How to Have Hope in Spite of the Wilting Flower of Christianity in the West?

 

Earlier this year, Hank Hanegraaff had an illuminating conversation with best-selling author and social critic Os Guinness, which was released as an episode of the Hank Unplugged podcast. The following is a portion adapted from the conversation wherein they talked about remaining hopeful in spite of the reality of “wilting flower Christianity” in the West.

Hank Hanegraaff: In what many consider is your magnum opus, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, you talk about our age as quite simply the greatest opportunity for Christian witness since the time of Jesus and the Apostles. There is a wide door that Saint Paul wrote about, and it has now been reopened for the gospel, yet that seems so counterintuitive. I think about the world today, and I say, “Wow, we are in desperate need of renaissance, but I do not see any signs of it.” You’re saying that the age in which we live is the most open door for the gospel ever.

Os Guinness: We are the first global faith in the world. Globalization, you could put it that way, is almost in the DNA of the Christian faith, going right back to the promise of the Lord to Abraham in Genesis 12. Today, we are the first truly global faith. We are not doing well in America, and in much of the West, but as we look toward the future with the unprecedented challenges of artificial intelligence, singularity, and things like that, only the Christian faith has answers to some of these titanic questions. I say this is the grand age of apologetics, and we need to get out there persuasively so that people can really hear the good news, and not in some simplistic way but in a way that genuinely answers the challenges that are being raised to humanity.

Hank: You talk about the power of creative persuasion in making a case for the gospel to people who seemingly couldn’t care less.

Os: Yes, you are right. In this country, we’ve got more bitter opposition and hostility than ever in American history, and of course many people are just apathetic. But I think it is a great moment because, as you know well, the alternative answers are visibly failing and many of them are profoundly dangerous. I am just in the middle of another book on the topic of freedom. If you think, “America is the land of the free,” Saint Augustine says you understand a nation by what it loves supremely, and it is no question that America’s supreme love is freedom. But how do you ground it? You cannot go to the Eastern religions. They talk about freedom, but it is a way of renouncing this world. When you look at atheism and agnosticism, they look at naturalistic science, whether it is B. F. Skinner, J. B. Watson, or Sam Harris; for them freedom is an illusion. The fact is, our atheist friends, who form a huge number of people in the intelligentsia in this country, cannot ground freedom, and you cannot apart from the Scriptures — the Jewish and Christian understanding.

Hank: It seems to me that we are at a tipping point. I was in Singapore a couple of times last year and I thought about Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore, who talked about how all civilization is essentially fragile. You have written about this in a number of your books: this tipping point in history where we think that we are invincible. But if we look back at the bleached bones of those who have gone before us, like the Roman Empire and many other civilizations, we recognize afresh that our civilization can fade if we do not ultimately become salt and light in this world. You pointed out that there are a number of threats. There is the threat of an illiberal liberalism, on the one hand; and you have the encroaching threat of Islam, on the other hand. But you think that there is a far greater threat, and perhaps that threat is that while pagans are exercising their job description, Christians are not.

Os: That is right. One way of putting it would be looking at this third threat as the scandal of the American church. The church is not strong anywhere in the West, except the United States and Poland are numerically strong. In most of the other countries, the church is a tiny minority. But the scandal of the American church is that we are a huge majority of the American people, and yet tiny groups like Jews or gays and lesbians — they are less than 2 percent of America — each of them has far more influence — they punch above their weight — than Christians do. The American church is simply not the salt and light. The simple fact is the American church is weak culturally because it is profoundly worldly. It has been effectively assimilated.

Hank: We are no longer cultural change agents; we have become conformed to the culture itself.

Os: Exactly, to put it mildly. This is a real tragedy, and that is why we need reformation and revival. Almost weekly you see sad examples of the ineffectual character of the church compared with other groups. As a culture at large, I call it a cut flower civilization.

If you look at many of the great features of our Western Civilization — human dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and all sorts of things like this — they are actually rooted, most of them, not in Greek ideas (some of them are), certainly not in Latin or Roman ideas, they are rooted in the gospel and the Scriptures at large. Yet, for two-hundred years since the Enlightenment, the West has decisively cut those roots, and now the flower is fast fading.

Hank: One of the reasons I love your books is that there is an optimism in them. On the one hand, you are very candid about the issues you just talked about: cut flower Christianity. That metaphor itself seems to indicate that Christianity in the West cannot last. Yet you do believe in the power of one. You do believe in the fact that twelve men changed the world. Therefore, Christianity not only can survive but thrive. But you also point out the problems in the Global South, which are very, very real. I have spent a lot of time in myriad places in the Global South, and there you see tumbleweed Christianity — Christianity without root. I think in one of your books you wrote about the fact that many people in the Global South are just one unanswered prayer away from reverting to animism, Buddhism, or ancestor worship and the like. When you look at the big scope of things, it seems like a problem that cannot be fixed. Yet, in all of your books, there is a resounding optimism.

Os: That is right. I hope that is so. You can put it two ways. The sort of way to put it in the public discussion is that while many of the generalizations about culture or about the church are rather negative and discouraging, it is the exceptions that are really inspiring. Generalizations are often rather gloomy, but thank God for individuals, and thank God for new initiatives. Something wonderful in the last twenty years is the International Justice Mission, one of the premiere human rights groups in the world today. It grew under Gary Haugen. Examples like this are magnificently encouraging.

On the theological and spiritual level, I believe that we should be as realistic as we can be. Look at the facts in the white of the eye and at the same time always respond with Christian hope, never with fear. Fear is the predominant world emotion. The whole globalized world is interconnected, nobody is really in charge, and people are very afraid, but the refrain of the gospel is Have no fear. With the Lord’s sovereignty, we should never be afraid and however dark the times, we move out with hope. I think this is an imperative for all Christians.

Listen to the full Hank Unplugged interview here (scroll through the list to “Living in a Post-Truth World with Os Guinness”).

Recommended books by Os Guinness:

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion

Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (B2002)

Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (B720)

Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror (B823)

The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (B638)

Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization (B2028)

 

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