“…a steadily rising equivalent of the European repudiation of religion climaxing in the new atheist. We have created the monster we dislike, and it’s our fault.” -Os Guinness
My father told me I shouldn’t play poker.
Don’t worry, a striving towards some form of higher morality wasn’t at the heart of this command. Card games weren’t the devil’s playthings or anything in my family, my dad just didn’t want to see me lose consistently. It’s a hard thing to bluff and hold your cards until its time to triumphantly reveal them– patience isn’t always one of my virtues– and when you’ve got a face that fluctuates faster than the colors on a thirteen year old girl’s mood ring, poker may not be the wisest game of choice.
Clumsy intro, I know, but as the comments have started piling up on the first part of this conversation with Guinnesss, it’s been hard for me to not just flip the rest of the text of the interview and put everything out on the table for you to read. Consider this a poorly handled slow play.
Before moving to the new part of the interview, one note on the definition of Evangelicalism that has sparked much of the debate. When you’re trying to understand what Guinness believes about Evangelicalism, I’d encourage you to follow the advice of Rev. Mike and “go re-read the Evangelical Manifesto.”
Guinness tackles new atheism, the emergent church and the greatest theological problem facing the church in this section. Read, think and keep up the lively discussion.
How do Christians respond to the rise of this virulent new atheism, Dawkins/Hitchens and company?
I think that, as I said earlier, we have to confess that we have partially caused it. And where their criticisms are right, we should so. And where the church has been ghastly in history, we have been anti-Christian and haven’t followed our Lord. And so, every criticism which is right, should lead us closer to Jesus, to being Evangelical. But, we should cheerfully take them on where they are. I am very interested in the civil public square and they are some of the most intolerant and uncivil voices around and I would openly criticize them if I met them. Now, I think we should be very careful that we are always out to win people. There are too many debates today that are like the Great White Hope in boxing, swinging at all comers. We should be out to win people. Christopher Hitchens is making a fortune in Christian debating, and a lot of debates are rather foolish, they’re just helping him.
On the other hand, you know the new bus posters in Washington; they started in London a few years ago. They are wasting their money and they are raising issues that have tremendous apologetic openings for us.
At least people are talking about these things, in a materialistic culture; you wouldn’t normally talk about these things…
Absolutely, we have nothing to fear from atheism, it will never, ever be a popular majority belief, except where the church has been really corrupt.
Now what about agnosticism?
I think that’s a cop out, a half-way house for many people. They’re not as belligerent and clear as atheists; they don’t want to engage in things.
Many of these agnostics/atheists turn to Genesis when they are trying to undermine the foundations of Christianity, should we meet them in Genesis or should we be focusing on the character of Christ and moving out?
We have to do both.
There’s no question that the relationship between faith and science is one of the great weaknesses in the American church. You’ve got three positions, the young earth creationists, most of whom most are frank embarrassments to actual scientists, and yet that the majority position among most Christians. Then, you’ve got the intelligent design, and there are very many serious believers and scientists in that. My quarrel with them is that they are politicizing this issue and you’ve got lawsuits and things. That is a scientist issue and it should be fought humbly and graciously between scientists. Then there are theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins and most serious thinkers in Europe, and I think that the real argument is between Theistic evolution and Intelligent Design. But that is not an argument that should be politicized, like in the Dover case and so on. So, overall, the American church, mainly Evangelicals have made a huge issue over this and we have to put it right.
I grew up with Ken Ham and his virulent, “if you don’t believe this, then your entire faith is undermined and you, to some degree, cannot be a Christian if you’re not a believer in the theory of a Young Earth.” How do we move past that and say, “Look, in the Christian church, there’s room for you to be a Theistic Evolutionist or for Intelligent Design,” and wrestle with those things within the church?
You know, Augustine, in his commentary in Genesis, warns that it’s always a mistake to hitch the church, and theology, to any passing view of science, for the simple reason that science changes. And there have certainly been a few key developments in theology over the last centuries, but nothing…Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists of his time, but who believes Newtonian science? He was a Christian, and one of the greatest scientists of his time, and a lot of Christians married their theology to Newtonian science and we moved on, in the age of Einstein. Well, Augustine warned that this is always a mistake.
