Over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “we must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.” Os Guinness’s Impossible People, available free to Christ and Pop Culture members this month, evokes a similar formulation. Guinness describes a need for Christians like St. Peter Damian, an 11th-century Benedictine monk who challenged his contemporaries to reject all sorts of corruption within the Church and made himself plenty of enemies who tried to denounce him as an “impossible man.” Guinness wants modern-day Christians to be similar, with “hearts that can melt with compassion, but with faces like flint and backbones of steel who are unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable, without ever losing the gentleness, the mercy, the grace and the compassion of our Lord.” He describes the challenges that modernity presents to Christian faithfulness but also describes how the tough-minded and tender-hearted can overcome and reclaim a necessary place in the public square.
As the 2016 election gets closer and closer, most discourse that talks about the crisis of Western Civilization or the trials facing American Christians has ended with a call to vote. And sadly, a lot of people who recognize the perils of modernism and relativism are calling Christians to vote for a man who embodies many of the worst aspects of both. Impossible People is a relief in this regard because even though it speaks frequently about the political consequences of a secularized public square, it doesn’t prioritize political power. Guinness specifically castigates our cultural fondness for generational divides that impair our ability to receive or transmit truth across time. He scolds Americans for only caring about “the next business quarter or the next election cycle.”Impossible People is not afraid to be as tough on Christians as it is on their cultural enemies.
Rather, the problems brought about by the onslaught of secularism require Christian faithfulness first and foremost, technological or cultural stratagems second. If the Church cannot be faithfully worshiping God and her members faithfully loving their neighbors, there’s no political leader or innovative social movement that will save us. Another place where Guinness’s jeremiad veers off the usual script is in his frank assessment of how the Church’s failures over the years have done more to harm the cause of Christ than any atheist philosopher ever could. From Protestants promoting a corrosive modern individualism to Catholics defending sexual abusers, Impossible People is not afraid to be as tough on Christians as it is on their cultural enemies.
Even more, Guinness argues that atheists are “indispensable to forging a constructive way forward for humanity,” for both convicted people of faith and sincere nonbelievers must both find a way to live together. Not only does such a “cobelligerent” relationship help rescue Christendom from its tendency to abandon Christian faithfulness when it has the public square all to itself, but working together also allows us to resist the forces that would steamroll any sense of ethics in the name of technological progress.
The most compelling argument in Impossible People, however, is its appeal to a spiritual reality that transcends our current culture wars, specifically in discussing the “powers and principalities” active in various nation-states and ideologies. Again, this argument is frequently used elsewhere as a justification for Christian subservience to a specific political agenda, but Guinness instead invokes the spiritual dimensions of cultural and political authorities to do the opposite. He underscores the need for Christians to constantly critique themselves and ask what ideologies are driving reckless actions (whether it is godless Communism or Bible-belt neoconservatism).
The biblical roots of our cultural inheritance are indeed being hacked free, producing what Guinness calls “a cut-flower civilization” that requires Christian faithfulness to reestablish. Impossible People doesn’t hold back from proclaiming what this sort of work will require: “In short, by faith we must be prepared to wager our comfort, our livelihood, our honor and our very lives on God and his Word against all other claims and authorities.”
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