Review: Impossible People

impossible people

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.

The Month in Reviews: June 2016

Reading for the Common Good

This was one of those months where my reading was all over the place from essays in military history to fictional accounts of Irish country doctors to a new book on sleep. There was the usual theology, including a collection of essays on Karl Barth, an outstanding book on the atonement, an inter-generational dialogue on the future of our faith, a discussion of the roles of parents in their children’s faith, and conversely a discussion of the religious choices of “nones” around raising their children. Two other outstanding reads concerned the role of persuasion in Christian witness, and the role of reading in the life of Christian communities. So, without further ado, here is the list!

Confessing Christ

Confessing Christ for Church and World, Kimlyn J. Bender. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A collection of essays in Barthian theology, exploring his ecclesiology, his confessional theology, particularly as it bears on the canon, and his understanding of the relationship of Christ and creation. (Review).

Future of Our Faith

Future of Our FaithRonald J. Sider and Ben Lowe. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. Two activist evangelical leaders forty years apart pose critical questions for each other about issues facing the church, with responses from the other. (Review).

Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, Donald Macleod. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A thoughtful, contemporary restatement of the classical doctrine of the atonement including different contended terms in reference to the atonement including substitution, expiation, propitiation, satisfaction, and victory. (Review).

Christ and Crisis

Christ and Crisis, Charles Malik. Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2015 (originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962). Contends that the deepest crisis of his (our) age is a spiritual crisis that the church properly addresses by laying hold of all the resources and pursuing the calling of people of faith. (Review).

An Irish Country Doctor

An Irish Country Doctor, Patrick Taylor. New York: Forge Books, 2007 (an earlier version published 2004). A young doctor fresh from medical school becomes the assistant to a rural, and somewhat eccentric, general practitioner in a small village in Northern Ireland and learns lessons about life, love, and medicine they didn’t teach in school. (Review).

Father of Us All

The Father of Us All, Victor Davis Hanson. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010. A collection of essays arguing from history that war is a tragic but persistent feature of human existence that explores some of the particular challenges that democracies from Athens to the present day United States face as we are faced with the prospect or reality of war. (Review).

Fool's Talk

Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Guinness argues for the recovery of the lost art of persuasion that combines good apologetic work with evangelism and is aware of the many people Christians address who are not open to their message. (Review).

The Sleep Revolution

The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington. New York: Harmony Books, 2016. Huffington summarizes the research on sleep, the impact of sleep deprivation on our lives and performance, and steps we may take night by night to reverse this deficit and improve our lives.  (Review).

Losing Our Religion

Losing Our ReligionChristel Manning. New York: New York University Press, 2015. Qualitative sociological research on the religious category of “nones” exploring the different types of “nones”, the influences of time and place, and the parenting choices around religion “nones” face in raising their children. (Review).

dupee.indd

It’s Not Too Late, Dan Dupee. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. A book addressed to Christian parents of teens making the transition from high school to college on the continuing important role parents may play in their teen’s faith journey. (Review).

Miracle Work

Miracle Work, Jordan Seng. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A description of how God wants to work through us to do things in the world, including supernatural things like healing, delivering people from demons, prophesying, or intercessory prayer. (Review).

Reading for the Common Good

Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Explores how the communal practice of reading in congregations fosters a learning community and shared social imagination the results in clearer congregational identity, sense of mission in one’s setting, and wider engagement with the environment, economics, and political order. (Review).

Best of the Month: This was a tough one. Christ Crucified and Fool’s Talk are both quite good. I’m going to give the nod to C. Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good, a book I wish I’d written and I think vitally important if Christian communities are going to become vibrant learning communities. Smith connected the dots for me about how our personal love of reading can connect into our communal life in life-giving ways.

Quote of the Month: Here I will go with a quote from Donald Macleod’s Christ Crucified, his rejoinder to those who argue that the idea of substitutionary atonement is little more than “divine child abuse.” He writes:

“…the child-abuse charge ignores the clear New Testament witness to the unique identity of Jesus. Not only was he not a child; he was not a mere human. He was God: the eternal Logos, the divine Son, the Lord before whom every knee will one day bow (Phil. 2:10). This is no helpless victim. This is the Father’s equal. This is one who in the most profound sense is one with God; one in whom God judges himself, one in whom God condemns himself, one in whom God lets himself be abused. The critics cannot be allowed the luxury of a selective use of the New Testament. It is the very same scriptures which portray the cross as an act of God the Father which also portray the sufferer as God the Son, and the resulting doctrine cannot be wrenched from its setting in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The ‘abused child’ is ‘very God of very God’. It is divine blood that is shed at Calvary (Acts 20:28) as God surrenders himself to the worst that man can do and bears the whole cost of saving the world.” (p. 64)

