Time for Truth

     There are a handful of books I keep going back to,rereading pages, searching for a quote, pondering an idea. I hope that for each of us, one of our often-cited and loaned out books would be our dog-eared copies of Steve Garber’s Fabric of Faithfulness.

      I mention Fabric as a classic for campus ministry not only to recall its significance, but to set the stage for this month’s review. In Fabric of Faithfulness, Garber shows that there are a few factors which contribute to the longevity of vibrant Christian discipleship. The first is an understanding and commitment to truth. Strong convictions about the nature of the Christian worldview as true and compelling undergird any hope of enduring fidelity in the post-college years.

      To wit: Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype & Spin, the new book by Os Guinness (Baker Books; $12.99, hardcover). It isn’t easy to explain Dr. Guinness’ significant work. He is Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum, a small “university without walls” (with staff of the caliber of Gordon Mac-Donald) which ministers in a sophisticated way to big-wig corporate execs, think-tank talking heads, government leaders and the like. In earlier decades (like when he blew ’em away at Jubilee circa the mid-’80s), it could be explained that Os had been a L’Abri worker, a colleague of the then-famous Francis Schaeffer. As Guinness continued his academic journey under sociologist Peter Berger (the “sociology of knowledge” guru), Schaeffer seemed increasingly co-opted by the fundamentalist Christian right. Guinness became a more reflective, deeper and more nuanced thinker and apologist than Schaeffer, who, near the end of his life, seemed more blunt and flamboyant than ever before. Schaeffer continued to call conservative evangelicals to a strict Reformed worldview and an aggressive engagement against secular culture. (Many are now saying that Chuck Colson, whose important book on worldviews is itself a reference to Schaeffer’s epic, is the one to carry that torch.)

      Guinness, meanwhile, developed friendships with a variety of seekers, Jews and followers of Christ amongst the intelligentsia (doing stints at the BBC and the Brookings Institute). He has forged an extraordinary reputation and apologetic within that high-octane milieu. He has long been a critic of the shoddiness of much evangelical thinking (or non-thinking, as he explains in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds) and our compromising accommodation with the worst of modernity (see his critique of some church growth advocates in Dining With the Devil or the playfully novelesque The Gravedigger Files). He is an advocate for a culturally-engaged, intellectually-credible faith rooted in a profound experience of Christ Himself. He quotes pious writers such as Oswald Chambers in The Call, his book on being a whole-life follower of Christ, and regularly guides others to spiritually-rich works such as Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. Skewering the shallowness of the reactionary religious right and the ideological accommodation of the hip, Christian left, he always offers a “third way” cultural assessment that is truly insightful, rooted in classic Christian faith, but absolutely well-argued for a well-educated, secular audience. It is no surprise that his work on the crisis of cultural authority in the American 1990s (The American Hour) was reviewed in places such as the Wall Street Journal and is taken seriously at confabs and conferences worldwide.

      Guinness’ debt to Schaeffer is seen in this new book, a serious but brief reflection on the nature of truth. Like the blue-collar Schaeffer, Guinness is insistent that serious philosophical questions affect the person in the street. From debates in the university to the latest ethical dilemmas (Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?), the crisis of cultural authority where no one can tell us what to believe anymore, and the postmodern shift to relativism (even if they did, we wouldn’t believe them) touches everyone. Indeed, Guinness gives great examples of our lived experience of postmodernism and how it leads to us being cynical about the whirl of soundbytes and vulnerable to the allure of the fashion industry, MTV style and the sloganeering of ad men and spin doctors. In an age of cybersex and trash TV, cosmetic surgery and ever-changing views of the self (fostered by make-over artists like Madonna), in an era of politics by pollsters and the scandal du jour, we are all postmodernists now.

      Great examples illustrate his point about our crisis of truth: Jay Leno buying the right to another’s life experience so he could put it in his own autobiography; the blurring of fact and fiction in the recent “biography” of President Reagan; the dishonesty in Nobel winner Rigoberto Menchu’s story; the way in which college English classes have shifted in their discussions of stories such as the horrific “The Lottery.”

      Time for Truth also makes a significant contribution to the debate about the role of reason in a Christian worldview. For those in the reformational movement, we are quick to critique the alleged autonomy of reason, a false faith which found its prophets in the high Enlightenment and its practices in the technocratic idol of scientism. (Indeed, just last month, a Christian spokesperson made his plea in Pittsburgh for “reason-based science” to solve our problems!) We are proud of seeing through this distortion, citing Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn and biblical texts about the fallenness of the human mind and how the presuppositions of the heart give rise to reductionistic idols. We insist that everyone has a worldview and that all knowledge is therefore discerned “through a glass darkly.” Reformational epistemology, it might be said, is perspectival, not propositional.

      If you think all of this to be awfully arcane hairsplitting, think again. The problem, that the very notion of truth is up for grabs now that the idol of Reason is being deconstructed, is pervasive and practical. Walsh and Middleton put it well: “truth is stranger than it used to be!” Guinness helps us understand our predicament and appreciate its significance.

      Especially in the academic world in which we minister, to reject the rationalistic, modernist (Enlightenment) view of Truth leads to a relativistic, postmodern view of (no-such-thing-as) truth. For most people, those simply are the only two options. Either there is absolute truth or there isn’t. If we concede the worldviewish “social construction of reality,” doesn’t that imply a rejection of the Judeo-Christian understanding of absolute Truth?

      This is slow going for some, but trust me: it is one of the key issues of our time and will only continue to press down upon us and our students. Guinness gives us a good start framing this problem and shows a powerful alternative to the horns of the rationalism versus relativism dilemma.

      It is always helpful, I think, to discuss these issues by using the story we use in Summer Training about the three umpires. It seems that the reformational option, affirming both truth from God and our creaturely/subjective lenses, is the middle ump: “There’s balls and strikes all right, but I call ’em like I see ’em.” It also seems to me that this is the position Guinness holds, although (careful now!) he claims to hold to the view of a (modified) first ump: “There’s balls and strikes and I call ’em the way they are.” Few evangelicals want to embrace the third, full-fledged postmodern ump: “There’s balls and strikes but they ain’t nothin’ til I say what they are!” It denies any sense of truth outside the statements of the powerful. The first ump is Rationalist (I don’t think we want to go there) and the third is a relativist, making truth be whatever he thinks. The middle ump seems closest to an authentically Christian view of truth.

      Although the story is merely a clever tool to help understand the role of reason in worldviews and ultimate convictions, Guinness’ discussion opens up layers of meaning and shows the consequences of disregard for the matter. I very seriously recommend it.

      Time for Truth is careful and subtle and could be given to nearly any well-read person (how about professors you know?). Even the blurbs on the back jacket are from the likes of Fred Barnes, the respected writer for The New Republic, and other similar pundits. Clearly Judeo-Christian in its insistence that truth matters and that the creation is ordered by the coherent Word of the Logos, “the very meaning of meaning,” as he nicely puts it, it makes its case partially by a non-partisan reflection on the contemporary crisis of truth as seen in the sexual scandal and impeachment proceedings of the Clinton administration. As his argument for truth unfolds, he points to Christ as the living truth. He challenges readers to embrace Christ in the very fabric of their being, and to allow character to develop accordingly. This is not cold rationalism nor an apologetic of proof. This is a call to deeply embrace the Person who is Truth.

      Of course there is a cost to such a truth-based life. (His final chapter is called “On Record Against Ourselves.”) Some of the book’s heroes are dissidents like Vaclav Havel, Mandela and Solzhenitsyn, who have paid dearly for their stands for truth. Let it be said, however, that there is also an immense cost to rejecting the biblical notion of truth. Much of the book, in fact, pushes our post-modern perspective to the natural, nihilistic consequences of its drift away from classic understandings of truth. To seriously reject truth can only lead to ugliness and despair.

      Terry Thomas quipped to me a year ago, “Watch Nietzsche.” It is no surprise that Guinness cites the nihilists, Nietzsche, Wagner, Camus, Sartre, Picasso, as they are bold and brave enough to follow their rejection of truth to its tragic end. But since most do not have the integrity to face a world of such emptiness, a more prevalent problem emerges; as biblical concepts of truth erode, we are increasingly held hostage to spin, deceit and propaganda. If nothing is true, and no one is to be believed, then all we have is whatever brave new world we are given. As Francis Schaeffer himself predicted, our little idols of the American Dream will topple towards fascism as the ideologues take over, perhaps even with our blessing, as long as we have our personal peace and affluence. With no sustaining assumptions about truth, there is little hope that anyone would hear any prophets, even if they arose. Freedom will be lost. Ahh, freedom. This is perhaps the most brilliant contribution Guinness offers here: a vibrant, Earth-shaking, Judeo-Christian worldview based on truth from Sinai and Galilee is the best basis for a truly free life. With the heroic Jubilee call to Kingdom idealism still ringing in our ears a month after our conference, let us be clear: only those who are free enough to live with abandon will be able to answer the call. If held hostage to the spinmeisters or trendsetters, self-deceit or self-rationalizations, young Christians will not be transformed, let alone rock their worlds. Only those free enough, that is, committed to truth enough!, will be able to take the stands we call them to take. We will only be effective disciple-makers if we pass on a passion for truth. (And, in this age, it means we must equip students to be thoughtful about the debate about truth that surrounds us.)

      What an irony if our radical invitation to whole-life discipleship falters ineffectively due to our lack of clarity about first things. As the transition from a propositional, modernist culture gives way to an image-based, post-modern culture, we need a firm and lasting grasp on what we mean by truth. Although Guinness himself says this is not the last word on the subject, it surely is more than the first. Careful attention to this important work will take us a long way to formulating and living out of a true Christian worldview, which is unafraid to freely say, “Here I stand!”