This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
For decades now Os Guinness has been on the front lines as an evangelical author, speaker, and also as social analyst. He holds the Doctor of Philosophy degree in social sciences from Oxford University. He’s also a founder of the Trinity Forum Society and has served as a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies and as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. He’s author or editor of more than 30 books, including A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future that was a topic of a previous Thinking in Public conversation. His most recent book is Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. I’m very thankful today to have in the studio Os Guinness.
Os, welcome to Thinking in Public.
MOHLER: Os, it’s an honor to have you in the studio today. Your story is really one of the most interesting stories of the 20th and 21st centuries amongst evangelical Christians. But it doesn’t begin where many people might expect, it actually begins in China. How did that happen?
GUINNESS: Well, my parents were medical missionaries and my grandparents before them. My grandfather was educated at Cambridge and went out and founded one of the first Western hospitals and actually treated some the Royal family in the Forbidden City and knew that generation. And my then parents were both born there. They got married just as war was breaking out with Japan. So my two brothers and I were born in that terrible time where we had the Japanese army on one side, and they killed 17 million in the invasion. We had the communist troops above us and the Nationalist troops on the third side. And we were caught at one stage in a terrible famine in which 5 million died in three months, including sadly my two brothers. And then we moved to Nanking, as it was then, which had experienced the terrible Rape of Nanking earlier. I remember—from 5 to 10 we lived there—and I remember the triumph of Mao Tse-tung and the beginning of the Reign of Terror.
MOHLER: Now you say you remember it. You were born in 1941, so when these events were taking place, you are a fairly young child.
GUINNESS: I don’t remember the famine at all.
MOHLER: I have a feeling you were a pretty observant child. But you were born in one sense into one of the most cataclysmic ideological conflicts of the 20th century. Did the people who were living there at the time understand how indeed cataclysmic the times were?
GUINNESS: I think so, yes. And of course China because of its invasion by European powers for more than 150 years was in a terrible state. So one was terribly aware the Japanese invaders, earlier it had been Europeans. It was communist on the edge of victory. One definitely had a keen sense. But my dad was absolutely fearless, and his trust in the Lord and his own personal daredevil fearlessness almost gave me—I didn’t grow up with any sense of fear at all.
MOHLER: Now during that very same time, you were observing the Communist Revolution and what followed in terms of all the ideological purges, eventually the cultural revolution and the rest. How did you observe that as the son of Christian missionaries in China, observing all that would take place in terms of one of the most tumultuous decades not only in Chinese history but world history?
GUINNESS: But you tend to think anything you grow up into is just the normal. So I presumed that this is what life was like: uncertain, death all around, incredible newspaper headlines, dramatic things almost daily. I just presumed all of life was like that. I went back at the age of 10 to England and it was a very bleak, post-World War II world of rationing and belt-tightening and all that sort of thing. It wasn’t a very pleasant world either.
MOHLER: Right, they refer to Britain during those years as austerity Britain.
GUINNESS: Very much so.
MOHLER: And many of those memories continue to haunt Britons today. So even conversations about things like Brexit and British identity, economics, that always seems to be very much in the background. That generation seems to have outsized influence on British politics today.
GUINNESS: When I went to school we had people like General Montgomery visiting us. And I, as I told you earlier, met Churchill and many times heard him on the radio. And he for me was my first great leader. And so for me that’s the gold standard just as when I was a student later and I had become a Christian I had Martin Lloyd Jones and John Stott as the two Sunday preachers. And I presumed all preaching was like theirs and all political leadership was like Churchill’s. And I’ve since been rather disabused of that notion.
MOHLER: Yes, but you did start out with the gold standard. It’s not as if somehow that’s unique to Britain or to your generation. Churchill still looms large, I would argue, over the entire political landscape. In terms of your intellectual development, you did go back to Britain when you were about 10. What was your education like thereafter?
GUINNESS: Well I went to one of the minor public schools. And in those days it was just natural for you to have the classics. I can remember my headmaster twirling his gown with his mortarboard talking about Pericles and Cicero as if he knew them. And he knew Churchill. And that was the sort of world I was brought up in. I didn’t realize that for many people something like the classics and Greek and Roman history was completely Martian in being so alien. So I’m very grateful. But that was in my generation quite normal.
MOHLER: I simply have to interject here that when you speak of a public school, in the British context it’s exactly the opposite of what it means here.
GUINNESS: But of course originally the very wealthy educated their kids at home with a private tutor. So the public schools were private schools, but they were for people wider than just the aristocracy.
MOHLER: Now in terms of education and the classics, it’s interesting to note that now here in the 21st century, especially among cultural conservatives, there’s a renaissance of interest in that kind of classical education. It’s one of the fastest-growing areas in terms of Christian education.
GUINNESS: When we founded the Trinity Forum as a parallel to the Aspen Institute, the idea was that we have this 3000 year-old great conversation, including all the great classics, and the Christian voice, the gospel voice, is the strongest voice in it all. There are others like Machiavelli and various other rogues like that, but the strongest voice throughout 3000 years is the church.
