*** “Some of the Truth, Anyway”
Telling the Truth About History is a passionate and
insightful tract about the meaning and value of history as it relates in
particular to American democracy. The authors, historians at UCLA who have
written on American history and on the Enlightenment, argue for a pragmatic and
empirical approach to studying the past, against the "absolutisms" of
a reified, capitalized, and "heroic" Science, Cold War ideologies,
strong post-modernism, and "traditionalism." Against all that they
make the case that history is study of an objective and to some extent knowable
past, which should serve democratic values by telling a story that embraces
Three issues in this book particularly interested me: their take on the epistemology of history, conservatives on campus, and how historians with an ax to grind (basically, almost all of us) can support an idea by placing it in a larger historical context.
I noted with interest that the authors, who generally wrote as secularists, found themselves using the words "faith" and "belief" to describe the historical epistemology they found most reasonable: "Belief in the reality of the past and its knowability is essential to a practice of history . . . An openness to the interplay between certainty and doubt keeps faith with the expansive quality of democracy . . . a belief in the reality of the past . . . Such faith helps discipline the understanding by requiring constant reference to something outside of the human mind."
While I am not sure the adjective "scientific" best describes historical epistemology, such comments remind us that uncertainty and knowledge are always in tension, and that this state of affairs is healthy. History is never a matter of certain proof, rather of warranted belief based on good evidence. I have argued that this form of "faith" is very close to what informed Christians have always meant by the word. This is a common sense view of epistemology that finds middle ground between the positivism of a Richard Dawkins and "blind faith."
The authors position themselves towards the middle of contemporary academic American "culture wars." They admit, on the one hand, that some "politically correct" talk goes too far in limiting free speech. I think their somewhat more emphatic criticism of the opposite tendency, what they call "traditionalism," is mostly overstated, though. They picture conservative colleagues as "muscular ideologues." They accuse those who oppose compulsory classes in women's studies or multiculturalism of carrying out an "all-out war on multiculturalism and the democratization of the university," "using the dead hand of the past . . . to muzzle the voices of the present" and creating a "national bogey in the form of political correctness." They position traditionalists as defenders of the "status quo" and de facto opponents of the "effort to democratize the university."
Much of their talk on this subject seems overwrought, and I don't think it accurately reflects the situation on American universities. The "status quo" is anything but conservative or "traditionalist" on American campuses. Making the university more "democratic" would entail participation not just by the assortment of neo-Marxists, radical skeptics, relativists, post-modernists, and "liberals" the authors describe, but also by that huge portion of the American populace that holds to "traditional" values. Forcing students to take politically radical classes, which often prove in practice to be taught by professors hostile towards the tradition in which those students have been brought up, seems by their own lights anti-democratic. The authors equate "the decision by an American university to recruit postmodernist faculty members" with "searching for scholars with a particular expertise," as if choosing ideologues of a particular stripe were the same as choosing people with expertise in a given field of study.
I have been told how an earlier generation of moderately liberal faculty members, in a desire to recruit more widely, elected scholars who were wed to some of the far-left agendas they mention. Unfortunately the new, ideological scholars did not always share an appreciation of philosophical diversity, so the faculty became more illiberal and exclusive. It would be naïve to equate radical stances with "liberality" in the ethical sense.
Towards the end of the book, Appleby, Hunt and Jacob make some interesting comments on the democratic value of historical study.
They point out that history can provide minority groups with a
psychologically empowering social solidarity. Historical precedent can lend the
oppressed a fellowship with the past: "roots," to use the term Alex
Haley used to justify his own search for dignity as an African American
descendent of slaves.
As someone who studies the process by which Christian thinkers relate their faith to pre-Christian traditions, I find this interesting. But of course historical precedent is a double-edged sword, because every tradition is diverse. Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob open the door to all kinds of "marginal" and "diverse" viewpoints to enter the mainstream, but do not help us judge between them.
The power of alternative historical narratives to strengthen marginal positions is ambivalent. One can find precedent not just for abortion, but infanticide or human sacrifice, in Western history. The Nazis also appealed to a real or imagined pre-Christian past to reinvent slave labor and a virulent form of human sacrifice.
The question, then, is what criterion one will use to decide which parts of the human heritage one should link to. For me, that's Christ. The authors make it clear that they think neither religion nor science provides an adequate criterion. The pragmatic alternative they offer seems fuzzy and open to manipulation. I guess that's the nature of pragmatism. They seem like reasonable people, though, and make many interesting points.
** “The Biography is Better”
A century ago, a man named Grant Allen wrote a book called
"The evolution of the idea of God." G.K.Chesterton reviewed it by noting, "It would have
been more interesting if God had written about the evolution of the idea of
Grant Allen." Armstrong's book is fascinating at times, but two things
hindered the story. First, she limits herself to the history of purely human
ideas and ideologies, or from a Christian perspective, a history of idolatry.
The book is like looking at the moon under the assumption that the light you
see is native to that sphere. Second, Armstrong ignores all evidence that God
may be more than merely an idea, may be a person who acts in history. (Such as
the universe itself, prophets, and miracles.)
One aspect of that evidence of which most people are unaware, and that relates to the theme of this book, is the fact that monotheism is not solely a "western" concept. One finds an awareness of the Creator even in countries where all institutional and pedagogical institutions have been hostile to Him for hundreds of years, and native religions appear to have no use for him, such as Japan. This is as the Bible predicts: Paul said that in our hearts, we know God is and that we are not Him, but suppress that knowledge. The history of organized religion, east and west, is largely a history of men and women running from God. Armstrong's book is in a sense a well-written and gosippy history of that flight.
I suggest four books which give an aspect of the "history of God" Armstrong and her fellows routinely ignore: how the God of the Bible reveals Himself to non-Christian cultures. The first is Chesterton's Everlasting Man. The second is Eternity in Their Hearts, by Don Richardson, one of the most interesting books on religion published this century. The third is a book I wrote after reading Richardson's theories, and finding out that they ring true: Jesus and the Religions of Man, especially the chapter "The Non History of God," an in-depth response to this book. I also recommend the book God wrote on the evolution of the idea of Karen Armstrong, especially the first chapters of Romans.
If that's all Jacques Barzun has to say for himself, it should be enough -- if not before God, at least to whoever launched him on his career. This is how history ought to be written: witty, arising from magesterial study but focusing on telling details, sympathetic to a wide range of characters and beliefs and accomplishments (he comes close to getting both Pascal and Voltaire right), yet is also boldly partisan (of a party of one). Barzun offers wonderful vignettes on the already-known, (Bacon, Luther, Descartes, Nietzche, and dozens more) and on characters most of us will find obscure. Barzun gives only enough of politics and "events" to frame the story of western cultural life.
Barzun throws the spot-light on his lesser-known subjects not for their benefit, he mostly convinces us, but for our own. They belong closer to the center stream of Western thought than they are usually placed. He devotes three pages to the 17th Century radical John Lilburne, whom he credits with precociously progressive views, obscure because he drew them unfashionably from St. Paul, rather than the laws of nature. In the 20th Century, he devotes another three pages to Dorothy Sayers, bypassing orthodox co-conspirators like Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton. But that provides relief: he keeps you on your toes. Sometimes he seems to be overreaching, but his insights are usually interesting and there hardly seems to be a platitude in the book.
The time frame Barzun chooses is of course arbitrary. Some would say (and I think they're probably right) that the West was already set on the road to glory by date he chooses to open. And the story seems to fizzle out in the end, not so much in decadence, as from the focusing effect of looking at an object that is too close to see clearly. Also, in modern times boundaries between cultures have become porous; now we need a human story. But within the broad frame of his work, almost every splash and dot is interesting.
***** “Well-Balanced, Readable, and Impressive Survey”
The reviewer below gives a pretty good summary of the book's contents, so I'll just add my two bits about its quality. C&WT is well-done, balanced, and readable. The author relates the ideas of leading Christian and non-Christian thinkers in a clear style, interjecting his own thoughtful viewpoint with about the right frequency. He treats readers with respect, but has mercy on those of us who find a lot of philosophical discourse a bit esoteric by explaining terms and concepts. None of the book is boring, (to me) because Brown engages his subjects with respect and interest -- this is not an archeological dig in quaint DWM thought. Nor is the book a long editorial. When the author gives his opinion, he sets it clearly apart, and it is cogent and reasonable. Brown not only shows the awesome breadth of knowledge that such an undertaking requires -- charting the ideas of great and famous thinkers from 500 B. C. to 1800 in a single complex story -- he also demonstrates good taste and judgement in dealing with thinkers of such widely differing views and personalities. I appreciated, for example, his rehabilitation of Descartes, the brackets he puts around Hume, his discussion of Pascal, and so on. It seems to me he deals with them all pretty fairly, though of course this book is no substitute for the originals. I hope volume II is as good.
It would be unfair to complain that the book is too narrow in scope. But it may encourage an attitude among Western Christians that I think is. Brown seems to envision "the West" almost hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. (As do so many Christians.) For instance, Brown seems to go along with the convention that the Greeks started philosophy too readily. But weren't the Pythagoreans roughly a school of Advetic thought beamed over from India? And don't the Vedas, the Hundred Schools of Zhou-era China, and so on, also have claims to originating philosophy? Or more pertinently -- how about the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament? What is needed now that Christianity is no longer primarily a Western religion is to connect Christian thought to its roots in world rather than Western (Greek) tradition alone. Can we hope for a volume three in the series?
***** "Deep and Prophetically Eloquent"
In Life of Johnson, Boswell brings up the name of Johnson's one-time sparing partner, Edmund Burke. Johnson, being quite sick, and not given to easy praise, admits, "Yes, Burke is an extraordinary man." Boswell tries to coax a more quotable reply, and Johnson, who thought argument the sole end of conversation, finally noted, "That fellow calls forth all my powers. Were I to see Burke now, it would kill me."
Reflections on the Revolution in France should not be a killer read for most, but is difficult in spots. Many of the sentences are long and complex, written in an age when thought and rhetoric had not yet been corroded by sound bites. Some of the topics may seem a bit obscure now. But this is undoubtedly a great book, by a great man, thinking lucidly and passionately about great issues. It is indeed a work of great intellectual power. At the same time, it is also a work of moral passion, balance, and foresight, often eloquently and sometimes simply expressed.
Much of it is also remarkably timely. Not only did Burke seem to anticipate the extremes to which the French Revolution was tending, the great Marxist revolutions of our times also often greatly resemble his remarks. "It is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one." "Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle." "Criminal means once tolerated are soon preferred. . . Justifying perfidy and murder for the public benefit, public benefit will soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end." Examples could be multiplied. Reading the book, the subsequent history not only of communism, but also of progressive social cults in the West, becomes more comprehensible.
I prefer to think of Burke primarily in moral or spiritual terms, rather than political. Burke remarks, anticipating Rank and Becker and preempting Marx's silly economic heresy, (and anticipating Marxist personality cults) "Man is by his constitution a religious animal." One of the attractive things about Burke to me is his non-sectarian faith; he spoke from a viewpoint C. S. Lewis later described as "Mere Christianity." Some of his insights also parallel those of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius. What the two men shared was intellectual acuity combined with humility that expressed itself as a willingness to sit at the feet of teachers of the past. "We know that we have made no discoveries; and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality." That is one pole within the orthodox Christian approach to morality; God has "placed eternity in our hearts;" the Tao is universal, as Lewis argued.
