Long Journey Home: A New Book by Os Guinness

Maybe you saw the Newsweek article this summer (the one with Christian rock on the cover) that also had a feature on the gargantuan Christian Bookseller's Association trade exhibition. It is a true bookseller's nightmare: miles of aisles of schlocky books, hawked at fever-pitch amidst "Christian" breath mints, pocket combs and all sorts of inspirational whirligigs. There are trendy "Christianized" gift-ware companies and Bible-based toys, games and what some refer to as "Jesus junk." Serious book-buyers are left to wonder: can tacky neckties with religious emblems really advance the cause of Christ? Do cheesy broaches--like the cheap blood-red (get it?) ruby slippers which can "take you home again"--really attract meaningful evangelistic conversations? And don't get me started on how many may be turned off by the substandard end-times novels and videos that show up everywhere these days.

In a newly published book, Preaching to Skeptics and Seekers (Abingdon, $15.00), Frank Honeycutt convinced two separate groups of unchurched folk to attend the Lutheran congregation he serves and to sit in on the worship services. Afterward, he conducted in-depth interviews to determine how both "seekers" and "skeptics" heard his messages. It is a fascinating bit of research pursued without an interest in dumbing down content or Christ's radical call to discipleship. (The first line of Will Willimon's great forward is that one of his problems with so-called "seeker-sensitive" churches is that "whatever most people are seeking, it isn't Jesus.") Still, Honeycutt comes to realize just how a watching world perceives the church and the gospel entrusted to us. He learns that we must work hard to creatively translate our faith to those who are religiously clueless, and that means thinking hard about recasting our language and lives to become truly winsome and contagious. It is a good resource (complete with a bibliography, even of novels and poets!) to get us once again thinking about such things.

The body of such literature guiding churches towards a more contextualized rendering of ministry in the new millennium is immense and contested. (Call us for good books from various perspectives in this debate.) Important to me for this review, however, is that, despite the volumes of programmatic outreach plans and the nearly ubiquitiousness of the language of "seeker-sensitivity," few of us seem driven to be apostles to the nations, truly passionate and thoughtful about reaching those lost in a postmodern, fragmented world of incoherence, materialism and religious pluralism. Just how do we help people reflect seriously on the meaning of life and God's call to them? What resources are most helpful in guiding true seekers towards God? Especially for those reading this who work in higher education, how best to present the gospel to professors or administrators who may be schooled in skepticism and who have experienced--too often--less than thoughtful believers who bungled their way through their witnessing?

Part of the answer comes from a premier author and the best apologist of our time, especially gifted at communicating well to the intelligensia and well-read: Dr. Os Guinness. Senior Fellow of the low-key and profoundly respected Trinity Forum, Guinness' powerful and very accessible invitation to whole-life discipleship, The Call, has been garnering rave reviews since its publication in 1999. We at Hearts & Minds confidently named it the "Book of the Decade," and it remains one of our constant sellers. Os's significant body of work (which seems regularly to be mentioned in this monthly column) have proven him to be eloquent, compelling, classy and--always within a rigorously solid Christian frame--truly seeker-sensitive.

As his new book shows as nicely as anything he's written, Guinness himself has walked alongside and through some of the biggest questions of our time. He knows the mindset of many of the best-educated and can, as the saying goes, "meet "˜em where they're at." Perhaps over a fine Chablis, or a discussion over current affairs, or a good film, Os has befriended and encouraged and challenged seekers, searchers and skeptics alike. From decades of work with hippy drop-outs and Fortune 500 CEOs, he knows what he, and they, are talking about. This book is the result of that sort of real-world experience in being a kind but serious defender of the faith.

And so, the brand new Long Journey Home: A Guide To Your Search for the Meaning in Life (Doubleday, $17.99) is Os Guinness' best effort yet to speak gospel truth to those seriously seeking. Line by line, story by story, chapter by chapter, he builds the case--this stuff makes sense! These truths help us to make sense! Beliefs and convictions matter! We are not alone on life's journey! There are answers to the big questions!

As always, Guinness cites great literary and political figures and their anecdotes--Bertrand Russell, G.K. Chesterton, Albert Camus and many more--and weaves together fiction and nonfiction in a masterly, no-nonsense way. Long Journey Home is a brilliant collection of pieces woven together so finely that it is very hard to put down. (And believe me, I put books down quite easily!) Even as he walks us through large philosophical claims and daring intellectual proposals, his human concern for the flesh and blood lives of his readers is never far from the page. This embodiment of the journey is, actually, one of the strongest arguments from the book--he cares and insists that we should too.

