Os Guinness wrote his book, The Dust of Death: The Sixties Counterculture and How it Changed America, just after living through the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960’s. Guinness charts with a socio-philosophical bent the journey of a generation, from the erosion of Christianity to the failure of the counterculture to provide an effective alternative to faith. The author calls for another “way” for the Western world, one of which combines conviction with compassion and deep spirituality.
Guinness himself writes an adequate description of his book in the Preface on the 1960’s,
“What we were witnessing … was the gradual disillusionment of a generation, even of a culture. Ideals had grown so distant they were barely distinguishable from illusions. Meaning had become a mirage. Eager minds, soaring beyond facts to a super-freedom of fantasy, had plunged earthwards. Even resolute action, which seemed to have rolled the stone almost to the top of the hill, paused for breath only to watch the stone roll backwards…. Beneath the efforts of a generation lay dust. Subsequent events and a closer inquiry, far from contradicting this suspicion, have served only to confirm it. The examination of this suspicion and the charting of an alternative is the burden of this book.”
Although the book was written about a decade that dates back almost 50 years now, the content is still current as we are continuing to live out the consequences of the sixties.
The book has several themes it unfolds such as: humanism, authority issues, violence, drugs, eastern religions and the occult. I would have liked if the book explored more on the themes of the sexual revolution, rise of postmodernism and the spirit of entitlement that also came out of the sixties.
The influence of humanistic philosophy.
Humanism is just one facet of the Western culture,
“Western culture has been marked by a distinct slowing of momentum, or more accurately, by a decline in purposefulness and an increase in cultural introspection. The convergence of three cultural trends has created this vacuum in thought and effective action…the erosion of the Christian basis of Western culture…the failure of optimistic humanism…the failure of the sixties’ counterculture.” p.18
Humanism has it’s roots into a cultural change 500 years ago,
“The legacy of the Renaissance is humanism, then the contribution of the Enlightenment is paganism.” p.21
Humanism is an idea, but it fails in reality.
“Optimistic humanism appeals to the highest of human aspirations, but it ignores the full reality of human aberrations.” p.32
A utopian mindset.
The Western culture has moved to a utopian mindset that tries to adopt anything,
“When people cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing; they believe in anything. Cheapness and confusion will be the religious climate of the next years…faddish faith can be as dangerous as false faith.” p.67
One can look at the sixties and say that is was a time of rebellion against authority. Yet it was a populous shifting the authoritative hat,
“A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the art whereby one part of the population imposes its will on the other part…without authoritarian means no revolution would be successful.” p.148
Violence breeds more violence.
The chapter on violence was the most disturbing, but also the most revealing chapter of the book. What was shocking was to embrace the fact that America had a violent beginning,
“A resort to violence as the American way of life. From the killing of the red people and the enslaving of the black people down to the assassinations, such violence is a reoccurring theme. The only time excepted was the fifty years after the Civil War.” pp.168-169
This has made violence one of our marks,
“When they begin by viewing violence as ‘normal’ they soon slide into viewing it a ‘necessary’ and then as ‘legitimate’.” p.158
As you look at the nonsensical violence that happens in American and the West it is plain to see how this mindset plays out. Violence is frighteningly accepted in media and movies. Look at the school shootings and massacres that happen. It is breed out of this acceptance of violence. As Guinness states how younger generations are taught,
“The school authority does not represent order so much as repression, as it is a system where the boys are taught to ‘fight’ in sports, army training, and the Chapel religion fight the good fight of faith. Thus the eventual violence in response is justified. It is not crisis but catharsis, an assertion and discovery of freedom from repression.” p.157
A statement from John McCain’s lasts statement to the nation,
“We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
Guinness sees no justification for violence,
“For the Christian, a single human being made in the image of God is unique. Therefore violence can never be justified. Its pragmatic usefulness cannot be calculated in terms of individual lives, whether by a murder or by scenario scientists plating strategies of future wars in terms of mega-deaths. Violence has a dark record. It corrupts the best of ends and brutalizes the bravest ideals.” p.178
However, Guinness does believe there is a justification for “force”,
“Provided that there is a legitimate basis for its use and a vigilant precaution against its overreaction in practice, a qualified use of force is not only necessary but justifiable. Within Christian framework there is the possibility of truth, justice, and authority that are not arbitrary, relativistic, or mystifying. Thus an important distinction between force and violence is possible. Force, on the one hand, is the controlling discipline of truth, justice and authority in action. Violence, on the other hand, can come from one of three directions—from the maintenance of authority without a legitimate basis, from the contravention of a legitimate authority, or from the injustice of a legitimate overreacting as it deals with opposition or violation. Overreaction in the name of truth too easily becomes the ugly horror of violence once again.” p.180
“Provided that there is no compliance with the violent and no condoning of the violence, a qualified understanding of violence is both necessary and justifiable. To a limited extent violence is effective in unmasking hypocrisy, liberating the oppressed, and judging the oppressor.” p.183
Experience often minimizes God,
“Meaning is no longer what God means about himself to human beings, but rather what human beings mean as they search for God and express themselves in human terms.” p.318
We live in a culture that maximizing experiences,
