Book Review: Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization

Impossible People:
Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization
Os Guinness
IVP, 2016

The theme of this book is the necessity for Christian courage today in the struggle for Western civilisation. The title Impossible People comes from a term used of the reforming 11th-century Benedictine monk Peter Damian, who courageously stood for truth, integrity and the moral standards of the Christian faith at a time in the church was compromised by a culture of corruption among church leaders. Many were involved in immorality, homosexual practice and paedophilia. Simony was rife. Damien was known as incorruptible, unbribable and uncompromising in his opposition. The authorities described him as ‘that impossible monk!’.

Guinness believes that Christians today have to become like Peter Damian, for we have become too complacent and compromised by our culture. He sees this moment as a crisis, a showdown, for the church, particularly the Western church and also for Western culture. What is at stake is the victory or defeat of the long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths, the two defining faiths of the West. The attack comes from what he calls progressive secularism. This is the push to marginalise or exclude Christianity from the public square of community debate, politics, public policy and legislation. The Christian faith is the particular target because of a resentment of perceived past power over culture, public morals and values.

Guiness describes a number of other forces that are currently arrayed against Christianity. First, nihilism—the loss of a sense of ultimate meaning which in turn leads to a loss of hope and then despair. Contemporary nihilism is partly a product of postmodern relativism about truth and morality. This could lead to a social degeneration where the West collapses from within. The second force is the very opposite of the first—a new secular optimism. This is driven by an over-confidence in our increasing technological mastery and our subsequent ability to create a new world and a new humanity—a world of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, guided evolution and genetic manipulation. The third of the other threats is the re-emergence of cultural Marxism. Its theory of power as oppression calls for the exercise of power to be resisted and overturned. On this theory, cultural elites hold power and control the masses, not only economically, but culturally. They determine morality, social norms and values. As part of this cultural elite, the church is forcing a certain view of morality and truth on society, so its cultural power must be broken and overturned. The question of power is a recurring theme of this book and Guinness evokes Nietzsche‘s dictum that man’s impetus is ‘the will to power’. This view of power is a key reality in this struggle and only God, through the gospel, can redeem and transform it. Fundamentalist Islam is the fourth force he mentions.

Guiness avows that if these anti-Christian forces prevail, they will return the West to the philosophy, ethics and lifestyle of the first century pagan world that Christianity was born into, and which it originally transformed to become the influential force in developing Western civilisation. ‘We are not simply the guardians of some of the best of the past’, he writes, ‘but pioneers whose task is to stand against the world for the future of the world.’ Guiness poses three great questions, the answers to which he claims will decisively shape the future of the world in the next generation. These are: 1. Will Islam modernise peacefully in the end? 2. What faith or ideology will replace Marxism in China? and 3. Will the Western world recover or completely sever its Christian roots?

The third question is Guiness’s main concern. In the final chapter he invokes Churchill’s WWII appeal to the US to abandon its isolationism and provide the resources England desperately needed to defeat Hitler: ‘Give us the tools to finish the job’, said Churchill. At that time, the US did give the tools, and the Nazis were defeated. The tools Guiness appeals for today’s fight are, first, an understanding that power is a key issue behind many of the forces at play and a lively sense that unless we renew our personal knowledge and experience of God’s spiritual power, we will be ineffective in this struggle no matter how courageous we are. Paul teaches that the gospel ‘is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe’ (Rom 1:7). Second, we need to be alive to the ancestry of the ideas around us. To counter the forces ranged against us we need to understand the ideas that generate them, so that we can confront those presuppositions lying behind the forces producing particular social effects. Third, we need probing cultural analysis. We need the ability not simply to describe and critique the culture we are living in, but also to gauge its impact on us, on our thinking and behaviour. Finally, Guinness suggests that ‘what we need above all in the church today is for each Christian to have a profound personal knowledge and experience of God himself and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures as his authoritative Word. No one and nothing can replace those essentials.’ This is a challenging book and will make a great resource for a small group discussion series. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and a closing prayer.
Peter Corney, Vic.