Burke's argument may go too far at times; surely some of the changes wrought by the French Revolution were for the good, and there is something to be said for the moral passion of the revolutionary. And not every paragraph is interesting to me. Still, overall, the balance and sanity of this book remain not just as a monument to the powers of its author, but as useful resource to anyone who thinks about the relation of power and morality. Solomon said, "Pride comes before a fall." This book is, in some ways, a prophetic and wise meditation on the social consequences of that deep truth.
**** “A Great Cloud of Witnesses”
This book is a well-written, fairly well-researched, and careful argument that, far from doing great harm, the Gospel has done the human race a lot of good. No, the Nazis were not Christians: in fact many Christians played a very honorable role in opposing them, they show. It is not a coincidence, they maintain, that modern science, democracy ,and the end of slavery began in Christian countries: there are connections.
One reviewer below accuses the authors of constructing a straw man argument. What planet is he living on? At the head of each chapter the authors briefly summarize a common charge against Christianity, then develop it a bit before bringing contrary evidence. I've heard all the charges, many times. The reviewer thinks that the "real point" is that "the Christian Right are repugnant to thoughtful people" because they "champion prejudice and intolerance" bomb abortion clinics, and so on. But the authors readily and repeatedly admit that some Christians get carried away in zeal or forget their own beliefs in the heat of passion. And in the case of abortion, right or wrong, Christians see themselves as protecting those who cannot protect themselves -- the ultimate underdogs. Right or wrong, that is hardly "selfishness." So who is attacking a straw man?
The critic makes two good points, though. First, the authors do appear ignorant of other religious traditions. They mostly focus on Europe and the Americas. It was gauling to me that most their (passing) references to the Chinese tradition were negative. A fuller view would take more into account the accomplishments of other traditions. Such an argument would only be stronger, because it would also take account of the enormous contributions of the Gospel to Asian cultures. (See my Jesus and the Religions of Man, also books by Vishal Mangalwadi and J.N. Farquhar. While I'm recommending authors who have interesting things to say on this topic, also check out Rene Girard -- the Scapegoat.)
The critic is also right in implying that a "raw raw" argument can be spiritually dangerous. "My" faith can easily become an ego attachment, encouraging complacency, superiority, or a defensive attitude. The facts here are true, and therefore ought to be better known, and taken into account. (And the quality of the book is good enough that you may feel comfortable giving a copy to your most educated cynical friend.) But the danger of pride does lurk in focusing on such facts, if done with the wrong attitude. What the authors describe here (I remind myself) is not what "my" faith has done, but the work of the Lord: examples for meditation and emulation, in a world still in need of God's love. Hebrews 12:1 could profitably be printed on the back cover: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us set aside every encumbrance, and the sin that so easily besets us, and run the race that is set before us."
***** “Doesn’t Ramble Enough!”
The first time I read this book, I felt almost as impatient with Chesterton's "verbosity" and "hot air" as some of the reviewers below. In regard to the bare facts of Francis' life, one comes to feel a bit as Chesterton said of the Troubadours' lovers: "The reader realizes that the lady is the most beautiful being that can possibly exist, only he has occasional doubts as to whether she does exist." Moments came when I found myself thirsting for dry facts. But I think the problem is that Chesterton assumes his readers, as educated persons of his period, know the story already, and only need to be enlightened as to its meaning. One can get facts anywhere. Few can take us inside the thinking of a man like Francis. And absolutely no one I know writes with such entertaining flair, of a healing kind so different from modern books and movies that wound our souls with their pleasures.
On second reading, I find I enjoyed this episode about as much as the biography of Dickens -- which was very much. Chesterton looks at Francis, in varying cadences, from the inside, to help us think and feel as he did, then from the outside, as children of the Enlightenment, a two-perspective approach that gives us a rounded figure. Those of us who have no other knowledge of Francis may sometimes wonder how much of that figure is Francis and how much Chesterton, (who was, after all, probably the more rounded of the two). But the insights are always brilliant. And many still cut like daggers. (Or rather scalpels, to heal.) "We read that Admiral Bangs has been shot, which is the first intimation we have that he has ever been born." "The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant." "All goods look better when they look like gifts." "There is only one intelligent reason why a man does not believe in miracles and that is that he does believe in materialism." Anyone who finds such digressions merely "hot air," would be best advised to keep to dry-as-dust historical commentaries, or skeptical comic books, as the case may be.
This book is not so much a biography of a single man, as an episode in Chesterton's ongoing spiritual biography of mankind. It is one in a series of what Solzhenitsyn called "knots" and Thomas Cahill calls "hinges" of history. The series continues with Chesterton's equally subjective but enlightening biographies of Chaucer, Dickens, Joan of Arc, and modern "Heretics." He gives the outline of the project in the Everlasting Man, which is one of the most brilliant and wisest books of the century.
As a non-Catholic Christian ("Protestant" would place the emphasis in the wrong place), I don't agree with Chesterton's take on the Albigensian Wars, and am more ambivalent about the Crusades than he. But he does not exactly justify the Inquisition, as the reader below implies; he admits that in later stages it was a "horrible thing that might be haunted by demons." How many modern leftists admitted that much about, say, the Russian Revolution? But I agree he may try to "understand" the sins committed by his side a little too hard.
"A good half-legendary introduction"
This is one of those old-fashioned "history" books that
works as a series of inspiring stories, based on stories that can make some
claim to have actually happened, but the claim doesn't need to be entirely
convincing, certainly not objective, to get past the author's critical eye.
It really is a fascinating book. The author introduces many of the principle characters of the post-apostolic Christian story from around the Mediterrenean and European worlds, in a vivid, contemporary "Living Bible" style. Churchill generally shows good sense in his (her?) running commentary, and gives a pretty good overview of Church history along the way. This would be a great book to inspire young people with the history of Christianity. You might want to warn them that not all the stories in here -- King Wenzeslas, for example -- probably happened quite like that. They can graduate to more serious (but thrilling in a more subtle way!) stuff from Stark or Pelikan or Fletcher later on. Adults can also enjoy the book, and become acquainted with a few new names, as I did, as long as you recall that some of the stories are based on dubious sources, and take their historicity with a grain of salt.
Kepler’s Witch: An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order During Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother, James Conner
“A Small World, but a Big Cosmos”
The critic who says Conner is telling two stories at once is
right: this is a "life and times" biography. That is, the author
finds the life of Johannes Kepler and the polarized, tumultuous, superstitious,
expanding world he lived in equally fascinating. He made both subjects
interesting for me, too. And unlike some readers, I think he joined them in a
well-written, sometimes impish, sometimes melancholy, and always intelligent
Conner spices the narrative pot with pungent observations and quotes: "(Kepler's mother) was a little mad, but only a little, which was far more dangerous than being (like her rival) an abortionist and prostitute." "Kepler argued that astronomy is natural to humanity, as natural as singing is to songbirds." "The harmonies were arranged in phalanxes of ever more complicated patterns coalescing into a great cosmic symphony, a music so profound that it harrowed the heart and set fire to the soul." Kepler: "'It hurts my heart that these three great blocs have ripped at the truth so terribly that I am left collecting it piece by piece, wherever I can find them . . . God already has rewarded our warring Germany with lamentation.'"
Kepler was born a Lutheran and a "catholic" Christian, and remained faithful all his life. Yet the Lutheran church excommunicated him, and the Catholics chased his family from town to town. The 16th Century being the time for witch trials as well as science (see Stark, For the Glory of God, for helpful ideas about how the various goings on in Kepler's time related to Christianity), Kepler's mother was tried as a witch, while he set science on a course to the stars. Conner tells both stories well and I think connects them well too.
It is obvious Conner likes and respects his subject. Kepler was a scientific genius, and more, a kind and sensible Christian in a world where religious professionals forgot the virtue their Lord said was the soul of the Law and the Prophets. "My conscience commands me to love an enemy and not harm him . . . I ought to be an example of moderation and mildness for my enemy . . . then at last may God send us the dear desired peace." Growing up in a rather harsh and loveless home, a settled family life collateral damage to every new fad in social perversity, he managed to love God and man, and cultivate a cheerful curiosity at the world and our mysterious fellow-travelers that dance across the night sky. As Chesterton said of another Medieval figure (Francis?), Kepler lived in a small world, but a big cosmos.
Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, John Ehle
“Honest, Interesting, Messy History”
The title "Trail of Tears" brings to mind a simple, dramatic outline. Cherokees adapt to the coming of white men by borrowing "civilized arts," but in the end are cruelly and uncivilly displaced from their homes to reservations in the West. This book does tell that trajedy. But Ehle gives more of a social and sometimes anthropological history, not a melodrama or sermon. He describes Cherokee customs, tells the story of two leading Cherokee families, and also offers a series of snapshots of contemporary American culture (or cultures): frontiermen and missionary, statesmen and black slave. Both Indians and whites come across as more complex and varied than any derivative of either the John Wayne or the Noble Savage stereotype: Ehle is a historian, not a historicist, and allows facts, events, and letters to speak for themselves without undue manipulation. The details he selects are usually interesting, and my net impression is of meeting real human beings.
The contrast between missionaries and full-blooded Cherokees could easily descend to hagiography or satire, but Ehle manages instead to show something of the nobility, and the blindness, on both sides of that particular conflict. Georgia legislators and frontiersmen come across a bit more negatively, but appear to have no one to blame for that but themselves. Ehle does not press the point, but there is a lot of food for thought and fruitful national soul-searching here.
The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, Richard Fletcher
**** “Dry Bones Mostly Come to Life”
If you want to know how Europe became Christian (to the extent
that it did), I can hardly recommend this book too highly. Fletcher is a
judicious historian, a delightful conversationalist, and knows his stuff. I
bought this book for background for my research on how Christians in settled
civilizations related a new faith to ancient cultures. It was a lucky buy.
Fletcher tells the story, and when possible, tells it well. I remember knocking
on the door of the art historian two floors up to share some of the
illustrations and points that went with them.
Some parts of the book remain a bit dry, though, when the story became repetitive or good sources seemed unavailable. (As Fletcher wryly puts it, "the historian of the dark ages must be thankful for the smallest mercies.") But covering a thousand years of obscurity is not alway merciful to the reader. It's hard to remember all the names, for one thing, and Fletcher sometimes forgets to remind us who is who.
I'm interested in is "fulfillment theology" -- the idea many Christians have had that the Gospel does not simply abolish, but fulfills, the deepest truths in pre-Christian cultures. The Christians Fletcher talks about seem to have been pretty flexible on culture and faith -- less rigid than many colonial missionaries would become -- but did not think about the issue so deeply as an Augustine, an Origin, a Ricci, or a Chesterton. Sometimes faith and culture come together in a daffy ad-hoc mixture: Anglo-Saxon kings once traced their lineages to the god Woden: after conversion, they traced it through Woden back to Adam!
Conversion seemed to run strongly along aristocratic family lines -- the theme comes up again and again. And while believers often had a very worldly notion of God's blessing, it was interesting to see how the upper classes sacrificed for their faith, as well as gain from it materially or politically. Fletcher shows that conversion was seldom entirely forced, but often was socially motivated. (Princess brides seemed to accomplish almost as much as missionaries.) All in all, a useful resource, and an excellent read.