Now, the same is true of politics, or economics. In other words, the sin, which used to be known as the sin of particularism, the idea that there is one particular politics, one particular economics, one particular retirement policy, one particular science. We can say there are ways, but we can’t say that there is only one, because they all change.
Going back a bit, as someone who worked alongside Francis Schaeffer, what happened to the Christian community where intellectualism and Christianity seemed to part ways, at least in the popular perception?
Well, not with Schaeffer, Schaeffer stood strongly in his thinking. But I think what happened, the decisive decade was the 60s, and Evangelicalism and fundamentalist slept through the 60s. I came here first in 68, and I only found one Evangelical leader over here, Carl Henry, who really understood the 60s, most people were shocked but didn’t understand what was happening.
The wakeup year was 73. You had Watergate, Roe v. Wade, OPEC (the Oil crisis for those who don’t remember that) and Evangelicals woke up and in the mid-70s you had the beginnings of the emergence of the Religious Right which came into the public sphere in 1979 with the Moral Majority and the election of Ronald Reagan. Since then, we’ve had the politicization of Evangelicals.
What happened to the men who would inspire Christian thought, like Schaeffer, why were they unable to continue to capture the intellectual imagination of young Christians, was there just a lack of people willing to pick up the mantle?
I think if you use one word; fear. Fear is the dominant emotion in the entire global world, but in America, among Christians, it arose because of cultural insecurity. The culture was slipping away. As they said in 75, “the sleeping giant has woken up and is going to take back the culture,” and of course they couldn’t, and you can see that fear and alarmism has been a key note of the Religious Right ever since. So that’s not going to be an impulse that leads to thinking, at least not assured thinking.
So rather than dialoguing with someone like Bergman, there would be a rejection of what you couldn’t understand.
Yes, shock, alarmism, demonizing, stereotyping. You know the Religious Right has done the Lord’s work in the world’s way, in a very ugly, non-Christian way.
Now looking back at the Jesus movement, you were optimistic about it…?
Actually I didn’t, I criticized the Jesus movement. I was a strong critic of the counter-culture and all those movements in the 60s, but I was the strongest critic of the Jesus Movement because it was very shallow and trendy and transient, and that’s what it proved to be. I’m critical of a lot of these trendy and transient things, including the extremes of the emergent church which are equally trendy and transient.
What are some of the biggest problems of the emergent church?
I have two main criticisms of those extremes. One, they were much stronger on the negative than the positive. Now, the reformers, for example, were very strong on the negative, the selling of grace by indulgences, they attacked it up hill and down dale, it was vile. At the same time, they were even stronger on the positive, Sola Gratia, by grace alone.
Whereas a mark of the emergent church, its extremes and the work of some people, whom I won’t mention, they are still getting over the hang-ups of the churches that they grew up in, and they aren’t as strong on the positives of the gospel, and that’s tragic. My other problem is that they are very critical of modernism, quite rightly, but they are uncritical of post-modernism, wrongly. The fact is, that both modernism and post-modernism, partly right but crucially wrong, but there’s a simple reason why post-modernism is more dangerous than modernism, it’s because it’s today’s danger. So, you always attack today’s danger rather than flogging a dead horse.
And that was one thing criticized by the Evangelical Manifesto, the attacking of the past rather than the present, but we do live in a post-modern culture, the way we think.
Post-modern is a philosophy that is on its way out.
What will replace it?
Who knows? There’s a confusion of post-modernism, which as a set of ideas, is on its way out, as is modernism. What’s coming in its place, the Lord only knows, I’m not a prophet. But we’re not post-modernity. Modernity is the word used by the social sciences as a one word summary of everything since the industrial revolution, right down to cell phones and Blackberry’s (as his phone rings).
And that is not on the way out. But I think that the terms, for instance in England, there was a vogue for the term, “post-Evangelical.” That’s absolutely ludicrous. If someone is an ex-Evangelical, in other words, they once were an Evangelical, but no longer are, then terrific. At least they’re honest enough to say so, I mean that’s sad, but they’re honest. To be post-Evangelical says nothing. What are they, positively? Are they liberal Christians, catholic Christians, orthodox Christians, neo-Orthodox, what are they? Post-Evangelical just says what they were, it says nothing about they are. All the post-y terms are useless.