MOHLER: Speaking of the Trinity Institute, which we can say more later, I have always appreciated the quality of the products, the publications, and the content that it has represented. And we’re in a battle of ideas, and those ideas have to be well presented as well as well argued.
GUINNESS: I agree. Actually our first chairman, Albert Donald, the watchword was excellence in everything.
MOHLER: As a British schoolboy, then, you were trained in the classics. And what was next was University.
GUINNESS: But I actually came to faith, because my parents were back in China under house arrest, they were allowed to send me home. And so I didn’t really have their influence at all in my 10 through teenage years. So I came to faith partly through a friend and partly through really a 18 month, 2 year conversation reading people like Nietzsche and Sartre and my own hero then on the atheist side was Albert Camus, and on the other side people like Pascal and Dostoyevsky and G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. And it was my last year at school I was convinced. It wasn’t just a matter of heritage or something to do with family. This was true, and I came to faith. And I went to London University, but what actually was far more important was meeting Francis Schaeffer, whom you knew too. And I remember my first 3 weeks at L’Abri, this was after I graduated, most revolutionary 3 weeks of my life when day after day, night after night, I’d wander down the Swiss mountain roads suddenly realizing the gospel—you could think about anything in the light of this truth. And my mind was expanded. You know the old “blowing my mind”—it was almost literally almost true for me. Those 3 weeks were the most revolutionary 3 weeks of my life.
MOHLER: Just knowing something of your life story it was unclear to me as to whether you had any university study before your encounter with Schaeffer.
GUINNESS: I did. I studied philosophy and theology, but just rolled through it. It didn’t particularly shape me in any decisive way.
MOHLER: How did you come to have the encounter with Schaeffer?
GUINNESS: I met his son-in-law, Randall McCoy, who he said, come and meet this man. Here was this little man with a goatee and Swiss kickers and so on, writing on a blackboard with lines of despair, all sorts of things I’d never come across in philosophy. But is was going out there and seeing the coherence of it. It was literally life-shaping for me. So I gave up what I was doing, went back to L’Abri, and I was there 5 years with him; 3 of those years actually live with Francis and Edith.
MOHLER: I never did have that experience, but about 20 years later it was Schaeffer’s writings first that had great impact on the me, meeting him later, but it was his writings first. And you did a reflection 25 years after Dr. Schaeffer’s death, and one of the things you note is that what his unique contribution in retrospect really should be understood to be was how he demonstrated the relevance of Christianity for every dimension of life. Where, as you said, you heard great preaching, and you’d even received very solid theology, but it hadn’t engaged the culture.
GUINNESS: Even say someone who became a real friend later like John Stott would admit his preaching was in a vacuum. And most British preaching those days was, it just didn’t relate to culture at all. And the freedom to think about anything and everything—I realized that Schaeffer was strongest of all in the history of ideas, if you put it technically. He was less good in terms of some of the other aspects of culture. So I went to Oxford to do my doctorate under, or rather on Peter Berger to try and fill out the history of ideas with an understanding of cultural analysis.
MOHLER: But I think that’s really the great contribution Francis Schaeffer made. And by the way, you movingly pay tribute to him as an evangelist, which really was the heart of the man.
GUINNESS: He was the best one-to-one evangelist/apologist that I’ve ever seen. He talked just as we’re talking, but after about 5 minutes you could see, he said in essence, not these words, “Tell me a story.” But he’d get into someone’s life and you’d see literally his eyes welling with tears out of sheer sympathy with all that he was hearing in their story. And I think to many people that’s his greatest—he won thousands of people to faith. So did Edith Schaeffer. But also he was the door-opener for evangelicals stuck really in a world of narrow pietism. He opened the door to think freely. And many of the people who criticize him now, he opened the door for them and they walked through it. And they owe that to him.
MOHLER: You make that point in that essay years ago, and I think that’s very helpful and a bit humbling just thinking about the passage of time now, that even some that became Francis Schaeffer’s most vehement critics actually learned how to do what they do by watching Francis Schaeffer.
GUINNESS. Exactly. And you have people like, say, Mark Noll who readily say that. He’s much more generous and objective in his criticism. But you had some others, particularly in some of the Christian colleges, who—Schaeffer was not an academic scholar. I’m not. And because of that they could easily find faults in his use of Kierkegaard or Karl Barth or whatever, and then just completely dismiss him, not seeing his strengths.
MOHLER: So 40 years ago, How Should We Then Live? was published. And I read it as a teenager, and I did not have any critical apparatus to whereby to make evaluations. But I’d been completely enraptured by Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” series on the BBC which had been broadcast here in the United States. I was in my own apologetic crisis looking for a life ring. And Schaeffer’s history of ideas apologetic was exactly what I needed at the time. And the reason I bring this up now is because 40 years later and my own work in theology, culture, and apologetics on the other side, I can certainly see some of the criticisms made of Francis Schaeffer in terms of particulars. I think my favorite actual critique of that book is that it’s a history of 500 years of Western civilization without a footnote, which says something in itself. But the amazing thing is that the longer the distance grows, the more I believe his generalizations were basically correct.
