A conversation with Os Guinness - S9.E1
WORLD Radio - A conversation with Os Guinness - S9.E1
The evangelical author shares his thoughts on our present cultural crisis, how he defines legacy, and what he’s hungry for at this stage in life
WARREN SMITH, HOST: It would be hard for me to name someone who has had a bigger influence on evangelical thought on the big questions of our day than Os Guinness. Born in China to missionary parents, he is the great-great-great-grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer.
OS GUINNESS, GUEST: You know, I couldn't care less about legacy. Because I think it's a kind of secular way of proving yourself. And we all know that the day will soon come, when there won't be a single memory of us on the earth. And all that matters is what we've been before the Lord. And so we can retire from a job, but we never retire from a calling. And to me, legacy is, if the Lord says to us, when for the first time we not only hear him, but see him, well done. That's legacy. That's what I hope for.
I pray daily, Lord make, help me to count my days to make my days count. And I, I used to think, you know, it says redeeming the time, in Ephesians, and so on. I used to think of that in terms of time and motion studies. You had to sort of pack more and more—
WS: Sure, yeah.
OG: You know, more efficient. I don't think that's the meaning. The word time there is Kairos, not Chronos. And the word redeem, and I can't understand this. It's a mystery. It's the same word used of our Lord on the cross. So by our obedience and trust and faithfulness, in responding to our times and our generation, somehow, I don't know how, we are redeeming the times in which we live. Now, am I overstating that? I, that's what I am groping to think the Lord of Paul means in Ephesians, and so on. And that's amazing. So it's not packing the days, but making sure that whatever you do each day, somehow counts before the Lord.
WS: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Os Guinness. His new book is The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and The Future of Freedom.
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WS: I first encountered Os Guinness when I was in college. His 1973 book The Dust of Death had been out a few years by then, and it was making the rounds among young Christian intellectuals. The book was a critique of both the 60s counter-culture and of establishment institutions.
Os Guinness did what he has done ever since. He shook us out of the false dichotomies of “left and right” and “conservative and liberal” and encouraged us to go deeper with our thinking, and with our engagement with God, with each other, and with the world.
He has continued to challenge Christians to “go deep” for more than a half century. And, for those of you “of a certain age,” shall we say, consider this: Os Guinness is now 79 years old. He has published nearly a book a year since his 70th birthday, and—in my opinion—those books have been among his best. They’ve included A Free People’s Suicide, Fool’s Talk, and the book we will discuss today, The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and The Future of Freedom.
I sat down with Os Guinness at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters held this summer in Ft. Worth, Texas.
WS: In, you know, I don't want to say 25 words or less, but just in a summary nutshell, what's the book about?
OG: Well, I wanted to write something that's bang on the present crisis, because I think a lot of people aren't analyzing it deeply enough. But also be constructive, because this is time for Christians to get off the backfoot. And to really contribute to the way forward.
WS: And how would you define the present crisis?
OG: America's deeply divided. Everybody agrees with that. But why? Is it the coastals against the heartlanders? Is it responses to the social media or the previous president? I argue the deepest division is routine, those who understand the Republic and I don't mean democracy, the Republic, from the perspective of the Scriptures, which were the roots of the American Revolution. Or do they understand freedom from the perspective of the heirs of the French Revolution?
WS: Well, you talk about, you kind of make, create two models, and I'm gonna say it out loud, and then you can correct me. But the one is the model of the American Revolution versus the French Revolution. That's kind of the more modern juxtaposition. You say, and you and you make that comparison because you say, in comparison, in contrast, there is great clarity. And, and so there's that the French Revolution, the American Revolution, on the one hand. But then going back, you also talk about the if can I put it this way, the Sinai revolution as well, that that, that Moses, the law giver, Moses, the one who brings the people of Israel in the world face to face with the one true God is a true that's a true truly revolutionary idea in its day as well. Am I, am I reading it right?
OS: Absolutely. The American Revolution and the English revolution are both because of the Reformation and sola scriptura. You know, the 17th century is described by historians as the Biblical century. And the great goal was to understand the so called Hebrew Republic, which came out of the covenant. So you think of the first political document in America, which is the Mayflower Compact, it's a covenant. The U.S. Constitution is a nationalized covenant. So Americans need to understand the system came through the Reformation from the Bible. Now, of course, the Bible never airbrushes its heroes. And we shouldn't airbrush the revolution, including the terrible contradiction and hypocrisy of slavery. But it is a biblically rooted revolution.