The Scapegoat, Rene Girard
**** “A Rough Path Through and Extraordinary Landscape”
Rene Girard proposes to change how we think about religion and history. To do so, he takes us through history, mythology, and the New Testament, pointing out facts we may not have noticed about group violence and how it justifies itself, and the way Jesus "subverts the dominant paradigm," as they say. Like a geologist pointing to a piece of land we have walked across since childhood, and explaining Plate Tectonics and the volcanic origins of familiar landmarks, the ground seems to shift under our feet as we look at familiar facts from these new points of view.
No doubt Girard gets carried away, and tries to explain too much. Simplicity is the curse of great intellects -- Marx thought love of money was the root of all motivation, Freud over-emphasized sex, and Ernest Becker proposed to explain all human neurosis in terms of fear of death. Similarly, Girard claims: "All human language, and other cultural institutions, in fact, originated in collective murder." All?
Perhaps Girard is mocking the positivists with his method. He gives a paltry handful of examples, links them together in the most tenuous way, and tells us he's "proven" the enormous sweep of his claims. I sympathize with the minimilist approach from an artistic standpoint, but I'm going to have to think through the data for a while to see if it really fits. Based on what I know of Chinese history, for example, I think the theory Girard gives in this book may have definite explanatory value. Last emperors of prior dynasties are usually depicted as villains, and the founders of new dynasties, who generally have blood on their hands, are justified, as part of Girard's theory predicts. But I doubt even his full theory will fit everything.
Girard seems to know what he's talking about, but sometimes he forgets to explain it adequately to his readers. He occasionally blunders into sentences like this: "Is it enough to justify our qualifying the interpretation that subverts the representation of persecution by revealing it as scientific?" Uh. . . No!
For all the book's occasional faults, however, I find it changing the way I see society. Consider, for example, what the experts have been telling us about Islam for the last few months, and the realities of what Mohammed actually did, in light of the following sentence: "Human culture is predisposed to the permanent concealment of its origins in collective violence." This is exactly what politicians, scholars, and the press have been doing in regard to early Islam.
The way in which Girard explains the phenomena of scapegoating also casts a great deal of light, it seems to me, on the extreme hostility manifest not only in the Muslim world, but even in the West, towards the state of Israel, recently. The Muslim world is in a turmoil, and the Jews have been set up, as so often before, as the scapegoats -- as Girard's theory predicts.
Girard depicts evil as a second-rate, taudry, and cowardly thing, and shows true heroism in all its beauty. His discussion of the Gospels and history is especially good. (In my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, I describe other scapegoat phenomena from around the world, and relate them in a different but perhaps complementary way to the Gospels.)
The Scapegoat is, in short, well worth attention. While some of Girard's ideas may be out to lunch, he certainly offers insights here of real and paradigm-shifting value about the nature of man and the work of Christ. This book may change how you see the world.
131 Christians Everyone Should Know, Mark Ghalli
*** “Good Finger Food (Where are the Entrees?)”
This book is a pretty good way to introduce yourself to many of the most influential thinkers and doers of the Christian tradition. It's easy to nibble at this salad bar of biographies, and it's easy to become addicted to nibbling.
I have two gripes. First, a predictable complaint about the choices. Only two scientists are included (plus Pascal, as an apologist) -- but not Neuton, Kepler, Faraday, Kelvin, or Lister. At the same time, a few minor characters like William Miller and Aimee McPherson are, apparently to pad the "denominational founders" number. It is also hard to understand why no Latin Americans, black Africans, Indians, or Chinese (Watchman Nee? Wang Ming Dao?) made the grade. Isn't one purpose of this book is to help us Anglo-Saxon Christians become less parochial?
My other complaint is that the authors, or editors, talk down to their readers. The back cover of the book opens, "If you think history is boring. . . " Well if I thought that, I wouldn't buy the book. The authors give less than a page and a half to Francis Bacon, clutter that little space up with irrelevent biographical detail (no doubt to make the story "interesting"), and never get around to telling us why he is worth knowing or what he achieved.
Perhaps at times the problem is they lack the necessary breadth of knowledge to tackle some of their subjects. They give the usual caricature of Pascal as promoting "faith" rather than "reason," in lieu of the more complex truth, that he wrote of both brilliantly, and did not agree to the conflict that we moderns read into the relationship between the two. They claim that G. K. Chesterton had no masterpieces – I would disagree, both Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy qualify, in my opinion.
The authors present Harriet Beecher Stowe as "the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin," which they describe as "contrived, unreal," and "romanticized." They fail to mention that the woman did have some real talent; perhaps they didn't notice it. They also skipped over one of the most attractive qualities of her story, the mutual loyalties between herself, her famous father and brother, and her husband, and how out of the matrix of such personal support that Stowe began to develop, in later life, a Christian feminism rooted in respect between the sexes, that contrasted with the radical feminism of George Elliot, for example. All that could have been fitted into the white space at the end of Stowe's third page, and made the story much richer.
This is a pretty good introductory reference or self-education book for a church or personal library, or as a text for homeschooling. I did learn a little about a lot of people I wanted to know more of. But I wish Christian editors would stop dumbing down their books. What would have been helpful is a bibliography, so readers who catch the passion for history the authors want to promote, could go further with it. I guess they don't want to tax their readers.
The History of Christian Thought, Jonathan Hill
*** “Bites off more than he can Chew”
This is a well-written introduction to many interesting and
important thinkers. Hill introduces each era and movement, tells about the
lives of his subjects with lively anecdotes, then sketches an outline of their
thought. He has a good sense of humor; his discussion of post-modernism, for
example, is suitably wry.
It seems to me, though, that Hill has bitten off much more than he can chew.
First of all, what does he mean, "Christian thought?" In the ancient world, a "philosopher" was someone who sought truth of all sorts, without being constrained by our modern concept of academic disciplines. Most of the ancient thinkers Hill discusses are "philosophers" in this sense, and so are many Medieval and Renaissance "thinkers." But in the modern era, Hill narrows his scope to recognized "theologians" (Bultmann, Barth, Tillich, etc.) He doesn't so much as mention folks like Chesterton, Girard, Solzhenitsyn, Plantinga, Stark, or C. S. Lewis. A narrative so potentially vast must limit itself, but the failure to mention such influential thinkers seems odd to me.
While his treatment of some thinkers left me thirsting for more (Pannenberg, for example), I hardly recognized his monochromatic caricature of Augustine. (I doubt he likes him.)
Worse is Hill's shallow and misleading treatment of four important topics: the relationships between faith and reason, attitudes to past thought, Christianity and culture, and the "historical Jesus."
On faith, Hill seems to buy the "Enlightenment myth" lock, stock and barrel. "Whether we like it or not," science and religion "do operate according to different value systems, and they do make conflicting claims about the world." Well, gee, glad to have that settled -- paying attention, Polkinghorne, Lewis, and Niebuhr? "People were looking at the world with new eyes -- the eyes of reason, not those of faith." Recently, I researched what thirty great Christian thinkers said about faith and reason, beginning with Justin Martyr. For most, faith and reason were like the wings on a single bird, as Pope John Paul put it, complementary though distinct. It is more plausible to say this phony distinction between faith and reason is one of the fundamental errors of the Enlightenment. (See my Jesus and the Religions of Man for details, or the anthology on faith and reason at christthetao.com.)
Rather than referring to the cogency of arguments or new data, often Hill exhibits a cloying "chronological snobbery" (as Lewis put it) to explain why new ideas supplant old ones. Origin's idea of a succession of universes "sounds like science fiction" but was "more reasonable" in those days. (Has Hill never heard of the oscillating universe or multiverse hypothesis?) "Deism seems hopelessly naive to us today." (Has he read Steven Hawking or Anthony Flew?) "Barth put the Trinity and Christology at the center of Christian thought." (Oh? And where had they been?) Hill's discussion of feminist theology suffers from a naively critical view of the past. (See "The Sexual Revolution" in Jesus and the Religions of Man.)
Hill's treatment of faith and culture is even weaker. "For the first time (during the Enlightenment) cultured people were becoming aware that other religions were not simple forces of darkness but had worthy ideals and concepts of God." Hill has read the Church fathers; he ought to know better. Justin, Clement of Alexander, and Origin, all said that pagan philosophers not only shed light, but were "tutors" to bring the world to Christ. Augustine became a Christian through Plato, and Dante credited Virgil for his faith.
Hill's treatment of Asian Christianity is especially weakened by this error. His discussion of Nestorian Christianity in China ("Jingjiao" not "jinjaio" as he renders it) seems tacked on. He spends four paragraphs on Marco Polo, but absurdly, does not so much as mention the great Matteo Ricci. He says nothing about the Chinese Christians who developed Ricci's Biblical (and Augustinian) approach. Nor does he mention key later thinkers like James Legge, Lin Yutang, or Yuan Zhiming, any Indian thinker, or such interesting thinkers as Uchimura Kanzou in Japan. Instead, he focuses on a few obscure theologians, writing as if the idea of relating Christian faith to Asian culture were a modern idea!
Finally, Hill does not deal seriously with the "historical Jesus" question, which looms large in late chapters. Barth, he says, "rejects the whole enterprise" of the search for the historical Jesus, "cutting Christianity adrift from its historical foundations." What Hill does not explain is why Barth did that, or what it means. In Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, I described twelve basic errors in history, logic, and epistemology that undermine secular "historical Jesus research," errors implicating some of Hill's subjects. Again, Hill makes little effort to sort these issues out or critique "enlightened" views.
These are epic seas, over which Odysseus himself could not sail without occasionally grounding. Hill simply and succinctly describing the lives and thought of many important figures. Apart from these reservations, this is not a bad book. But it does show, as Hill himself admits, that there is no substitute for reading the originals.
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the world order, Samuel Huntington
***** “Too big a chunk of reality?”
I remember noticing the essay on which this book was based, in an international newspaper several years ago. Though I knew nothing of the author at the time, I don't think it took me more than a paragraph or two to realize, first, "This is a major argument," second, "It has some validity," and third, "This is going to make a lot of people mad." The book is, of course, far more nuanced and detailed than the article. I do not agree with every point Professor Huntington makes, but it certainly carries through on the promise of those first few paragraphs. This book is one strong and rather iconoclastic model by which to understand international relations in the coming years. Even if you disagree with it, or find it offensive, this is definitely a book worth reading, or if you're a teaching, assigning your students to read and attack or defend.
I do not think some attacks below (not all really arguments) on Huntington's approach to Islam were quite fair. I didn't see anything "pathological" or "paranoid" about his arguments, and he explicitly stated, time and time again, that Islam was not at all "monolithic." Actually, I think he is sometimes overly cautious and understated on the subject, in effect making all kinds of excuses for the militant character of Islam, and holding out the hope that it will mellow. Anyone who knows how Islam is perceived by non-Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, India, or China, or is aware of the military career of Mohammed, can only be amazed how prevalent p.c. attempts to deny the obvious seem to be. (A phenomena we have seen with other absolutist ideologies.) Instead of trying to browbeat anyone who tells the truth about Islamic militarism and lack of freedom, why don't Muslim intellectuals change the realities? (If they can.)