It’s just a rejection of something without actually saying anything. That’s a term that’s very in vogue with many of my contemporaries, but you’re saying…
The way I defined it, it’d be foolish to be past it, you should be back to it. There was a time when Billy Graham came back from the Soviet Union, and the liberal churchmen from the council of churches said that Billy Graham had, “set the clock back 50 years for the church,” and Billy answered well, he said, “I wish I had set the church back 2,000 years.” In other words, Evangelicals should always be going back as a close a system as we can, to Jesus.
So when it comes to churches and people who want to reach out to a generation who thinks out of that post-modern mind, how do you craft the message?
I speak on campuses almost every, well certainly every month. I have no trouble recognizing that most modern people have a high degree of relativism, is that what you mean by post-modern?
Fine, you win. Always you craft the message of the gospel to where the hearers are, Jesus never spoke to two people the same way. So, the idea that you can use a recipe or a formula, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” or whatever, is unbiblical and we should be as flexible and personable in sharing our faith as Jesus was.
Without sacrificing those truths at the heart of Evangelicalism…
Of course, relating those truths in different ways to different people.
One thing that struck me was the emphasis on the centrality of Scripture in the Evangelical Manifesto…
But ask yourself why, why do we take Scripture seriously? Because Jesus did. For instance, what’s his answer to the evil one? Every temptation, “it is written.” Clearly for Him, Scripture was the final absolute authority for His life, and so for His followers it must be the same, and that’s why we’re Evangelicals.
And for those people who want to just take what Jesus said, and not the whole Scriptures…
Well, they’re not following Jesus; they’re being more like Protestant liberals. What Protestant liberals did in the 19th Century was to say, “We believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” and they selectively took out of the gospels what they liked, what fitted into their times. There’s an awful lot more to Jesus than Protestant Liberals believed, and the same is true for the emergents. You can’t pick and choose. Everything Jesus called his followers to do and be, we must do and be and believe.
What are some of the things that you’ve seen, as watching the culture, that you’ve felt validated in seeing coming, and are there things which you missed coming or misjudged?
Well, I have never pretended to be a prophet, in a sense of prediction. When I wrote “Dust of Death,” which is a critique of the 60s, people thought I was crazy. They thought the counter-culture would succeed. Now, I have to say humbly, I think I was right on that.
Equally, you wouldn’t believe the attacks I got when I wrote “Dining with the Devil,” which is a critique of the mega-churches, the very first written critique of the mega-churches. Now, nearly 20 years later, the points I made would be accepted very widely, even by the mega-church pastors, and so I have yet, can I say this humbly? I’ve yet to be wrong on any major point; I never predict the future.
Someone might point out something, and just because I don’t think I’ve been seriously wrong, it doesn’t mean I’m infallible, Lord knows I’m not.
R.C. Sproul was asked what the greatest theological problem facing the Christian church would be, he answered with regards to Christology and the personhood of Christ, what would you see as the greatest problem facing the church?
The biggest problem is not specific theological issues, like grace or Jesus or whatever, it is theology itself. In other words, modernity shifts theology from authority to preference. Karl Barth used to put it like this, “Theology once had binding address,” it addressed you and then bound you, so there was a link between belief and behavior. Now, that link between belief and behavior has eroded. So now, what people believe and how they behave, who cares?
Take Evangelicals, Evangelicals have never had a higher, sharper, clearer view of Scripture, things like statements of inherency. But Evangelical behavior on the ground is permissive chaos. The fact is, it’s just a matter of preference. And everyone describes their freedom, including the emergent church. As soon as you can say the views you don’t like, the uptight, stuffy traditional views, legalistic or whatever and you throw out what you don’t like, it’s just a matter of preference. And you get what social scientist call a cafeteria spirituality, or a salad bar spirituality. In other words, you can go down the bar, and decide you like cabbage not lettuce? Fine. You like radishes not carrots? Fine. You like love, not hell? Fine. Check out hell, take out love, that’s fine.
There’s a profound crisis of all authority as well. This is more important for America, because America is a nation by intention, and by ideas, so the American experiment is being called into question and no one really believes it right now, and even the notion of what is America is unraveling. So there’s a crisis of authority that is actually deeper than the crisis of any one doctrine.