“If the intellect cannot handle God, who is known only in encounter or crisis, then truth—in other words, the grounds for trustworthiness—is totally subjective, outside the area of conceptual knowledge or words. The depth of trust depends on the depth of the experience…In a day of spiritual counterfeits and confusion, there is no way to know whether what we are experiencing is God, an “angel of light,” an acid trip or a theologian’s hoax.” pp.340-341
Our church culture has also watered down truth,
“The net effect of all these movements—liberalism, extreme fundamentalism, ecumenism, Pentecostalism—has been to devalue truth, blur the uniqueness of the Christian faith, and leave historic Christian faith shorn of its greatest strength—its claim to be true.” p.321
The need for falsification or testing our faith is necessary,
“For the Christian the validity of the principle of falsification is welcomed as a genuine test of the integrity of faith.” p.341
At the end of the day Christians believe the Book is from God,
“The Christian faith is not even true because the Bible says so, but rather because God who is the ultimate screen of truth has said so.” p.343
“The Christian view of the universe stresses two points of fundamental importance—its reality and its rationality, both stemming from who God is and the nature of his creative work.” p.346
“Serious attention to the Christian view shows its sensitive understanding of human aspirations—by virtue of their creation in the image of God—balanced by a realistic recognition of their alienation.” p.348
In conclusion, Guinness reflects on the failure of optimistic humanism and the counterculture,
“After the erosion of Christian culture, post-Christian people have turned from the truth of God. But they still twist uncomfortably, holding what they need of truth to be human beings while denying what they dislike of truth in favour of their own chosen premises. Some search for social justice but to their shame exchange the Galilean carpenter for the bourgeois scribbler in the British Museum. Some seek for escape from suffering but miss the Man of Sorrows and follow shadowy avatars to the Nirvanic no man’s land; others, looking for an exit from it all, miss the clarion call to freedom, “I am the Way, I am the Truth, and I am the Life” stumble along a road that leads nowhere, dusty with death. Often, the logic of modern premises is hellish. But then ultimately Hell is nothing less than the truth known too late.” p.358
“The sixties was supremely a generation of talkers an travelers. An epitaph for the counterculture might well read: When all is said and done, much more will have been said than done.” p.360
Another Way—the Third Way.
What is need is a Third Race,
“What is needed is nothing short of reformation and revival in the church, a rediscovery of the truth of God by his people and a renewal of the life of God within his people.” p.362
“The Christian life is not just difficult; it is impossible. But it is exactly here than humanism leaves off and the Christian faith begins. That is also why only this uniquely ‘impossible’ faith—with a God who is, with an incarnation what is earthy and historical, with a salvation that is at cross-purposes with human nature, with a resurrection that blasts apart the finality of death—is able to provide an alternative to the sifting, settling dust of death and through a new birth open the way to new life.” p.367
There is an offer of a Third Way which “holds the promise of realism without despair, involvement without frustration, hope without romanticism.” p.19
Guinness calls prophetically for “a third way”. The basis and the subsequent life-style outworking of the Christian position is wholly different than the other two groupings (optimistic humanism and counterculture). With humanism floundering on the rocks of its own faulty basis and the counterculture suffering with severe loss of idealism. Christians at this point in history have a unique opportunity to step into the gap.
“Such a Third Way will not be easy. It will be lonely. Sometimes Christians must have the courage to stand with the Establishment, speaking boldly to the radicals and pointing out the destructive and counterproductive nature of their violence. At other times they will stand with cobelligerents with the radicals in their outrage and just demands for redress.” p.189
“The Christian stands back and affirms the higher way.” p.188
The third way is a clear call to radical Christian discipleship and the need for Christians to live out the reality of the Kingdom of God. It calls for Christians to develop a biblical world-view and to act into society rather than react as so often has been the case.
“Deep and long-lasting change is not brought about by revolution but by reconciliation and reconstruction.” p.191
Os Guinness is a thinker. His book causes you to think. He was really taken an era, a culture, and boiled down it’s fallacies. It is helpful to take a step back and consider the forest as Guinness does rather than continuing to smell the flowers.
The book helps you to grasp the thinking or mindset of a culture, a people who have forsaken God. It is as if you step into their mind and process decisions with them. This is the cultural mindset I grew up in.
As I read through the book I felt a bit of shame and anger at the decisions my parents and grandparents generation had made. I realize they aren’t entirely to blame. They were following the course of their parents and grandparents too. However, the book wasn’t simply a critic of went wrong, it offers a hope to get right. The Third Way. This is the way I want to live which is really against the grain of culture, but that can bring a culture away from its inevitable demise or destruction. There is hope for light, rather than doom and gloom.
The Dust of Death is a well-written and weighty. One should read it several times to soak it in. A quick peek is not recommended. Guinness packs a massive amount of cultural information and philosophical critique in this work. Those with limited background in philosophy, culture analysis, and theology might find it boring and abstruse. But those who can appreciate philosophy and social analysis will benefit. One who wants to understand the impact of 1960s culture on the modern world-view should read this work.
The Dust of Death is a must read for anyone who wishes to be aware of what is happening around him and gives a basis for the church (i.e. the people of God) to be in the world what God has called them to be. This book has great impact on those who serve in today’s world such as pastors, teachers, professors, leaders, and missionaries. The book helps you to know how to reach people birthed out of the sixties, a decade that still has rippled affects on today’s world.