It’s always a pleasure to interview Os Guinness, whose latest book is called The Last Christian on Earth: Uncover the Enemy’s Plot to Undermine the Church. It’s a new edition of his 1983 work, The Gravedigger Thesis. Below he explains what he’s trying to accomplish in the book and how the Church in the Western world can escape from its Babylonian Captivity.
The chief challenge for the church in our time could be summarized in three words: integrity, credibility, and civility. This book is about the first, and our need to recover a faith that can prevail with the integrity and effectiveness in the advanced modern era. Everyone mentions rightly that the church is exploding in the Global South, while failing badly in Europe and faltering in the US. But the church in the Global South is largely pre-modern, and the major reason for the weakness of the church in the West is captivity to the spirit and systems of the modern world. Put differently, much of the church in the West is in a profound Babylonian captivity. It has become deeply worldly, like the European church before the Reformation.
Examples abound on all sides, though many of the crasser and more blatant ones are actually less damaging. For example, anyone with their eyes open can see the link between modern consumerism and the horrors of the health and wealth gospels. But fewer people have analyzed the links between our modern views of time, “fast life,” the “culture of immediacy,” and the equal errors of our recent Evangelical craze for “change,” “relevance,” “innovation,” and “thinking outside the box.” The result is that in the last few decades, many Evangelicals have become second only to the extremes of the Protestant mainline in the way they are energetically breeding forms of worldliness. So I believe we are in dire need of revival and reformation.
What The Last Christian on Earth does is describe the structures and spirit of the modern world, and show how they are the shoals on which much faith is foundering because it is not aware of them. This means that, contrary to many of good Reformed friends, theology alone is not the answer. Nor is having a “Christian worldview” the answer by itself, because that ignores the social context in which the worldview is lived. If “sound theology” and “thinking Christianly” lack an understanding of the distortions of the modern world, they simply will not be effective in the way their proponents hope. We must recognize the distorting structures of our modern world, and then with God’s help, overcome them with powerful Christian living inspired by deep Christian theology and thinking.
But my book is not so much a call for improved “cultural analysis,” as it is an open and passionate call for Evangelical renewal. The issue is faithfulness and discipleship, and how we are following the call of Jesus in our extraordinary modern times. I hope many people will finish the book and drop to their knees.
What is the “gravedigger thesis”?
The “gravedigger thesis” (which gave the book its original title) is the notion that the Christian faith is the single strongest contributor to the rise of the modern world, yet the church has fallen captive to the modern world it helped to create. So as the church accommodates to the world uncritically, it becomes its own gravedigger. There are parallel versions of the same idea in Cotton Mather as well as Karl Marx. For Mather, early Puritanism created prosperity, only for prosperity to undermine Puritanism. I would argue that only such a wide-ranging analysis does justice to the full raft of problems we are facing today. Without taking such cultural analysis into account, other proposed remedies will always fall short of our hopes and prayers.
Why is the new edition called The Last Christian on Earth?
You will understand when you read the chapter on it in the book! But the main point centers on our Lord’s saying in Luke 18:8: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” I have long been fascinated by what Jesus said. Having grown up in China, and witnessed the first wave of persecution of the church under Mao, I used to think Jesus was referring to a massive persecution that would wipe out much of the church. But from all I know now both of persecution and the state of the modern church, I think it far more likely that Jesus foresaw a time when millions and millions would be called by his name—”Christians”—but their way of life would bear little resemblance to the Way to which he called his followers.
A lot has changed in the 27 years since The Gravedigger File was first published! Does that mean that the central argument of the book must thereby change with the times as well?
You’re right. A huge amount has changed, and I have catalogued such changes in the new introduction. But sadly, the underlying analysis about which I am writing has not changed. If anything, it has got worse. In many cases, we are not only in deeper cultural captivity than a quarter century ago, we have embraced new fads in Evangelicalism (for example, in the extremes of the Emergent movement) that reinforce the cultural captivity further. I was actually profoundly sobered by how much of the original book was more relevant even than when it was published in 1983—and how little I needed to revise and update it.
For those who haven’t read the book, can you explain the genre—that is to say, the narrative device you used to advance your thesis?
The book is written as a series of memos from one spy to another on how to subvert the church. Many people thought I was copying C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. But in fact my inspiration was John le Carre and his world of grey espionage. But no one should get hung up over the device. As I say in the introduction, my point is to challenge us as Christians to wrench ourselves out of our shortsightedness, so that we see things from an outside point of view. Worldliness is always spiritual myopia. It falls for the spirit and system of the age and fails to correct itself through the correcting lenses of the perspective of the global church (in other continents), the historical church (in other centuries), and above all, the eternal (the Word of God across all times and places).