The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times
by Os Guinness
Reading Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (2014, InterVarsity Press), by author and social critic Os Guinness, is like eating a chili pepper-laced chocolate bar. There is nothing distinctive about the appearance of a peppery chocolate bar, but when you bite into one, your mouth fills with deep, rich chocolate flavor followed quickly by the spicy-hot taste of chili peppers. If you are not expecting it, the heat can be quite a surprise, but it is also very delicious. Reading Renaissance is like that; it is a full-bodied and satisfying experience which offers more within its pages than the reader expects. Written to help Christians decipher what is happening in the church in the present age, Guinness has filled Renaissance with encouragement, praise, rebuke, wise insight, historically significant perspectives and forward-thinking ideas. Composed in the well-reasoned and erudite style that is the hallmark of Os Guinness’ writing, Renaissance is a thought-provoking book, and it has enough fire in it to keep the reader aware that this book is meant not only to comfort but also to challenge and prod today’s Christians.
A close look at the book’s title, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, points the way to understanding the intent of Guinness’ short volume. The first definition of the word renaissance is rebirth or revival. Additionally, the word Renaissance refers to the time-period in Europe between the late 14th and 17th centuries. This era, Guinness reminds us, saw a renewed interest in classical learning, art, architecture, music and literature. It was a creative and productive time full of human flourishing, Guinness writes, but it also included terrible failures and wide-spread corruption in the church and government.
Guinness sees a parallel between the time of the Renaissance in Europe and what Guinness calls “advanced modernity” in the West today. Guinness asks, “Has modernity done what no enemy or persecutor succeeded in doing and reduced the authority of the Scripture to a shifting weather vane and the church to babbling impotence?…Can the Christian church in the advanced modern world be renewed and restored even now and be sufficiently changed to have a hope of again changing the world through the power of the gospel?” The answer, says Guinness, can be expressed this way: “Such is the truth and power of the gospel that the church can be revived, reformed and restored to be a renewing power in the world again.”
Guinness remains positive in his outlook for the future of Christianity in the West, but he is not blindly optimistic. In Renaissance, Guinness puts forward an overview of the church and the culture of the West so that we might “consider the extraordinary moment in which we live, and the full challenge it represents.”
One way Guinness helps the reader to navigate through the “evident impotence and disarray of the Jewish and Christian ideas and institutions that once inspired and shaped Western civilization,” is to recall St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and his famous book, The City of God. The City of God was written by Augustine at the end of the Western Roman Empire as the barbarians were invading Rome. This was only a generation after Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Empire. Because of the deteriorating conditions in society, there came a tremendous backlash from pagans who proclaimed the declining power of Rome was a result of Romans turning to the Christian faith. Augustine spent years writing The City of God, answering pagan charges against the faith. At the same time, Guinness writes, “[Hippo] was also challenging the Christians of his day to distinguish their citizenship in the City of God [the Christian life] from their citizenship in the City of Man [the secular life]…” Guinness shows in Renaissance that the challenges that Augustine faced in his time are remarkably similar to those of our time.
Guinness also suggests in Renaissance that history has three paradoxical lessons that Christians can learn from today. The first is “Times of the greatest success often carry the seeds of the greatest failure.” Guinness laments over the evils that were perpetrated by the church during a time when the Western world was considered most consistently Christian. This was, writes Guinness, the period when the City of God and the City of Man were not in tension with each other, but joined together in the Holy Roman Empire.” [There] was no cultural tension and no prophetic critique at the very moment it was most needed.”
The second lesson to be learned from historical paradox is that “The darkest hour is truly just before dawn. This is of course the story and lesson of every revival,” Guinness says. “At the heart of our faith is the glory of the resurrection of Jesus. The same God who brought the universe into being out of nothing and “calls into being that which does not exist,” (Romans 4:17), is that God who gives life to the dead and makes the dry bones live… With the glory of the resurrection at the center of our faith, and a long story of the church’s decline and renewal behind us, it is no cliché but a conviction that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.”
The third historical paradox is “The church always goes forward best by going back first.” Guinness explains: “This principle is highly unfashionable and it certainly sounds counterintuitive. It courts the danger of being dismissed as ‘reactionary’ and ‘backward looking,’ or worse, that it is ‘not on the right side of history,’… Such criticisms are fashionable and hard to shake off, but they miss the genius of the Christian way.” The genius of the Christian way is neither a golden Christian age nor an ancient Apostolic era, relates Guinness, but Jesus. “The only perfect model and the sole decisive standard is Jesus himself — his character, his teaching, his commands and his endorsement of the authority of the scriptures to his followers.”
Guinness has packed a lot of outstanding information into a very short book – the body of the work is only 150 pages long. He also is not afraid to criticize the church and does not spare any tribe from his sharp assessment, so be ready to taste some chili peppers in your chocolate bar.
One of the extra benefits of this book is that each of the six chapter ends with a prayer and questions. This makes Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Time by Os Guinness an excellent choice for a book club or small group gathering.