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Peter Brown
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Peter Brown

Antiquity analysis

Books | Author traces competing attitudes toward wealth amid the fall of Rome

WORLD’s current book year runs from June 2012, to May  2013: That will give us time to get everything in order for our 15th annual books special issue, scheduled for July. This year we’ll be noting contenders for Book of the Year as we go along, rather than just revealing them at the end—so here’s contender No. 1, Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton U. Press, 2012). 

Brown, 77, has spent half a century studying that era. He became a star among academic historians with the publication in 1971 of The World of Late Antiquity, which broke with the historians’ consensus that the period from 200 A.D. to 800 was a time of decline from the “golden age” of classical civilization. Brown saw positives in the rise of Christianity and did not inhale the philo-paganism of many historians from Edward Gibbon in the 1770s to the present. 

Through the Eye of a Needle broadly tells of attitudes toward wealth, but the most fascinating part is his contextualizing of the battle between Pelagius and Augustine in the cultural battles of that era. The British monk Pelagius thought life could be perfect: As Brown summarizes that view, “There was no heart of darkness in human nature,” and Christians who spoke of having to rely on “the grace of God” were just groping for “an excuse for not fulfilling the law of God.” 

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Pelagius denied original sin and proclaimed that Christians especially had the power within themselves to be perfect: “Spiritual riches no one can give you other than yourself.” This view underlay economic doctrines: If the rich would only give away their money, they could have perfect lives. It’s not hard to imagine his excited followers starting campaigns to “Occupy Rome” or “Occupy Hippo,” the home of another illustrious preacher and writer, Augustine.

Brown summarizes Augustine’s view that “pride, not wealth, was the true Last Enemy of the Christian. The real division of the world was not between the rich and the poor. It was between the proud and those who were enabled by God’s grace to be humble before God and before their fellows. … For once the rigid stance of pride was removed, wealth and power could be used without inhibition to promote the concord of a Christian society.” 

Augustine, Brown notes, “was relentlessly even-handed in his treatment of the sins of both the rich and the poor.” Here’s what Augustine preached to the poor about whether the rich who were evil could get into heaven: “Certainly such people will not get in. But you too, just see whether you will enter. What if, as well as being poor you are greedy; what if you are both weighed down with want and on fire with avarice?”

Three instructive reads

Journalist/professor David Aikman has come out this year with two instructive books about Middle Eastern and American conflicts. The first half of his novel, Kidnapped in Gaza (Strategic Media), describes well the life of a reporter in Israel and Gaza, and the second half is action-filled as political demands become deadly serious. Aikman’s nonfiction book, One Nation Without God? (Baker) succinctly offers both bad news and good: The influence of Christianity is waning in America, but pockets of hope show how a turnaround is possible.

In Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk (Encounter), John Fund and Hans von Spakovsky document instances and results of fraud in past elections. Example: Al Franken won a Senate seat—and became the 60th vote Democrats needed to pass Obamacare—by 312 votes, yet more than 1,000 ineligible felons voted illegally in that Minnesota election contest, and nine of 10 interviewed said they had voted for Franken. 

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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