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Being salty in a secular world: An interview with Os Guinness

Steve Tong, on behalf of the ACR, had the chance to interview Os Guinness during his recent visit to Sydney. Here, Os shares about the need to connect evangelism and apologetics, and the responsibility of Christians to engage with our world by holding out the light of the gospel. Os also encourages lay people to work alongside their clergy in the task of defending the gospel and winning people for Christ.

ST: Thank you for time today. It’s a real privilege for the Australian Church Record that you have agreed to talk with us. Let me begin by asking about some of your research interests. Many of your talks and books take as a general theme the intersection between religion, politics, and religious freedom in public square discourse. These stimulate a lot of questions for lots of people. My question is, how optimistic or confident are you about the ability of modern, Western Christians to engage with the communities and societies that we find ourselves in now?

OG: A general feature of the Church in the modern world is that the Church is exploding in the Global South, and not really doing very well anywhere in the West. The generalisations are rather gloomy, although there are magnificent exceptions. So I’ve always been concerned, and this is the reason I went into Sociology, to first understand what the impact of the modern world was on faith, not so much on religion, but on faith—our faith, the Christian faith. And then secondly, to try and address the issues that raises, because we have to recover integrity and effectiveness so that we can be salty and light bearing, as our Lord called us to be. So I’ve got many books, dealing with either the impact of modernity on faith or issues that that raises for the Church in recovering its integrity, such as religious freedom.

ST: In your studies, what have you observed as some of the mistakes that Christians have made, or continue to make, in our attempt to uphold biblical truth in the public square. Are there ways of getting around those mistakes?

OG: Again, this is a broad generalisation. But you can see that broadly, Christians who care about the modern world face up to the danger of ideas: secularism, relativism, postmodernism, and things like that—those are all ideas. I often tease Americans that they can smell a relativist at 100 yards. But the real damage has not been done by ideas alone; it’s been done by some of the features of modernity. And the Church at large has still not really taken on board the challenge of modernity. Until we do, we will continue to be shaped more by the modern world than by the gospel.

ST: Do you think that’s because there is a nervousness about engaging at a certain intellectual level? For instance, some might say there is a tendency to shoehorn people into theological study with the idea that they will become a parish minister or a missionary, rather than encouraging people to go into academia in the secular institutions to bear witness in those contexts. Do you feel that’s a trend?

OG: Well there is nothing wrong with going into the ministry. I mean, I am not a scholar in the university, but I am trying to understand it. So if you train people just to go into the ministry, without an understanding of the world in which the people in their congregation are living, much of their preaching will be irrelevant. For example, many of our best colleges and seminaries have a high view of biblical authority. But a high view of authority without realising how modernity undermines authority will get you nowhere. Because the problem with modernity is choice, change, consumerism, and we shifted, without realising it, from authority to preference. Everything is a matter of choice. And so you can have the most fiery preaching in the world with the highest view of authority, but the congregation essentially cherry picks. And that’s where you get the idea that everyone loves Jesus, but Paul? Or the New Testament, of course, but Leviticus? I don’t know about Australia but in America I see young evangelicals just cherry picking. They don’t realise they’ve lost any view of authority and have been shaped by modernity—in this case, by consumerist preference. 

ST: In the Smith Lecture you delivered while you were in Sydney, you mentioned the two ways that the sexual revolution has been stopped in the past. You spoke about Lenin, but you also spoke about the 18th century revival in England in particular. Coming back to what you were saying about the engagement between a high view of biblical authority and understanding the world, is that what you see historically—if you looked back at people like Wesley and Whitfield? Is that what they did?

OG: Well no, they had the power of the gospel. And in the first awakening, the power of the Holy Spirit’s anointing of their preaching of the word was incredible. You think of Whitfield’s preaching and the tears trickling down the miners’ faces, forming rivulets in their soot-lined faces. That’s the real thing. We need revival of that sort today. Many of our tools for growing churches are really forms of the world’s way of doing things. And we’re not drawing them by the word and by the Spirit. 