It is true, Huntington did not clearly define what he meant by "civilization." It seems odd to designate countries that have been taught atheism for eighty years, "Orthodox," for example. But I think the basic categories are sound, however we quibble about semantics. I see the relationship between China and the West as more ambivalent, though, in other words more potentially positive, than Huntington. (I wrote a book, True Son of Heaven, which describes common links between Chinese and Christian thought.) While Huntington discusses other variables, one of the main assumptions of this book is that powers clash. He generally seems to avoid dogmatism on the nature or intensity of the clash. So I agree that some tension in the relationships he describes is fairly inevitable, though I by no means ascribe to Real Politic or any deterministic or cynical view of human relations.
Agree or disagree, Huntington's is a thesis that deserves careful consideration. It contains some hard truths, but as the Preacher said, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life, Ian Hunter
***** “A Man at Right Turns to Convention”
The first reviewer has analyzed the strengths of this biography
quite astutely: I also found Hunter's engaged, questioning, opinionated style
appropriate to the man analyzed, and lively, besides. Muggeridge has lived on
all six inhabited continents, "outed" Joseph Stalin, a German spy,
and Mother Theresa for what they (respectively) were, interviewed Khrushchev
and De Gaul, and found Jesus. This is not just the story of a man, it is the
story of a century.
Muggeridge seemed born to coach, but took a lifetime to learn how to play. A moralist who freely cheated on his wife, a critic of power with no practical solution to its exercise, and used his own powers mostly for demolition, an ally in the Culture of Life who savored the thought of his own death, it would be easy to simply call Muggeridge a hypocrite and have done with it. But while Hunter reveals his subject's flaws, it is hard to dislike the man, overlook his enormous talent with words, or downplay the great good he did by seeking truth, and finding more and more of it. I think of his friend George Orwell as a "blind prophet." Muggeridge similarly was much more skilled at smelling out lies than at affirming truth. He seemed to take equal joy in "dissing" vulgar American culture, the queen, or frivolous college students, as Soviet mass murder or South African apartheid. It's nice to see an old bloke have so much fun. And usually, he was right.
One odd note: Hunter credits Muggeridge's friendship with bishop Alec Vidler for (probably) helping bring Muggeridge to faith in Christ. It is this same cleric whose modernist approach to the Gospels inspired C. S. Lewis' brilliant repost to critical New Testament scholarship, Fernseed and Elephants. (Which, as I show in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, continues to upturn the arguments of Jesus skeptics.) So whatever Vidler believed, he inspired two influential English Christians to good deeds in exactly opposite ways. Clever, these Anglican priests.
Intellectuals, Paul Johnson
** “As a philosopher, Johnson makes a pretty good historian”
Paul Johnson is a lively writer who has chosen a an interesting group of people to deconstruct. As a Christian who votes mostly Republican, I am no big fan of most of these figures, except for Tolstoy and (to a lesser degree) the author of Old Man and the Sea. I am ready to agree that Rousseau, Marx, and Sartre, and all, have by their words and lives helped make a mess of the world. (In fact, I have made the case about Marx myself more than once.) Furthermore, the book is entertaining. Despite all that, I don't much recommend it; perhaps because it is entertaining.
First of all, I am not sure Johnson had enough sympathy for his subjects to really understand them. A few of the lives Johnson describes here are also discussed by the psychologist Paul Vitz in his less-detailed but far better-argued study of atheists, Faith of the Fatherless. After reading Vitz, Bertrand Russell seems a sad and rather lonely figure, who lost both parents as a small child and spent his life looking for God in all the wrong places. Johnson portrayed him, more simply, as a devious and self-deluding hypocrite. Maybe so, but is the implicit invitation to contempt helpful or harmful? Johnson's approach contrasts with the more orthodox approach of G. K. Chesterton, who once responded to an essay contest on "What is wrong with the world?" with the succinct reply, "I am."
Unlike Vitz, Johnson does not discuss any positive figures in this book at any length. After a few hundred pages of criticism, I wanted to ask him, "Whom do you admire? Do you find anyone whom you disagree with genuinely heroic?"
Johnson claimed that Tolstoy's power as a writer sprang from "veneration of nature." How can he miss, what is obvious to everyone else (including conservatives), the moral insight and incredible awareness of human nature Tolstoy displays? Johnson even tried to blame Tolstoy for the Bolshevik revolution. Read Resurrection and the Communist Manifesto, and tell me that is not a cheap shot.
Secondly, Johnson does not really give a coherent argument in this book, as many reviewers note below. What exactly is an intellectual? What relation does the term have with the word "intellect?" Can we really exclude prominent men and women of ideas like, say, C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, or G. K. Chesterton, whom, for want of plausibility or desire, Johnson failed to criticize? Perhaps what he really meant by the word was "humanists," those children of the enlightenment who replace God-centered faith with a religion of men, themselves in particular. Jesus said, "By their fruits you will know them," so I don't think it merely ad hominem to note when these prophets treat people like dirt. Ideas have consequences, and I do agree that humanist ideas have most had bad consequences. But the argument to make this case should be more focused and logically coherent than this one.
Johnson gives us two pieces of advice: beware of intellectuals, and people matter more than ideas. But he hasn't really told us what an intellectual is. Is it those to whom ideas matter more than people? But it's not at all clear that many of the worst offenders in this book really cared about ideas; in fact Johnson often questions it himself. And "people matter more than ideas" is itself an idea. For that matter, "Love your neighbor as yourself," and "all men are created equal" are ideas too, that many men and women have thought worth more than their own lives. It seems to me that what Johnson should have said is, "watch out for bad intellectuals" (or bad people in general) and "don't listen to bad ideas." Truisms, of course, but he hasn't really built a case for any more than that. And the lives he details do show that neglect of the obvious is one of the most harmful errors of our time.
Thirdly, as interesting as other people's sexual vices might be, it does seem a tad unfair of Johnson to complain about the dirt and wallow in it at the same time. In some places the book is almost pornographic. If an author does not approve of sexual obsessions, he should talk about them a bit less.
Johnson is good at research, and an excellent writer; I learned a great deal from Modern Times, and from this book as well. But as far as editorial on these sorry lives go, I think King David said about as much as really needs saying:
"Happy is the man who does not take the wicked for his guide, nor walk the road that sinners tread, nor take his seat among the scornful. But the law of the Lord is his delight."
Modern Times: From the 20s to the 90s, Paul Johnson
***** “A Wonderfully Readable History of the 20th Century”
Johnson has, in these 750 pages, assigned himself a difficult task: to step back from the era in which he lives and write a story that gives proper proportion to events and personalities, as if from a distance. (Like making a map of a mountainous region from sea level.) Furthermore, to make it interesting to a contemporary audience, many of whom will have personal familiarity with particular aspects of that history. I felt he succeeded very well. It is a work of incredible breadth and insight. I found this book not only good reading, but insightful and fresh even when he talked about subjects that I am familiar with. Of course, Johnson did not make any pretense of stepping back from modern history in a polemic sense: he tells 'em as he sees 'em, and sees them from a conservative Burkian standpoint. But his praise and censure seems more fairly distributed here than in Intellectuals.
The heart of the story, alongside many subplots, is, it seems, the rise and fall of the great secular religions, such as Marxism, Fascism, and Naziism. Johnson takes what seems to me a rather weak and unhelpful stab at relating these political developments to concurrent scientific developments. It is also odd to me that, with all his talk about ideology, he says very little about trends in religion, except for Islam. He does not seem to have noticed the rise of the New Age movement in the West, or of Christianity in Africa, parts of Asia, and (in evangelical form) in Latin America. But I am sure there are plenty of ways Johnson could have made his book longer. . . And everything, whether book or century, must end some time.
What if the Bible had never been written? James Kennedy
** “The Authors don’t know when to quit”
This is the kind of book that deserves five stars and one star at the same time, so you compromise and give it something in between. The authors have a good idea, to show the difference the Gospel has had on human society. And they've done a good amount of homework, at least from the point of view they want to propound. And I agree that the Gospel has influenced the world for the better more than anything else. But they flog their point to death. They over-generalize and show a lack of generosity and understanding towards other cultures and religions.
The authors appear to be of the "total depravity" school of thought. They seem to feel that the best way to argue for Christianity is to persuade us that no good thing exists in the darkness outside. They do not find it difficult to maintain this position, because, frankly, they don't really seem to know much about other cultures. They argue that: without the Bible there "would likely be no hospitals." (Have they never heard of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, who built hospitals across India hundreds of years before Christ?) There would be no universities. (Have they never heard of the great monastic schools of Tibet, or the academies of ancient Greece and China?) There would be no capitalism! (Was it Jesus' face on that coin, after all?) Millions would die of v.d. "without any inhibition against sexual promiscuity." (Do the people in India, China, the Muslim world, really show fewer inhibitions than in the West?) The Bible is the source of great literature! (Have the authors ever read the Journey to the West? Wondered over a Song landscape or been touched by a Tang poem about the moon and one's loved one?)
Is it really fair to represent the Chinese culture with a story about human beings being body lice on the god's skin? The authors have apparently never read the ancient Chinese philosopher Mo Zi, who wrote, hundreds of years before St. John, that God is love, and that we should pattern our character after the universal love of God. They apparently don't know that the Chinese said God is the "parent" of humankind.
The Bible led to the invention of basketball! The Bible added new phrases to the English language! All right, already!
There is a lot of useful information in this book. The overall tone of the book would be vastly improved though if the authors (1) Learned to appreciate the good in other civilizations and belief systems. (As Augustine did in City of God and C. S. Lewis did in everything he wrote -- the authors praise these men so highly -- well read them and learn from them! And study Paul's tactful approach in Acts 17!) (2) Learned the difference between a good argument and a bad argument, and got rid of the bad arguments that choke this book. (3) Try harder to be fair to people of other religions. (4) Read the works of non-Christians and quoted them more often. That makes any argument stronger. (5) Take a closer look at evils committed in the European "age of faith" such as the inquisition, witch-hunts and pogroms. They did this briefly in the companion volume, but if they developed such subjects more fully it would give the books more balance, and give us a less triumphalistic and more challenging work that would perhaps also be a more persuasive argument for the Gospel.
God Against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism, Jonathan Kirsch
*** “Good Story-Telling; Amateur and Ignorant Analysis”
The main part of the book tells the story of how Rome went from
pagan to Christian. Kirsch's description of Constantine, Julian the Apostate,
Constantius II, Theodius, and others, are interesting and well-written. But
when Kirsch goes beyond telling what happened and tries to explain it, or
generalizes from a single series of events over couple hundred years of Roman
history, the book heads towards Hades in a hand-basket.
Problems begin on page one. "Modern medical science proposes that the idea of 'god' is literally hard-wired into the anatomy of the brain." First, this is sloppy -- scientists propose, sometimes foolishly, "science" does not. And the usual claim is that mystical experiences -- not an "idea of god" -- have a physical basis. Other writers blur the line between the two, true, but even a reasonably sophisticated (though sometimes dubious) secularist explanation of religion like that of Pascal Boyer is quite a bit more complex than this suggests.
