Guinness, Os. Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. 231 pp.
Courage. It’s mentioned well over forty times in the Bible from the Pentateuch through the Prophets and into the ministry of Jesus Christ and his apostles. It’s the call to fear someone, namely the triune God of the Bible, more than any other person, place, thing, or circumstance that comes into life so that one’s life may be lived in obedience to God in the midst of every situation of life, even the most difficult ones. Yet, so often in our aggressively pluralistic American society, cowardice seems to be the modus operandi of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization, Os Guinness writes to Western Christians “to address the challenges we face and the subjective side that is our response to these challenges…against all the odds and at any cost” in order that Christians may respond to Western culture with “no fear” (33). In the first six chapters, Guinness expounds upon many of the challenges the western church must confront in an attempt to be faithful to King Jesus in the present context: secularism and the severing of the Judeo-Christian root of culture, modernity, spiritual war, atheism, and generationalism (a modified version of what C.S. Lewis, in Surprised by Joy, calls “chronological snobbery”). In the final chapter, Guinness get practical by drawing the reader’s attention to various tools that are needed for Christians to fight in the culture wars with full courage.
Impossible People warrants mixed reviews. On the positive side, Guinness does a wonderful job articulating the present status of western society. His extensive knowledge of philosophy, history, and theology—and their blend—comes through on every page of the book with countless numbers of quotes that together provide an excellent cultural analysis of the West. Negatively, the book spends too much time on cultural analysis and too little time in the Bible. For example, the discussion on spiritual war mentioned the spiritual battle of Jesus’ temptation from Luke 4 in a couple of sentences but altogether omitted key biblical texts on spiritual war in the Christian life such as Ephesians 3:10, Ephesians 6:12, Colossians 1:16, and Colossians 2:15. Furthermore, most chapters reserved a few paragraphs to broadly connect the gospel to courageous action in response to the many cultural obstacles while cultural analysis often received multiple pages. Consequently, the call to courage and how to apply the gospel to the culture with courage feels secondary to what seems like a more primary purpose of rightly understanding the times.
Furthermore, Guinness boldly proclaims, “It is modernity in this fuller, wider sense, not just modernism, that represents the greatest the challenge the church has ever faced” because “modernity has done more damage to the church than all the persecutors of the church and all the heretics combined” (63-64). Guinness gives three examples of the effects of modernity. First, modernity “tends to undermine all forms of authority other than its own and replace them with the sense that all responses are merely a matter of preference” (66). Second, modernity tends to “shift religion from a position of integration to fragmentation” (75). Third, modernity represents a “general shift in consciousness from the supernatural to the secular” (77). While Guinness’s analysis is certainly true regarding the tenants of modernity, what seems to be missed is the fact that modernity is not modern. Rather, all of the effects of modernism were present during the Fall in Genesis 3. Was it not Satan who first undermined the absolute authority of God when he lisped, “Did God actually say?” Was it not Satan who first attempted to fragment religion in human life when he tempted Eve to think religion should not apply to the categories of human delights and food? Was it not part of Satan’s plan to get Eve to reject the supernatural command of God in order to serve the natural lusts of the flesh? While modernity certainly carries danger, the church must remember that modernity is as old as the Fall, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that gospel of Jesus Christ speaks directly to this matter.
Perhaps the most helpful aspect of Impossible People lies in the fact that Jesus Christ is portrayed as the only hope of the church in any culture. “Pilate, Herod, Tiberius, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, the president of the United States, the president of the European Union, the prime minister of Russia and the party secretary of the People’s Republic of China, all these may wield what to most of us is unimaginable power. But in the light of the victory of Jesus on the cross, their power is now hollow, and they are no more than paper tigers in relation to the real power behind the universe. For Jesus has unmasked and disarmed the power that was once the heart of the power behind their power, and he is victorious over all the cosmic forces of darkness too” (204). Christians can live with courage because Christ is Lord over all.
Impossible People does not address courage as much as it does culture, perhaps contrary to the book’s subtitle. However, Guinness’s book is a culturally astute work that would benefit pastors, elders, lay-leaders, and those with a moderate awareness of western culture sharpen their understanding of the times so that the present culture may be evaluated in light of the biblical storyline. May impossible Christians, those who are undeterred from their Christian faith in the midst of a secular, modern culture, be raised up as a result of this book.
A review copy of the book was provided by InterVarsity Press in exchange for an honest review.
Jon Canler, Outreach Coordinator at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church