Is the rise of secularism in the West about to usher in a new "Dark Age"? What will the future of Christianity be like in such a world? Is there anything we can do to prevent this bleak future from occurring?
The rise of secularism and the fall of Christian influence are topics of great concern for contemporary Christians. There has been a lot of discussion about these issues from many different perspectives’some helpful, some not. Os Guinness ably seeks to answer some of these questions and address some of these concerns in his latest book. Guinness is a well-known Christian writer and social critic. His latest work is a succinct, pithy call for a return to biblical Christianity in response to the rise of unbelief in the world.
Guinness begins the book by describing our "Augustinian Moment." Augustine, the well-known pastor and theologian in the early church during the fifth century, observed the decline of the once-mighty Roman Empire. The fall of Rome generated a lot of debate and analysis about its causes. The salient point for Guinness is that Christians had risen to places of prominence and influence in the empire, and the power vacuum created by its fall raised questions about the relationship of Christianity to the broader culture. What were Christians supposed to think about the fall of Rome?
A thoughtful Christian critic, Guinness believes we face a similar situation today with the decline of the West in world affairs and influence. And so we are led to the same question: How should Christians respond to this decline? The author outlines two common responses, both of which are erroneous. The first response is to uncritically embrace the world and affirm its priorities. The church conforms its beliefs to the world rather than the Bible and therefore loses what makes it distinctive and prophetic. The second response completely rejects the world and everything in it. Common culture is to be rejected as sinful, and attempts to appropriate it are viewed with deep suspicion by the Christian community. This response makes the mistake of overemphasizing the future deliverance of the church and deemphasizing the goodness of the created world.
The basic thesis put forward by Guinness is that in either of these approaches Christianity has deviated from biblical teaching. Only a restoration of courageous biblical Christianity will ensure the church's survival in the coming dark times. Biblical Christianity takes the gospel seriously. It believes that the gospel is good news that regenerates and transforms the hearts of those who believe it. The church is supposed to be in the world, though not of it. It should take the good insights of secular culture and use them for the purposes of the kingdom of God. Nevertheless, the church needs to remember that its mission is spiritual and that its purpose is not to establish a Christian culture or society. God is the one who will do these things. As the Holy Spirit regenerates hearts and transforms lives, Christians will begin to influence the culture around them as a byproduct of their faith.
Throughout the book, Guinness lists many ways Christianity has positively influenced Western culture, focusing on five direct lines of influence in particular. First, there is a strong tradition of philanthropy in the West, a tradition based on biblical teaching, particularly the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Second, Christianity is the basis for the steady flow of reform movements in the West. From Francis of Assisi to Roger Williams to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christianity has produced those who have challenged the status quo and have actively fought against the prevalent evils of their times. Third, many of the great universities in the West (eminent places of learning such as Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne) were founded as religious institutions where future ministers and theologians were to be trained. These institutions, along with cathedral schools, preserved classical learning during the so-called Dark Ages and laid the groundwork for the Renaissance and the Reformation. Fourth, the preservation of learning and interest in the natural world championed by Christians led to the rise of modern science and learning. Fifth, the West strongly advocates human rights and human dignity, primarily because of the Bible's teaching on the image of God in humanity.
Guinness makes it clear that he is not advocating for Western culture per se or even suggesting that the West is superior. Instead, he is merely trying to demonstrate the strong, positive influence that Christianity has had on the West.
If Christianity has been so essential to the growth of the West, what will happen now that Christianity is being purged from the culture? Is there any hope for Christians living in these times? On a number of occasions, Guinness refers to Ezekiel 37 and the biblical vision of the valley filled with dry bones. The author draws a great deal of comfort from the end of this vision and the life-giving, mending work of the Lord. Even though contemporary culture seems to be sliding toward unbelieving darkness, we should not give up hope. God will protect his church through the darkest of times. Just as the word of God made the dry bones into an army of fully restored humans, so also the Holy Spirit may move and revive the unbelieving West. Guinness has hope that God could transform the West through widespread growth of the church, but he also recognizes that God may choose not to do that. He reminds the reader that our ultimate hope is in Christ. It is the Lord Jesus who will establish the perfect kingdom of God and rule the world in justice and righteousness. The initial breaking-in of the kingdom of God may be seen in the work of the church, but Christ will bring about its final establishment at his return.
Since the book is so compact, there are some areas that are not as detailed as might be desired. For instance, though the Bible is often referred to as the basis for a renewed Christianity in the West, there is little exposition of relevant biblical passages. Also, some aspects of Western culture such as capitalism, free markets, and democracy are assumed to be benefits of Christianity without additional explanation or defense. Finally, though Guinness provides a fine discussion of the growing importance of the church in the Global South, some additional discussion of the non-Western churches would provide some helpful context and comparisons. Guinness does have a thoughtful discussion of how Western churches can help those in the Global South prepare for the challenges of modernity. It would be beneficial to see some additional work done in this area.
The chapters are relatively short and end with discussion questions and a relevant prayer. This format makes the book a good choice for an adult Sunday school class, small group, or book club. Such settings would allow for extended discussion of the topics Guinness does not expand upon in the book. Overall, this book is helpful and is a good introduction to this general topic.