GUINNESS: He had an incredible intuitive grasp. To be honest, when I lived him I rarely saw him read a book. He read the Bible; I always saw that. But I rarely saw him read a book. He read magazines voraciously and of course he followed all the news and all that was going on. He had an incredible intuitive grasp for how to go for the nub of an issue, and in some ways that is what he was good at. So as you say, the generalizations stand up well, although on the critical details, no.
MOHLER: Well that’s why others had to come along thereafter, and I would include you amongst those, who helped to give the intellectual and academic apparatus, not only to the history of ideas, but to the sociology of knowledge. It’s just good to know one of the things we can make clear is our indebtedness, a very sincere, humble indebtedness to those who came before us, but still understanding that our calling is to press on forward.
GUINNESS: Absolutely. I owe the world to Francis Schaeffer. I could give you a thumbnail criticism of him, but I owe the world to him. So I always being and end with incredible gratitude.
MOHLER: Now in terms of my reading, and I am a man of books—by the way, Clark Pinnock years ago, the late Clark Pinnock, told me that when he went to L’Abri out of a sense of desperation, he was absolutely shocked that he didn’t find a library but a stack of magazines. And yet he said something very interesting, he said the interesting thing was that Schaeffer was the first person he saw who could pick up something like TIME magazine and immediately go to the bigger story, immediately go to the worldview analysis. And as Pinnock said, he’d never seen anyone do that. And once you’d seen it done, it became a mode of connecting dots the rest of one’s life.
GUINNESS: That’s what I meant; he had the ability to go to the nub of the matter.
MOHLER: Now I remember first encountering your name when as a high school student I read The Dust of Death, which by the way is a great title that still stands up that long after. But it was an indictment of the 1960’s. And the longer I live, even in just the reading I was doing last night, the more I’m convinced that we’re still stuck in a conversation that began in the 1960’s and the great intellectual shifts during that time. How did you come to write that book? Why the title, and how do you think it stands up over time?
GUINNESS: Well I was a child of the 60’s and had been around many of the European campuses. I went to India and studied under a guru to see why so many Westerners were going to the East. In ’68, which was a very crucial year, I spent six weeks in this country going from the East Coast to the West Coast, Berkley, I met Mario Savio that led the Free Speech Movement. And so I began to have a good idea of the significance of the ‘60s. But when I wrote you had two books that were the gospel of the times. One was Theodore Roszack, The Making of a Counter Culture, and the other was Charles Reich, The Greening of America. And both of them thought the counter culture would succeed. Now from a Christian vantage point you realized it wasn’t founded and so would not succeed. So my book was probably the first realistic critique of the counter culture. But looking back 40 or so years later, drugs, sex, and rock and roll—I covered all that. But I never saw the full seeds of what became postmodern social constructionism and you can think of all, say, the transgender revolution, all of that was born in the 60s. But the seeds, the very radical seeds, as you say, we’re reaping the harvest now. Many of us then didn’t see how radical some of those seeds were.
MOHLER: So I arrived at university, at college, in the late 1970s and I became a part of an honors program on our college that meant we participated in seminars in which there was a liberal professor and a conservative professor and they each had a reading list, and it was actually a brilliant educational model. But the liberal professor assigned us The Greening of America as the text that even then was to point to the future. And what is interesting in retrospect is that by the 1980s, I was convinced that Charles Reich was completely off-base, that the counterculture was dead and that it’d been a dead-end street. Now more recently, I’ve begun to think that something different happened, and that was that the counterculture transformed itself into a culture largely through the means of the academic world in the United States.
GUINNESS: Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions,” that’s certainly true. But the way I would argue now looking back, up to the ‘50’s what we now call conservatism was liberalism with a capital “L.” In other words America was a liberal project to be celebrated. It had problems: slavery, etc., but it was to be celebrated by and large. And then you had the Civil Rights Movement, which was still out of a Christian and, as Martin Luther King said, a promissory note from the Declaration and so on. But then the Civil Rights Movement, leading to the feminist movement, leading to the antiwar movement—then in America suddenly you had this lurch from the capital “L” liberalism to what we now call left liberalism, repudiating the past and seeing America as racist, militarist, chauvinist, sexist and so on. And what we’re reaping now, I would argue, the culture war now at its deepest roots is actually a clash between 1776, what was the American Revolution, and 1789 and heirs of the French Revolution. Whether you look at political correctness or the sexual revolution, it goes all back to that. But as you say it started in the ‘60s. ‘68 was probably the great turning point year.
MOHLER: On both sides of the Atlantic. I think most Americans are unaware of just how devastating 1968 was in Europe, especially in places like Paris and in the French universities. And of course here in the United States, 1968 was an absolutely seminal year. I was just reminded reading last night that in 1968 with the Weather Underground and other groups, there were bombings every single week in the United States.
GUINNESS. Yes, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the so-called police riots, the Chicago convention. It was a dramatic year.