Kirsch's most important error appears on the very next page. "Only very late in the development of Homo religiosus did monotheism first appear." He makes no mention of Andrew Lang or Wilhelm Schdmit, who showed that primitive peoples are often aware of a Supreme God remarkably like the God of the Bible. Karen Armstrong, whose History of God he mentions on page 1, begins her book by mentioning Schmidt -- though she ignores the implications of his work. But Kirsch appears to have never heard of either scholar -- or of Durkheim, who reluctantly admitted that Australian aborigines knew about God, John Mbiti, who showed Africans did, too, or James Legge, the great sinologist who showed that early Chinese worshiped a Being who was "exactly the same as God was to our ancestors." (See my Jesus and the Religions of Man, chapter nine, "The Non-History of God," for the story.)
To tell the story of "God" and make no mention of the fact (and it is a fact) that hundreds of peoples around the world appear to have developed almost identical understandings of Him, is a crushing oversight. How can you make a universal argument about God and the gods by ignoring all data outside of Israel, Greece, Egypt, and Rome?
Nor is Kirsch' discussion of Mediterranean religions always reliable. He blows a few Biblical references. He errs on the library in Alexandria -- a Christian mob did not burn down the main library, with "700,000 books," but a smaller annex.
Kirsch also badly errs by assuming that Christian theology is completely hostile to paganism, portrayed merely as a "parade of horribles." This is bad history and worse theology. I've written two books on the subject, and am planning others, but will try to be concise. Early Christian thinkers (whom Kirsch ought to have read) often called Greek philosophy a "tutor" to bring the world to Christ: Justin Martyr, Augustine, and many others did in fact become Christians by following Plato and other "pagan" philosopher to what they saw as their logical conclusion. Anyone who writes on this subject should read the Church Fathers carefully, and also what Jaroslav Pelikan, Paul Tillich, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis have written on the subject. (I also recommend two of my own books: "Jesus and the Religions of Man," and True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, along with G. Ronald Murphy's The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove.) Many of the most influential Christian thinkers have had a deep love of pagan virtue. As Dante said to Virgil, "Through you I became a poet; through you, a Christian." And the seeds of this appreciation, like the seeds of anger at human sacrifice and untruth wherever it lies, can also be found in the Christian Scriptures.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of Kirsch' argument, though, is his own honesty. His generalization dies the death of a thousand qualifications. I mean, he is surprisingly fair in relating the transition from paganism to Christianity. But as he tells the story, the exceptions to his thesis -- monotheists harsh, polytheists mild and gentle -- grow so that you begin to worry for the thesis. He shows how Greek and Roman pagans abused Jewish monotheists. He details how Romans persecuted Christians for 250 years. He admits that some early Christian rulers were pretty mild. Why, then, not entertain alternative solutions to the puzzle? Maybe some rulers are just nicer than others. Maybe "Christians" learned what Nero taught them -- traditional Roman cruelty. (They were still Romans, after all.) Or maybe, as a civilization sinks -- and Rome had been sinking for more than a century before Christians took over -- it begins to circle wagons and lash out -- as people naturally do. Failing to mention alternative explanations, Kirsch does not even begin to connect his story with his thesis in a persuasive way.
Kirsch could not save his theory by appealing to other cultures, either. Christians were killed not only in Rome, but also in China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, communist Russia, and many tribal cultures. Sometimes Christians have committed terrible crimes. But "Christian" America has not burnt a witch or heretic for several centuries, now. Kirsch argues that "cultural diversity and religious liberty" are "pagan values." He can only maintain such absurd generalizations (both ways) by ignoring a great deal of history.
And then at the end, he describes Naziism and Communism as an "enduring legacy of monotheism." What, were Mao and Pol Pott raised by Jesuits? (In fact, probably the greatest ruler in all Chinese history, the moderate and tolerant Kang Xi emeperor, really was educated by Jesuits!) Stalin killed more innocents on an average snowy day, every day for 25 years, than the Spanish inquisitors in all of six centuries. Stalin was an atheist, heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. (Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation on the pagan story of Prometheus; and Mao loved the polytheistic story of Monkey King that parallels it in Chinese literature.)
Far better books on this subject, which give both sides and connect evidence to argument much more tightly, would be sociologist Rodney Stark's series on Christianity and western culture. (The Rise of Christianity, One True God, and For the Glory of God -- and the new one, which I haven't read yet.) Stark agrees that monotheism can lead to intolerance, but explains everything a much more sophisticated manner.
The story Kirsch tells, like most history, is a long story of bad behavior by almost everyone. To generalize from that story takes a great deal more knowledge, caution, and care than this author seems to possess. As a record of an interesting period in Roman history, however, this book seemed pretty good.
What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Muslim Response, Bernard Lewis
*** “Mohammed in the Parlor with the Sword?”
This book is a bit like a Who-Done-It written by a writer with novelistic pretensions, in which the author abandons the plot in the events and scenes leading up to the murder. A lot of this short book is spent describing the cultural evolution of Muslim society in response to Western hegemony, down to such details as sports and time pieces. The details are often worth reading, and Dr. Lewis does tie things together in the end a bit. In the last chapter Ace Detective Lewis sorts through the various suspects and clues (the history he has been giving) to bring closure and lay blame -- a little vaguely, however. Along the way Lewis has some worthwhile insights, for example, his idea of "harmonization" as the key to Western culture. (One of the values of learning about another culture is what you learn about your own in the process.) Worth reading, but not quite what I expected from the title.
My prior impression was Lewis was supposed to be hard on Islam. But it is hard to see why any reasonable person would object to this book on that ground. He claims Medieval Islam offered "vastly more freedom" than its competitors, at least for the male, Muslim, and free minority. (A rather different verdict from that of Donald Treadgold in Freedom, a History.) Lewis also claims Islam didn't have "wars of religion" like the West. Does that mean he defines Muslim civil wars, Shiite-Sunni conflicts, slave-raiding and invading, as non-religious? It seems to me Lewis bends over backwards to be fair to Muslim civilization. (Though he shows less patience for modern lunatics.) Overall, his approach struck me as moderate, honest, and well-considered. He made me think a bit better of Islam than I had previously.
What went wrong? Not only does the question not get answered well, as some reviewers note, I am not even sure it got thoroughly asked. Lewis claims it would be "implausible" to blame Islam itself, considering how successful the Muslim civilization was for so long. But it seems to me that is because he defines "the problem" as the relative weakening of Muslim culture. After reading Paul Fregosi's Jihad, a swash-buckling and romantic (but historical) record of Muslim attacks on Europe, it seems to me Lewis defines the problem too narrowly. Neighboring peoples might be forgiven for thinking there was already a problem before Islam began to go into relative decline, and that the decline was a partial solution to it. The seclusion of women and the thousand-year jihad that swallowed Persia, Babylon, Nubia, India, Byzantine and a fair chunk of Europe was "wrong," too, wasn't it? Broaden Lewis' question to that extent, however, and it might appear that what went wrong in the first place was, to put it crudely, Mohammed. Lewis, while too honest to be politically correct, does not however seem ready, in this book at least, to consider that answer. But until Muslims renounce Mohammed's idea that believers have a God-given right to slaughter infidels and treat women like loot, a renewed Islamic civilization is not something that I, personally, am going to pray for.
Lewis touches briefly on the corrolary to his title question, what can set things right in the Muslim world. Perhaps healing might come (for us as for them) from listening more faithfully to a different Muslim prophet -- the one who, in the third century of Islam, was apocryphally quoted as saying: "If you desire to devote yourself entirely to God . . . Forgive those who have done you evil . . . Be kind to those who have been unkind to you." What was his name? Oh, yes -- Jesus.
Crusaders Against Opium: Protestant Missionaries in China, 1874-1917, Kathleen Lodwick
**** “An Important but Neglected History”
History is often sanitized for the secular public. One part of that sanitization is the down-playing of the impact reformist Christianity had around the world in the 19th Century, not only on the social mores of the West (slavery, prostitution, etc.) but really to the ends of the earth. An article on feminist reforms in China need make no mention of Christian missions. (Never mind that the great Chinese scholar Hu Shi admitted that missionaries "taught us . . . to look at women as people.") You can read of reform movements in Hinduism without learning what spiritual influence it was that caused such movements to spring up at that particular moment.
This is a secret that historians don't usually let out: that Christian missions changed the world in the 19th Century.
Kathleen Ludwick's book is an important and unusual contribution to the social history of our times. Ludwick portrays the competition between two groups of foreigners in China, both of whom (as the Chinese scholar Lin Yutang put it) no doubt thought the other mad: businessmen, who came to China to enrich themselves at the expense of the Chinese by selling opium, and Christian missionaries, who came to save the souls of the Chinese, and help them in any other way as well if possible. She argues: "More than any other group at the turn of the 20th Century, the Protestant missionaries in China truly understood the nature of opium addiction and had the courage to pursue their campaign against the drug until they finally convinced others of the correctness of their position." Many of the missionaries involved were of course doctors, though she shows that on this issue, at any rate, missionaries found a remarkable degree of harmony and agreement among themselves, even such different spirits as Hudson Taylor and James Legge. She also gives some details of the arguments by which the British government (with, of course, help from the respectable drug dealers themselves) justified ruining millions of lives. This book is full of details, some of them quite interesting, others a little dry by now. The author's tone is fairly even-handed, though she is not so "scholarly" that she is afraid to take sides in such a clear-cut battle between right and wrong.
This volume presents a small part of a tremendously important historical narrative, and thus belongs in any college library. Chinese who have grown up hearing from their government about how closely the missionaries were implicated in imperialism, might especially find it worth reading. I also recommend it to Christians who are involved in similar prophetic acts of social justice today, helping drug addicts or opposing abortion, who are looking for encouragement....
Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, Jaroslav Pelikan
***** “A Classic”
This is not a devotional work, it is an insightful and valuable
slice of intellectual history. Pelikan is a Christian, but distances himself
from those he describes. I think the combination of sympathy and critical
distance helps the reader have his own conversation with the persons described.
Pelikan bites off more than he can chew. How can there be room in one readable,
coherent and reasonably short book for Augustine and Blake, Renan and Ricci,
Constantine and Gandhi? But Pelikan pulls it off pretty well, summarizing the
history with interesting anecdotes, and making reasonable comments. Not all of
which I think are correct, though.
"It is not sameness but kaleidescope variety that is its most conspicuous feature." Pelikan includes a great deal of evidence for both, though. Early Christians attempted to translate Jesus as "logos" to relate to Greek thinking. Modern Christians in India and China undertook a similar task of describing Jesus as the "fulfillment" of the deepest truths in those great cultures. (Work I have studied quite a bit.)
I give the book five stars, because it is brilliant, fascinating and informative. Nevertheless, Pelikan's position seems to soak up some of the subjectivm he chronicles.
It is important to distinguish between images that are arbitrary, and those that depend on a reality that can be referred to. One could write a book called "The Moon through the Centuries." But that would be a different kind of book from "Martians through the Centuries," because in the first case, we just need to look up to be corrected. Pelikan does not take sufficient account of the fact that Jesus is more like the first than the second case. Kaleidescope is a mosaic of splintered reflections. But the image whom these reflections reflected, like the moon, is still before us, in the Gospels. Pelikan tells us we are "dependant" on "oral tradition" that was "eventually deposited" in the Gospels, but in fact they were written within the lifetimes of the first Christians. Rather than "tradition," they could have relied on memory.
