Words mean things. Sometimes they mean the wrong things. Occasionally, therefore, some rectifying semantics are in order.
In this book, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, contemporary author and speaker Os Guinness sets the record straight on relevance and presents a masterful case for faithfulness over and against fashion.
“Relevance is not the problem but rather a distorted relevance that slips into trendiness, triviality, and transcience.” This distortion seems to be caused by pursuing relevance as an end in itself, rather than reaping relevance as a fruit of faithfulness. Our true aim, after all, is to be relevant by God’s standard: not the standard of the world. Not that the two are necessarily doomed to mutual exclusivity, only that we must keep the crust outside the filling, and the filling inside the crust, if we want to have a nice pie.
I have for some time felt that the church must stop allowing the world to lead her around by the nose. Along this line, Guinness argues brilliantly for the church to retain (or regain) “the Archimedean point.” “In today’s world, the stance of the wagging tail has been elevated to the level of a creed. In 1966, the World Council of Churches even adopted the bizarre dictum, ‘The world must set the agenda for the Church.’”
Guinness summarizes three postures the Church can take towards society, (resistance, negotiation, and adaptation,) dismissing the two extremes which both reduce the Church to insignificance, and favoring negotiation, which, he says, means “taking seriously the biblical admonition to be ‘not conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of the mind’ […] an ongoing practice of discerning between true and false, good and bad, the godly and the worldly.” He wisely avoids a reductionist approach to this discernment: “Which of us can read enough, think enough, and pray enough to be wise enough? There is simply too much to take in and to ponder.”
Continuing on, Guinness discusses “resistance thinking,” (quoting C.S. Lewis: “Progress is only made into resisting material,”) and also the under-appreciated value of history. "Whereas science deals with the predictable and the repeatable, with laws and uniform regularities, history deals with one-of-a-kind human choices, with accidents, disasters, ironies, and events that are totally unforeseeable and unpredictable. […] History provides a deeper and more comprehensive knowledge of our humanity than science does."
I appreciated and resonated with the general tenor of the book, with only a few minor quibbles. The first two chapters deal exclusively with the subject of time, (the “tool that became a tyrant,”) and I am still debating their “relevance” to the primary subject matter. Also, there are numerous quotes from Nietzsche, primarily as an articulation of the secular perspective, but occasionally employed to support Guinness’ own arguments. Still, it serves well as a concise (119 page) yet careful discussion of the issue.
“It takes the eternal to guarantee the relevant; only the repeated touch of the timeless will keep us truly timely.”
Image courtesy of amazon.com