WS: Well and because as you said, the first American document was the Mayflower Compact. And, you know, we have the Constitution, which again, is a covenant a contract. One of the implications of that, or maybe even, maybe I've got the cause and effect reversed here, maybe maybe that is one of the effects of a greater of a more fundamental cause, which is that words matter. You say over and over in your book that words really are important, and we've got to take them seriously and that one of the problems that we face today is, you know, after folks like Derrida and Foucault and others, deconstruction and post modernism, words don't really have agreed upon meaning anymore.
OG: No, you're exactly right. Now, I argue that we're facing three problems: Philosophical cynicism, which you've just described, moral corruption, and social collapse. The three are actually integrally linked, but the deep one is the philosophical cynicism. Nietze's "God is dead, truth is dead," and you come down to Derrida, Leodov Foucault, and so on. Things that are totally undecidable. You have a radical indeterminacy. Now that plays out. So I would argue that while the elite complained about the populist conspiracy theories, like QAnon, they're just the populist reflection of the elite fake news and radical bias. So American democracy and republic has to be reformed in terms of truth, and in terms of words, because you know, biblically, words are commitments. Incredibly, a Word created the world. And words can destroy the world. And you have a very high view of words in the Scripture.
WS: Well, you raised another point, again, let's just stipulate for the record that you raise so many great ideas in this, but we can't govern them all. I'm just kinda in some way scratching, scratching the surface in some things that particularly jumped out at me. But you mentioned one of them just now that I want to drill down a little bit more. You say words created the world. And that is such an important idea, an idea that that permeates Scripture. But in some ways, it's an it's an idea that is sort of hiding in plain sight to modern sensibilities, that that we, even evangelicals, even those of us who are evangelicals, we we will often have an understanding maybe of theology, but not really a great understanding of, anthropology, what it means to be made in God's image, what it means to be man in relationship to God. And that this idea of of the efficacy of words to create and to sustain, is we've got to recover that idea, it seems to me.
OG: And the negative, it can destroy. And, you know, the rabbinic idea that evil speech is tantamount almost to murder. So you think of our recent president and many of his policies, I supported strongly, they were good. But his use of Twitter and so on, was profoundly by biblical standards, evil. And Christians should have said publicly, Mr. President, I support X, Y, and Z. But watch your words. Words can destroy worlds. I mean, the press are just as bad on the other side. In other words, American restoration has to start with truth. Without truth, no freedom. And with words,
WS: You mentioned the rabbinic, not ‘saying’, but the rabbinic idea that gossip and false words are the equivalent of murder or evil. That reminded me that you spend a lot of time in this book, talking about two particular rabbis. One of them is Rabbi Jonathan Sachs. And in fact, you you give him credit throughout—
OG: I dedicate the book.
WS: You dedicated the book to him. In some ways, yeah, I think there's a much really deep and original thinking here, Os. But in some ways, it's almost as if you are translating Rabbi Sachs to the evangelical American, this British rabbi to the American. Is that is that is that—
OG: Deliberate. Quite deliberate. I mean, you remember a famous pastor last year or two years ago, talk about unhitching the Old Testament. That's not only wrong theologically, it's profoundly stupid. And we've got to see that notions like human dignity, one of the great truths we need to fight for today, truth itself or words, they're all there in the Old Testament. And we've got to explore the Old Testament and recover it. The Reformation did that. You know, you if you look at the history of the church, the Catholic Church went badly wrong in 380, when, you know, the faith became officially the Roman faith, by copying Roman structures. And Roman structures are hierarchical. You had the Caesar, the consuls, the senators. And you had the pope, the cardinals, the bishops. And it was a Catholic layman, Lord Acton, who made the famous remark, all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Reformation, rightly went back to the Scriptures, not Rome. And the Scriptures are covenantal and all that means, not hierarchical. And, you know, I understood that, first of all through Daniel Eleazar, another great Jewish thinker. And the Jews have said this all along, but the simplest, most practical expression is in Rabbi Sacks. I dedicated the book to him and sent him the first draft. Sadly, before the book came out, he got pancreatic cancer, and within three weeks he was gone. So he never saw the book, but I owe a lot to him and his thinking,
WS: Well, if you could unpack that just a little bit more, what what is it about Rabbi Sacks that that particularly resonated with you that made that made you want to say you know what these ideas need to be more accessible to an American evangelical audience.
