Os Guinness is one of the most insightful Christian thinkers on the scene today. Great-great grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer, he was born in China in World War II where both his parents and grandparents were medical missionaries – his grandfather having had the privilege of treating the Empress Dowager, the Last Emperor, and the Imperial family.

A survivor of the terrible Henan famine of 1943, in which five million died in three months, including his two brothers, Os was a witness to the climax of the Chinese revolution in 1949 and the beginning of the reign of terror under Mao Tse Tung. He was expelled with many other foreigners in 1951 and returned to Europe where he was educated in England.

Os has written or edited thirty books on a wide range of themes. Today, we’re looking at one of his older books, The Dust of Death: The Sixties Counterculture and How It Changed America Forever, first published in 1971 and revised in 1994.

Fifty years have passed since the start of the Sixties. I asked Os to join me on the blog for a conversation about this pivotal decade in American history, and what it means for us today.

Trevin Wax: You’ve described the Sixties as bringing about a “seismic shift” in American history. Why are the 1960s crucial for understanding American culture in the 21st century?

Os Guinness: When people think of the crucial decades that have shaped American history after 1776, they automatically think of the Civil War, the two World Wars, the Depression era, and so on.

But in my estimate, the decade of the Sixties and the so-called “counterculture” ranks with the most important of these, and is even more consequential than the Depression era. It stands as a deep and savage sword thrust through American history and culture.

Too often the Sixties are dismissed in terms of “hippies, drugs, sex, rock and roll, war protests,” and so on, as if that was all there was to it. But in fact much of the best and worst of where we are today can be traced back to the Sixties.

On the “for better” side of the ledger, we owe to the Sixties the great achievements of the Civil Rights movement and such stunning successes as the Apollo moon landing.

On the “for worse” side of the ledger, there was the utopianism, the violence and the humiliations of the Vietnam War, and of course the excesses of the sexual revolution, the stupidities of the new entitlement era, the rise of the culture wars, and the nihilism of postmodernism, all of which are producing such a dark harvest today.

Trevin Wax: When did the seismic shifts begin? Would you pinpoint the changes to 1960 or another time – before or after?

Os Guinness: Talk of “baselines” is often a contentious area!

Many people used to date the Sixties from JFK’s election in 1960, and it is true that the launch of “Camelot” was like a gale of fresh air after the stuffy conventionalism of the 1950s and the Eisenhower era. Others have put the starting date at the city riots in 1963, the Free Speech movement at Berkeley in 1964, and even the arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. in February 1964, and their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that was watched by forty percent of the population.

Needless to say, no sooner does someone pick such a date than a host of others immediately find trends that precede it by far. Today, we still use terms such as the Sixties, but there is a far richer understanding of the many threads that were woven together to make the tapestry as a whole.

Trevin Wax: What caused the 1960s to become such a tumultuous decade in American history?

Os Guinness: Where should I begin?

As I see it, the Sixties was above all a grand and damaging blow to the easy complacency of the post-War world and to the illusions of Henry Luce’s “American century.” This was evident at the time as the U.S. became more and more bogged down in the jungles and paddy fields of Vietnam and in the labyrinthine peace negotiations in Paris.

But it slowly became equally evident too in the way that Sixties ideas openly assaulted many of the ideals and ideas that had shaped traditional America:

  • What is life?
  • How are we to define the family?
  • Is there such a thing as truth?
  • Does character matter in leaders?
  • What part should religion play in public life?
  • What do we mean by “Americanism” and “exceptionalism”?
  • Does freedom require virtue?

And so on, and so on.

Clearly, the recent answers to such questions not only form the contested issues of the culture wars today, but are significant in various ways. They demonstrate the chasm between the present generation and most Americans before the 1960s, they show the mounting alienation of the educated classes from many ordinary citizens, and they represent the decisive manner in which contemporary America has departed from the founders’ understanding of the republic. It is not too much to say that these Sixties answers are what has called into question the very health of United States and may hasten its decline.

Trevin Wax: Some cultural observers have written as if the 1980s represented a countering of the Sixties culture. Do you agree or disagree with that assessment?

Os Guinness: I agree, though I would call it an “attempted countering.”

Ronald Reagan conquered Jimmy Carter and rode to the White House in opposition to all America’s post-Vietnam and post-Watergate blues, and Carter’s gloomy announcement of the nation’s “malaise.” It was to be “morning in America” again, as Reagan announced in his re-election campaign. From a renewed call to freedom, to a new swing toward unfettered capitalism, to a new forcefulness in exerting American power in the world, the emphasis was on traditional American values and all that was different from the Sixties that had betrayed them.

But was it successful? It may have appeared so until 1989, when it seemed to be confirmed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the claim that victory in the Cold War had made the U.S. the unprecedented and unparalleled power in the world, and the greatest superpower since the Roman Empire.

Fortunately, such overheated language has disappeared today, humbled alike by the international realities, economic woes, and the paralyzing gridlock created by fifty years of culture warring. Thus the Sixties has had the last laugh on the Eighties, but the victory is Pyrrhic. President Obama may say that “the best is yet to be,” but few people hear this as anything more than empty campaign rhetoric, and the last laugh has given few people much to smile about.

Trevin Wax: What prompted you to write a book about the 1960s so quickly after the close of the decade? 

Os Guinness: I was at London University in the early Sixties, which was the era of “swinging London,” the Beatles, the films of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini and the like. It was impossible not to think about it.

I was still in my twenties when I wrote the book in 1971. So I am a child of the Sixties myself, and I have always been grateful for the profound challenges it pose to me – to live an examined life, to think through a warranted faith, and to attempt to “read the signs of the times,” and so on.

I first visited the U.S. for six weeks in 1968, the annus calamitosus that was the high point of the Sixties and the most dramatic year of all. I was fascinated by my impressions of America and all that I saw – including visiting Haight Ashbury, meeting Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech movement, and listening to Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore West.

But I was also deeply struck by how few Christians – with the magnificent exception of Carl Henry – understood what was going on in all the tumult. Most Evangelicals did not wake up to it all until 1973 (Watergate, the OPEC oil crisis, and Roe vs. Wade), and of course the Moral Majority was founded in response in 1975.

Out of my dismay came, first, a series of talks on the Sixties given at L’Abri, and later the book. I wrote partly to help Christians understand and partly to counter the then-dominant idea that the counterculture would win – argued, for example, in Charles Reich’s The Greening of America.

Trevin Wax: Decades have passed since you wrote The Dust of Death. What parts of your analysis would you change in light of the passing of so much time?

Os Guinness: Most of what I wrote in The Dust of Death has stood the test of time pretty well, and certain chapters such as “The East no Exit” and “Encircling Eyes” have proved to be well ahead of their time.

But if I were to re-write the book completely with the perspective of forty years of hindsight, I would enlarge the comments on the sexual revolution and add chapters on the rise of postmodernism and the spirit of entitlement. In other words, I would draw even clearer lines between the toxic ideas introduced in the Sixties and the disastrous results they are causing half a century later.

I love the present generation of young people, with their passion to think, to fight for justice, and be willing to challenge the status quo. They are more cynical than we were in the Sixties, but in many ways they are also closer to the best of the Sixties generation than to any generation in between.

I am not a great fan of “decadology,” which often categorizes decades and periods too simply. But it is important to “read the signs of the times” and to seek understand the generation in which we live – above all to be like King David, and to “serve God’s purpose in our own generation.”