The Last Christian on Earth (1): Operation Gravedigger

Last Christian

“The Christian faith contributed decisively to the rise of the modern world, but it has been undermined decisively by the modern world it helped to create. The Christian faith has become its own gravedigger.”


In light of this terse summary, which he calls “the gravedigger thesis,” Os Guinness has issued “a passionate and open plea for reformation and revival” in the Church of the West.  More accurately, he has repeated a plea that was first made in his 1983 book, The Gravedigger File: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church.


The new edition, The Last Christian on Earth: Uncover the Enemy’s Plot to Undermine the Church, gets its title from the words of Jesus in Luke 18:8:  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  Guinness explains how this new title came about.


Growing up in China, where I was witness to the beginnings of the terrible persecution that Mao Tse-Tung unleashed against the Church, I once thought Jesus was referring to the results of a time of dreadful persecution.  I now think it is more likely that Jesus was warning of a time when there could be millions of people who ostensibly name his name but are unrecognizable as the followers he called to follow his way.  Parts of the Western Church are already in that condition now.


Many other culture observers would agree, making Guinness’ plea for “reformation and revival” even more urgent than it was in 1983:  “Can we regain the full integrity of faith in Christ while fully and properly engaged in the advanced modern world?”


The core challenge to the Western Church can be expressed in three words: “integrity,” “credibility,” and “civility,” though the greatest of these is integrity.  In relation to Jesus Christ our Lord, we must regain the integrity of our faith; in relation to educated outsiders, we must regain the credibility of our faith; and in relation to people of other faiths, we must regain the civility of our faith.  This is the sum of our challenge to be utterly faithful to our Lord while at the same time utterly and properly engaged in life in this astonishing modern world.


Over the next ten weeks my Monday posts will work progressively through The Last Christian on Earth.  I’ll be doing this in conjunction with a Tuesday morning reading group that I attend.  Perhaps you’d like to pick up a copy and read along!


The literary device of The Last Christian is similar to C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, except here a master spy is writing to an operative whose job is to undermine the Christian Church.  Guinness, an Oxford-trained sociologist, uses this device to very effectively translate concepts from the social sciences into ideas that relate to faith and discipleship.


From “Memorandum 1:  Operation Gravedigger,” here are a few excerpts from the spy master’s comments regarding the subtle strategies of subversion, beginning with a restatement of the “gravedigger thesis.”


The Christian faith contributed to the rise of the modern world, but the Christian faith has been undermined by the modern world it helped to create. The Christian faith thus becomes its own gravedigger. …


[N]either persecution nor discrimination is an essential part of our strategy. They are too crass. … They are too crude, and their hostility too obvious.


The brilliance of seduction through modernization is that it succeeds when modernity is at its best, not its worst. The insights and technologies of modernity are devastating because they are so powerful, so positive and so beneficial. After all, who can argue against his own tools after they have brought such convenience and success?


This strategy of subversion through worldliness has followed certain overlapping stages. …


1.       The first stage is penetration (or “worming in”) …

2.      The second stage is demoralization (or “softening up”) …

3.      The third stage is subversion (or “winning over”) …

4.      The fourth stage is defection (or “bringing over”) …

5.      The final stage … is liberation (or the “taking over” of the whole Church) …


At the end of “Memorandum 1,” the spy master summarizes what he calls “subversion through cultural captivity.”


The Christianization of the modern world is leading to the modernization of the Christian faith and away from the way of Jesus. Similarly, as we shall see, the Christianization of America has led to the Americanization of the Christian faith and away from the way of Jesus.



The Last Christian on Earth: Uncover the Enemy’s Plot to Undermine the Church may be purchased here.  An Interview with Os Guinness about the Gravedigger Thesis” is available at Justin Taylor’s Gospel Coalition blog.

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