MOHLER: That’s right. So let me ask you about this. Looking back at the Dust of Death and that era, I see it in retrospect a bit differently now. And here’s something that I’m thinking about a very great deal. If you look back at the radicals 1960s, they were arguing that the American experiment had failed and that something new had to take its place. The classical liberals you’re talking about said no, the American experience hasn’t failed, it just has not been completed. And what frightens me in once sense today, what concerns me very much is that when I hear the headlines coming from America’s colleges and universities now, it appears that those students are clearly saying, whether they are claiming identity politics or intersectionality, that the American experiment has failed. And they’re even shocking their professors who were the children of the ‘60s.
GUINNESS: I think you’re absolutely right. And the reversal is just stunning in many years. Take political correctness and the stifling, say, of free-speech. The 1960s radicals would have been horrified at that. I was at Berkley a couple months ago, and the difference in Berkley today and Berkley of Mario Savio is extraordinary.
MOHLER: Yes, and I think even some of the children of 60s now recognize that because they’re scared of their own students. You take a figure like Laura Kipnis at Northwestern in terms of recent headline news stories, here you have someone who is celebrated as a woman of the left, but she’s not left enough for many of the student that she faces in the classroom today.
GUINNESS: That’s right.
MOHLER: Now after The Dust of Death you went on and, not only in terms of your work at the University of London, you went on and did a D.Phil. at Oxford University. Was it in in sociology or the sociology of knowledge? I know that the concern of your research was the great sociologist Peter Berger.
GUINNESS: Yes it was in sociology. And I realized I covered the history of ideas and had been introduced to that by Francis Schaeffer, but I needed the cultural analysis to go with it to fold it out. When I wrote The Dust of Death I only had an undergraduate degree and I didn’t academic apparatus. And I realized I needed to.
MOHLER: I think if I speak about my own intellectual architecture, Peter Berger has to be one of the four or five most important figures. I didn’t do a doctoral dissertation with him as the subject, but I’ve had an ongoing intellectual conversation with Peter Berger from the very beginning of my adult life. One of the interesting things that I have observed from Dr. Berger, with whom I had the honor of doing one of these Thinking of Public conversations, was that he has lived long enough and productively enough and brilliantly enough that he has revised some of his own theories of secularization two and three times. A very intellectually honest man.
GUINNESS: To be honest, I thought Berger was wrong in the first place. He had bought into the secularization thesis. I was even then before he renounced it much closer to David Martin. David Martin who was one of my examiners—and he’s also a great sociologist, but an Anglican minister—and he was the one who after hundred years blew the whistle on the secularization theory and showed it was factually wrong and philosophically biased and threw it out.
MOHLER: David Martin also has one of the best lines that I know of anyone looking at the United States. He spoke about American exceptionalism in one of his books writing about of these very issues and he pointed out that American pollsters and researchers—this would be back in the 1980’s—they continue to claim American exceptionalism but they over claim theology. He said the pollster in the United States hears a man hit his foot on his lawnmower and use the Lord’s name in vain and says, “Ah! More evidence of belief!” That was actually insightful.
GUINNESS: [laughter] Both David and Peter have a great sense of humor. If you know Peter, he tells jokes every five minutes.
MOHLER: The thing that amazes me perhaps the most about Peter Berger is that he’s in his 10th decade of life and still doing credible intellectual work. This is latest work he did on pluralization by various cultures I think is really brilliant. It helps me to understand that what secularization actually became, what actually happened was radical pluralization, and that’s certainly what we’re witnessing today.
GUINNESS: That’s right.
MOHLER: He also demonstrates in this kind of third model of secularization that indeed that is a way that secularization happens by pluralization such that, theologically speaking, traditions get evacuated from within by simply the fact of pluralization creating what is just taken for granted by people in the pew as theological options.
GUINNESS: That’s right. People have lived through a consensus, they take it as self-evident, take it for granted, suddenly you’re in a world in which social scientists say everyone is now everywhere, you suddenly look over your shoulder about everything and you start to have doubts and uncertainties.
MOHLER: Absolutely. I came across—I followed your writings throughout the 70s and the 80s—but it was at the end of the 1980s that I was really intrigued with a project in which you were involved. It came out in terms of one book, I believe the title was America in Perspective undertaken by the think tank Oxford Analytica. And I think you were very responsible for the section of that book having to do with the future shape of religion in the United States.
GUINNESS: Well it was more of a commentary on the genius of religion in the US, which the Europeans didn’t know. And in the first draft of that book they ignored totally. And my friend is the managing director and the founder of Oxford Analytica, and I said this is crazy. I was then working with BBC and we did the first documentary on the rise of the religious right in Reagan’s election. And no American newspapers were covering it. I remember being in one event and a New York Times journalist was next to me who said, “What are you covering?” And I said we’re looking at the beginning of a religious right: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson—“No story there,” he said. And three months later they were doing full-page coverage trying to catch up.
MOHLER: I think it’s frankly a bit understandable because nothing similar to that was happening in Europe or even in the United Kingdom, nothing really similar to that was even happening in Canada right here in North America. This really was a situation that really marks the United States in terms of a kind of exceptionalism.