Coming Soon: I’m currently reading Kirsten Hannah’s The Nightingale, historical fiction exploring conditions in German-occupied France through the lives of the Rossignol (which means “nightingale”) daughters and their father. I’m also working my way through David Maraniss’ account of the life of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Mattered. Lombardi was one of the coaching greats of my youth. Maraniss explores the tension between faith, family, and football that was his life as well as the way Lombardi transformed pro football. I’ve just begun Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian by Michelle Lee-Barnwell, exploring whether there is a different way of thinking about gender roles than these two polarized positions. Marva Dawn’s In the Beginning, God is an older work meditating on what the creation accounts reveal to us of the character of the God of Creation.

My summer project has been the creation of an index of reviews on Bob on Books. Since the inception of the blog, I’ve reviewed around 350 books. Soon, hopefully, you will be able to scroll through a list of these by author. Of course, you can always use the search box on any page to find whether I’ve reviewed a book or to search on a topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how I can continue to make the blog more useful as a resource for “thoughts on books, reading, and life.”

Review: Fool’s Talk

Fool's Talk

Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Guinness argues for the recovery of the lost art of persuasion that combines good apologetic work with evangelism and is aware of the many people Christians address who are not open to their message.

This is a book that Os Guinness has been preparing for a lifetime to write. Throughout his life, Guinness has been presenting the Christian faith in the public square, not only with the interested but also those who are not, those who would oppose or are disinterested in the Christian message and worldview. The book reflects a summation of the lessons he has learned and his urgent sense that the pressing need for Christian witness today is a recovery of the lost art of Christian persuasion. We know how to proclaim and we know how to protest. But do we know how to persuade those with whom we differ, engaging both minds and hearts?

He contends that often we settle for mere technique, whether that be “canned” evangelistic presentations, or “canned” arguments for the faith. This often is not enough because such approaches assume the interest of the person with whom we engage. Yet to persist in the work of persuading is urgent for those who love God because our enemy seeks to rob God of glory either by questioning his existence or by impugning God with the blame for humanity’s problems.

He argues that we take the approach used by Erasmus in The Praise of Folly, becoming the “holy fool” a kind of court jester representing the kingdom of heaven pointing out the follies of unbelief, and perhaps at times following the holiest fool of all, the Lord Jesus. [Having read and reviewed this biography of Erasmus recently, my interest is piqued to read In Praise of Folly!] He then plunges into considering the anatomy of unbelief, and how often it is ultimately not simply an intellectual incapacity to believe, but a heart-driven unwillingness to believe because of what this would mean for one’s life.

This calls for different forms of persuasion depending on the person. It may mean the turning of tables on them, pressing them to the ultimate conclusions of their beliefs (for example, “relativizing the relativizers”), if they are a person who prides themselves on consistency. For others, less consistent, it may be exploring the disturbing “signals of transcendence” that point to a reality other than can be explained by their worldview. The challenge is bringing a person to a place of facing the inadequacy of the belief they’ve embraced to be willing to consider something different.

The latter chapters consist of several warnings for the advocate of Christian faith. One is the “know-it-all” attitude that is not characterized by a humility before truth. Another is hypocrisy in one’s life where one’s claims and one’s character fail to match up. And finally, he warns of the ways we may betray the faith. The four step process of embracing an assumption of modern life as superior, abandoning all that does not square with this, adapting whatever faith is left around this, and finally assimilating into the culture. What Guinness points out is the danger in our efforts to engage with the culture, that if we are not clear on what must be central and unchanging, that we will make fatal compromises.

Perhaps the most significant idea here, and one worth further development, is this idea of the “holy fool.” As Guinness observes, there have been some, like Erasmus, G.K. Chesterton, Pascal, Muggeridge, and Lewis, who with wit, humor, and incisive argument point out the weaknesses and follies of others while commending by persuasion and a kind of winsome humility the transforming nature of Christian faith. Such an approach takes both truth and people seriously, engaging heart and mind, not with canned approaches or sterile arguments, but warm-hearted persuasion that gives people reasons for heart, soul, mind and strength to love God more than all else.