Pelikan does not distinguish between birds that settle in the nest as they find it, and birds that steal twigs to built their own. He weakly justifies the fantastic subjectivism that goes into revisionist historical Jesus studies. Pelikan is like a conscientious objector from the argument over what really happened. In a preface to a recent edition he admits, a bit coyly, that he doesn't buy the arguments of the "historical Jesus" crowd. Well and good: but this excellent book might be even better if the fascinating and fruitful subjectivism he chronicles were balanced with an occasional reminder that in the end, portraits are not about those who take the picture, but him whose portrait is taken.
Still, a deserved classic, and a wonderful way to look at history. Highly recommended.
Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, Jaroslav Pelikan
Salem Story: Reading the Witch trials of 1692, Bernard Rosenthal
East Meets West: The Jesuits in China, 1582-1773, Charles Ronan
***** “Great Topic, a bit Narrow in Execution”
Few subjects are more intrinsically interesting, in my opinion, than the relationship between European and Chinese thought. The arrival in China of the Jesuits reads, to me, a little like the old commercial for the candy bar, when the boy munching on the chocolate collides in the hall-way collides with the girl chewing the peanut butter. "Hey, you got peanut butter on my chocolate." In my opinion, and in the opinion of many modern Chinese, Christianity and Chinese tradition really are two great tastes (kept apart for thousands of years) that taste great together. (I've even written a book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, to prove that point.)
This book is a scholarly look at the history of this earliest connection between some very thoughtful Catholic missionaries and the Chinese intelligensia. It gives the story of Ricci, Alleni, and also the story of three prominent converts to Christianity, among other things. A good deal of the book is about Matteo Rici, who comes across as a truly remarkable individual, both intellectually and as a human being. Historians, including those here, tend to admire him for adapting Christianity to Chinese culture, at the expense of some arrogant and ignorant missionaries who came later. In my opinion, it was the later missionaries who were off base, in terms of Christian tradition, rather than the Jesuits, in that, in the blindness of European power, they failed to utilize principles of cultural adaptation that had been laid out by central Christian thinkers like Paul, John, Justin, Clement, and Augustine.
As these essays show, the Jesuits held to a policy of "rejecting Buddhism and accomodating with Confucianism." They also tended to exagerate the moral character of Western society. In my opinion, Augustine showed that it is possible to relate Christianity in a more holistic manner to all segments of society, and to be quite frank and honest, in creating an orthodox Christian apologetic that meets the needs of a civilization. Many modern Christian Chinese agree with the Chinese scholar Ye Xianggao in interpreting Christianity not as a rejection of Chinese culture, but rather as its fulfillment. "Ordinary Confucianists do indeed talk frequently of Heaven, but they behave as if Heaven is far away. (The Jesuits), on the other hand, speak of Heaven as connected intimately with us . . . This is most appropriate for awakening the world."
My main criticism is that the scholars involved seem too focused on these particular cases, and contrasting them only to later bad examples, that they fail to relate the story to the larger context of Christian fulfillment theology, of more recent works that expand upon Ricci's excellent example, and, frankly, what God might be up to. But I found several essays worth reading.
Salem Story: Reading the Witch trials of 1692, Bernard Rosenthal
*** “Lots of Facts; Just add water”
I can't believe I more-or-less read this whole book in a single day. It's not, in the ordinary sense, a page-turner. You would expect an English prof to makes things more interesting than this, but in fact the book is often stilted, repetitive, and a bit pompous, not to mention dry. The author gives you little feel for place or time, or even demographic detail. (How many people lived in these towns he's talking about?) And all his references to the Bible seemed very ignorant. One of the odd things about the Salem trial to me, as a Christian, is that there are no strong parallels to these events in the Bible itself. Another interesting paradox, that the author does bring up, is that the pastors in Salem were mostly against the trials. I was hoping to learn more about where the Puritans got their ideas about the devil in the first place, and how they reconciled those ideas with the Bible, but no such information was forthcoming here.
Still, if you want to sort out facts in regard to what happened in Salem, and why, this is a very useful resource. The book is thoughtful, somewhat perceptive, and thoroughly researched. (In terms of American history.) In a book I wrote last year, Jesus and the Religions of Man, I included an appendix, "Crusades, Inquisitions, Pograms, and Witch Hunts," relying on another source for the pages on the Salem witch trials. I now discover, thanks to Professor Rosenthal, that I made a mistake or two (nothing vital) by not having read this book first. This is not such a bad book as some of the reviewers below make out; if you skip a bit, it can be valuable and somewhat interesting. But don't mistake it for a Stephen King novel.
Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said
** “Grow Up, Professor Said!”
Said has hit on an interesting idea, studying imperialism through literature. And the breadth of knowledge he brings to the discussion is often impressive. But he ultimately gives what seems to me not only a largely mistaken, but a shallow and even childish reading of history.
Politically, Said frankly lets us know where his sympathies lie, and where they do not lie. He seldom misses a chance to make a snide remark about American "Captain Ahab" adventures against foreign dictators. Desert Storm was "an imperial war against the Iraqi people." America fights such wars to put "lesser peoples, with lesser rights, morals, claims" in their places. Americans "love to think that whatever it wanted was just what the human race wanted." Said probably changed the channel when he saw Kabul residents cheering American intervention. While he qualifies his theories on details, one of his chief faults is to look the other way when evidence disconfirms them in big ways.
Said sees himself as fighting a lonely battle. He feels "outnumbered and outorganized," with all the wealthy universities and media outlets taking up "a strident chorus of right-wing tending damnation, in which they separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-judeo-Christian from the acceptable." Anyone who reads the Western press as a vast, right-wing conspiracy may appreciate such jeremiads. The rest of us an only stare in awe. (Especially considering where he taught, and his relations with Barack Obama.)
Human beings are not angels, and Western history is certainly not all crumpets and tea. It is legitimate, though a bit late, to attack Western colonialism, and express disgust at pretensions that Great Powers acted solely for the benefit of those they conquered.
Said exaggerates without shame or limit, however. "No one with any power to influence public discussion on policy demurred as to the basic superiority of the white European male, who should always retain the upper hand." This comes shortly after Said condemns Kipling (and Europeans) for over-generalizing about Indian character. And it is bunk. Loyalties of the 19th Century were not so neatly divided. There were public figures whose first loyalties were not to their own state, nor even to native peoples, but to God, for example. Christian leaders and thinkers like Wesley, Wilberforce, Booth, Carey, Farquhar, and WAP Martin often said and did all that should have been said and done, somestimes better than any armchair Marxist alive now does. In his deathbed letter to Wilberforce, John Wesley contrasted "civil, reasonable, industrious" Africans, with "villainous" slavetraders in a way that would make a modern liberal feel sorry for the slavetraders. ("Are you a man? Then you should have a human heart. The Great God will deal with you as you have dealt with them!") Indian writer Mangalwadi notes that Wilberforce never seemed to act in England's best economic interests. Wesley and Wilberforce were two of the most influential men who ever lived.
The truth is, the period Said covers involved a long, complex battle for the soul of Western culture. Commercial self-interest usually had the upper hand, but within nominally Christian empires, the teachings of Jesus slowly conquered self-interest in many cases to bring reform, as Mangalwadi and Farquhar have described in India. Crusaders Against Opium tells a similar story of how some Westerners (missionaries) unanimously fought against England's obvious commercial interests in China as well.
But Said, being influenced by Matthew Arnold, looks for "sweetness and light" in the world of letters, rather than among the followers of the light that really did make a difference. Said implies feminism sprang up in non-Western cultures out of thin air. The great Chinese skeptic, Hu Shi, said however, that missionaries "taught us to look at women as people." It was missionaries again who fought the first and most important battles for the elevation of women in India, China, and Japan. While Said's "leading lights" of Western civilization were piddling around on the margins, these people not only conceived of the "natives" taking charge, they empowered them to do so, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Said almost ignores these people, for the health of his theory. In general, Said reveals a naive and rather petulant understanding of human nature, (as opposed to really illuminating social critics like Solzhenitsyn and Rene Girard) and overlooks the true source of the light that brings liberation.
The book could also be better written. "Conrad's way of demonstrating this discrepancy between the orthodox and his own views of empire is to keep drawing attention to how ideas and values are constructed (and deconstructed) through dislocations in the narrator's language." This, from a fan of George Orwell?
**** "Fresh Thinking, Some of It Mistaken"
I find myself agreeing with the points both those who liked the book and those who didn't like it made. The man makes many good ideas. His discussion of how the Gospel transformed the role of women is itself worth the price of the book, and his insights about the courage believers showed during epidemics and martyrdom is also helpful. But, at the same time, the hubris of social science, a reliance on theories which are most persuasive within the narrow, modern framework in which most of Stark's direct research appears to have been conducted, often brings him to overreach himself badly.
He argues, for example, that new religious movements are alway "based on the more privileged classes." He also argues we do not "need" miracles or mass conversions to explain the growth of the church. Finding a growth rate over three centuries close to the 43% that Mormonism has maintained for the last century, he is encouraged to think he has discovered a scientific principle, which negates the need for "exceptional explanations."
But the fact that an explanation for a given event credible to one's apriori theories of life can be found, or imagined, in no way renders incredible reports which assert (with great force of eyewitness evidence) that in fact something else happened! Those who do not with to believe in miracles may find comfort in Stark's theories. But they should not be confused for a serious argument against the events related in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.
I just returned from a small town in China which, before the revolution, had about 20 Christians, but now has over a thousand. This is a 110% growth rate per decade, without the advantages of higher birth and survival rates of the Roman Christians, or of birth rates and obligatory 2-year preaching apprenticeships of the Mormons. In fact, for most of that time, preaching was extremely dangerous, and martyrs were seldom allowed to be treated as public heros as Stark described them. Yet this growth rate has been typical in many parts of China. In Anhui province, the church has grown about a hundred times (not percent) in just two decades! However they may confuse sociological theory, in practice miracles, mass conversions, and the supernatural preparation of Chinese culture for the Gospel (as Paul and Augustine found in Greco-Roman culture) seem to playing a tremendous role in these events. I have met people involved in mass conversions and miracles myself. Furthermore, while intellectuals are also converting, peasants are probably the strongest conduit for Christian faith in China today. And China is not alone in this respect.
When I first took a social science course at the University of Washington where Stark teaches 20 years ago, my immediate reaction was, "What this man is teaching, when translated into ordinary English, seems to reduce to either to common sense or to nonsense." Give Stark credit. His ideas do not need translating, his style is lively and his thoughts clear. Better yet, his "discoveries" lean strongly towards the first category as opposed to the second. most of them are not really surprising, on careful reading of the Bible. And some are simply mistaken. Read the book with an open mind and pinch of salt.
***** "One of the best books on religion I’ve read"
I have read hundreds of books on religion, and written five myself;
among the former group, this is one of the most interesting.