GUINNESS: Because of the First Amendment, as you know well. The disestablishment of religion meant that religion flourished, not despite disestablishment, because of it. It’s a matter of freedom of conscience, you know all that as a Baptist and so on. But the Europeans didn’t. In other words, most of the Europeans thinkers are tone deaf I think even now. I was at a fascinating Oxford Analytica thing a couple of weeks ago on global perspectives on Trump’s first hundred days. And again, the European perspective was the odd one out. The Chinese have come to terms with Donald Trump, the Russians, the Middle Easterners, in their different ways even when they disagree. Europeans though had a view of Trump and America very like the New York Times and they simply didn’t understand what was happening.
MOHLER: Well that gets back to what Berger would well understand in terms of the role of cosmopolitan elites. That is they are very self-referential and listen to one another and they assume that they are representative of their own cultures and nations, which it turns out they are not.
GUINNESS: That’s right.
MOHLER: Few people can look back on more than a half-century of sustained analysis both in terms of European and American cultures, but also Christian thought and Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s part of what makes a conversation with Os Guinness of such interest. But it’s not just that he has been intensely focused upon analyzing and watching American evangelicalism and the larger world picture. He has been incredibly thoughtful and generous in sharing those thoughts through his lectures and also, perhaps more importantly, through his books.
MOHLER: Now we’re talking about the United States, so somehow the story shifts from China to Britain to the United States. You have been very interested in the United States. You’ve actually devoted so much of your intellectual energy and your writing life to a very important analysis of the United States. How did that happen?
GUINNESS: Well take obviously things like the fact this is the world’s lead society, so its still enormously important. But on a faith level, this is the one country in the Western world, you take Poland seriously too, but the one country certainly in the Protestant world where you have a real chance of the church making a difference. I would argue even, say, right now the scandal of the American church is that we’re still a huge majority of this country, groups like say our Jewish friends are tiny. Groups like the LGBTQ people are tiny compared with us. And yet they’re culturally infinitely more influential than we are because we’re not the salt and light we should be. So to put it crudely, there’s everything to play for in this country.
MOHLER: Your point is very well taken, but a part of the distinction there is—evangelical Christians in particular, conservative Protestants in the United States—have tended to take the culture for granted. And cultural production is hard work. Cultural influence is exceedingly difficult, and it takes a long-term perspective, and much of this has just not fit the ethos of American evangelicalism.
GUINNESS: If you isolate the last century, I would say three quarters of the 20th century evangelicalism was pietistic and privatized. It wasn’t engaging. But then suddenly waking up, and I see 1973 as the wake-up year, they swung to the opposite extreme of politicizing things and trusting politics to do more than politics can do. It’s important, but as Richard Neuhaus used to say, the first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing. It’s downstream from the culture as you were suggesting. And I think there’s much more wisdom now, although there’s a huge amount of confusion and uncertainty and demoralization, which is sad, confidence in the gospel is not where it should be.
MOHLER: Yes, and understanding for those who would have confidence in the gospel of how the gospel applies to every dimension of life. So one of the criticisms made by outsiders, someone like a Reinhold Niebuhr, of American evangelicalism is that its pietism—its conversionism is what he would say—so what I would see is absolutely necessary to understanding Christianity, he nonetheless would say it leads to a preoccupation with evangelism and pietism and a disengagement from the culture. I would just have to say that mainline Protestantism of which he was very much a part is the key example of how to lose the faith while trying to win the culture.
GUINNESS: Well what he said is probably true of much of evangelicalism until the 70s. I remember knowing Carl Henry in his last years when he lived in D.C. his sorrow, I can’t express it too strongly, the way Christianity Today, the magazine he started, had retreated from Washington D.C. and being at the center of national life to Carol Stream and being somewhere out there in the suburbs rather than engaging nationally, and it was a matter of sorrow to him.
MOHLER: Yes. I was Dr. Henry’s editor at the end of his life, and he was far more directly to me, personally, a mentor even than Dr. Schaeffer just because of the age and the location.
GUINNESS: Great man.
MOHLER: Yes. And so some years ago I reprinted for a special conference honoring Dr. Henry that first issue of Christianity Today under his editorship, and I was reminded, yes, of exactly why Christianity Today was located there in Washington D.C. He had convinced J. Howard Pew and Billy Graham that it had to be right there in the center of policy making and the culture. And in his very first editorial he begins the very first paragraph by letting readers know that he is looking out his window at the White House. And that was a very clear statement. And when the magazine moved to Carol Stream, Illinois, he thought that was the absolute end of a grand experiment in evangelical presence in Washington D.C.
GUINNESS: But in the same way I’m glad that the Museum of the Bible, they are very proud to look out of the roof of that onto the Capitol. And they have a real sense of a major museum honoring the Scriptures, but being there right in the heart of the city, and maybe soon they’ll be right up there with the Air & Space Museum.
MOHLER: One of the interesting aspects of what that museum is going to represent is just reminding people of the centrality of the Scripture to the American experience. I appreciate very much that ambition right there on the Mall in a city that’s become in its own way a very secular city.