One might ask, “where is God in all this?”, and at points this seems like a book on the Christian rhetorician’s art, and this alone is all that is needed. What Guinness reminds us of, is that while the Christian communicator always is dependent of the work of God in those with whom they communicate, the person may often only become aware of this as they come to the place of commitment. He writes, and with this I’ll conclude:

     “Intriguingly, this fourth stage of the journey is often when God’s presence becomes plain for the first time. The wholehearted step of faith of the new believer is far more than simply his or her own step. At one moment a seeker making her commitment knows as she has never known anything before that she is more responsible for the step of faith than for any other choice in life, and that she has never been more fully herself than in taking it. But the next moment she knows too that the One she thought was the goal was all along the guide as well. She knows that she has not so much found God as that God has found her. All the time the seeker thought she was seeking, but actually she was being sought, for God can only be known with the help of God. ‘The hound of heaven,’ as the poet Francis Thompson called God, has tracked the seeker down” (p. 248).

 

 

Snowbound

IMG_1978

A past snowstorm in Columbus, January 25, 2014

A number of my friends spent this past weekend “sheltering in place” as Winter Storm Jonas (what a cool idea to name snowstorms!) blew through the Ohio Valley and up the east coast. This one missed us by less than 50 miles. We had flurries but no accumulations in beautiful Columbus.

One of the delicious things about being snowbound is the thought of some extended time to curl up with some good books and a warm drink while the snow flies outside (at least as long as the power stays on!). Digging out comes soon enough. Time now to savor that delicious thought of what to read during those extended hours.

So I was thinking, what books would I like to be stuck with in a snow storm? In this case, I decided to answer the question by looking through my TBR stack and picking some that looked most interesting. Here are five I wouldn’t mind being stuck with for a few days:

Last LionFlourishingNine TailorsFools TalkGreater journey

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid. I’ve waited for years for the final volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, covering World War 2 and the years following. Hopefully Reid preserved Manchester’s magnificent style.

Flourishing, by Miroslav Volf. He explores the importance of religion in a globalized world. I like the idea that someone doesn’t see religion as a problem and I’ve appreciated the other books he’s written even when we don’t agree.

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers. One of the few mysteries of Sayers I haven’t read!

Fool’s Talkby Os Guinness. I’ve appreciated Guinness’s work since I read The Dust of Death during my student days forty years ago. This was a 2016 Christianity Today award winner and explores the question of how one might speak persuasively in the best sense of the word with regard to matters of faith. And yes, he is from that Guinness family. Now there is a thought, Guinness and Guinness!

The Greater Journey, by David McCullough. I have loved everything McCullough has written and I suspect this book about “Americans in Paris” will be no exception.

It would have to be some snow storm to finish all these books, particularly the Churchill book. The thought of getting started in each of these books is fun though. And truth is, you might see these in my reviews sometime this year anyway, snow storm or not!

OK, so my tastes may be different from yours. What books would you like to have with you if you were snowbound?

Review: Renaissance

RenaissanceRenaissance, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Against the doomsayers speaking of the darkness of the times, Guinness remains hopeful for a spiritual and cultural renaissance in the west, rooted in the power of the Christian message; and he charts the tasks of faithful witness that precede this and the contours of such a renaissance.

Renaissance. Often the ideas of renaissance and the Christian faith are placed in opposition to one another with enlightenment, high culture and reason on one side and faith and superstition on the other. Guinness begins this book with arguing that in fact, renaissance is a deeply Christian idea, signifying a rebirth, a renewal that is in fact at the heart of the message of the Christian faith. Thus, unlike some who decry what they see as a declining western culture and at the same time, the eclipse of western Christianity, Guinness remains hopeful for the possibility of spiritual and cultural renewal in the west, and the global impact of the Christian faith.

He sees the church as at an “Augustinian moment” where one age and civilization is passing and what is to emerge remains to be seen. In this moment, he sees Christians needing to come to terms with globalization, the challenge of embracing global Christian faithfulness instead of cultural captivities of North and South, and finally, a trust in the continuing sovereignty of God. In his second chapter, he goes on to further delineate what he sees as the global tasks of the church in this moment. One is to prepare (or rather warn off from the materialism and metrics focus of the North) the church in the South. This is one place where I would have liked Guinness to consider more the possibilities of the potential for the witness of the church in the Majority World to challenge the west, particularly in light of the second task he enumerates of winning back the western world. Finally, he speaks eloquently of concern for the human future.

The next two chapters consider the cultural power of Christianity. Chapter three shows how on one hand, Christianity is unnecessary to the creation of cultural goods, which may arise apart from Christian influence and ought to be affirmed by Christians. At the same time, he speaks of the unlikely cultural impact of the Jewish carpenter and the movement he left, and its undeniable impact in philanthropy, reform movements, the rise of the university, modern science, and human rights. He argues in chapter four that the secret of such cultural power is the unique tension within Christianity of being both in and yet not part of the world, to be both world-affirming, and world-denying.