ST: In your book Fool’s Talk, you wrote, “There is an urgent need to reunite evangelism and apologetics”. Do you mind unpacking that for us? How did those two streams of Christian thought diverge?

OG: Well you can see that in much of the Church, evangelism and apologetics have gone in two different directions—evangelism being simple and straight forward, and apologetics often being highly intellectual, and shaped by philosophical arguments of our day, or by medieval arguments like the theistic proofs and so on. Yet biblically, the two are one. In other words, put very simply, evangelism is the sharing of the good news simply and straightforwardly. But as soon as you meet someone with sufficient disbelief or disobedience to the gospel, there needs to be what you Australians call ‘bush clearing’—and that’s apologetics. It is clearing away all the obstructions that are stopping people seeing the good news as good news. It’s not good news to them; it’s old hat or completely wrong or whatever, and so apologetics and evangelism should serve each other. Now I believe passionately that our apologetics should be shaped by a biblical understanding of communication, and not by ancient rhetoric or philosophical arguments alone. My book attempted to take apologetics back to its biblical roots.

ST: Is this job of apologetics partly the clergy’s responsibility, in terms of how and what they teach lay people on a Sunday? 

OG: Well I wouldn’t put too much weight on the poor clergy. The poor clergyman today has a shrinking social status and is not as admired or prestigious as before. And they are now expected to be the ultimate great preacher, a super councillor, a church administrator, and who knows how many other things. In other words, a ‘jack of all trades’. It’s quite impossible, and then to keep up with things. I remember meeting the pastor of a mega church, who looked on the verge of a breakdown, and he said to me “I’m haunted by the thought by people as always only two weeks away from leaving me for a better church”. It was simply dreadful—the poor man. There is too much weight on the pastors. Pastors need to know what they are called to do. Are they called to be good preachers? Or are they called to be teachers? What is it they know they are good at? Hopefully they can have small teams around them, so if the pastor is a tremendous preacher but not an administrator (or the reverse), he will have others who can help him out.

ST: This makes me think about the Reformation idea of ‘the priesthood of all believers’. Do the lay folk need to take more responsibility in terms of reading apologetics so that they can also communicate there? Would you agree that lay people should be in full time ministry in that sense of it? How would that take shape?

OG: Of course! But the point is not the priesthood of all believers—that’s our standing before the Lord. It’s the calling of all believers. It was the Catholic distortion of calling that made it something for the monks, nuns and priests. And even then, in the average Catholic dictionary today, what is vocation? It’s a call to be a priest, and the Reformation shattered that. Martin Luther’s On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church addresses the farmer in the fields, and the farmer’s wife in the kitchen, and recognises that if they are doing what they are doing by faith as a calling, it’s just as high and holy as the preacher in the pulpit. That’s terrific! So the lawyer, the teacher, the computer scientist, the general, the mother as home maker… they are all following their calling. It’s the challenge of the pastor to equip them and empower them.

ST: That comes back to what you were saying in your Smith about ‘the Magna Carta of Creation’, and seeing each individual as made in the image of God and therefore having inherit worth. And so it doesn’t matter if you are the high nobility, or the lowly slave, or a servant. 

OG: It’s very easy to think of an individual in terms of the high. The challenge is to think of the low—the homeless man, the poor person, the desperately sick person. Do we treat each of them with the individual preciousness and dignity that you would accord nationally to the billionaire, or whoever it is?

ST: To change tack slightly: Would you encourage Christians to engage in the current political dialogue, given that it is increasingly hostile to an overtly Christian voice? 

