Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization, by Os Guinness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016, 237 pages, $20.00.

Os Guinness has declared ours to be a grand clarifying moment. But where is the clarity? True, a flurry of sermons, books, blogs, and publications are challenging Christians to “change the world” (James Davison Hunter), to “engage the culture” (Russell Moore), to “believe again” (Roger Lundin, quoting W. H. Auden). But which of these is authentic? So many tried and true remedies are put into question. Confident pluralism won’t work. Secularization must be reconsidered. Britons query the Continent. Americans have nominated a narcissist politician. Even Protestants are invited to discover the Benedictine option.

When America and much of the West are becoming more and more confused, and at a time when even the most optimistic person surely observes advancing darkness, what is called for is not retreat, but prophetic courage. Impossible People qualifies as one of the best guides to the prophetic stance I know. This latest book from Os Guinness is both anticipated and fresh. Anticipated, because we have gotten used to Guinness’s writings, with their biting critique of our times and their firmly biblical response, and are eager to hear more. Fresh, because Guinness brings bright, new insights into both the causes and cure for the malaise of our day. The book should be read slowly, and inwardly digested. It is dense with historical and biblical allusions. Creatively, he calls us to recognize our “Samuel Moment” and our “Moses Moment.” Samuel called attention to Israel’s responsibility when it was losing ground and making wrong choices. Today’s Samuels must tell the West that it will have to live with its bad choices, but that, even so, it is not too late to turn back to God. Moses, faced with the unfaithfulness of the people asked God, not for judgment, but for the privilege of seeing his full glory. Though no one, including Moses, could withstand the full revelation of his presence, it was right to seek it and cultivate it. And so should we. Without it there is no reason to go on.

Accordingly, Impossible People contains an extraordinary dose of cultural analysis, accompanied by a constant plea to nurture the sense of the presence of God. Guinness the pedagogue likes to organize his teaching in threes. The future of the world in the next generations will be determined by answers to three great questions (38): (1) Will Islam modernize peacefully in the end? (2) Which faith or ideology will replace Marxism in China? (3) Will the Western world sever or recover its roots? (The present volume focuses on this third inquiry). Three grand global transformations characterize the present (46–60): (1) From “pyrotechnology” to “biotechnology,” that is, from the long presence of the power of fire, moving beyond muscle power, to contemporary engineering of life forms; (2) The shift from the industrial age to the information age. This includes the overwhelming effects of globalization; (3) We are bound and torn by time, particularly by the clock. We are liberated and enslaved at once by the internet, and by its constant presence we have become both more aware of and numbed to good and evil.

Modernity distorts us and lessens the impact of our faith in three ways (66–84): (1) It moves away from authority and toward (at times pathological) choice or preference; (2) Our faith (or any faith) becomes privately engaging but publicly irrelevant; (3) The supernatural has given way to the secular. A “trio of trends” has added to the challenge of modernity (84–88): (1) An exaggerated specialization leading to corruption; (2) Overreaction, such as pitting God’s Word against God’s Spirit; (3) Movements of suppression of the supernatural. There are many more such triple trends.

Throughout the volume, these analytical trilogies come at us intensely, requiring the reader to slow down and think about each one. This is all the more true as Guinness marshals an astonishing array of quotes and citations, many of them solid as gold. Perhaps the greatest virtue of the book, though, is its careful balance between diagnosis and cure. More than in many of his writings, Guinness uses Scripture and spiritual reflections not only as antidotes, but as fundamentals for any age. He passionately presents the perennial value of the gospel. He argues that with the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost, the power of sin and evil have more than met their match (81ff.). He cares about the transmission of the faith from one generation to the next, as we are “notes in the grander melody and pages in the larger story” (192). He writes boldly about the benefits and rightness of traditional marriage (72). Jesus is present on nearly every page. Significantly, each chapter ends in a prayer, a magnificent crying out to the Lord. The prayer is followed by a few discussion questions that help access the thoughts in the book.

One of the most intriguing features of the book is its title. As Guinness explains, the term impossible man was used by Dante to describe the Benedictine reformer Peter Damian (c. 1007–73). He placed him in the highest circle of the Paradiso, right before Francis of Assisi. It was a period of time much like our own, with widespread dishonesty and false shepherds. Damian worked against all those evils, often at considerable cost to himself. But in facing these vices he was, to use George Orwell’s term, unclubbable, meaning he would not join the societies of evil in his day. The term impossible can be either a compliment or an insult, and in this case, is both. Os Guinness calls the church today to be like Damian. He invites believers to draw upon the great reforming power of God through Jesus Christ. We are in a clarifying moment. But are we clear about that?

William Edgar is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of apologetics and ethics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2016.

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Ordained Servant: November 2016

All Things to All Men

Also in this issue

Exercising Wisdom about “All Things”

Geerhardus Vos: Education in America and Europe, 1881–1888

God’s Glory Alone by David VanDrunen

The Holy Spirit by Christopher R. J. Holmes

Encouragement for Today’s Pastors by Joel R. Beeke and Terry D. Slachter

The Leaves below My Town

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