GUINNESS: Well there’s a huge proportion of people of faith there, but often a very privatized faith; Bible studies in the Pentagon, K. Street, and of course on Capitol Hill. A huge number of people go to it; the Senate Prayer Breakfast and so on. But often a privatized faith in a very busy world. They rush in and rush out. The idea of thinking through what you are doing, that’s rather rare. One of the things I say is the missing element in America is leadership. On the order we mentioned Churchill, but more specifically in this country, Lincoln with his great sense of history, of the founding documents and so on. The only person I’ve heard in 15 years approaching that is Senator Ben Sasse, Christian brother, but with a great sense of history and courage speaking out, an incredibly coherent worldview. Very rare, very rare.
MOHLER: Absolutely. Speaking of Washington D.C., by the way, my dear, dear friend for all my adult life, Dr. Mark Dever is a pastor right there, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and you’re exactly right, my own daughter and son-in-law are members of that church. It’s a reminder of the fact that the gospel still very much has root in a city like Washington D.C. There are a lot of Christians there. It’s also a reminder of the fact that Christianity in affecting the culture is, as I said earlier, a very long project. The fact is evangelicals tend to be very pietistic, they want to see what they believe are measurable results very quickly. And the gospel just doesn’t historically tend to work that way.
GUINNESS: But that’s not the pietism, is it. The Pietists had the long-term view. I would say my parents, who were the best of that warm-hearted, devoted pietist, they thought in terms of the next century in their prayers and things. But what you’re describing now, this sort of quantification growth, success, that’s a very American and actually a highly secular view. And I think we’ve got to do a critique of the biblical view of numbers and what it is that we’re relying on.
MOHLER: I say that, and I think by the way that part of this is because American pietism is deeply infected with pragmatism, pietistic evangelicalism, that is. And so when you’re speaking of Pietism in Europe, you’re speaking of a definable theological tradition, I think of Germany in particular. You come to the United States it tends to be more of a mood because it emerges out of a very evangelistic, revivalistic evangelicalism. It’s really the piety of revivalism, might be the better way to put it.
GUINNESS: And while you had Herberg’s Protestant/Catholic/Jew, that sort of Christian consensus, while it was there, the pietism, to put it crudely, didn’t matter culturally. Now it did theologically, but it didn’t matter culturally. When that consensus collapsed, the pietism exposed is terribly inadequate. It isn’t salty and light-bearing in terms of creating culture the way you were talking.
MOHLER: Now in terms of your more recent work, I think of the Williamsburg Charter and some of the other things you’ve done, in terms of principled pluralism and chartered liberty, a lot of that came out in the 1990s and even something like a decade ago, and one of your very clearly articulated concerns at that time was that Christians had exited the national conversation and then sometimes reentered it in ways that were unsophisticated, sometimes unkind, and you put a premium on civility. Let me ask you to update that argument a bit. We had a conversation on my radio program years ago and I told you that my concern was that certainly, and by the way I was an endorser of the Williamsburg Charter and civility I think is not only politically opportune, it’s morally required by Scripture. We’re in an increasingly uncivil time even by the time, measurements of when you were writing that. In terms of our national culture, we don’t appear to be becoming a more civil people.
GUINNESS: Oh no, we’ve gone a long way the other way. You even take religious freedom, that was ’88, the high watermark of religious freedom was probably the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in ‘93. Only three, as you know, voted against it in the entire Congress. And since then 20 years, particularly the 8 years under President Obama, I would put it down to three R’s: the Reducers, who have reduced religious freedom to freedom of worship; the Removers, who particularly in the light of 9/11 saw religion as a messy, dangerous thing and now freedom of religion is freedom from religion for many of these people; but the really insidious one is the third one, the so-called Rebranders, who now paint religious freedom as a code word for bigotry and hatred and so on. And that’s a deliberate tactic, as you know, the LGBT people. I’m not an American, I’m an outsider. But religious freedom is part of the genius of this country. Now we as followers of Jesus, we’re the pioneers of this. Go back to Tertullian and Lactantius, then since the Reformation, Thomas Howell and Roger Williams, your great Baptists and so on. We’re the pioneers. And it is the genius of America. And in one generation we’re throwing this away.
MOHLER: Yes, in a matter of a decade we’ve gone to religious liberty or religious freedom and put it in scare quotes in major American newspapers.
GUINNESS: That’s the rebranding. Absolutely appalling. I am in sorrow and anger seeing a country throw away its really birth right, the greatest part of its, the crown jewel of its heritage.
MOHLER: In your latest book, Fool’s Talk, you refer to something of the paradox of Christian evangelism and persuasion in this odd cultural moment. And I think one of your main themes certainly resonates with evangelicals who are theologically and gospel minded, especially a young generation of evangelicals, the oddness of the gospel has never been more pronounced than in this very post—well I won’t say postmodern, this moment of late modernity. The gospel seems odder and odder.
GUINNESS: You can say that, and that’s exactly right. But I think that’s bracing. Another way of saying it is that things are so odd with the culture now, we find ourselves along with our Jewish friends as the late great defenders of human dignity, or of human freedom, or of equality, or the notion of constitution. Covenant lies behind constitution, many people don’t realize that. We are the last great defenders of these great essentials of just, free, open society. So while on the one hand we are the odd man out, we are despised, hated, whatever, and we should bear that badge lightly as picking up our crosses for the Lord. But on the other hand the privileges of it is we know we’re not standing for something forlorn, passé, outdated. No, we’re fighting for what’s essential to human future.
