Friday, April 29, 2022

The Air We Breathe

Glen Scrivener's new book, The Air We Breathe, carries an endorsement from the historian Tom Holland, and it's not difficult to see why.  Holland's book Dominion is never far in the background, with its argument that modern Western culture is only explicable as the result of Christian influence.  I reviewed Dominion previously; I expressed there some hesitation about how Christian apologists might (mis)appropriate Holland's thesis to argue that the impact of Christianity on the West has been uniformly positive and that all good things (and no bad things) stem from Christian influence.

I'm happy to say Glen has avoided this pitfall.

The essential argument of this book is simple: many of the values which we take for granted, which are so familiar as to be a part of 'the air we breathe' are not, in fact, universal values, but are firmly rooted in Christianity.  In particular, Glen traces the origins of our thinking about equality, compassion, consent (particularly in the arena of sexual relations), enlightenment, science, freedom, and progress - and shows how in each case our view of these things is decisively rooted in Christian teaching.  This is illustrated historically and philosophically, and rooted in the opening chapter ('The Night Before Christmas'), which shows how the values of the ancient, pre-Christian West differed so radically.

Take, for example, the chapter on equality.  Glen asks us to imagine the ancient philosopher Plato being brought onto a television chat show.  He's there to comment on the claim that 'some lives are worth more than others' - but of course "it is trivially obvious to the father of Western philosophy that lives are of unequal value".  He can't even understand the debate.  Of course women are worth less than men; of course slaves are worth less than freemen.  With ample quotations and examples, Glen demonstrates that the idea that all human beings are of equal worth depends on the Christian story, and only entered the world with the Christian gospel: "the God story and the equality story stand or fall together."

I said Glen avoids the pitfall of arguing too much.  What I mean is that he is clear that the church and Christian thinkers have not always been, so to speak, on the side of the angels.  In the chapter on science, for example, it is acknowledged that the church has in fact not always been a friend to the scientific project (although, as also noted there, the mutual hostility has been much exaggerated in the retelling over the centuries).  The chapter on Enlightenment is even clearer in this regard.  But the point is that where Christians have gone wrong, it is because they have not been true to their own deepest beliefs.  The resources, then, to correct those wanderings are also present in the Christian message, and in fact even when we judge them for going wrong it is Christian-inspired standards we are applying.

Where Glen is able to go furthest beyond Tom Holland (and I should say that the book is far from just being a re-hash of Dominion, however much influence there might be) is in asking the question: is the Christian story true?  In chapter 10, 'Choose Your Miracle', we are asked to consider not just whether Christianity has had a huge cultural impact; the previous chapters have demonstrated beyond a doubt that it has.  Here we are asked to consider whether the influence of the Christian story on the modern world is explained by the fact that the Christian story is true.  This chapter leads to a final appeal: to those who have no faith, to investigate the person of Jesus; to those who feel done with Christianity, to think twice before abandoning the church, despite its failings; to those who call themselves Christians, to lean hard into the weirdness of the Christian story, to understand and express how radical it really is.

I think this book is persuasive.  I find it more persuasive because in a sense it has properly limited aims: it just invites us once again to consider Jesus.  It shows clearly that we in the modern West are not done with him, even if we think we are.  It helps us to navigate our Christ-haunted culture, and asks gently whether it is not in fact the Risen Christ, rather than the ghost Christ, who explains it all best.

You can, and if I were you I would, pre-order it now.

The Good Book Company were kind enough to send me a free copy of The Air We Breathe.  They didn't commission or influence this review.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:34 pm

    If this is fruit of more time on your hands then please keep producing such helpful reviews.