As he points out, Guinness has lived in three great cultures: China, Europe and the United States. He has studied under and with famous atheists and Eastern mystics alike. He knows world religions and various philosophies, and he knows them from true believers (not just abstractly from books). Indeed, his assortment of acquaintances, teachers and mentors is unbelievably impressive. He gives these various representatives of different worldviews their due, truly honoring their insights but showing how, finally, their beliefs do not adequately hold up. He is properly humble here, and honest:

"This brief survey of the leading families of faith...is only illustrative. I've endeavored to portray them straightforwardly and accurately, although I stress again that there's no substitute for hearing about each one from its own advocates, and I don't pretend to be completely impartial. Which faith throws the most light on the human dilemma of suffering? That's for each of us to ask and each of us to answer..."

As he illustrates and contrasts how each "family of faith" (Eastern, secular humanist, biblical) answers the question of evil and suffering, he explains:

"Why that issue? For one thing, we're within living memory of the most evil and murderous years in history, years that saw two savage world wars, monstrous totalitarianism of the right and the left, and the genocides of Auschwitz and Cambodia.

"For another, there's a huge gulf in modern society between the visibility of evil and the deficiency of intellectual and moral tools to deal with it.

"For yet another, this topic raises the deepest and most agonizing questions for many of us. Our answers here are the very closest we come as human beings to unriddling life.

"Finally, each of the great philosophies of life is at its crux an answer to evil and suffering. In fact, the difference in how the three families of faith address this topic are striking. Clearly these differences make a great difference--not only for individuals but for whole societies."

Those of us who desire to effectively share the gospel of Christ with others will want to own extra copies of this exceptional book. Pastors and church librarians should make it available. Handsomely produced, with clarifying, meditative reflection questions at the end of each brief chapter, Long Journey Home could be given to nearly anyone willing to read it. Truly, few books of this sort have impressed me so, and I am sure it will bear much fruit as it is shared and discussed. It should be a standard resource for those laboring in campus ministry, amongst professionals or in settings--from high schools to church basements--where significant ideas are significantly considered.

In a fascinating opening argument for the benefits of embracing "journey" as an operative motif, Os shares details from his own story to illustrate his journey to seek and discover meaning. There are some tender and important moments here, making this perhaps his most personal book yet. He then artfully asks readers:

"Have you awakened to the journey of life? Or are you among those drifting down the years? Are you among those so caught up in the project of themselves that they choose not to hear the flow of time? Are you open to care, to think, to seek? Let your mind and your heart run deep. Come, join the seeker's path on the long journey home."

Who knows how some of the silly stuff found in most Christian gift shops helps people? We sell some gifts of dubious aesthetic taste and know well that a happy Bible verse on a cheap mug can mean the world to a shut-in or a hurting neighbor. Even a goofy poster can touch the heart of a moody adolescent and many of those little angel-on-my-shoulder pins have reassuringly accompanied dear ones through their walk into the valley of the shadow. Who really opposes all light-weight devotionals or the somewhat ordinary fare of what some call "Christian living" titles? After all, the folks at the vanity fair of CBA Expo really do mean well and many of the easy-to-read books are actually a good place to start for those who do not read often.

But please know--cynic, seeker, skeptic, friend or foe of the evangelical book subculture--there are better books being published and there are excellent authors who think deeply and write well. They may not be found pressing the flesh at CBA, but please, please know that there are many great contemporary nonfiction writers: the spirituality of Dallas Willard or Henri Nouwen, the serious Scriptural scholarship of Walter Brueggemann or N.T. Wright, the extraordinary wordsmithing of insightful funeral director Patrick Lynch (a favorite, we're told, of the poetic preacher Barbara Brown Taylor) and the important and impeccable pastoral theology of good friends Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson. There are rigorous and passionate theological writers like John Piper or Alister McGrath and those who have earned the right to be heard on anything they write, like John Stott or Ron Sider or Becky Pippert. There are authors who play with (post)modern culture like Len Sweet and those who Christianly interact with it, like Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton. My, my-- we are blessed to have good writers, serious people of faith who go beyond the silliness and dig deep, creating books which can make a world of difference for thoughtful seekers.

And, among these favorite authors of ours, Os Guinness stands out as the finest apologist to the serious contemporary seeker, the prophet of "the examined life in an unexamined age." He stands unequaled in today's publishing world and I thank God for the privilege of selling his work. His breadth of knowledge, his elegant British civility, his broad concerns, ranging from the most personal to the most political and public, his rich vocabulary and renown delight in making the complex clear--all commend him as an author you should read, an author you should tell others about, an author whose books you should own and treasure. In Long Journey Home, Guinness wants readers to "engage with every fiber of your being." I know there are such readers out there; let us pray this book gets into their hands!