OG: Well a lot of people would say ‘no’. And they would look at the New Testament. But I would say that the Christians in the New Testament were under the Empire. They had absolutely no voice and no freedom to participate in the running of things. Many of them were slaves. But here we are in free open societies that came to be democracy. In other words, the government is us. And shame on us if we don’t get into it. Now the fact is, in many of our western societies there has been a Christian consensus and Christians have relied on that to carry them forward, so they think that all is well in the wider society and that they don’t need to be involved. But today, that Christian consensus has gone and many of the elites coming in from the other side are very profoundly anti-Christian (and anti a whole lots of things). But we need to be citizens who understand that it’s our responsibility to really get involved and make a difference. The scandal of the American Church is that they’re a huge majority (at least 70 per cent of the population are Christians) and yet there are tiny good groups like, let’s say Jews (who are only about 2 per cent of the population), who punch well above their weight in academia, entertainment and journalism because they are brilliant. They get involved. Or take a group with whom we have a lot of differences like the LGBT community. They also represent only about 2 per cent of the American population, but their influence is extraordinary. Shame on us, that we haven’t been salty and light bearing and made a difference.

ST: In light of that, what encouragement would you give to Australian Christians, and more generally Christians in the West? How might a Christian engage with the secular world that we find ourselves in? 

OG: We must begin by thinking through where we are living out faithfully the way Christ called his followers to live. But then secondly, we must look at our Western world: what are the things that are distinctively gifts of the Bible or the gospel in particular? Human dignity, the whole notion of history, freedom, a particular view of justice, the transmission of the faith, responsibility. There are a whole number of things that are either uniquely or very strongly the gifts of the gospel, and they will go. So we’ve got to defend those, first by understanding them, and then by living them, and then articulate their importance for a free society, a democracy. If we don’t defend them, they will go. In other words, today the foundations are being ripped up, and we are guardians of some of these things because they create a more human, free, just society. And it’s important we stand for them.

ST: You also mentioned in your Smith Lecture that a lot of the current ideological and intellectual movements actually have their root in the French Revolution—a time when a complete overhaul of the political, religious, social and cultural status quo took place. The monarchy was overthrown, and the Roman Catholic Church was practically rejected from all facets of life in France at the time. Are we seeing a second French Revolution, so to speak now?

OG: Well it’s not a revolution in the streets, but it’s the ideas. But remember what bred it? A huge part of European secularity that is now spreading to the world is a revulsion against corrupt, oppressive state churches. Diderot, the French encyclopaedist, had a cry which was picked up by the Jacobin in the Revolution: “We will never be free until we strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest”. In other words, church and state, throne and altar, were in collusion—they were both corrupt, both oppressive, so the revolution threw off both. And you have strict separation, what the French call ‘laïcité’, and that idea flows down today on the left: remove all religion from public life and so on. But that is not at all what gives you a strong freedom. Well, it didn’t in France, and it won’t if the ideas of Nietzsche, Gramsci, Foucault, Marx, and people like that predominate. These are the ideas shaping the left. And we should be wary of them. Or look at the sexual revolution, which goes back to the Marquis de Sade, and people like Wilhelm Reich. They are quite clear that you have to overcome the obstacle of the Church (number one), and parents (number two). Well both of those are disasters, certainly for Christians, but also for society—the role of parents is fundamental and yet they are being ruled out today. Sex education, and removal of parental influence at the age of three. Even rewriting birth certificates.

ST: Let me finish with one final question. You are obviously a man in the world, but not ‘of the world’. What is one last piece of advice that you could give that might help equip us to protect our Christian integrity and identity within the secular context of our modern Western society?

OG: Well I love the fact that Christian thinkers understand that the outcome of these questions will be decisive for the human future. In other words, questions are being raised that only the gospel and the Scriptures have answers to. So it’s not that we are on the back foot. Too many Christians are on the back foot—defensive; reactionary; it’s all over but we will fight and so on. No no! We are guardians of profound and important human truths, and the outcome of the future depends on our going forward. What’s the most common global emotion? Fear. Whereas what’s the most common biblical refrain? “Have no fear.” So with a trust in the Lord, and a confidence in the gospel, this is a time for Christians to be moving out and making a difference.

ST: Thank you so much for your time, Os.