Impossible People, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Summary: Delineating the advance of modernity and its negative consequences, Guinness calls upon Christians to be the “impossible people” who both resist and positively engage the culture to “serve God’s purposes in this generation.”
I’ve been reading the work of Os Guinness since my student days when he wrote The Dust of Death and it is my feeling that his many books are really one extended and developing argument both describing modernity’s impact upon the culture in it’s movement away from God and its exhaustion of its Christian heritage, and the nature of Christian faithfulness in the face of these developments.
What distinguishes this book for me seems to be a certain urgency, captured even in the title Impossible People. He explains his choice of this striking phrase:
“The term impossible man was used to describe the eleventh-century Benedictine reformer Peter Damian (c. 1007-1073). Dante placed Damian in the highest circle of paradise as a saint and the predecessor of Francis of Assisi. A thousand years ago, as in our own time, there was little regard for truth or for the integrity and purity of the Christian faith. Nor was there much sense of the gravity of sin, so the church was easygoing, corruption was rife and the moral and theological rot was as pervasive among the clergy and the leaders of the church as among ordinary people.
. . .
Unquestionably, the term impossible man was ambiguous. It could be taken either as a
compliment or an insult. Doubtless, many of Peter Damian’s generation admired him for his stand, just as many hated him for his fervor, and many were frustrated and made
uncomfortable by what they saw as his intransigence. In other words, the same term could express either admiration or exasperation, as it will again today. But all that was irrelevant to Peter Damian. He spoke, wrote and acted solely with an eye to the audience of One. He could not be deterred by other voices. He was faithful to Jesus alone and above all. His faith had a backbone of steel. He was the impossible man. (pp. 30-31)
Guinness proposes that distinctive witness in our time will be much like that of Damian, and will require of us the qualities of “impossibility” evident in Damian — not only integrity and courage, but spiritual power that apprehends the dynamics of spiritual warfare behind the principalities and powers dominating modern life, and the weapons of such warfare, which is not against other people, whom we are called to love and win.
This incorporation of the spiritual powers behind the cultural forces confronting Christians seemed to me more clearly drawn than in any of Guinness’s other books, which emphasized clear understanding of cultural forces, and our calling to distinctiveness of thought and life in their midst. I cannot recall in other books where Guinness so clearly affirms the reality of the miraculous and works of power as he does here.
There also seemed to be a greater urgency in Guinness in his denunciation of what he sees as the church’s compromises both of integrity and doctrine, including what he sees as the rapid, revisionist shift in the understanding of human sexuality in broad swathes of the church as it embraces the social construction of reality rather than transcendent understandings that have been held through the church’s history. He decries a generationalism within the church which prevents the passing of the baton of faithful witness and presence from elder to rising generations in our present time.
Part of Guinness’s concern is for what he sees to be modernity’s impact on the wider culture as well as upon the church. He sees in such things as the interest in singularity a kind of “tower of Babel” hubris bound to disillusion. Likewise, perhaps in his best chapter, he explores the lingering spiritual memory of modern atheism, that he describes as “life without an amen.”
There is much here I appreciate in his analysis of our present cultural moment. His grasp of the pluralizing, privatizing, and relativizing elements of a modernity rooted in the social construction of reality describes the water we swim in and often have become accustomed to. I wholeheartedly affirm his description of what it means to be “impossible people” and particular the call to a recovery of spiritual power in a materially affluent but spiritually flaccid church.
What I think would have made this case more compelling to me would have been to apply this analysis not merely to the politics of the left, but to our idolizing of politics of all stripes. He takes several swipes at Barack Obama (who was sitting president when he wrote this) but is silent about the politics of the right. I personally believe that one of the things that would make Christians the “impossible people” he would have us be is to forsake all political alliances to left or right to be a prophetic voice toward the versions of idolatry and corruption across the spectrum of our political life.
I also wonder if Guinness’s word about generationalism might have carried more weight were this book to have been co-written with a millenial. My sense is that this is a work that will resonate well with those of Guinness’s own generation, but much less well with many of those he most needs to convince of the case he is making — millenials — if they even pick up this work.
That would be regrettable because the matters Guinness raises are ones of grave concern if true, and ones around which the church needs consensus. We are, sadly as Guinness notes, often divided in the church across the same fault lines as our culture, including those of generation, as well as ethnicity, economic status, and social class. Guinness has been a principled voice for the civil and public engagement of Christians in the wider culture, one respected in many quarters both here and abroad. My hope is that in whatever years remain for him (hopefully many!) he will find more partners across these divides who dialogue, dream, and pray together about what it means to be the “impossible people” he describes. Perhaps that would be something all of us might aspire and pray toward, within our own potential spheres of influence, as well as in our own faith communities.
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