This is a review of “Impossible People” by Os. Guinness (Pub by IVP 2016)
The theme of this book is the necessity for Christian courage today in the struggle for Western civilisation.
The title Impossible People comes from a term used to describe the reforming Benedictine monk Peter Damian in the 11th century who courageously stood for truth, integrity and moral standards of the Christian faith at a time in the church was compromised by a culture of corruption among Church leaders, many were involved in immorality, homosexual practice and paedophilia. Simony was rife, the selling of church titles and offices for money. Damien was known as incorruptible, unbribable and uncompromising in his opposition. He was described by the authorities as that “impossible monk!”
Guinness is saying that Christians today have to become like Peter Damian at this moment in our history, we have become too complacent and compromised by our culture. He sees this moment as a crisis – a showdown for the church, particularly the Western church and also for Western culture. What is at stake is the victory or defeat of the long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths, the two defining faiths of the West. The attack comes from what he calls progressive secularism. This is the push to marginalise, even eject Christianity from the public square of community debate, politics, public policy and legislation. The Christian faith in particular because of a resentment of what is seen by some as its past influence and power over culture, public morals and values.
He describes a number of other forces that are currently arrayed against Christianity:
1. Nihilism – the loss of a sense of ultimate meaning which in turn leads to a loss of hope and then despair. Contemporary nihilism is partly a product of Post Modern relativism about truth and morality and the growth of a hyper individualism under the guise of the ‘Rights’ agenda. This could lead to a social degeneration where the West collapses from within.
2. The second force is the very opposite of the first – a new secular optimism. This is driven by an over confidence in our increasing technological mastery and our ability to create a new world and a new humanity. This will be a world of super technology, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence guided evolution and genetic manipulation!
3. The re-emergence of cultural Marxism and its theory of power as an oppressive force in society and the necessity for it to be resisted and overturned. Cultural elites hold power and control the masses, not only economically but culturally. They determine morality, social norms and values. The Church in this ideology is seen as a cultural elite forcing a certain view of morality and truth on society, so its cultural power must be broken and overturned. The question of power is understandably a re-occurring theme in this book and Guinness quotes Nietzsche‘s belief that man’s driving force is “the will to power” and this is a key reality in this struggle and only God’s power through the Gospel can redeem and transform that.
4. Fundamentalist Islam is the fourth force he mentions, if it does not experience its own Enlightenment.
He says that if these anti-Christian forces prevail they will return the West to the philosophy, ethics and lifestyle of the first century Pagan world that Christianity was born into and which it originally transformed to become the influential force in developing Western civilisation. He says “We are not simply the guardians of some of the best of the past but pioneers whose task is to stand against the world for the future of the world.”
He poses “Three great questions” the answers to which he claims will decisively shape the future of the world in the next generation:
(a) Will Islam modernise peacefully in the end? (b) What faith or ideology will replace Marxism in China? (c) Will the Western world recover or completely sever its Christian roots?
The third question is the main subject of this book.
In the final chapter he takes a quotation from a speech by Winston Churchill when what was arguably a previous and equally critical moment for Western culture during World War II. Churchill appealed to President F.D Roosevelt for the US to abandon its isolationism and provide the resources England desperately needed to defeat Hitler. Churchill said “Give us the tools to finish the job.” The US responded positively and the Nazis were defeated.
“The tools” he says we need today are these:
1. An understanding that a key issue behind many of the forces at play is power and unless we renew our personal knowledge and experience of spiritual power – God’s power, we will be ineffective in this struggle no matter how courageous we are. Paul in Romans 1:17 writes “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe…”
2. We need to equip ourselves about the ancestry of ideas. To counter the forces ranged against us we need to understand them so we can confront the presupposition or truth claim that lays behind them not just their social effects.
3. Cultural analysis. We need the ability to describe and assess the culture we are living in and gauge its impact on our personal thinking and behaviour.
Undergirding these tools Guinness says; “What we need above all in the Church today is for each Christian to have a profound personal knowledge and experience of God himself and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures as his authoritative Word. No one and nothing can replace those essentials.”
This is a challenging book and will make a great resource for a small group discussion series. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and a closing prayer.
Peter Corney 18/6/18