civilization is passing and what is to emerge remains to be seen. In this moment, he sees Christians needing to come to terms with globalization, the challenge of embracing global Christian faithfulness instead of cultural captivities of North and South, and finally, a trust in the continuing sovereignty of God. In his second chapter, he goes on to further delineate what he sees as the global tasks of the church in this moment. One is to prepare (or rather warn off from the materialism and metrics focus of the North) the church in the South. This is one place where I would have liked Guinness to consider more the possibilities of the potential for the witness of the church in the Majority World to challenge the west, particularly in light of the second task he enumerates of winning back the western world. Finally, he speaks eloquently of concern for the human future.
The next two chapters consider the cultural power of Christianity. Chapter three shows how on one hand, Christianity is unnecessary to the creation of cultural goods, which may arise apart from Christian influence and ought to be affirmed by Christians. At the same time, he speaks of the unlikely cultural impact of the Jewish carpenter and the movement he left, and its undeniable impact in philanthropy, reform movements, the rise of the university, modern science, and human rights. He argues in chapter four that the secret of such cultural power is the unique tension within Christianity of being both in and yet not part of the world, to be both world-affirming, and world-denying.
The last two chapters then consider then the grounds for hopefulness when facing the challenges of the present time. Over against the current wisdom of scholarship that culture influence comes through leadership, through the ‘centers’ of society, and through networks, which Guinness does not dispute, he argues for the continuing power of the Spirit of God who leads unlikely individuals into culture-transforming roles, from bringing the gospel to Africa and Europe in the first century down to the present day. He argues for the “great reversals” where those least imagined might play the greatest role. And he argues that cultural renewal is a by-product of great ideas about God and his purposes. In chapter six, he then contends that the “golden age” is not some time in the past but yet before us, and not in the sweet by-and-by. Rather, he holds out hope that the power of the gospel, the Christian message, may indeed surprise us, that it is often darkest before the dawn, and that we go forward by first going back to first principles.
The book concludes with the “Evangelical Manifesto” a document signed by a number of evangelical leaders, in the drafting of which Guinness had a significant part. It restates the core marks of evangelicalism, repents from some of the cultural captivities of western evangelicalism and marks out the key tasks of faithfulness before this community.
Guinness has been one of those voices in my life who brings clarity to “understanding the present time” from his Dust of Death, which made sense to me of the culture of the Seventies while I was a student, down to the present day. And while I found myself in sympathy with nearly all that is written in this book, I also found myself wondering if it is speaking to those beyond my generation, and beyond the white, western evangelicalism of my generation. The index of names references those with whom my generation have been in conversation for forty years–Barth, Maritain, and McLuhan, to name a few.
I wonder if the author is also engaged with younger writers from Thomas Piketty to James K.A. Smith, and those speaking from the Majority World perspectives like Soong-Chan Rah. I raise this because the author’s perspective is one I value, and one that should have a wider reach. I think this would be helped by a wider and more contemporary circle of discourse–not that he would concur with all of these ideas or writers, but that he would engage them. These and many others also care about the flourishing of human beings and cultures, and those who are Christians also seek the renaissance Guinness so hopes for. Perhaps such a confluence of discourse might even be the beginnings of such a renaissance.
Editor’s Note: Thank-you to Bob Trube for sharing his reviews with Emerging Scholars! Bob first posted the above review on Bob on Books. As you may remember I wrote a response to Renaissance which intertwined my studies at Gordon-Conwell and my labors at Urbana 2015. I thought that it would be helpful to post this as a complementary piece. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network