Os Guinness: The Prophet

Os Guinness: The Prophet July 26, 2018

Growing up in the evangelical tradition, Os Guinness was one of my favorite writers, intellectuals, and voices.  While claiming America and evangelicals as his own, he was never afraid to call out their shortcomings and flaws.  While no longer claiming the evangelical label myself, I still respect much of his work and his intellectual gifts to that tradition and the Christian faith in general.

Guinness, in my view, was always prescient.  He anticipated the consequences of movements, teachings, and methods well ahead of others, who mostly addressed those same consequences, only when evident to all.  He was willing to write about such things when much of what he was critiquing was still popular and in fashion.  He was a leader, not a follower.

He is proving this even now, with a book he wrote back in the early 90s, entitled, “The American Hour,” with the subtitle of, “A Time of Reckoning and the Once and Future Role of Faith.”  This of course was only a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union and shortly after the Gulf War.  America was the undisputed world super power and leader.  It was, the, “American Hour.”

The book is an insightful analysis of that time, America’s place in the world, and the internal struggles at the time, which are still in play even now.  One of those internal struggles was the question of religion and its place in the life of the nation.  There is the question of cultural authority and authority in general as to a super power or empire.  What does an empire do with such power?  What underwrites such power?  From where does this power and authority come?  Is it a moral authority or is the authority based only in power?

The book is well worth the read for all those reasons and more.  However, there is one place in the book where Guinness’s prophetic abilities are most aptly demonstrated.  After going through the present “hour” in the book, he turns to the future.  The book is divided into three sections, and the last section is entitled, “The Coming America.”  Given what he saw happening around him then, he reflects upon where it might take us.

He notes the importance of the “religious” factor in public life.  He writes:

“Once the religious factor is taken seriously, it points to the probability that America’s future lies in one of four broad general directions.  Underlying them all is the watershed question: Will religion in America continue to prove decisive in American public life and, depending on the answer, will this effect be harmful or beneficial?” (Pg. 283)

He goes on to tell us that of these four, the last two will assume that religion is decisive, but one direction will lead to a harmful effect.  I will leave it to the reader to obtain the book and learn what the other three directions are and which is considered harmful or beneficial.  For our purposes here, I want to focus on the one (the 3rd) direction wherein he believes religion will be decisive, but also harmful.

He writes of this possibility in the chapter entitled, “Apple Pie Authoritarianism.”  Here he is a prophet.  He saw our present day.  He writes:

“The third outcome sees the manipulation of religion in support of a traditional culture under stress.  In some future crisis, real or supposed, a leader, an elite, or a social group will attempt to shore up national strength through reinforcing traditional values and shore up traditional values through manipulating their religious basis.” (Pg. 371)

This is exactly what we see happening before our very eyes.  We see the hijacking of traditional or cultural conservatism, with the use of religious language, for purposes of self-aggrandizement with a view toward shoring up a racist and nationalist myth.  The stress comes from the belief, of mostly white, evangelical, “Christian” men, that they are losing.  Losing to women, immigrants, people of color, and to those of other religions.  It is a stress born out of fear, which is not from God.

Further on, he writes:

“Christian conservatives who are concerned about this third outcome should be on their guard.  There is nothing improper, let alone sinister, about genuinely overlapping interests.  But to the extent that well-meaning Christian conservatives continue to confuse Christian principles and conservative politics, romanticize American history, idolize political power, rely too heavily on single issue politics [i.e. abortion; LGBT issues] and forget the blistering biblical critique of “religion,” they make themselves pliable to the Machiavellian designs of skillful manipulators, whether right-wing strategists or presidents.” (Pg. 379)

He wrote that in 1993.  Here we are, twenty-five years later, and it has come true.  Guess what:  Evangelicals weren’t on, “their guard.”  And those who were, clearly, were not heeded.  Where were the evangelical pastors in the run-up to the 2016 election?  Where were the evangelical theologians, leaders, and teachers?  Where were the evangelical ministries and organizations?  Other than a brave few, I will tell you: They were either being skillfully manipulated, or they were silent.  And of those who sounded the alarm before the election, once the current occupant of the White House was “elected,” they too fell silent.

It’s too bad not enough evangelicals listened to Guinness, especially since they listened to so much of his other writings and warnings.  It is especially ironic to now read one of the blurbs on the back of the book jacket.  It is from none other than Franklin Graham’s father:

The American Hour points the way beyond the bitterness of our present culture wars.  Its analysis of our problem is unsparing, but its proposals are constructive and its prospects for an American renaissance are hopeful.  Here is one European’s call to America all American’s should ponder.”  -Billy Graham

It is too bad Franklin, clearly, did not ponder any of this or listen to his father.  But, neither did the 81% of evangelicals who voted in this last presidential election or those who remained silent.  Thus, it would appear that Guinness is surely proof that the prophetic gifts are still with us.  Time has turned his book into a judgement upon the evangelical world.  The only question now, for those who can see it, is what—if anything—they plan to do about it.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Now I really want to read that book. Thanks!

    That bit about the conflation of Christianity with conservative politics was certainly prophetic, but the interesting result is that this is now a contributing factor (although not the only factor) to Christianity becoming more marginalized in America in terms of anyone caring what the Christian church has to say about anything. For our brothers and sisters across the Pond, the phenomenon of pushing the Christian church to the sidelines in this way is virtually complete. Because America has a much stronger strain of fundamentalism, this process will take longer, but it is happening and will probably continue to happen.

    And that’s the irony of the whole thing. The more the strain of Christianity Guinness talks about “wins,” the more society at large distrusts and ignores it. American evangelicalism throws its support behind Trump, Trump wins, and the reputation of evangelicalism is irreparably damaged as a result along with whatever claims they may have had to be a moral voice.

    So, I guess I see that path leading the way to a path where Christianity is no longer decisive in America. There are -in theory- bad things about that, but given the current state of Christianity in America, I think that outcome may have benefits for all parties concerned at least in the short term. Perhaps, from the margins where we have no power to win or lose, we can rediscover our core message and mission and recover our role as an embodiment of God’s love, justice, mercy, and wisdom.

  • It hardly takes a prophetic gift to see that religion has historically been a conservative force in society, and handmaiden to power, whatever its nature. See the Cathoic church. And the Orthodox church.

  • Matthew

    I think this short book will be of great value to you:

    At Home In Exile: The Journey Toward a New Paradigm — Peter McDowell

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Thanks for this recommendation. I like reading UK missiology stuff because we need to learn from those experiments.

  • Markee B

    I hope you and Matthew have a better source than this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/At-Home-Exile-Paradigm-Soundings/dp/1874324026 ($164.09 US)
    Found nothing on ebay, either. I suspect that a 75 pg. booklet, printed for a mostly UK audience, wasn’t a large run.

  • Matthew

    Sorry Markee B. The booklet was available through another source I have, but I cannot find it any longer in the online shop.

  • John W. Morehead

    Great piece. But some of us weren’t silent before or after the election.