“..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…
“The way I defined (Evangelicalism), 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, “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.”
When Os Guinness speaks, you don’t want to miss a single word.
Some people clamor for your ear, trying to insert themselves into the forefront of cultural and political discussions but with Guinness, there is none of that hurried move to the “hook.” There is a sense of urgency and importance to each gently-accented thought coming from the 68-year old social critic that demands your careful attention. With a thoughtfully nuanced perspective, rooted deeply in the truths of Christianity and a life well-lived, Guinness has helped to provide a center to the solar system of Christian intellectual and cultural discussion.
This foundational member of the Evangelical Manifesto was gracious enough to talk about what it truly means to be an Evangelical, the future of the church, and why styling oneself a “post-evangelical” is “absolutely ludicrous.”
I tape my interviews on audio, and not video, for a reason. When I talked to Guinness after Thanksgiving, there was sweat on my hands and more than a little oscillation to the vocal pitch of my questions. It’s not that Guinness is unkind, the soft-spoken thinker is one of the most gracious and patient individuals you’ll ever talk to, but the meeting of childhood idols, particularly incredibly intelligent and articulate ones, can be a little terrifying.
Along with Life: the Movie, Guinness’s critique of the 1960s counter-culture, The Dust of Death was one of the most influential books I read during high school. Many of the issues handled in the text were outside of the comfortable context of my own experience, but the clarity of Guinness was easily seen. Along with other work from men like Schaeffer, I was inspired by the example of these men for whom Christianity didn’t necessitate a destruction of their intellect. The freedom offered by the idea that all truth is God’s truth and, because of that, there is no subject that Christians should be afraid of discussing has guided the rest of my life. But with Guinness, I still remember copying out Chapter 9, “The Ultimate Trip,” and hauling it around in the back of my tired Bible as an articulate reminder that in society,
“A Third Way is to be found in a re-examination and rediscovery of the truth of historic Christianity– in a Reformation of its truth and in a Revival of its life, neither being valid or possible without the other, but both together opening the path to significant new premises that will reshape culture.”
The type of settled clarity and balanced perspective that Guinness possesses, is a trait many of my classmates and colleagues need, and in my own muddled way, maybe this interview will help with that deficiency.
Guinness talked for over an hour on that Thursday morning, so over the next week or so, I’ll let out sections of his words. Hopefully, it’ll encourage you and spark some intelligent discussion.
When was the first time you heard the term “Evangelical”?
It is deeply written into the tradition of our family. My great great grandfather, who founded the Guinness Brewing Company, was an Evangelical and a friend of John Wesley, George Whitfield and was a strong supporter of William Wilberforce. So, the Evangelicalism that I know is not American Evangelicalism. People often think of Evangelicalism as the post-fundamentalism of the 1950s emergence under Billy Graham and Carl Henry.
For me, that’s absolutely ridiculous and extremely short-sighted. My family has been part of a much stronger, wider and deeper Evangelicalism for centuries.
Talk to me a little bit about this history of Evangelicalism, it comes out some in the Evangelical Manifesto, but it’s different than most people understand it, especially here in the U.S.
I started the Evangelical Manifesto because of a fortnight—a two week period— three years ago now, where I met twelve people all giving up Evangelicalism. In every single one of the cases I asked them what they were giving up, and it was political. It was the religious right, or it was cultural, like the televangelist, but for me, that’s ridiculous.
Evangelicalism is primarily theological and spiritual; people who define themselves and their lives and their faith by the good news of the announcement of the kingdom by Jesus of Nazareth. That is the historical and theological definition, if it was only this miserable cultural business, I wouldn’t be an Evangelical.
If you go back in history, when Francis of Assisi tried to live as Jesus lived, he was called, by the pope, an Evangelical. Well, you take the Reformation, the Protestant Reformation— which is one of the two greatest movements in Western History and gave birth to all sorts of things like democracy and capitalism— it was originally the Protestant Evangelical Reformation. Now, the Protestant is the negative part, they were protesting against, but Evangelical was the positive part, they were going back to Jesus and His good news. That’s Evangelical.
Part of the effort to reclaim Evangelicalism to its proper roots is this manifesto, but, for a term that has been so co-opted by different movements, what are some other ways Christians can reclaim the term in a proper sense?
Well let’s not cavort too fast, because defined the way I’ve defined it, there is nothing deeper.
So certainly, in public life I’d call myself a Christian, or a Follower of Jesus and I’d be strongly in support of C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” and be happy to recognize every sister or brother in the Catholic or Orthodox, with a capital O, tradition who recognizes Jesus as Lord, very happy too.
But, I feel like the Evangelical impulse is deeper than theirs. So, the Catholic impulse is obviously Catholicity, or universality of the church worldwide, across the centuries and continents. That’s terrific, but it doesn’t tell you what the original thing is—the good news of the announcement of the kingdom. Equally, Orthodoxy has a very important principle, but it isn’t nearly as deep as Evangelicalism.
So explain to me a bit of the difference between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism..
Jesus never called people to be Orthodox, did He? He called people to follow His new way which was at the heart of the announcement of the kingdom. That’s why I think that Orthodoxy is terribly important. Peter and Paul fight for Orthodoxy in the New Testament itself when there’s a terrific problem early on, but that’s not what Jesus called us to.
