Baylor professor Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity was WORLD’s 2012 book of the year. His latest, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI, 2014), is equally worth reading for all the myths Stark busts. He consistently shows how decentralization and competition, rather than government domination, form the base for progress.
Stark was a journalist before entering the academic world, and his clear writing shows it. He skewers classicists who mourn ancient Rome’s downfall, and calls the fall of Rome “the most beneficial event in the rise of Western civilization, precisely because it unleashed so many substantial and progressive changes. … Disunity enabled extensive, small-scale social experimentation and unleashed creative competition among hundreds of independent political units.”
In a chapter entitled “The blessings of disunity,” Stark goes on to show that the Dark Ages weren’t dark, the Vikings and the Crusades have gotten a bad rap, the medieval church fought slavery, the Middle Ages witnessed global warming and then global cooling, and the Black Death contributed to the end of serfdom.
And more debunking: Native Americans did not have a reverence for the earth, the European settlement of the Americas was not a brutal act of genocide, Spain following the Age of Exploration never declined because it never truly rose, Islam never had a golden age and was not tolerant, Christianity was not hostile to science, and European nations did not profit from colonialism.
Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (HarperOne, 2013) shows a British writer’s recognition that belief in Christ makes the greatest emotional sense not for the “young, buff, and available” but for the aging woman with a demented husband, or the boy in the wheelchair with “spasming corkscrew limbs,” or the drug-addicted woman with “a rat’s nest of dreadlocks” who will soon be losing her child.
Spufford sees Christianity as the religion that acknowledges the hard things and finds grounds for hope in spite of them. He acknowledges that coming to Christ is not primarily an intellectual assent to propositions but a matter of feelings: “I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.”
Spufford also stresses, as did Walker Percy, the way we often distract ourselves with stuff, until at a certain point “you’re lying in the bath and you noticed that you’re 39 and the way you’re living bears scarcely any resemblance to what you think you’ve always wanted; yet you got here by choice, by a long series of choices for things which, at any one moment, temporarily outbid the things you say you wanted most.”
The churches he looks for are those that tell the truth, “the authentic bad news about myself, [but] in a perspective which is so different from the tight focus of my desperation that it is good news in itself; I have been shown that though I may see myself in the grim optics of sorrow and self-dislike, I am being seen all the while, if I can bring myself to believe it, with a generosity wider than oceans.” Amen.
Chip Anderson’s Wasted Evangelism (Wipf & Stock, 2013) is a sharp retort based on the Gospel of Mark to those who think faith with anti-poverty work is dead. Anderson’s exegesis of Mark 12:38-44 opposes the standard understanding that sees the poor widow as providing a model of sacrificial giving: He sees disapproval of the widow’s donation to temple leaders who are taking advantage of her. Anderson also exegetes the words “fisher of men” from the standpoint of those hooked.
Are police officers one of the less-evangelized people groups in America? With life-or-death decisions to make, they certainly form one of the neediest. Jim McNeff’s The Spirit Behind Badge 145 (Thomas Nelson, 2013) is a readable memoir by a discerning man who served 27 years with an Orange County, Calif., police department and worshipped at Saddleback Church. —M.O.