Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Despair or Renaissance?
Despair or Renaissance?
By William Edgar
September 15, 2014
A rapid glance at events across the globe might drive us to conclude that the Grim Reaper is slowly but surely advancing, dispensing unsparing cruelty from his scythe. Does it not seem that lately we are being assaulted from every corner? Consider Vladimir Putin’s call for “statehood” for the South East, the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Beijing’s increasing restrictions on Hong Kong banking, clashes over oil in the Niger Delta, the frightening advances of ISIS, and so many more headlines of volatility.
These are grim by any measure. Perhaps it is worse than we think. French sociologist Jacques Ellul often urged us to look deeper below manifestations of unrest. We mistakenly consider our civilization “quite stable and quite satisfactory, even if, and especially if, we protest against iniquity, inequality, slavery, etc…,” he says. “We are at an absolutely decisive point – such as has never been before.” Ellul writes as a historian, well aware of Attila and Tamerlane. Today, he says, human beings are separated from God and thus separated from the source of life. This makes us “not far from collapse.”
By all accounts, the world of advanced modernity has squeezed much of the Western church into its mold. Despite some encouraging signs here and there, the church in Europe is declining. Church attendance in the United States is still robust, but the average pew-sitter’s understanding of even the basics of the Christian faith is quite modest. According to Gallup polls, Americans have in recent decades become gradually less likely to say that religion can answer today's problems and more likely to believe that religion is out of date.
What about the Global South? On-site observation, as well as studies by many researchers, has shown that the church is expanding remarkably in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and many other places. That is the good news. The bad news is that rivals such as the health-and-wealth gospel, animistic practices, nationalism, and Islam crouch at the door of the newly formed congregations. The church appears unable to stem the tide of violence and economic injustice. When advanced modernity fully sets in, one wonders whether the church will be able to resist secularization any better than it does in the North.
So, all is lost, right? Not quite! In his powerful new book, Renaissance, Os Guinness reminds us that “these bones shall rise” (Ezekiel 37:1-10). With all the attendant dangers of advanced modernity, there is a bright side. Globalization has a steamrolling tendency to flatten everyone into the same culture. Yet the Christian faith is “the world’s first truly global religion.” (33) The vision of the New Testament is not to flatten people but to give them dignity and meaning through the Gospel. True globalization will replace its counterfeit.
Secularism is not the entire story of the West for two reasons. First, it is self-defeating. The dogmatic certainty of the Marxist version of secularism was unsuccessful in devouring all religion, and it ended up devouring itself. As David Martin once put it, “It is a paradox that the system which claimed that the beginning of all criticism is the criticism of religion should have ended up with a form of religion which was the end of criticism.” (79) Second, religion is on the upswing, not only in the Global South, but in the West, where a few years ago it appeared on the decline. Perhaps modestly, but yet surely, we see thousands of points of light emerging throughout Europe, in youth movements, new churches, Christian business associations, Taizé communities, artists’ initiatives, the European Leadership Forum, and many others.
Guinness is hopeful, albeit sober, about these matters. Throughout the book he deplores the spots and stains of the church, from frothy spirituality to child abuse to being at home with the world. Yet he reasserts the power of the Gospel to effect change: “Under the power of God, these three factors – committed engagement, cultural discernment and courageous refusal – combine to generate the creative tension with the world that becomes culture shaping.” (85) Where and when will we witness such transformation? We don’t know. But as surely as it has happened before, it will happen again. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, “At least five times … the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.”
- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
 Jacques Ellul, “Chronicle of the Problems of Civilization,” in Sources and Trajectories, Marva Dawn, transl., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997, 14-15.
 Ibid., 16.
 Mark Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 20113.
 Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2014.
 G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 155, 260-61.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”