MOHLER: And when you use the word bracing, a great British term there, it is exhilarating to think about the fact that this is not first of all by accident. We believe in a sovereign God whose providence is very evident in this moment. But also it reminds us that the gospel was born into a very similar context. The gospel was considered so bizarre by those that heard it at the time that it was considered necessarily to the Roman Empire. It is subversives to empire; it’s subversive to every principality and power. It is exhilarating to think that what Christians now know to be true is what we now almost alone know to be true but we desperately want other to know it.
GUINNESS: But we need a generation of young Christians who know the Lord, who know what they believe, why they believe, but have then thought it through and are able to articulate say, the biblical view of human dignity, why humans are precious, and of freedom. People come up to me—I’ve written one book on freedom, and just finished a second—they say the gospel’s not interested in freedom, there’s nothing really about freedom in the Bible. And I say, well take the notion of sovereignty. They believe something about that. Sovereignty is God’s freedom. He is sovereign; he is free; his will is free. And he’s made us in his image. Not sovereign as he is, but significant. We need to have a theological, biblical rationale for some of these essential truths and to realize we’re building a better society and holding the restraining hand back from the evil that is going to engulf our world if we just sit back.
MOHLER: But I think the good news is, there will be that generation of Christians who will be able to think that way. And yet it will be because they have no choice. In order to remain faithfully Christian in a world in which Lippmann called the “acids of modernity” have washed away all the cultural supports of religion, all the cultural privilege, to use a contemporary word, of religion, then what you’re left with is a faithful Christianity that has to have that very deep, theological, cultural, intellectual component or it’s going to disappear.
GUINNESS: And I’m glad to say, as you know well, that is strongly represented in the Reformed community. But equally, go around the church, there’s so many places with compromise, uncertainty, people say, “Do you really think we can…” They share the doubts that are really there in their hearts. You see for all those who are standing firm, huge numbers of others compromising, fearful, demoralized, quite unnecessarily.
MOHLER: Even just speaking pragmatically—we’re men of principle, we want to say, that’s actually what we would expect it would be given the importance of truth—even at the merely pragmatic level however, that’s not working. You would think those who are taking such a posture today would at least look at the stunning failure of the Mainline liberal Protestant churches following the very same methodology, well, decades ago. Trying to quote an Englishman, Dean Inge, the one who would marry the spirit of the age will be a widow in the next. You would think that lesson would at least have been learned.
GUINNESS: Yes, but look, as you know well, this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. How many evangelicals are discussing options of retreat? The Lord knows we’re in a crisis; the Lord knows we need reform. But I’m amazed at the lack of confidence publicly in the Reformation. I don’t mean the Reformed understanding of the gospel, but I mean things like calling, covenant, conscience, these things which have shaped our Western world. If ever there’s a time to thank the Lord for the Reformation and to move out confidently in the light of its great truths is today. And yet so many people are entertaining rather different options.
MOHLER: You know sometimes it’s just a lack of historical awareness, even at the level of popular history. Just in the last week I read John Julian Norcha’s new book Four Princes. It’s actually brilliant. It’s a lot of fun. It’s the great princes that shaped the 16th century: Charles V, Henry VIII, Francis I, and Stulmann the Magnificent, just in terms of these four rulers that shaped the world. But what becomes very, very clear talking about the Reformation, about freedom, is that our contemporary inheritance of freedom comes almost entirely through Luther’s Reformation and its impact spreading throughout. So that by the time you look at the modifications made by Charles V as the Holy Roman Emperor and his allowance of the German states to accept the Reformation, and then of course the decisive but complicated event with Henry VII and the Anglican Reformation, our contemporary notions of freedom didn’t come in a vacuum, they came very much right out of that context.
GUINNESS: I have to say as an Englishmen, the covenantal ideas in England were the lost cause, sadly. They failed. The king came back. But the lost cause became the winning cause in New England. And covenant shaped constitutionalism. And the American Constitution is a nationalized, secularized form of covenant.
MOHLER: Even using the language, the reciprocity of language.
GUINNESS: Absolutely. And we’ve got to recover that. Put simply, democracy has no social content. And it’s in trouble for other reasons, but covenantalism, constitutionalism is all about the type of society that you have. And society should precede the state. In other words, things like families and schools are far more important than who is sitting in the White House. So we’ve got an incredible amount, very apt to say to America’s present crisis.
MOHLER: You have been one of the most seminal and influential intellectuals in the evangelical world now for over half a century. We’re deeply indebted to you. As you are thinking about these things in the year 2017, what do you see is most urgent now that perhaps many American evangelicals are not thinking about, not noticing.