Evangelicalism is more of the foundation and Orthodoxy is built on top of that.
Exactly, and that is why whenever there is corruption, deadness, formality, heresy, whatever in the church, there will always be the impulse to go back to Jesus which is the Evangelical impulse. That’s why I would insist that, understood historically, theologically, spiritually; it is deeper than the other impulses. So Evangelicals are embarrassed by the culture of Evangelicalism or the politics of Evangelicalism, but that’s just a call to reformation.
Talk to me a bit about the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” back in 1994, you signed on to that then, do you find more of a unity now than you did?
As I said earlier, any sister or brother who says Jesus Christ is Lord, I would treat as my sister or brother, and the difference between us, of baptism or whatever or more important things, would be matters for domestic discussion. The whole point of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” was that, while we have important differences that need to be wrestled over, prayed over and so on, we were facing something together.
Europeans talk about a double jeopardy, with Islam on one side and secularism on another. We cannot afford to fight all domestic values and ignore the outside one. Here in Washington, I have close friends like Michael Novak who is a Catholic brother and I’m an Evangelical brother, but when we’re fighting certain issues like religious liberty, those issues are minimal, and when you get down over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee you can discuss those. That was the point of Evangelicals and Catholics together, although for two solid years, I got daily hate mail and emails from readers who disagreed with me.
For you, signing something like that is not a watering down of doctrinal differences…
Absolutely not. For example, the Williamsburg Charter was the setting out of the vision of a civil public square which is a political framework of rights, responsibilities and respect for people of all faiths. And I have gotten death threats, literally death threats. Why? For giving the rights of freedom of conscience to atheists, Muslims or whatever. That is not compromise. I am a strong critic of ecumenical, inter-faith dialogue as the solution to the world’s problems—it will lead nowhere. The differences are deep and irreducible, but we can create a political framework where we can be faithful to our faiths and know how to differ with other faiths respectfully.
It’s an interesting historical look at where we’ve come from; can you talk about some places where you might differ on more traditionally reformed teaching and the inclusion of believers in the Roman Catholic Church?
I come from a strongly reformed background. So issues like grace, justification, and the sovereignty of God are incredibly important to me and I won’t give them up for a moment. But those, I argue, are internal domestic debates to the church. So, for instance, if our family— my wife and my son— were having a furious debate in the kitchen and a neighbor comes to the door, we would drop the argument and welcome in the neighbor. Equally, that’s true in a lot of areas, there’s a time to discuss internal things and there’s a time to discuss external things. My wife and I will have a candor in the bedroom that’s different, than front of our son and definitely different than our neighbors and strangers. So, the issues like justification and grace, those are the debates we should be having with our Catholic brothers and sisters and I would take the reformed position very strongly. But that does not mean that I would deny that they are Christians, if they accept that Jesus Christ is Lord and so on.
With these types of declarations, (Manifesto/Manhattan etc.), people my age hear these pronouncements and wonder, “well, that’s nice, but what practically happens?”
I sign very few declarations. The reason is, because America is a country where we have an inflation of ideas, words, words, words. Everyone is talking and no one is listening. But there are significant declarations. The little Evangelical Manifesto got a bad reception from the Religious Right because of the words, “useful idiots,” mentioned there. It got a somewhat bad reception from the strong, strong reformed people because they don’t accept, for example, Roman Catholics as fellow Christians, which for me is tragic.
Where it got a very good reception was actually from Evangelicals around the rest of the world who said, “If American Evangelicals were known for that, instead of the religious right, we wouldn’t catch it in the neck, say in Jordan or Australia.” I got very interesting emails from people thanking me for that, because the world press sees only the political or the cultural.
In the past year, since the Evangelicalism Manifesto’s publication, do you think that there’s been a change in perception? It’s such a difficult thing, to change perception simply by saying, “well, that’s not what we mean.”
I think that the past year has seen a deepening disillusionment with the political. In other words, the Religious Right is either in severe decline or has gotten lost. But what has followed it is, in some ways, even worse. And the culture has gone crazy.
What has followed?
Well, I would date a severe milestone in the crisis of the Religious Right to the last election. It failed, but what followed it is kind of like a fire being scattered with the embers going all over the place. A sullen, angry populism that is really anti-Christian. And the emails circulating, say about Obama is the anti-Christ or placards saying that it is time to refresh the tree of liberty, or now this horrendous thing that say Psalm, whatever it is, “Pray for Obama” and you look it up and it’s an imprecatory Psalm calling for his death. Those are absolutely, reprehensibly vile.
Especially for those people coming out of what would be considered the Christian community.
Absolutely, it is sub-Christian at best and anti-Christian at worst.
So the collapse of the Religious Right has not led to the rise of a more responsible position, except for the minority, but to something which is horrendous. The trouble is, if this goes on, it will tarnish the church for a generation and that’s the tragedy.
I put it even deeper. If you look at Europe, Europe is the most secular continent in the world because of reactions to corrupt state/church powers in the past. America never had that problem because of the genius of the First Amendment until the rise of the Religious Right and the culture wars, and you can see that in the educated classes, 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.
to be continued: