Prophetic Untimeliness

I’m not sure how many other booksellers are taken by the ironies of what books arrive in the shop the same day. Fresh cartons from UPS are opened, always, still, with hopeful anticipation. Sometimes, of course, there is nothing unusual. Other days bring a mix that is nearly bizarre — at least around here.
Mid-July brought two eagerly-awaited books on the exact same day. I am still pondering if it is incongruent that I was excited about them both. While one is nothing short of brilliant, the other is pedestrian. In a way, the second is a case study of the sort of thinking and methodology critiqued strongly by the first. Still, I am confident that both will be found useful for those of us with interests in the ways in which we can nurture in ourselves and others a sense of Godly interaction and discernment and impact in the postmodern 21st century world.
The first book is the extraordinary new Os Guinness, with a title which is a nod to Nietzsche, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Baker, $16.99). The other is an entry-level book on developing a Christian worldview, earnestly gleaned from some general data gathered by the popular evangelical pollster cum pundit, George Barna. It is called Think Like Jesus: Make the Right Decision Every Time (Integrity, $19.99). (The odd subtitle just begins to illustrate the mixed bag of this well-intended work. A marketeering button on the front shouts “Includes 7 Questions that Will Change Your Life,” which may or may not have had George’s approval. More on the cover later”¦)
Basically, Think Like Jesus is a guide to learning to think in a truly Christian fashion, making the explicit case that we must be intentional about worldview and foundational truths. It is a plea from his heart, seeing, as he does, that many evangelicals are frankly not interested in living out their faith effectively in the day to day. Some of it is quite helpful. Sadly, it doesn’t quote the standards in the field — say it with me, long-time readers: Creation Regained by Al Wolters and The Transforming Vision by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton. I guess I should get over it, since he does list the impeccable work by David Naugle, Worldview: The History of an Idea (Eerdmans, $24.00), which we have mentioned in these pages. That is one major work!
I speak for many — and most likely for George Barna, for that matter — when I say that there are few Christian leaders who I esteem as highly as I do Os Guinness, now of The Trinity Forum. I love to listen to his content-packed, serious-minded lectures, am astounded by his fluency in the social sciences and world history and still stand in awe at his command of the English language. His sharp mind, quick wit and big picture perspective makes him a scholar to be reckoned with; his books, quite simply, should be on the bookshelf of every thoughtful Christian leader. (And — at last — his wonderful lectures based on Hearts & Minds’ “book of the decade,” The Call, will soon come out on CD for your listening pleasure. We are taking orders!)
Dr. Guinness’ distinctive commitment to Christ, his unashamed loyalty to the evangelical movement (even while one of our toughest critics), and his tireless efforts to help develop a more intellectually-credible and culturally-relevant witness makes him a patron saint for those of us who seek to effectively impact the world with grit and grace. Always with one foot in the world of secular scholarship, public policy think-tanks and the heavy-weight gatekeepers in commerce, journalism and government, his work comes not only out of his personal disciplines of prayer and study (both of which are considerable), but of his active engagement with elite leaders throughout the globe.
Guinness has written on these themes — appropriate and wise relevance versus trendy capitulation to the zeitgeist — often. His sweeping, early ’70s study of Western culture and ’60s counter-culture, The Dust of Death, is one of the most important books I have ever read. From his little Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, on the loss of the Christian mind, particularly among evangelicals, to his magisterial study of American culture in the 1980s (The American Hour), I find my own thinking often indebted to him.
Particularly due to Dining With The Devil, his critique of the ways in which 1990s mega-churches and para-church organizations uncritically adopted some of the more dubious techniques of modernity — ad campaigns, number-crunching, managerial systems, data-gathering and reliance upon pollsters — he has been seen as somewhat of a “voice crying in the wilderness” and even a curmudgeon. (Not unlike, I must say, Marva Dawn, whose massive Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, is actually more about the damaging modern values behind the consumerist culture with our therapeutic views of the self and our hollowed-out theologies than the details of contemporary worship.) Guinness, like Dawn, is surely as committed to authentic and faithful growth and contextualized ministry as anyone, so they are not to be seen as traditionalists content with just doing church the old ways. Not for a minute. Nor, are either of them mean-spirited or grumpy. Each, though, has a fire in the belly, that unction that seems to come from the very Spirit of God. And they must be heard!
As before, in Prophetic Untimeliness, Os is still alarmed about the whys and wherefores of our pragmatic plans for church growth, deeply concerned about the materialism and worldliness (in the deepest sense of the word) of the evangelical church. He believes that we have only hurt our own efforts in giving in to “the idol of relevance.” It is truly a remarkable thesis. He is quick to note that it is not original to him; Frederick Nietzche and C.S. Lewis both wrote plainly about this exact matter.
Prophetic Untimeliness is exceptionally important. It makes a simple case and unpacks it with brilliancy and solid content, details and arguments, as only Guinness can. The thesis and the huge quandary that accompanies it are stated early on: Our timeliness lies in the untimeliness of rejecting modern timeliness. Our moment and our hour depend upon our turning from the spurious models of the modern world to the real moment and the real hour seen only under God. But we need to be aware that the gain in perspective is a gain in pressure. As we will see, relevance with faithfulness has a steep cost, but those prepared to pay it win the prize of true relevance.
Although sometimes, Guinness’ complex lectures strike some as nearly Byzantine — points, sub-points, triple sub-sub points, alliterations (and the ever-present Winston Churchill stories) — really, they hang together with exceptional congruency. This is especially evident in this little book, an outline of which can easily be seen. I would recommend outlining its main points and key words — these are notions and insights we need to get into our bones and into our own vocabulary. If he is correct, then these points are building blocks and guidelines missed at our peril. Especially for the quintessential Hearts & Minds reader (and CCO staffer) — sharp folks who are widely-read, are involved in the intellectual battles of the day, and who attempt to live out Christian faith in vibrant, serious ways — I implore you to buy this book. Live with its critique, mull over the outline, be formed by his crisp sentences. Talk to friends about it. Do a book study in church or dorm or work. It is that important!
I have long included in many of my own lectures the assessment that (excuse the caricatures, please), in the 20th century, conservative evangelicals longed for a personal holiness that was defined in such a way that it made them culturally irrelevant, disinterested in most public matters and enmeshed in a privatized, parochial faith. They were too often neither “in the world nor of it.” Consequently, even their strong suit — holiness — devolved into pseudo-holiness, with little of the biblical texture of Godly social fidelity.
On the mainline denominational side, the opposite was nearly true. Liberal theology knew at least to be involved in the world of public policy and cultural engagement, but because they presumed an “in the world and of it” mindset — often from relaxing their biblical standards and distorting historic doctrinal orthodoxy, they were up to their steeples in worldly concerns with little distinctive, holy content. Consequently, even their strong suit — relevance — devolved into pseudo-relevance.
I often critique both of these camps — perhaps fudging the classic Niebuhr text, Christ and Culture, and often drawing upon the immensely useful Good News and Good Works by another hero of us here at H&M, Ronald Sider, who critiques both conservatives and liberals for being “one-sided.”
Sometimes, I think we need what might be called holy relevance. Using Jesus’ clear model, we must be “in the world but not of it.” To really be effective in the world, we simply must be not of it. To use the Master’s words, if salt is no longer salty“¦
Much more eloquent and elegant than I, Guinness tackles this historic problem and seeks the proper biblical vision. He strongly maintains that contemporary evangelicals, though, are poised to repeat (is it too late?) the foolishness of the agenda of the theological liberals which led to their own undoing by the end of the 20th century. He writes,
“But the blunt, sad fact is that we evangelicals, in the prominent form of the evangelical subculture, are becoming the strongest rival to mainline Protestantism as the worldliest Christian tradition in America. From a general materialism and secularity in priorities and preoccupations, to particular captivities to such modern idols as psychology, management, and marketing, the pattern is starkly plain.”
Much of this has been said before, but rarely with such clarity and punch. I am confident that Guinness, ever the gentleman, doesn’t intend to alienate or try to be hurtful. He doesn’t name names in this blistering critique. Actually, had he, it might have lent the book more credence for those who are skeptical.
While he insists that the danger is “starkly clear” and the evangelical camp is firmly stuck in a “Babylonian captivity,” some may wonder if is really all that bad. Guinness travels a lot and when he talks of mega-churches without Bibles in the pulpit, he apparently is not exaggerating. That the aforementioned George Barna book — with the headline on the cover reading “Ground-Breaking Research That Redefines What It Means to Think Like Jesus,” and that will, as previously noted, help you “make the right decision every time” — has a considerably larger print run and more hype than the Guinness may prove the point. Evangelical leaders — like the prominent publishing guys who did the Barna book — apparently don’t find it odd to promote a book which suggests that faithfulness to Christ is discerned by “research” that “redefines” things, that their new data will “change your life” and — no golden cow utopianism here! — will help you make the right decision every time. All in a book about being more authentically Christian in the very way we see life and live out the implications of our faith.
In trying to be relevant and successful, we’ve become like the very culture we are trying to impact and have thereby become ultimately irrelevant. Too captive to the spirits of the age, we’ve lost any sense of tension with the culture or the judging transcendence of the Divine. (The thesis is similar to the groundbreaking trio of books by David Wells that I have touted in these pages: No Time for Truth, God in the Wasteland and Losing Our Virtue.) Here, with Guinness, we have it straight up, clear, brief and convicting.
A few quick points to highlight the strategic strengths of this important little book. First, Guinness does not disagree with the desire to be relevant. He is not seeking some past “golden age.” Surely, the good news is to be lived out with contemporary verve and contextualized sensitivity. In one touching illustration, he lovingly describes a favorite photograph of his grandfather, a bold pioneer in the China Inland Mission, shown with a Mandarin gown and Chinese pigtails, which scandalized the folks back home.
Secondly, Os speaks critically of the church’s trendy techniques and glitzy efforts, but he is always constructive. He helpfully dissects specific practices and analyzes our ways with a view to reform and revitalize. Although he asserts that “evangelicals and fundamentalists have embraced the modern world with a passion unrivaled in history,” he is sympathetic. In a very useful section, he outlines three possible stances to the modern world and explains strategies such as defiance, negotiation and adaptation, with examples of each. In a very clear few pages, he shows four steps in the slide towards unfaithful assimilation to the prevailing culture.
Another very concrete and unique contribution in Prophetic Untimeliness is the way Guinness makes an intriguing case that much of the modern spirit is carried insidiously through our view of time, which has been largely shaped by the invention (and mass distribution of) the mechanical clock. Indeed, he talks about a “clock culture,” and by that he means more than the ubiquity of watches, but our time-driven schedules, appointments, chronic rush, multi-tasking and busyness.
He doesn’t cite Jeremy Rifkin’s important Time Wars, but I immediately thought of it. I also truly wondered what Len Sweet, who has written a bit about this, might think. To cite Marva Dawn again, let me once again recommend Keeping the Sabbath Wholly as one helpful resource here, or the elegant Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time by Dorothy Bass.
This brief but important section includes some quick historical study and even raises some accessible philosophical questions, which makes it a serious bit of insight, which should be an intregal part of an authentically Christian worldview. (Mr. Barna, take note. Your seven questions, good as they are, should lead to this kind of distinctively Christian approach to stuff like time. A worldview is more than the right answers to basic questions, but how we “lean into life.” It includes how we imagine and construe meaning and how we live and move and have our being.)
If we are going to get anywhere in this effort to be culturally wise and socially effective — all the while being faithful to God as revealed in Scriptures — we are going to have to plumb these depths. Think Like Jesus is not a bad start, and I commend it for its good use of many Bible texts, great stories and simple data which can be used to make our point to the unconvinced that worldview talk is important. Despite huge gaps — nothing, really on work or art or civic life — its breadth of vision is broad. Guinness, though, is a truly great guide to keep us faithful. I hate to sound breathy, but Prophetic Untimeliness is urgent.
Guinness argues that the most timely approach is one which rejects what Lewis famously called “the chronological snobbery of our own time.” It is therefore not tied tightly to the “idol of relevance” so it should come as no surprise that Guinness writes explicitly — more than he has before — about the importance of knowing history. Near the end of this hard-hitting essay, he gets quite practical, listing suggestions and giving hints towards authentic revival and reformation. Among them is to study the past, reading older books (classics and serious theology) and historical biographies.
Big aside here: Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden recently published by Yale University Press ($35.00) is, doubtless, the biography of the year! In Edwards studies, it is being touted as the most important bio of the man in 200 years. I am sure Os would approve of my blatant plug for this tour de force by Mr. Marsden.
In his very brief bibliography, the only other book of his own that he cites is the marvelous and lavish Invitation to the Classics that Os co-edited with Louis Cowan (Baker, $34.99).
In Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, Mr. Guinness consistently refers to C.S. Lewis. In fact, one of his operative phrases to illustrate the way out of our captivity to the speedy and efficient gods of the clock culture is from Lewis, who calls for “resistance thinking.” (See his famous essay, “Christian Apologetics” in God in the Dock published by Eerdmans.) Os is not glib or cheap on this. He warns us of the personal price to be paid by taking up the prophetic challenge. Although I still cherish my well-used copies of The Prophetic Imagination by the flamboyant UCC Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, this new book may be one of the chief resources I use to read alongside Amos and Jeremiah. Guinness’ work is a necessary bit of wisdom for those of us striving to lay claim to the biblical mantle of prophet in a way that is more than charismatic utterance or political denunciation. Of course, this means any and all who name the name of Christ, since we all, in our mandate to be “salt” and “light” and “leaven,” need to learn the art of prophetic untimeliness. We are all, for better or worse, children of our time, and we need all the assistance and grace we can find. Guinness may be one of our finest allies.
Six other books which just came out which you may want to know about:
1. Recapture the Wonder by Ravi Zacharias (Integrity, $19.99). This is the long-awaited new work by the popular evangelist and apologist. What a great way to get at the longing we all have, by analyzing disillusionment and giving answers to our lost wonder. We recommend any of his thoughtful books.
2. Waking the Dead by John Eldredge (Nelson, $21.99). After my blistering critique of the truly awful, terribly sexist and biblically-odd Wild at Heart — which is still one of the only nay-saying reviews out there — I feel like I owe the wild one another shot. I really like this one, much as I did his earlier ones. To find the “glory of the heart fully alive” is quite the quest, and I honor Eldredge’s journey of desire, again. Good stuff!
3. Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians are Not Being Told About Israel and Palestinians by Gary Burge (Pilgrim Press, $25.00). It isn’t every day that a theologically conservative evangelical gets on this liberal publishing house. Happily, this is one of the best of the hard-hitting titles we’ve gotten in lately on this perennial problem, and we have plenty. As David Neff of Christianity Today has written, “”¦this book challenges us to love — and to love concretely.” A very important introduction with both robust politics and solid Bible.
4. Jesus Drives Me Crazy: Lose Your Mind, Find Your Soul by Leonard Sweet (Zondervan, $12.99). I know it might seem weird, given my passion for the new Os Guinness, but Sweet still floats my boat. Talk about trendy and hip! There are more illustrations, footnotes, points, stories, truths, paradoxes and quandaries in this to keep you busy for a year. Gotta love his call for being a zany, unpredictable, crazy force for change. If we are to be NUTS, as he puts it, we must “Never Underestimate The Spirit.” All right, I don’t like the cheesy acronym either. But this is a fine book. Don’t underestimate Jesus Drive Me Crazy. It is for his many fans, or those who have never tried him.
5. Champagne for the Soul: Celebrating God’s Gift of Joy by Mike Mason (Waterbrook, $14.99). Those who recall past reviews know that we adore this guy’s fine style, clear prose and regularly commend him as one of the finer writers working these days. We adored his excellent meditation on marriage, the great book on loving others and the fabulous reflection on what we can learn from children. He even has a big commentary on Job. Here, he gives us brief chapters calling on Christians to find the joy of the Lord, to be — I am almost embarrassed to say it — happy. Those of us absorbed in the struggles for justice and the restoration of creation, those of us living in hurting families and contentious churches and hard jobs and sick bodies — in other words, all of us — need to hear this gracious call to rejoice. I resisted at first, but took it up just because I so respect Mason. I am glad I did. He describes his experiment in allowing God to allow him to be happy. I dare ya”¦
6. A Fragile Stone: The Emotional Life of Simon Peter by Michael Card (IVP, $17.00). With a very attractive tissue dust jacket, very handsome inside page design, and a forward by Brennan Manning, this brand new book by the well-known singer-songwriter makes an altogether lovely gift and a wonder to own. Better, the content is well-written, informed by diverse and serious scholarship, and yet is very easy to understand. Who couldn’t stand to grow in their faith by learning about the anguished ups and downs of this remarkable first century follower of Christ? Card’s last book — Scribbling in the Sand — was a study of creativity (particuarly in the life of Jesus) and had a companion music release of the same name, and a study guide. Here, again, Card has graced us not only with a fine example of inspiring biblical teaching, but has released a very worthwhile soft-rock, acoustic album, A Fragile Stone. (Not to confuse matters, like Scibbling…, the audio of the book being read is available only in CD and has a few bonus cuts, some quiet music, making it a great way to “read” the book. Music CD sells for $17.98 and the book, on two discs, sells for $20.00. The study guide is $6.00.)