"Beyond the Modern Age" by Gouzwaard and Bartholomew. A Review

Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture
Bob Goudzwaard and Craig G. Bartholomew
InterVarsity Press
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5151-5; $30.00; May 2017

What happens when two academics from different disciplines get together to discuss the ailments of present-day society and some possible solutions? They pen a book, print it and get it publicized! And so Bob Goudzwaard, professor emeritus of economics and social philosophy at the Free University in Amsterdam, and Craig G. Bartholomew, the H. Evan Runner Professor of Philosophy and professor of religion at Redeemer University College in Ancaster Ontario, dean of the St Georges Centre for Biblical and Public Theology, and adjunct faculty at Trinity College Bristol, have done. “Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture” is a 320 page weighty monograph digging down to the bedrock of four modern worldviews, dusting off and cataloging their finds, discussing ways to move beyond those worldviews, and finally, offering some guidance on approaches for bringing healing to a world of confusion and perplexity.

“Beyond the Modern Age” is a stout read with college students in mind, as well as those wondering what is happening in the 21st Century. Goudzwaard and Bartholomew do a load of dirty work excavating the history and trajectory of four modernities; the classic, the structural-critical, cultural-critical, and the post. While exhuming the artifacts of these four modernities the authors address the danger of ideologies and describe their three basic characteristics. First is that “one or more concrete societal goals must be achieved, acquired, or preserved at any cost.” Next, there is an increasing “dependence on the means or instruments needed to accomplish the goal.” Finally, the selection and imagery of who is “the enemy,” those who “oppose the implementation of the ultimate goal” and are the “obstacle to the dream offered by the ultimate goal, and thus must be eliminated by all means” (65-6). The writers then describe the four ultimate goals which activate people around the world: revolution, identity, material progress, and guaranteed security. The danger of being drawn into ideologies is that once the “ideologies take hold, then from that point forward people will tend to justify or legitimize any means of breaking out of their dreadful impasse” (72). I personally found this deliberation on ideologies a highly fruitful segment in the book that has sent me off pondering much that I see happening in the U.S.A. presently.

Probably the most significant portion of “Beyond the Modern Age,” at least in my mind, was the middle five chapters. In this second part of the book Goudzwaard and Bartholomew thoughtfully work through the deep contributions of Kuyper, Rieff and Girard in moving toward healthy solutions. The predominant theme has to do with healthy religion and how it can be part of the cure and not the disease. Even though religions “are far more in touch with the reality of evil” they are “not always in touch with their vulnerability to being coopted in the cause of evil” (110). And so the authors lay out six marks of healthy (Christian) religion for public life. First is that healthy religion is “self-critical, being willing to take a close look at itself” to see how it has been shaped by one of the modernities, “and to resubmit itself to the scrutiny of Scripture and the catholic tradition” (113). A second mark is that healthy religion “will see clearly the relevance of the good news in Christ for the whole creation, for the whole of society today” (116). This will entail the third mark of recovering the Missio Dei, since the church “is part of God’s mission to recover his good, “shalomic” purposes for the entire creation” (118). The fourth mark is the preferential treatment of the poor, working “to inoculate itself against consumerism and alleviate poverty wherever it is found” (122). Further, the fifth mark is to take spiritual formation seriously, while the last is the attempt, however defectively, “to live the solution” (123). All five middle chapters swirl around the theme of healthy (Christian) religion.

The last two chapters of “Beyond the Modern Age” are looking for ways to engage the contemporary crisis and move forward in two primary areas: economic life and climate change. Due to the nature of their subject these chapters are tedious, but not overwhelmingly so. The authors successfully make the case for the importance of embracing the economy of care and the economy of enough. The book ends with an epilogue that gives the background story to who Bob Goudzwaard is and his endeavors in economics and politics.

Largely, “Beyond the Modern Age” is an important volume. The authors are thoughtful, deep, global, and charitable. It is a dense read, and I did have to take days-long breaks between some of the sections to figure out what I was reading and why it was important. But if you’re concerned with what is happening in our generation, and desire to be like the men of Issachar “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12.32), then I seriously recommend this book.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing, upon my request, the free copy of the book used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).


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