So how should the Christian church respond to that?
By getting down on our knees and asking that, when we get off our knees and speak, the simplest, most straightforward Biblical words we use, would have the power of the Spirit in them that would have undeniable authority in them. In other words, it won’t be by “high faluting” theological arguments alone, we’ve got to have theology preached in power.
How do you respond to a generation that has been uniquely trained in apologetic arguments, but has struggled to make those arguments fit in the real world, and those who have found themselves put out by culture war Christianity?
That’s terrible. Apologetics, a generation ago, was too modernist. I, somewhat lovingly, mock it as “1001 reasons why Jesus rose from the dead” and so on. It was highly modernistic, answers for everything. There are dangers today that apologetics are reviving, in new conferences and so on, all in the effort of the culture wars, and that is dreadful. It is not, “we/they” as it is we are supposed to win people. We are not out to win arguments, we are to win people. I’m a passionate believer in apologetics, but in the way that it is Biblically understood, that is to win people.
How should Christians engage in culture, if they are not fighting in it?
Well, you take the notion that in the New Testament, when the word “fight” or metaphors on fighting are used, and they are used, it’s always supernatural. “Bring down strongholds,” and so on. When you are talking about people, the metaphors are legal; we talk about “witnessing” and “standing for the truth” and “convicting” and so on. They are a different type of metaphor. So, if we are Evangelical, we have to make sure that our apologetics are as Biblical, back to Jesus, as we can get it. And certainly, apologetics are a biblical discipline, and plenty of American apologetics have departed from the waves.
There have been a number of studies which have come out, showing the number of young Christians who have left the church at an alarming rate, is that something indicative of the present church or how would you respond to that?
The church is exploding and the gospel is advancing incredibly in the so-called “global south,” Africa, and parts of Latin America, Asia, not doing so well in the west. The central reason, I wrote a book 25 years ago, it’s coming out again next year, called The Last Christian on Earth, it was originally called, “The Gravedigger File,” and the argument is simple. The Christian faith is the single strongest reason for the rise of the modern world, and yet by becoming captive to the modern world, we’re being undermined by the very world to we gave rise.
Now, if you look at the American church in contrast to the European church, it’s much better off, but you can see two things:
1. The settlement, that the First Amendment gave us in 1791, is breaking down, partly due to the culture wars. That’s very faithful and Christians are not on the side of the angels in this.
2. We’re seeing that we’re reaching a very critical stage in the captivity of the modern church through modern culture. Evangelicals who used to be resistant to modern culture, it was Protestant liberals who reflected culture. We have become the new liberals. I’m afraid that the emergent church is a key part of this, mega-churches are a key part of this.
They just reflect the culture. You take, in the emergent church, this idea of “generationalism.” When Jesus talks about “this generation,” there is a solidarity, there is a mutual responsibility of everyone alive on earth at the same time. “This generation,” Jesus says, in other words, from young to old, they are in it together. The idea of “generationalism” came from marketing and modern demography and now we have smaller and smaller generations, the “Y’ers” and the “Xers.” This is crazy, we need to go back to a biblical understanding. And it gives rise to crazy ideas. You know, back in the 60s, there was this line, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” and you have the same mentality in some of those in the emergent church.
Now, Tom Oden, the great theologian, responded to this very well, “The real biblical answer is don’t trust anyone under 300.” Now he was tongue in cheek, but you see what he was saying, there is wisdom to history. The emergent church, through its generationalism, has a conceit and a folly that is suicidal. They’ve got to get over that, its worldliness. The emergent church, when it is in its generationalism, is thoroughly worldly, conceited, and need to repent of it.
Are they asking any real original questions?
Of course, they think they are. Every generation thinks it has something to say. All our best insights are standing on the shoulders of giants, and so on. And we have to be humble enough to admit that. To think that any generation sees anything really radically new, no. They are bound to see something, but equally, everyone will see something new. But also, people who have been around a lot of life will see something that people who think it’s new won’t realize.
Is there anything coming from that camp that’s struck you as being particularly unique or insightful?
I haven’t been terribly impressed, to be honest. I love the energy; I love the love and passion for the church. I’m not terribly impressed by a lot of it though.
(to be continued)