This marks a veritable baker’s dozen of Guinness books I’ve read. None of the thirteen have been duds, though I certainly have my favorites. Guinness has authored about thirty-five books along with being the lead drafter for the Williamsburg Charter and the Global Charter of Conscience. He is widely sought out as a speaker and commentator.
The following interview was conducted by David George Moore.
Moore: When I read your acknowledgements, it reminded me of something John Bunyan wrote about his most famous book. I have been teaching The Pilgrim’s Progress for many years. In his explanation for why he wrote how he wrote, Bunyan says, “As I put pen to paper and started to write, it filled me with an unexpected delight. The story unfolded with my thoughts following a process which drew on knowledge of the truth.” It sounds like this book flowed in a similar sort of manner. If that is the case, would you describe a bit more of that process in writing The Magna Carta of Humanity?
Guinness: When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, the idea was commonly thought and taught that freedom and toleration were the fruit of the Enlightenment and in particular its revulsion against the conflicts generated by religion. I experienced an incredible release and illumination when I learned a more accurate history that traced both freedom and toleration to the 16th century Reformation’s rediscovery of the “Hebrew Republic” and its impact on the politics of the 17th century. The work of Daniel Elazar, Michael Waltzer, Eric Nelson, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and other current scholars completely changed my ideas about the freedom and roots of the American republic. The book flowed fast out of that new understanding, as it served to throw light on four periods simultaneously — the story of the exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures, the impact of the Hebrew republic on 17th century thinking and both the English and the American revolutions in 1642 and 1776, the deepest analysis of crisis of freedom in American and the West today, and the prospects for leading humanity forward in the future — if Western civilization continues to decline and the autocracies such as China and Russian dominate the post-Western world.
If this is right, the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy are political classics that should be studied on a par with Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and John Stuart Mill. To explore the biblical foundations for a good society — such as human dignity, truth, words, freedom, justice, covenant, peace — is genuinely exciting. Both America and the West as a whole are awash with specious and dangerous views of freedom, so I wish more followers of Jesus rose to the challenge of being champions and defenders of the profound view of freedom we have in the Bible.
Moore: Please give a summary of your concern that many of us today are more infatuated with the French Revolution than the American Revolution.
Guinness: I wouldn’t say infatuated. Infiltrated would be more accurate. Almost everyone agrees on the great polarization in America today. The nation is as deeply divided as at any point since just before the Civil War, but the question is why. Some blame social media, some the former president, some the clash between the “coastals” and the “heartlanders,” and some the conflict between the nationalists and populists and the globalists. In my view all these play their part, but the roots of the deepest divisions lie far deeper. The deepest division is between those who understand the American republic and freedom from the perspective of the American revolution (with its roots largely, though not consistently in the Torah) and those who understand America and freedom from the perspective of ideas that are the heirs of the French revolution. For example, postmodernism, post-colonialism, cultural Marxism, identity politics, the sexual revolution, cancel culture, and so on, owe nothing to 1776 and everything to 1789.
Just as Lincoln quoted Jesus and warned that a house divided cannot stand, “half-slave and half-free,” so Americans need to face the truth today that the American republic cannot stand “half-1776 and half-1789.”
Moore: You rightfully underscore the need for a “commitment to hard thinking and hard work rather than reliance on quick fixes and easy solutions.” I certainly agree, but I want to invoke a few of your friends here for this question: Dallas Willard, as you well know, regularly said that discipleship was almost non-existent in American churches. Equally alarming, J.I. Packer said that catechesis (Christian education) was the biggest need of the church in America. I have seen the dearth of both from my own teaching and travels. What do you recommend for the many Christians and churches who have little interest in “hard thinking” and full-orbed Christian formation?
Guinness: There are no easy answers to that question. I was an undergraduate when the Christian world in Britain was rocked by Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind in 1963, which argued that Christians were not “thinking Christianly.” The advances since then have been staggering, especially among those who take education seriously, though it has been partly offset by many of the better educated Christians whose sophistication has come at the price of respectability and compromise. The general problem remains in the church at large. I would suggest two approaches. First, led by pastors and leaders, we must emphasize the importance of thinking Christianly as a matter of discipleship, and not just education – loving God with our minds as Jesus instructed us to do. Second, as groups such as Q Ideas do so well, we must all become part of a non-stop, ongoing “conversation” that wrestles through the endless issues of our day within the principles and perspectives of our faith. Doing that would not only enrich our faith, it would help us to remain faithful, rather than mimicking the wisdom of our age, and it would enhance the credibility of our contributions to the wider national debates.
