Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance

  • Os Guinness
  • May 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Guinness, Os Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003.

I recently attended a church service at a large evangelical church in the greater Denver area. The insights of Prophetic Untimeliness were largely absent during the service. In fact, most of the goings on expressed the antithesis of what Os Guinness is eloquently calling for. The quest for relevance--understood as accommodation to all the sensibilities of popular culture--controlled the service.

Graduating high-school seniors were paraded in front of the congregation as if in a fashion show (especially for the girls, several of whom were dressed quite immodestly), complete with various photographs of them projected on a large screen behind them. (Images in the postmodern world always eclipse persons in the flesh—as well as words. On this, see Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word.) Each student was introduced by a jovial youth pastor, who said nothing about the spiritual character of any of the students. The focus was on their grade-point averages and other measurable achievements and career goals (no mention of calling was made). The singing was led by a praise band performing songs with trite words set to simplistic music. The lone exception was one hymn that was presented in a pop format. Most of those leading worship had the demeanor of musical entertainers, instead of those standing soberly in the presence of a holy God.

The sermon was preceded by a testimony by a layperson on how to be an optimist (which, incidentally, is not a category of Christian virtue). When not vapid, it was doctrinally unsound. The sermon that followed consisted of about twenty minutes of scouring the first chapter of Ruth in order to find self-help lessons on how not to be bitter, as was Naomi. The biblical genre of lament was avoided (even though the text demanded it) in favor of tips on how to recover from misfortune as quickly as possible. After unnecessarily mentioning that Oprah Winfrey's first name was supposed to be Orpah (as mentioned in Ruth 1), the pastor referred to Oprah as "a delightful person," despite the fact that she a leading evangelist for New Age philosophies. He also favorably mentioned the "Japanese word satori, which means living in the present." Satori is the Zen concept of mystical enlightenment wherein one transcends individuality and merges with the Universal Mind. This is not a concept consonant with Christian theology. The service ended with an emotionally manipulating skit that had nothing to do with the message (which itself had nothing to do with the text cited). There was no benediction. There had been no silence. The one prayer was rushed through after the message to make time for the skit. There was no confession of sin, and no attention paid to things holy and profound. Most people probably never noticed any of this. Os Guinness would have.

Small books by Os Guinness never contain small thoughts, and this 119-page gem is no exception. Guinness wastes neither words nor thoughts. Since the publication of The American Hour in 1992, a long and magisterial assessment of the meaning and identity of America in God's providence, Guinness has issued a series of rather short, provocative, and challenging books as well as editing important collections. Although he was once rather dismissively referred to in a review of Dining With the Devil (his dead-on critique of the church growth/seeker sensitive movement) as a "professional curmudgeon," Guinness is better understood as an astute and fearless social critic--and one with a prophetic edge. Ever since his first work--the masterful critique of the counterculture, The Dust of Death (InterVarsity Press, 1973; second edition, Crossway Books, 1994)--Guinness, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Oxford, has, in his own words, "interpreted the world for the church and the church for the world." Like the great British social reformer William Wilberforce, Guinness found his calling as a public intellectual for the cause of Christ, despite urgings to pursue pastoral ministry. (For more on Guinness's rich understanding of calling, see The Call [NavPress, 1998], which is a college-level course compared to Rick Warren's popular but elementary book, The Purpose Driven Life.)

Prophetic Untimeliness is, in many ways, quintessential Guinness--forceful without being harsh, sharp without being ascerbic, passionate without being histrionic, serious without being melancholic, and sobering without being deflating--and as such it serves as a fitting introduction to his rich body of work for those not yet initiated. Seasoned readers of Guinness, such as myself, will find much that is familiar, but nothing that is boring. This is Guinness's arresting thesis: "By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant" (p. 15). In other words, we need a strong and life-saving dose of "prophetic untimeliness" in order to rise to the occasion. Guinness takes this phrase from a self-described AntiChrist and from the Bible. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the anti-Christian atheist philosopher to whom Guinness often profitably refers, wrote of "untimely men: their home is not in this age but elsewhere" (p. 19). The Hebrew prophets evince this sense of being out of step with the times because, unlike Nietzsche, they march to the beat of a different Drummer, the countercultural rhythms of a transcendent God who often gazes at the ways of nations and laughs at their follies (Psalm 2:8). Guinness is not enlisting "Prophets" of the stature of Jeremiah or Isaiah, but "prophets" who "interpret their life and times from a biblical perspective and therefore ‘read the signs of the times' with greater or lesser skill but never presume the authority and infallibility of ‘This is the word of the Lord'" (21).

The book is divided into three sections, which take up the challenge of responding to Guinness's distressing thesis: (1) The Tool That Turned Into a Tyrant, (2) Shorn of Our Secret Strength, and (3) Restoring the Archimedean Point. The first section brings what typically remains in the cultural background into the foreground: our sense of time. The modern Western sense of time differs radically from that of earlier ages and from some other cultures even today. Time is quantified ever more precisely by the mechanical clock; it is rendered precise and makes the coordination of events easier. Yet it puts us under pressure to meet its exacting demands. "Time is the ultimate credit card; speed is the universal style of spending" (35). But in our rush for relevance we often forfeit wisdom. Moreover, we falsely think that the new is probably the true and being "progressive" is obviously better than being "traditional." C.S. Lewis referred to this as "chronological snobbery." We thus become historically myopic (if not oblivious) and fail to learn from the past, Christian or otherwise. Yet without an anchor in the past, we become prey to the passing fads of the present and so become unfit to face the future faithfully. As Daniel Boorstin put it, "Homo up-to-datum is a dunce."

The gist of Guinness's second section, "Shorn of Our Secret Strength" is summarized by the lament that the faith-worlds of great Christian leaders such as Wesley, Edwards, Wilberforce, Spurgeon, Carl Henry, John Stott, and others is vanishing among contemporary evangelicals. "In its place a new evangelicalism is arriving in which therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, end-times escapism crowds our day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, reference to opinion polls outweigh reliance on biblical exposition, concerns for power and relevance are more obvious than concern for piety and faithfulness, talk of reinventing the church has replaced prayer for revival, and the characteristic evangelical passion for missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture" (p.54). But what is the antidote?

The last third of the book charts the way of radical faithfulness and biblical fidelity. It gives no formulas, since formulas are part of the problem for a church in captivity to contemporary culture. The summons is daunting: "Thinking and acting Christianly in the blizzard of modern information and change requires the courage of a prophet, the wisdom of a sage, and the character of a saint--not to speak of the patience of Job and the longevity of Methuselah" (p. 56). We must hear and heed the call of a transcendent God, not culture. We must turn from "sola cultura"--the implicit if not explicit creed of most evangelicals today--back to "sola Scriptura." In so doing, we must be willing to embrace loneliness, as did the Hebrew prophets and to stand "against the world, for the world" before "the audience of One." We need courage, faithfulness, and the Cross of Christ, which "runs crosswise to all our human ways of thinking" (p. 100).

There is no better spokesman for this untimely but godly cause than Os Guinness. Ponder his words, however strange they may seem at first. Then lament over the worldliness and triviality of so much of evangelicalism. Then rise up and challenge the idols of relevance wherever they appear and counteract them by speaking the truth in love, come what may (Ephesians 4:15; 1 John 5:21).

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
May 2004

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