Rodney Stark has been one of America's leading sociologists of religion for a long time. (Cited by skeptics as well as religious believers.) His marketplace model of religions, which he has been developing for decades (it goes back at least to his Theory of Religion) is a powerful tool of understanding: it may revolutionize the way you see the world, as it did for me. In Theory of Religion, and then his series on the rise of Christianity, Stark developed and tested a series of general postulates about the social nature of religion, seldom however writing too boldly about its ontological basis.
This book pulls many of the threads of Stark's storied career together, introduces interesting new topics -- especially "temple religion," and a thoughtful take on Lang's "High Gods" -- and poses a few questions about the truth or falsehood of religion as well.
Over the past 24 years, I have researched many of the topics Stark covers in this book. What impresses me about this book is that Stark so often gets it right where the "conventional wisdom" gets it wrong. I begin with specific claims, then will comment on Stark's story of religion:
"Where religious monopolies prevail. the overall level of public religious involvement will be low."
"Why did none of these three 'major' religions, nor even all of them together, actually become the religion of most Chinese?" (As a China scholar, and author of True Son of Heaven, I see that as a great question -- though by my count, China has traditionally had some eight "major" religions.)
"This ethnic barriar to conversion probably was the sole reason that the Roman Empire did not embrace the God of Abraham."
"Intellectuals always form factions and have such fallings out."
"(Gnostic) Scriptures were properly dismissed as a last-gasp effort to incorporate Christianity within traditional polytheism." (I wrote a book on this subject last year, reaching the same rather rare conclusion.)
"The long decline of European Christianity, beginning with Constantine's establishment of it as the subsidized state church." (Stark has written brilliantly, and with great explanatory power, on this over the years.)
"The notion that sometimes a story might really be about candles or even about a hole in the clouds is disdained." (Often an iconoclast, Stark takes Freud to the woodshed here, especially his ridiculous theories of the origin of religion.)
"People will more readily join an exclusive religion to the degree that it minimizes their loss of religious capital." (An interesting take on some ideas that have been kicking around among Christians since Paul's speech on Mars Hill -- I call it "fulfillment theology," and have done quite a bit of research and writing on it, but found Stark's "market" formulation of the idea fascinating.)
But this short collection of sociological aphorisms does little to express the wealth contained in this book. What Stark attempts is nothing less than a religious story of mankind, from the Stone Age to the present. He renders Stone Age tribes more respect than static but powerful agrarian empires like Egypt and Sumer and the Aztecs. Stark describes the rise of modern, reformist religions in the Axial Age, and tries (with less than complete success, IMO -- I don't think Confucius and the Brahmans had much in common, or that one borrowed from the other) to explain this sudden outburst of religious creativity. His history of the great religions is frequently surprising, even to thosase who have heard the story many times before -- and he often adds something fundamental.
Some readers below criticize Stark for engaging in "apologetics." (Or even for his brief mention of ID.) This is specious; he only argues for Christianity as the highest understanding of God at the very end of the book, and then only modestly, and admitting others will differ. Christians are likely to find some of his ideas quite challenging. Any open-minded skeptic, who isn't allergy to contrary views, should be able to recoup the price of the book ten times before that point. And the deadliest thing Stark does to Islam is not to criticize it -- he does little of that, actually -- but to describe in detail the treacherous career of its founder.
In some ways, Stark reverts to older, 19th Century theories of religion here -- the closest parallel I can think of (very imperfect) is J. N. Farquhar. I don't agree with all of Stark's claims -- aside from sometimes unconvincing speculation about the "Axial Age," I think Stark identifies the European mission enterprise too closely with colonialism, underestimates the strength of Christianity in Europe during the age of Wesley and Wilberforce, and is wrong to identify the ancient Chinese Shang Di as "the eldest ancestor" (see the Cambridge History of China, Shang dynasty volume). But it is fascinating to watch the continuing development of Stark's thought. I learned as much from this book as from any I have read in years.
***** "An Essential Book"
If I were going to pick ten "must read" books out of the
two hundred or so I have reviewed for Amazon or in print, this brilliant work
would be near the top. One of the others was Stanley Jaki's Savior of Science;
Stark treats Christianity and science in far more detail and more convincingly
than Jaki, and three related aspects of religious history just as well. Your
education is not complete, and may be defective, until you have come to terms
with Stark's arguments.
Stark makes four main arguments. First, faith in God leads to quarrelsomeness (what someone referred to as the "joy of sects") and to reformations. (Brilliantly contrasting the "Church of Power" and the "Church of Piety.") Stark has some very interesting insights deriving from Adam Smith about what happens when a religion has a monopoly, and what happens when (as in the US) there is a free market of spiritual ideas in effect. But he somehow manages to spin his sociological theories without impinging on individual human choice.
Second, Stark argues that faith in God encouraged Christians to invent science. Having read other books making the same claim, I think Stark's approach to this question is one of the best. Not only does he go over the development of technology in the so-called "Dark Ages," and show how the "Enlightenment" picture of Copernican era science is a myth, he studies 52 key early scientists, and shows that more than 60 % were "devout," while only 2 were skeptics. The critic below who asks why Christianity did not produce science in Russia did not read attentively: Stark argues that faith in God was a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of the rise of science. Other factors were also involved. True, he does goes on quite a tangent (10-15 pages; but in a 400 + page book) on evolution. But even there, he finds some interesting things to say -- I didn't know the story of the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce was untrue, for example.
The third section of the book gives a detailed, and I think true, explanation of the witchhunts. "Anti-Semitic violence, persecution of heretics, and witch hunts were collateral results of conflicts between major religious forces" (ie, Islam and Christianity). I do not think this "denigrates" or "trivializes" the idea that witchhunting was an act of "social solidarity," as is claimed below; in fact Stark looks in detail at such community-level causes as well as the "big picture." (See the works of Rene Girard for fascinating insight on "scapegoating" in general, a concept that may help bridge Stark's approach and the "social solidarity" approach.) Stark also points out that the witch hunts claimed less than one in a hundred as many victims as often alleged, that it was not enlightenment figures, but inquisitors and a Jesuit, who first spoke against persecution of "witches," and that early Christians like Augustine thought belief in witches was pure superstition.
Finally, Stark shows how Christians put an end to slavery, beginning in the "Dark Ages." His discussion of this subject is more complete and detailed than any I have read. As with his treatment of science, he draws from a wide array of sources, and gives facts and figures when possible. (How much England paid to free the slaves, the percent of abolitionists who were pastors, and so on.) Along the way, Stark takes his favorite hobby-horses in the sociology of science out for a handsome trot across the landscape.
Finally, let me offer a rebuttal to recent critism. The previous reviewer complains of Stark's many errors. Unfortunately, the only example he gives (calling the Dao Dejing by the name of its author, Lao Zi) is not a mistake. I have a copy of the book on my shelf in Chinese with just that title; both titles are now used. Calling a philosophy book by the name of its author was standard in ancient China: the Zhuang Zi, Xun Zi, or Mencius.
Another critic (who may or may not have read the rest of the book) rants angrily against Stark's attempt to set the relationship between Christianity and persecution of witches in a more context. She calls it "the dumbest thing I ever heard." But contrary to what she seems to think, Stark does NOT say witches worship the devil, rather: "the concept of satanism was deduced by leading Church intellectuals." The critic also suggests we ask a modern witch. Good idea. Neo-pagan historian Jenny Gibbons has written an on-line article that admits, with embarrassment at such sensationalism in the New Age community, many of the very points Stark makes.
The "militant skeptic" below gives a fairer review, and may have caught Stark out in a minor error or two on a periferal subject. (I haven't read Libanios.) But I can find such micro-flubs in most books, even my own. In a book of this scope and detail, that is hardly reason to grade such a sweeping, and empirically tested, argument down. Stark often gets big facts I am aware of right where many or most writers get them wrong.
Contrary to what some seem to assume, this is not a text of apologetics. I recently saw Stark quoted by a skeptic, assuming he was one of their own. An honest arbitaire, like the Jesuits of Paraguay whose remarkable story Stark tells, may get it from both sides. Don't let niggling criticism dissuade you from reading this brilliant, essential, and deeply enlightening work.
One True God: The Historical Consequences of Monotheism, Rodney Stark
“How Faith Made Our World”
The reviews of this book below are
pretty varied: intelligent readers complain that Stark is trying to use
sociology to undermine religion, and to prop it up; that he is a
"self-styled agnostic," and that he doesn't back up his faith in God
(if that's what you want, read my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man!); that he despises post-modernism but gives in to it, and even that he
tries to prove a point that the reader agrees with!
You can't satisfy everyone.
Personally, I found this book enjoyable and thought-provoking, though I didn't agree with every point, either.
Stark thinks for himself. He presents the facts in fresh perspective,
offers serious arguments, and lets the chips fall on both sides of the page.
You must be doing something interesting when you get criticized as an
unbeliever by believers, and as a believer by unbelievers.
Stark's thesis is that belief in "One True God" has sociological effects different from belief in many gods or no gods. Monotheism created the cultural solidarity of the Jews that allowed them to survive as a people. (As long as they retained that faith.) Christianity spread during the early centuries through the social networks of ordinary believers. Professional missionaries, Stark argues, are not much use. (This is a good book for missionaries, by the way.) After the Roman empire became officially Christian, the effort to convert Europeans stalled; Stark doubts if the mass of Europeans ever did become orthodox Christians. Given the nature of monotheism, he thinks conflict between Muslims and Christians was inevitable: "It is precisely God as a conscious, responsive, good supreme being of infinite scope -- who prompts awareness of idolatry, false Gods, and heretical religions." This argument seems somewhat in conflict with his claim that Medieval Europeans were not really that Christian. But it could be argued that even a vague theism lent Europe the solidarity by which to resist Islam, that India for example lacked.
Stark argues that persecution of Jews by Christians and Muslims came during times of stress from "significant (outside) threats." I found this one of his most interesting, and convincing, arguments. Given similar attacks on minorities in Asia, though, I think the phenomena might also be given a broader sociological explanation, such as Rene Girard's theory of scape-goating. It would be interesting to try to fit the two theories together, somehow. Also, to what degree might the three Western monotheisms resemble one another simply because they have interacted, rather than because of their common believe in God?
Stark also offers an intriguing explanation of the general tolerance of American society, which he thinks is stronger among believers than among secularists.
In effect, Stark dares to challenge the great religious dogma of our day, that all religions are basically the same, whether equally good, bad, or useful. (To paraphrase Gibbon.) Stark argues that, for better AND for worse, faiths are not equal. While at some points, he may overlook sociological or psychological similarities that creep into every community of like-minded persons, I think he is right that different world views do make different worlds. His argument may need to be both narrowed and expanded, at different points. Theisms do share some qualities, but in other regards, Confucianism (which can also be a form of theism, BTW) may seem more like Christianity, and Islam more like Marxism or Mormonism. Those characteristics, I might argue, have in part to do with the personalities and actions of their founders.
While I might be inclined to tweak some of his theories a bit, Stark's books constitute a thought-provoking, open-minded starting point for considering how Judeo-Christian faith helped form the peculiar world that we inhabit.