OG: The Reformation. You know, the Chinese when they recovered their power, they said, What happened? Why did it go wrong? And they had a famous conference, you know, saying what happened? And why did Europe suddenly dominate the world for 500 years? And their answer at the end of the day, was not economics and the military and law and so on. It was religion, as they put it. And the Jews jumped in, including Rabbi Sacks, to say it wasn't actually just religion, because the Christian faith had been dominant since Theodotius. It was the Reformation. Why? The Reformation rediscovered the Old Testament. And so, you take the English revolution was, it failed. You know, historians call it the lost cause. The American Revolution was the winning cause. But the English revolutions together, were based on, through the Reformation, the Scriptures. But yeah, I mean, you think of African American spirituals, Go Down Moses. Most of the great revolutionary movements, or even Jefferson who, as you know, was a deist, and Franklin, you know, they wanted Exodus to be the seal of the U.S. And it was Exodus as the great symbol of freedom: Let my people go. So we've got to re-explore freedom. Sadly, American Christians are on the backfoot because of Southern slavery and so on, which is tragic. Um, you take one of the bestsellers this year, Color of Compromise.
WS: Yeah, Jimar Tisby's book, yeah.
OG: Well, I'm not attacking him. I didn't mention his name. But yeah, his page on Wilberforce is appalling. It's the Marxist critique. The greatest social reformers in history, were Christians. And abolitionists, were evangelicals. And we should be proud of that, while we confess where there were contradictions.
WS: Os, I'd like you to say little bit more, again, this idea that that contrast is the mother of clarity, you say in some form or another a couple of times in your book. So I'd like to say a little bit more to compare and contrast the American Revolution and the French Revolution. That they were about the same time in history, they both said that they were concerned with liberty. But you say that, in fact, they're radically different. And you've already said that in this conversation, and that they had radically different outcomes and consequences as well. Can you unpack that a little bit more?
OG: Well, take sources. One comes from the Bible, one comes from the French Enlightenment, Rousseau, Voltaire. Take anthropologies, their view of human nature. One is realistic. You take Witherspoon, Madison, the Federalist 51, checks and balances, separation of powers. Why? Because we're sinners, and we'll abuse power. The French Revolution was utopian. Remove the chains, and everyone will be happy, free and fulfilled. You take the notions of freedom. You know, Lord Acton. Is freedom the permission to do what you like, or the power to do what you ought. Or Isaiah Berlin, freedom's not negative only, it's positive, too. You go on down the line. And then of course, supremely, their views of justice, which is very important now, and religion. The American, and the English revolutions were based on faith, inextricably, based on faith. The French Revolution, absolutely, and the Russian and the Chinese, against faith. That's who we're up against now. There's, as you've seen, since the pandemic, an acceleration of the post-Christian alternative. Solzhenitsyn said, at the heart of cultural and classical Marxism is a hatred of God that is more powerful than politics and economics.
WS: Well, given that context, and you've already mentioned President Trump a couple of times, or at least once.
OG: Actually, I hadn't.
WS: Do what, now?
OG: Just said the previous president.
WS: The previous president.
OG: I'm not attacking or supporting the good man.
WS: Well, I respect and appreciate your posture on that. I hope you won't be offended if I actually named the name. Say, say that name, which must not be named, and sort of ask this. That you know, that given all of what you said, and and maybe you're right, maybe it maybe I should take this as a word of instruction, that may be leaving President Trump's name out of it is the right thing to do. Because I think what we're really talking about is is not really a pathology within our body politic. Though it may be there, I'm not saying that there's not a pathology there. But in some ways, there's there's a pathology in our body religious, even within the evangelical milleu, that we are willing to accept the lies of someone who agrees with us politically because we have, in some ways, though we don't admitted explicitly, we've embraced the post-truth ideas of—
OG: Well, I'd put it slightly more charitably, Warren.
OG: In other words, evangelicals supported Donald Trump, because instinctively, they knew his policies were better for the gospel and the church at large. And I think that's absolutely right. Whether it's religious freedom, or it's Jerusalem, or whatever it is. The broad policies he had, were much in favor of the Christian position. Whereas the present administration has many impulses, they may be more moderate in rhetoric, but are profoundly opposed to the gospel.
OG: So I think Christians were instinctively right. But the trouble is that many of them politicize the faith. They just supported him gung-ho without reservation. And that's very dangerous. In other words, if you take the two greatest errors, Christians have made over freedom, in history, one was to support the hierarchical view of political structures, the Roman way. But the other, and evangelicals have fallen for this, is to become the religion that supports a culture under stress. So, I'm Irish, If you take the north of Ireland, that's been the problem in Ulster. It was the problem in South Africa that grew into apartheid. And of course, we're paying for it with spades as the problem in the South, when religion, the Christian faith, was made to support slavery and racism. So those are the two great curses. So Christians should have said, Yes, Mr. President, I like your policy, I support x, y, and z. But watch your language. And watch your humility.
