Unspeakable Summary
by Os Guinness

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Unspeakable Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Throughout his career as a speaker and writer, Os Guinness has sought to provide a contemporary audience with a foundation for Christian faith marked by an intellectual solidity that is often sorely lacking among popular Christian authors today. Since as far back as the early 1970’s, as a member of Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri community in Switzerland, Guinness’s approach to apologetics has been marked by his attention to the necessity of grounding and legitimizing Christianity in ways that directly confront the diversity of competing worldviews. For example, Guinness rejected the 1960’s youth culture’s turn to the East for spiritual inspiration, arguing that the Eastern path offered escape but no real answers to their longings. However, instead of a predictably Eurocentric appeal for Christianity, he offered an analysis of Eastern-influenced spirituality that revealed the failure of the gurus and their disciples to confront the fullness of the Eastern traditions, an approach that is echoed in Unspeakable. Similarly, in books such as The Call (1998) and Fit Bodies, Fat Minds (1994), Guinness has attacked the anti-intellectual spirit of many American evangelicals and instead has pursued a rearticulation of the basics of the Christian faith sparked with insights drawn from a wide range of sources, both religious and secular.

Guinness’s 2005 Unspeakable provides its readers with an approach to the age-old questions of evil and suffering that are firmly planted in the context of a post-9/11 pastoral theology. From the outset, Guinness insists on a realistic confrontation with the monstrosity of evil in the modern world. This insistence upon a full awareness that evil does, indeed, exist may be the most important contribution of the book. Guinness’s emphasis on the reality of evil and suffering often makes for a difficult reading experience, and many readers may find themselves pressed to abandon the book because of its relentless accounting of atrocities. At the same time, the book’s pressing concern with a wide range of modern horrors—from the Holocaust and the Chinese Cultural Revolution to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide—underscores Guinness’s dissatisfaction with both evangelical Christianity and the secularism of Western intellectual elites. In Guinness’s view, both have failed to provide answers to the problems raised by the history of the twentieth century in a way that can provide us with a guide to living a fully examined life.

Guinness begins his book by considering the parallels between the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The earlier catastrophe, which constitutes a central incident in Voltaire’s Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759), shocked the West out of its early modern complacency and forced Europeans to rethink their general belief in a benevolent and all-powerful God. As Voltaire so eloquently demonstrated in his novel, disillusioned believers were left with no alternative but to reject their belief in the best of all possible worlds and to cultivate their individual gardens in a universe abandoned by Providence. For Guinness, the principal consequence of the Lisbon disaster was to usher in the Enlightenment’s rejection of a personal God and the West’s embrace of rationalism and humanism. In reverse fashion, Guinness believes that the events of 9/11—coming at the end of a century marked by mass murders on a previously unimaginable scale—will serve as a cultural impetus to rethink postmodernism’s embrace of relativism and to reconsider the traditional Christian approach to the problem of evil as the one view that offers the most meaningful answers for a world that has been made numb to the suffering of humankind.

Guinness’s call to rethink the problem of evil and suffering emerges from the recognition of four facts, which he identifies in the introduction to his book. First, “the scale and scope of evil has increased in the modern world.” As Guinness’s own examples throughout the book demonstrate, it would be easy to maintain that no more persuasive case against the existence of God could ever have been devised than the history of the twentieth century. Second, “modern people have demonstrated a consistently poor response to modern evil.” Guinness cites numerous incidents, from the Holocaust to the Rwandan massacres of the 1990’s, when the world has chosen to remain silent and inactive in the face of horrors perpetrated by humans against other humans. Third, Guinness contends that “modern people have shown a chronic inability to name and judge evil and to respond effectively.” In one of the most controversial examples in the book, Guinness refers to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which American soldiers were accused of engaging in the systematic torture of Iraqi prisoners, all within the confines of one of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s most notorious prisons. The failure of American political leaders and citizens to name and indict torture as evil when perpetrated by their own is a prime instance of a typically postmodern relativism that has rejected notions like sin and judgment in favor of moral equivocation. Fourth, Guinness goes on to argue that “the worst modern atrocities were perpetrated by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals and in the name of secularist beliefs.” This last point is particularly significant because of attempts by the American intelligentsia to lay the blame for 9/11 and other evils at the feet of faith itself. Guinness is quick to point out that the mass murders committed by Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot were perpetrated by avowedly secularist revolutionaries.


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Cooper, Ilene. Review of Unspeakable. Booklist, February 1, 2005, p. 919. A descriptive review.

Karel, Thomas A. Review of Unspeakable. Library Journal 130, no. 6 (April 1, 2005): 112. Brief review that assesses Guinness’s book as “unpleasant but probably necessary” and a good starting point for discussion of the issues it addresses.

Publishers Weekly. Review of Unspeakable. 251, no. 51 (December 20, 2004): 55. Brief review that concludes that the book “makes a compelling case for faith, and courage, in the face of evil’s dark reality.”

Wachter, Paul. “Confronting a Culture of Fear.” America 192, no. 12 (April 4, 2005): 32-33. Negative review of Unspeakable in which the assistant editor of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s One magazine concludes that “In times of bad fortune, people tend to cling to their beliefs, whatever those may be. Guinness provides no compelling reason to do otherwise.”