***** "A Stark Challenge to Secular Thinking!"
I was prepared to dislike this book. For one thing, I am not a fan
of the "dismal science," and knew the story Stark was telling here
was largely economic. Also, although I am a Christian, and even an apologist,
it seemed to me that his last three books on the subject already proved that
Christianity benefited Western culture. Enough, already! It seemed overkill to
claim the Gospel led not only led to science, an end to slavery, a higher
status for women, and better care for the sick, but also the Bank of America
and Microsoft! And having read the book, I concede justice in some criticisms
below. Stark (and others) persuade me that Medieval Europe was the freest, most
prosperous great civilization on earth to date. He does not persuade me,
though, that Rome never really fell; and while something may indeed have been
gained for the common man in escaping the heavy imperial thumb, something was
lost, too -- like literacy.
But never mind that. If you are thinking of reading this book, you may already have strong views on the effect Christianity has had on civilization. Those views will mislead you. Whether you agree or disagree with Stark's viewpoint, this book is worth reading. Why? Because it is chock full of interesting historical facts that you will not learn elsewhere. Because it connects those facts into a fascinating (even on economics!) history of the rise of Western civilization, from Italy to the "Low Countries" to England to America. Most of this book tells that story. You can ignore the argument at the beginning and end, and still profit and enjoy reading the tale, full of sound and fury, signifying much. Not that you should ignore the argument! I respect the Humanities prof below, who does not much cotton to Stark's Christian views, but learns from him anyhow, disagrees with respect, and retains an open mind about disputed claims.
Some reviewers seem less open-minded. One pastor comments, "Most appalling is that Stark would use Christianity to support a system (capitalism?) which is detrimental to the poor, outcast, and marginalized." This is absurd. Stark shows in great detail that nothing has helped the poor more than capitalism, and nothing hurt them worse than statism. Someone else (perhaps reading that comment!) remarks, "To equate Christianity with reason is a bit of a stretch." To make that equation more plausible, see the anthology of comments by great Christian thinkers entitled "Faith and Reason" on my web site, christthetao.com. A few reviewers use the words "Galileo" and "Inquisition" like a charm, to ward off the force of Stark's arguments. They need to read Stark more carefully, not only this book, but also For the Glory of God and perhaps One True God. I also highly recommend his remarkable essay, "Secularization, RIP." The fun thing about Stark, even the early, agnostic Stark (of A Theory of Religion and The Rise of Christianity), is his extraordinary talent for thinking outside the box, and for coming to original, counter-intuitive, yet surprisingly plausible conclusions. Stark is, without a doubt, one of the most original and interesting thinkers in the world today.
The Crisis of Church and State, 1000-1350, With Selected Documents, Brian Tierney
***** "Where Freedom Came From"
This book contains many of the critical documents that trace the origin of Western freedoms. Tierney prefaces the main body of his material with a few short but fascinating passages from and on people like Ambrose and Augustine. In the following chapters, he traces the debate about the relationship between Church and State as it developed in three or four dozen key documents from 1050 to 1300. Tierney helpfully sets context for each passage. In some, popes and kings jockey for power; in others, thinkers offer balanced or didactically one-sided solutions.
Again and again one notes key NT passages coming up, like "My kingdom is not of this world," and "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." As Tierney notes, the influence of Christianity on the proceedings are clear in two ways: first, "The very existence of two power structures competing for men's allegiance greatly enhanced the possibilities for human freedom." And second, "The possibility of a continuing tension between church and state was inherent in the very beginnings of the Christian religion." The documents eloquently demonstrate these points for themselves. The interest is not always in big themes, however, but often in human and even humorous details. Tierney's selection is varied.
Anyone who thinks modern freedom was an escape from Medieval despotism or ex nihilo invention of the Enlightenment, or that all religions are the same, and theological differences between religions have little practical effect, should carefully read this book. Clearly, the Grand Inquisitor is not the whole story, nor the big story, of the Middle Ages. Donald Treadgold's Freedom: A History, also makes some good comparative points in relation to other cultures. But there is nothing like going to the original sources for getting a feel for what people really thought, and why they thought it. An excellent resource.
Marx & Satan, Richard Wurmbrand
"Worth Serious Consideration"
As a grad student in China Studies, I once made the mistake of referring to Marx and Satan in the footnote of a paper for a very by-the-book scholar. He circled the title in heavy red ink and wrote in the margin with even heavier sarcasm: "Might the book have a bias?"
Richard Wurmbrand certainly did have a bias, though not the one the "one star" reviewers below accuse him of. No, this is not "anti-Semitic drivel;" Wurmbrand was himself a Jew, persecuted by the fascists for his race, who loved his people. No, he is not a "reactionary fanatic," nor does this book represent "the scarier mindscapes of the Bible Belt." Wurmbrand is actually from Romania, which is I believe some distance from Texas, and you read his many fascinating books, you will find he was actually quite thoughtful. But yes, he was biased against communism. He spent many years in slave labor camps, was tortured, and saw friends die. (A slave labor camp, I might point out, is rather a scarier place than a Southern Baptist church; tens of millions of people died in such places in the last century.)
Despite the provocative title of this book, such experiences did not render Wurmbrand bitter or unhinged. His argument here is not a vitriolic piece of ad hominem; rather it is a serious suggestion, backed up, it seems, by a fair amount of circumstantial evidence.
It is commonly argued that Marx had nothing to do with the crimes of communism. Even if Wurmbrand's central thesis does not convince you, the evidence he offers does at least show the spiritual or psychological continuity between Marx and the crimes committed in his name.
The book has its flaws, true. The evidence Wurmbrand offers is not overpowering. Wurmbrand sometimes takes phrases like "demonic fury" a little too seriously; I suspect it was often mere hyperbole. Also, he is not critical enough with his sources. Although he does not base anything on it, in one place he seems to accept the "Ritual Satanic Abuse" scam, for example. Finally, the book is a bit gossipy.
Still, Wurmbrand knows a great deal about communism. He seems to have read very widely in primary sources, and provides strongly suggestive quotes to back up his thesis. He shows caution at times, and is knowledgeable and thoughtful.
A few months ago I came across a dissertation in my university library entitled "The Role of Atheism in the Marxist Tradition." The author of the dissertation, a journalist named David Aikman, wrote it under the guidance of Donald Treadgold, editor of the Slavic Review and a leading historian of the Soviet Union. It was interesting to me to find that Aikman took Wurmbrand's thesis very seriously, and in his own study of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, had found additional evidence that seemed to point in the same general direction.
What did Marx and his chief disciples really believe? As Wurmbrand admits, Marx and Satan is not the final word on that question. But I think this little book does point out a set of facts that more conventional history largely ignores, and that ought to be considered; and not only as an intellectual curiosity. Wurmbrand was not an arm-chair critic, but a witness, survivor, philosopher, and passionate lover of God and man. The facts he points out, and his observations on this subject, are worth considering, if not just for their own sake, for the sake of those who died.
A Peoples’ History of the United States, Howard Zinn
"Das Kapital Yields a Little Prophet"
A friend who is an anarchist and atheist has been encouraging me
to read this book for a few years, and I'm glad I did. However one-sided and
unfair Zinn may be, anyone who has not looked at the "dark side" of
American history should come to grips with the factual aspects of this
The idea of telling the story of America from the perspective of the oppressed -- Native Americans, blacks, women, the poor and marginalized -- is excellent. After reading his account of Columbus, I will never say a nice word about the b* again. (This may not be as rare a view as some reviewers seem to think, though. In the rural, lily-white high and middle school classrooms in which I substitute teach, a poster of Indian leaders, MLK, or Malcolm X seem almost de rigeur, with curriculum to match.)
But the America of Howard Zinn is a strange place. Life there is terrible, especially for immigrants, but for some reason they keep coming. Things always seem to be getting worse, yet are never good to begin with. And then in the end, everyone and their SUV is on a diet. Because Zinn knows a lot, his tale is useful to anyone who wants to develop a balanced understanding of American history. But this is history with an attitude - a litany of actual horrors that ought to be faced, but cannot be mistaken for Truth, or anything like it.
And sometimes even Zinn's facts are doubtful. Twice he calls Vietnam "tiny," though it is the 17th largest country in the world. He says Mao's government in 1949 was "the closest thing to a peoples' government" China had had. As a China scholar, I tend to think it was the most tyrannical since Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming, or even Qin Shihuang, founder of the Qin. He seems to assume that Nagasaki was the original target of the second bomb. (It wasn't.) He implies that military spending remained the same after the breakup of the USSR; in fact it contracted, from almost 11% of GNP during the Vietnam War, to 6% in the 80s, to near 3.5%. He claims violent crime continues to increase despite a big prison population; actually it had already declined by the time of the edition I read (1996), and has gone down further since. I swim in a clean Lake Washington across from Bill Gates' house that was badly polluted when I was a child; but Zinn does not seem to have noticed improvements in the environment, either.
Sometimes, Zinn's sins of ommission edge close to lies. If the US supports a government, it engages in "imprisonment of dissenters, torture and mass murder;" if we oppose it, worse crimes are not fit to mention. South Vietnam imprisoned "thousands" of political prisoners; no one, it seems, suffered such a fate in North Vietnam, nor is genocide in Cambodia worth bringing up. The life expectancy of a black man in Harlem is less than in the Sudan. But surely Zinn knows that the cause of most deaths in Harlem is not simply "poverty"
-- men are not dying of starvation -- but AIDS, murder, suicide, drugs caused by social pathologies that adding money to state programs showed little sign of solving. (Here, I think Booker T. Washington, Bill Cosby, and even Malcolm X think more clearly.)
Zinn does not explicitly say that letting Stalin, Mao and the two mad Kims have their way with the Koreas would have been better than contesting their will: he simply does not face the question, as Truman had to. In complaining about tough choices adults make in complex and difficult world (and they never make the right choice, for Zinn) and offering no real solutions, Zinn writes like an adolescent.
The most troubling problem with Zinn's history is betrayed in its title. I think anyone who has lived in Russian or Chinese communist societies, or studied Marxist history (I have done all three) gets a bit weary of "peoples' communes," "peoples' publishing companies," "Peoples' Roads," and "peoples' parks." Zinn even follows the common communist practice of designating a specific percentage of people who are not "The People" -- just 1%, which I guess puts his own fortune a notch below the cut-off line. As one much further down, I wonder -- if not "people," what are the rich, zebras? It is a well-known psychological manuveur, of which Marx and Lenin were pre-eminently guilty, to rob people of their humanity so as to then rob them of their lives. (The percentage tended to go up.) But the moment I first saw a Starbuck's coffee shop in Shanghai's People's Park, I knew the Chinese people had turned the corner, and more java to them.
Zinn is right to try to see life from the perspective of the poor and marginalized. He is wrong only in learning this lesson from Marx, rather than greater prophets. Another unorthodox historian, Rene Girard, has argued that it was the Hebrew prophets who taught the world to see life from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the oppressor. Jesus was in that sense, as in others, the pivot of world history: stooping beside a woman caught in adultery, offering "living water" to an outcaste Samaritan woman, being rebuked for eating with tax collectors and hookers, gathering fishermen and tax collectors to change the world, and dying at the hands of state and church. As a Christian, I think Zinn is right to try to show American history from this perspective. But he needs to learn a deeper honesty, a greater maturity, and more complete compassion, not from Marx but from one who had such virtues to give. For more on the difference between these two sages, see the chapters "Where Did Marx Go Wrong?" and "How Has Jesus Changed the World?" in my Jesus and the Religions of Man.