WS: Yeah, yeah. In some ways, and I don't remember you mentioning Jackie Elul, specifically in your book, but I he kept coming to mind over and over again, as I read your book—
OG: Hero of mine.
WS: But... He is a hero of yours?
WS: Well, and maybe I just missed it. Maybe you didn't mention too much. But you know, Jackie Lewis talks about this idea. If I'm getting it right, if he's a hero of yours, you're gonna be able to fact check me on this. The political illusion, the idea that all problems are political problems, therefore, all solutions are political solutions that we should. And in some ways, the Christians have forgotten that that is an illusion, that that's not the truth that we have, we have opted for the political solution, and abandoned dealing with the root causes, which are these problems that you've already identified. An understanding of what real truth is, a confidence and a faith in the efficacy of God's Word and the the meta narrative of God's story and the sweep of history is that, does that—
OG: No, I agree with you totally. You know, the radical saying, the issue is not the issue. In other words, they create issues all the time, but the real issue is the political revolution they're going for underneath. And so politics is being used, and we're being used if we go along with it. So I think the two extremes for Christians are one to politicize everything. That's deadly lethal to the church, and we're paying for that. The other extreme has been to privatize it. And you know, there are pastors, well known pastors, who've attacked religious freedom. We should be the champions of a biblically grounded, biblically balanced view of freedom.
OG: And that's what we got to do today.
WS: Well, this idea of privatized privatization is interesting to me, because you know it, because I know, I know your some of your background, and you know, your evangelical background. And it's a, I've heard it said this way that our relationship with Jesus is personal, but it's not private. It is a relationship that that is specific, in particular to me, but that it's a relationship that has implications for all areas of life, and all of my relationships in life as well. And so often, even evangelicals have adopted this, the idea of radical privatization in our spiritual lives, that we were too willing to sort of segregate our faith in Jesus, for example, from our political posture or our rhetorical posture in the public square. Is that kind of what you're getting at?
OG: Absolutely. And I think I call it the scandal of the American church. If you look at the Western world at the moment, it's in a crisis as a whole. But America is the one place where Christians are a huge majority. So you take our friends, the Jews. Two percent of America, but they punch above their weight.
OG: Intellectually, financially, culturally, we're a majority. And we're called to be salt and light, symbols of engagement and penetration. And we're not. And for various, you know, some old fashioned pietests, warm hearts, empty heads. Some are reacting against the politicization. And the politicization is wrong. But they've just gone to the other extreme. And so this is the time for evangelicals to rediscover a constructive view of engagement in society as a whole, including politics.
WS: Well, Os, we again, let me just stipulate for the record, we can't unpack every idea in this book, but I did, at some point want to kind of land this plane, land our conversation around this idea. You mentioned, Leotard, the French philosopher, who's kind of one of the fathers of post modernism. And he famously said that a definition of post modernism kind of, I think he said it was, simplified to the extreme, post modernism is incredulity towards the meta narrative. In other words, this idea that there that there is no big overarching story to history, that everything is devolves, to me. It's all about me, my personal story. Given that and, and even stipulating, for the record that I might not have represented him precisely accurately. What's the great meta narrative here? What is the story that you want Americans and American evangelicals in particular, to recover? Is it that Exodus story?
OG: As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, the bookends of history are authoritarianism, all order, no freedom, and anarchy, all freedom, no order. And God's way from Abraham, Moses Sinai, through to our Lord Himself, is ordered freedom. And it is the deepest, richest, most balanced and wonderful view of freedom in all human history. And I would argue that we should be the defenders and champions of that in America, certainly. The land of the free is going off the rails. But not only in America, for the future of humanity. Because with the crisis of the West, and the emergence of totalitarian China, and then the near arrival of singularity and ultraintelligence, we're in an incredible moment for humanity. And I would argue, we've got to be in the forefront because we have the best news ever. Freedom, human dignity, truth, justice. You go on down the line. Words, as we've been talking. We have the key to it all. And here we are confused, and as you know only too well, scandal-ridden. This is tragedy that we're in such a mess. We need restoration, revival to be the witnesses to the greatness of the good news that we should be.