Moore: You are clear in your appreciation for the writing and scholarship of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Why did you pick Rabbi Sacks as the main interlocutor for this particular writing project?
Guinness: As you know, I am Anglo-Irish and not American. As a visitor to this country, I begin with St Augustine’s idea that the way to understand a nation is not to look at the size of its population or the strength of its armed forces, but to look at what it loves supremely. Is there any question that what Americans love supremely and what America is about is freedom. And of course, not just any old freedom, but a vision of ordered freedom that owes everything to the Reformation’s rediscovery of the “Hebrew Republic” in the seventeenth century. Much of the work on this is scholarly and out of the reach of ordinary day to day reading, but although Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was English, his books are magnificent, easy to read, and immensely fertile for our faith. My Magna Carta is dedicated to him for that reason, and anyone interested in being introduced to him might read either Covenant & Conversation: Exodus the Book of Redemption or Ceremony & Celebration: An Introduction to the Holidays.
Moore: There are several scholars and writers within the Christian tradition talking about the “Hebraic” roots of our faith. There are many good things to be had from such a study, but I know Christians who have built booths etc. to reenact Jewish feasts. Paul said, “Therefore, no one is to act as your judge in regard to food and drink, or in respect to a festival or a new moon, or a Sabbath day—things which are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” How can we wisely learn about the riches of the Jewish tradition without thinking that every practice is something we ought to duplicate today?
Guinness: An important question, though apart from the Hebrew notion of shabbat (the sabbath), which we would do well to re-explore, my concern is more about Hebrew ideas than practices. We are followers of Jesus, not of Moses, Maimonides, or even Rabbi Sacks. But that said, too many Christians today are Marcionites unawares. Without listening to a famous megachurch pastor, we have already “unhitched” our faith from the Old Testament. Jesus was Jewish, and we cannot understand our Lord without doing justice to his Jewishness and the entire Old Testament. But then too, there are too many areas where our Christian thinking has become more Greek than Hebrew — in philosophy and politics, for example. I love apologetics, but much of our apologetics has been dominated by the Greeks and not the Bible – to our loss. The same is true of politics and the Christian defense of, say, democracy. In area after area, we are not as biblical as we may think we are. A massive exploration of all that we owe to the Jews and to the Hebrew Scriptures would be earth-shaking.
Moore: You wrote that “the exodus rescue of the Hebrew people from bondage and brutal oppression is a great liberation that teaches more about personal and political freedom than any other event or text in history.” That is a big and some would say too sweeping a claim. Would you fill in a few reasons why you think this claim is credible?
Guinness: Trace the impact of the exodus and the Book of Exodus on history, and in particular on revolutions and liberation movements, from the English and American revolutions to the abolition of slavery, the African-American spirituals, the Civil rights movement, liberation theology, and the like. Then ask yourself what other story rivals them? The exodus is quite simply the master narrative of Western freedom, but many Christians have reduced it to slogans (“Let my people go!”) and to stick figures (Charlton Heston’s Moses confronting Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh). But for anyone who studies Exodus, there is no rival to its views of power, oppression, words, signs and wonders, justice, freedom, covenant, and all that it takes to found and sustain a good society — God’s good society. Almost daily I find my mind blown again and again by the profundity and relevance of the truths I am discovering. I only wish I had started such worship and study much earlier.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers take from The Magna Carta of Humanity?
Guinness: I have several simple hopes for the book. First, that its analysis of the two revolutions will throw light on America’s present crisis. Too many Americans are in the mud, fighting the culture wars as “trench warfare,” with little or no idea of the wider strategic issues at stake. What America needs is another Abraham Lincoln who can define reality and call the nation back to its first principle. No one can hope to “make America great again” (President Trump) or “restore the soul of America” (President Biden) without knowing what made America America in the first place. Second, that the understanding of how much America owes to its Hebrew roots will encourage Christians to understand the depth and richness of the Bible’s view of freedom and to become worthy champions and defenders of freedom and justice today. Americans love freedom, but with so many trivial and distorted views of what freedom is and what freedom requires, American freedom is in its twilight era — if it is not to be renewed and restored. Followers of Jesus, along with our friends the Jews, must stand up and speak out as the champions and defenders of the highest and most realistic view of freedom that world has ever seen.
David George Moore is the author of several books. Most recently, he wrote Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians to offer a resource for more comprehensive spiritual formation and discipleship. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: https://www.amazon.com/Stuck-Present-History-Frees-Christians/dp/168426460X Dave’s new YouTube channel features his interviews and commentary. www.youtube.com/@MOOREENGAGING