The last two chapters then consider then the grounds for hopefulness when facing the challenges of the present time. Over against the current wisdom of scholarship that culture influence comes through leadership, through the ‘centers’ of society, and through networks, which Guinness does not dispute, he argues for the continuing power of the Spirit of God who leads unlikely individuals into culture-transforming roles, from bringing the gospel to Africa and Europe in the first century down to the present day. He argues for the “great reversals” where those least imagined might play the greatest role. And he argues that cultural renewal is a by-product of great ideas about God and his purposes. In chapter six, he then contends that the “golden age” is not some time in the past but yet before us, and not in the sweet by-and-by. Rather, he holds out hope that the power of the gospel, the Christian message, may indeed surprise us, that it is often darkest before the dawn, and that we go forward by first going back to first principles.

The book concludes with the “Evangelical Manifesto” a document signed by a number of evangelical leaders, in the drafting of which Guinness had a significant part. It restates the core marks of evangelicalism, repents from some of the cultural captivities of western evangelicalism and marks out the key tasks of faithfulness before this community.

Guinness has been one of those voices in my life who brings clarity to “understanding the present time” from his Dust of Death, which made sense to me of the culture of the Seventies while I was a student, down to the present day. And while I found myself in sympathy with nearly all that is written in this book, I also found myself wondering if it is speaking to those beyond my generation, and beyond the white, western evangelicalism of my generation. The index of names references those with whom my generation have been in conversation for forty years–Barth, Maritain, and McLuhan, to name a few.

I wonder if the author is also engaged with younger writers from Thomas Piketty to James K.A. Smith, and those speaking from the Majority World perspectives like Soong-Chan Rah. I raise this because the author’s perspective is one I value, and one that should have a wider reach. I think this would be helped by a wider and more contemporary circle of discourse–not that he would concur with all of these ideas or writers, but that he would engage them. These and many others also care about the flourishing of human beings and cultures, and those who are Christians also seek the renaissance Guinness so hopes for. Perhaps such a confluence of discourse might even be the beginnings of such a renaissance.

Review: The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity

The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity
The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity by Os Guinness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.

Os Guinness has penned this extended argument as both defense of and elaboration of how this statement passed in the United Nations in 1948 might shape the public squares of our countries nearly 70 years later, in a climate where this “first freedom” may be less enjoyed now than in 1948. Guinness argues here not for the privileging of any religion, or merely for religion at all. Rather his basic argument is that freedom is conscience is one of the things that defines us as human beings. He would argue this applies equally to the atheist and the materialist, as it does to any religious believer and that the compromise of this freedom, by the state or by competing belief systems, weakens this freedom not just for those immediately attacked but for all. Therefore, Guinness argues for neither a sacred public square, privileging a particular religion, nor a naked public square, banishing all religious belief from public discourse, but rather a civil public square where diverse beliefs, religious and secular, might listen and seek to persuade one another with regard to the well-lived life and the well-ordered society.

Guinness expresses grave concern over the impairing of the freedom of conscience in various parts of the world. His concern is not simply the forced conversions of religious believers in parts of Africa and the Middle East or the continuing persecution of religious believers in Communist countries. He equally, and especially has concern for the West, and what he sees are incursions on the singular freedoms of speech and conscience enshrined in documents such as our Bill of Rights. He would argue that mandates in health care laws that force religious organizations to provide abortion and other medical benefits contrary to their faith are such an infringement, as are the bans of religious groups on university campuses who “discriminate” because they require leaders (not participants) to affirm the religious beliefs of the group. He argues that while such impairments of liberty may not affect most of us, we may be witnessing a “death of a thousand cuts.” Each chapter concludes with this peroration:

It is time, and past time, to ponder the question. What does it say of us and our times that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not be passed today? And what does it say of the future of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief if it can be neglected and threatened even in the United States, where it once developed most fully–that it can be endangered anywhere? Who will step forward now to champion the cause of freedom for the good of all and for the future of humanity?

Guinness has not left this task to others. In addition to this book, and his recent A Free People’s Suicide which I reviewed earlier this year, Guinness helped draft the Global Charter of Conscience, published in Brussels at the European Parliament in June of 2012. It articulates both the inherent rights of freedom of conscience and the necessary responsibilities any society must undertake to sustain that right.

Some might think this either unnecessary fear-mongering on one hand, or impossible idealism on the other. My own sense is that it is a clarion-call alerting us to not take for granted the singular freedoms we have enjoyed in the west and a well-thought out proposal for extending these freedoms in contextually appropriate ways throughout the world.