WS: Well, given all that, are you hopeful that it's going to happen?
OG: Well, I don't, freedom means the one thing I don't know is what's going to happen tomorrow. So revival, my view of revival and yours too, Warren, in the Lord's hands. It's an awakening. This is not something a three week evangelistic campaign, or some simple resurgence of religion. No, we're talking about an out... My great grandfather at the age of 23 was the lead revival in the Irish revival, lead preacher. And we have newspaper accounts of his speaking to crowds of 25 or 30,000. And the Spirit would fall. And in the north of, Ireland wasn't divided in those days. But in the north of Ireland, there was one crime in the year following the revival.
OG: 1850. Revivals... But it's a thing that the Spirit does. And we need that desperately.
WS: Os, one of the things that I've observed about you and correct me if I'm wrong, is that you've been enormously prolific over the last five or six or seven years. that that you've, you've been prolific your entire career, you've written a lot, you've spoken a lot. But you've had a couple of, I would say, four or five fairly significant books in the last decade. First of all, do I have just the facts of that correct? And number two, what's motivating that? Is it age? Is it a sense that you're that you've got some things to say before you leave? Or what's going on here?
OG: Well, I hope some of my early books were significant, too.
WS: Well, absolutely, yeah, I should stipulate for the record that they were.
OG: But I've got three on American freedom, which has spoken, I think this one most of all, to the heart of the present crisis, which is the crisis of the church, too. So there's a sense of things coming together in a deep way. But I have to say, Warren, I'm not all that much listened to. You know, I'm a non American, I'm a foreigner. I'm not really listened to except by a small cadre of certain thoughtful evangelicals.
WS: Well, I appreciate you. I mean, I appreciate the modesty in that statement. And also accept that, yeah, well, I mean, okay, I'll stipulate that for the record, because you know, you can clearly you're not on the, you know, you're not on CBS News every night at 630. So you don't have that kind of an audience. But I would also respectfully submit that your audience is in some ways, like Milton's: fit though few. That—
OG: Oh, I like that,
WS: While you know, the while maybe it's few, I think, you know, you mentioned the Jews being only 2 percent of the population but punching above their weight in terms of cultural conversations. In my view, you punch above your weight in terms of your impact on evangelicalism. Do you not see that about your work?
OG: I don't see it. I try and be faithful. And I say to my wife, I'm disappointed in this, disappointed in that. But, you know, we often compare the 30s. What must it have been like? Now, we don't face a Hitler. But we face a compromise in the Christian church that's just as bad as the Deutscher Christians in the 30s. And with certain friends, I'm not certainly not alone by any means, you know, there are 7000 who haven't bowed the knee to Baal, including you, you know. But all of us, I want to say, before history want to be faithful, though there are people in our time who thought more deeply and stood more courageously, you know, than the general public is.
OG: Because I mean, this is, I can hardly describe how profoundly important I think the time is, and very few people seem to sense that.
WS: Yeah, yeah. Well, and maybe you just answered my next question. But um, as we've identified, you've written many books over the years, some of your early books have been were very significant. But you've also written a lot lately. Is there anything that you've learned new, is there anything that, you know, was hiding in plain sight that you just ignored for 30 or 40 or 50 years that now seems fresh and relevant in ways that maybe it wasn't before?
OG: Not intellectually. In other words, if you look at my life, apologetically, I owe a huge amount to Francis Schaffer opening the doors, showing how a Reformed understanding you could think christianly about anything and everything. I owe all that to him. But Schaefer was all history of ideas. I owed my understanding of culture to Peter Berger. And a whole different dimension, not opposed, not alternatives, but put them together. And so I'm, you know, people are now worried about the church. But my book, The Grave Digger File, had pretty well everything that people are saying today, way back in the early 80s, and so on. But what I'm what I know I missed today is a marriage of that Reformed understanding of the whole of life with the cultural analysis. But the third thing, the spiritual power. You know, we talk about John Calvin as the theologian of the Holy Spirit. But in my experience, it's people like Randy Clark, you know, in the charismatic movement, who really have that power of the Holy Spirit in a living reality. And that's what I hunger for. Many of my close friends have married the two well. In my own experience, I haven't yet but it's that supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. I know the Lord well, but the full supernatural power of the Holy Spirit married to the biblical understanding and the cultural understanding. That that's the part that I'm hungry for at this stage of my life.
WS: That brings to a close my conversation with Os Guinness. His new book is “The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom.” We had this conversation at the annual meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters in Ft. Worth, Texas.
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