GUINNESS: To know the gospel. But I would say the thing I’ve almost harped on, some people would say, has not really been picked up is the idea of breaking with the culture. If you look at Abraham, you leave the land, your birth place and your father’s family, there’s a break with Egypt; there’s a break with Babylon right at the heart of the Abrahamic call, and of course in the New Testament too. Be not conformed but transformed. Many Christians break with bad ideas. I often say you can smell a relativist at 100 yards. But breaking with things like consumerism and stuff like that. American Christians haven’t done a sufficiently good job of analyzing the world. You mention numbers, success, growth, that sort of things, we have normalized that if you look at our churches. So knowing the gospel, but also a much clearer understanding of the world we’ve got to radically break with. And the third thing, moving out with incredible confidence in the Lord championing many of these basic biblical things which are the key to the human future. And we haven’t seen anything yet. If you look at what’s coming from Silicon Valley: singularity, transhumanism, this is incredible stuff. And only the gospel is a moral compass and a weight against some of the insanities. We’re in a new Tower of Babel moment. If you’ve read this new book Homo Deus, the title tells you everything: godlings on the earth.
MOHLER: Yes and it’s, I think, one of the most important books. It is not a highly intelligent book, in terms of some of his arguments, but it is I think a powerful sign of the times, especially this absolute confidence in transhumanism, singularity, the defeat of mortality. And we’re talking about people who are every day names in Silicon Valley who are putting billions, and I do mean billions of dollars into research in terms of defeating mortality. We’re living in a very interesting moment.
GUINNESS: One of those billionaire celebrities you know, I won’t mention his name, he has a blood transfusion every year with the blood of twenty year olds in order to get him closer to that immortality.
MOHLER: We will see, won’t we.
GUINNESS: We’ve got to tackle some of these ideas. There aren’t many Christians thinking Silicon Valley style, and that’s the tragedy.
MOHLER: In terms of apologetics it seems always true just looking at historical theology that orthodoxy follows heresy. That is to say, the articulation of orthodoxy, the hardest Christian thinking in terms of protecting and preserving the truth often comes only after an external challenge, and that’s probably a pattern that stays with us.
GUINNESS: We probably both love George Whitfield. There’s a little line in his journals that I always loved, and it says, “I’m never better than when I’m on the full stretch for God.” And I’ve always found when you take the big questions, the big challenges and ask, “How does the gospel answer this one?” you grow and come back with gratitude and wonder and worship at the sense the Lord is bigger than all these things. And your faith grows as you see it when take on the big ones.
MOHLER: I appreciate so much the conversation. Earlier we mentioned Winston Churchill and in these last moments I thought of Churchill’s oft quoted comment when he said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.” And perhaps that will be true of America’s evangelicals in this moment as well.
GUINNESS: I think we’ve got to take a little bit more of the Lord into the equation than Churchill did, but I liked his comment there.
MOHLER: Well I fully understand it because it was said in a wry moment as often he did. He turned a headline into a word of hope.
GUINNESS: That’s true.
MOHLER: And I think there’s a sense in which that’s almost deeply Augustinian.
GUINNESS: But Al, when we’re talking about some of the Left, liberal things, they are a repudiation of everything that we consider quintessentially American, and that’s the danger of them.
MOHLER: Absolutely, and that raises the question as to whether some of these toxins that are now infused into the system are survivable. And well, time will tell. In any event, I’m deeply indebted, as I have been for so many decades of my life, to you. I thank you for your writings, for your influence, and Os Guinness, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
GUINNESS: Well my appreciation is mutual. Thanks for having me on.
MOHLER: The last half-century and more has seen such a remarkable change in the way human beings think, especially in terms of the modern West. We’re now looking at a situation that is so utterly radically changed from that which would have been taken as normal in terms of thought patterns and social patterns just a half-century ago that it’s almost impossible for us to take into full account the sheer magnitude of these changes. But one of the most keen observers during all of these decades has been Os Guinness. And what a story he tells just in terms of the conversation today. Born in China just on the precipice of the communist revolution there, experiencing some of the hardest and most cataclysmic decades of the 20ths century, and from such a unique vantage point. And of course being raised as he was not only in China but also educated in Britain, he eventually came to Christ and also came to a major position of influence within evangelicalism. The story of how he went from China to Britain to L’Abri in Switzerland and then of course to the United States—it’s quite an unfolding story. And it reminds us of the fact that Christianity validates that we are talking about human beings, flesh and blood human beings in space and time with unique experiences. We cannot separate ourselves as the Gnostics sought to do, in terms of our thought life from our physical life or our intellectual life from our own personal history. When it comes to thinking in public, that’s something that Os Guinness has been doing for decades now, and he’s been helping others to do it as well. But he has particular commitment to the gospel which comes through very, very clearly in terms of this conversation, in terms of his books and in terms of his writings. But we also need to recognize that he has been something of a prophet in terms of helping evangelicals to understand not only the cultural opportunity, but the responsibility, the Christian gospel theological responsibility of evangelicals to address the issues of the day and to do so, especially here in the United States, from a position of rare privilege. As is so often the case with these conversations, today’s conversation is one that I certainly hope in the future we will be able to continue.
I deeply appreciate Os Guinness for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to SBTS.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to BoyceCollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.