A friend of mine who is an ancient historian observed that violence, the execution of enemies of a different faith, and the forced conversion of women and children has been the way of the world throughout most of human history. The experience of freedom of speech and conscience of the last few centuries in the West, with all its problems and limits, has been a singular space of civility in a brutal world. If Guinness is right (and I think he is) the choice before us is whether to protect and seek to extend that civil space or to revert to the brutality that is characteristic of most of humanity through most of history that quashes the very thing that makes us most deeply human, our freedom of thought and conscience.

View all my reviews

Review: A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Guinness contends that great powers basically destroy themselves from within before they ever fall to external enemies. I write this on the day our government has shut down because our leaders cannot even agree to fund the obligations into which they’ve entered. Guinness’s book seems prophetic and especially relevant today.

He argues that freedom has been the fundamental and driving idea of the American experiment. But freedom has two aspects, freedom from and freedom for. His concern is that our understanding of freedom has been pervaded by the former to the neglect of the latter. He argues this was not always so and that we can learn from the framers the positive virtues necessary for sustaining freedom. He believes we can use history to defy history. A repeated refrain in the book is, “For Americans must never forget: all who aspire to be like Rome in their beginnings must avoid being like Rome at their ending. Rome and its republic fell, and so too will the American republic–unless…”

He argues that what is essential is observance of what he calls “The Golden Triangle of Freedom” He argues that freedom requires virtue which requires faith which requires freedom. By this, he means freedom only flourishes in the presence of moral excellence and the cultivation of civic virtue. Virtue in turn must be rooted in some sense of the ultimate–the fear of the Lord, as it were. And faith in turn must be sustained by freedom–free speech, free exercise, freedom of conscience.

He speaks trenchantly about the dangers of overreach which have brought down many of the great powers and it is plain that he sees this as a form of hubris of which we are enamored. He concludes the book with a call not to return to some golden age of American life but nevertheless to return to the American virtues framed by our founders who drew on both biblical and classical sources. He references the beautiful metaphor of the eagle and the sun–the mighty bird whose flight is illumined by something greater and higher.

While this book is published by a religious publisher, Guinness frames his argument in the language of the cultural public square. Whether one is a person of faith or not is beside the point in engaging this book. What is striking to me is that this Irish ex-pat (connected with the Guinness family of brewing fame) seems to love the United States and care deeply for her future. I would encourage others who love this country to consider his argument for sustaining our freedom.

View all my reviews

Literacy and Liberty

This week I’ve been in several conversations with people and with books I’m reading around the theme of the connection between cultural literacy and preserving our liberties. This item first came up as I was reading Os Guinness’s Suicide of a Free People. Guinness’s basic idea is that there are two kinds of freedom–freedom from and freedom for–and that our society almost exclusively emphasizes the former in a manner that is unsustainable for the long haul.  He argues that our founders were wiser in part on these matters because their thought was formed by the classic Greek and Latin writers on government and human affairs, as well as more recent writers like Locke.  For example, they knew of Polybius and the three ideal forms of government, including democracy, and each forms degraded expression, which for democracy is mob rule and built into the constitution various constraints against mob rule in the balancing of powers.

In John Henry Newman’s Idea of a UniversityNewman doesn’t address this directly but speaks of the enlargement of mind that he believes is a function of a liberal education as it classically has been understood:

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.

What both writers have in common is the recognition of a breadth of perspective that comes when we engage the great writers and great books.  And this is what came up in a couple conversations with university faculty this week. The great concern is that in place of this kind of education, today’s student usually gets a smattering of self-selected GEC courses and lots of focused training in a very specific, job-related area, unless they opt to go to a liberal arts college, or a place like St John’s, that focuses on a Great Books curriculum.  (Here is the reading list for their curriculum.)

What troubles me is that while there is great emphasis on preparing students for entering the world of work, it seems there is little that facilitates the enlargement of mind of which Newman speaks.  Many of us bemoan the smallness of mind that characterizes our present political discourse.  The question for me is whether in fact we are achieving the result that we are aiming for, highly skilled specialists who fuel our economic engines but lack the enlargement of mind and the habits of literacy to think cogently over a lifetime about the important matters required of us as citizens in a representative democracy? Perhaps what troubles me most is wondering what will happen should the cohort entering our workforce wake up and recognize that their education has been directed primarily to the end of making them cogs in our economic machine, and the only resource at hand to them is inchoate anger?  That, it seems, is a prescription for mob rule.