Sunday, February 1, 2009

How Christianity Changed the World review

At long last, another book review. This afternoon, after starting it some four months ago, I finished reading Alvin Schmidt's How Christianity Changed the World. The book was published in 2001 under the title Under the Influence and republished in 2004 under its current title. It sets out to document the many ways in which Jesus Christ and the religion founded in His name have changed the world. In the sense that the book chronicles almost every area impacted by Christianity, it succeeds. As a readable book, however, it fails, as I will detail.

The text is just over 400 pages long in the trade paperback edition I have - a fairly lengthy book, as befits a book attempting to deal with the topic at hand. The book is written in an attempt at a balance between an educated and conversational style. The text is neatly organized, and while there is not much coherence between chapters or even sections, they are neatly organized for reference. He moves systematically through areas that Christianity has influenced, covering people transformed, sanctity of human life, sexual morality, women's rights, charity and compassion, hospitals and health care, education, labor and economics, science, democracy, the abolition of slavery, art, music, literature, and additional influence in the form of holidays, words, symbols, and expressions. In each of these categories - covered in a chapter - Schmidt moves through the topic's history, from the advent of Christianity or just before our earliest records of Christian influence, and compiles a list of the contributions of Christianity in that particular topic.

The book's primary merit is that it demonstrates many of the ways that Christ's life has impacted the world. In particular, the early chapters do an excellent job of showing how the gospel transforms lives and thereby impacts the culture in which those lives are set.

The books demerits are as follows:

First, Schmidt's style. As noted above, the language seemed to be an attempt at mixing conversational speech with a more academic vocabulary. He would likely have been better off simply going for a conversational or an academic tone, because the actual style is rather frustrating: it's conversational in tone but overly flowery in its prose. I'm certainly no critic of flowery prose, so long as it's being put to good use. Here, it wasn't, and it simply ended up feeling over-the-top.

Annoyingly, Schmidt repeats his thesis in some way at the end of nearly every section - and the sections are often mere paragraphs long. Obviously the reason he is positing this example or that is that he feels they support his claim; repeating ad nauseum that such-and-such a thing, person, event, etc. clearly reflects Christian influence was both Rather than helping his writing's cogency, however, this simply made it feel choppy. I expected from the book an historical analysis of the ways Christianity shaped culture and history and thus the lasting impact Christ's life has had. I expected from this a demonstration of the transforming power of the gospel. What I found instead was essentially a collection of facts and conjectures about how this person or that thing might have been influenced by Christianity. A few of his points I simply disagreed with - they were stretching, and without any good reason to do so; grasping at straws doesn't help one's case here.

Next, the lack of coherence is extremely frustrating. One might be tempted to think that the repetition would help the coherence of the book, and while it does reiterate the overall theme, the actual problem here is that the sections don't flow together effectively. The main difficulty is Schmidt's sectional approach: rather than looking historically and observing how Christianity grew and flowered over the span of the last 2 millenia, he covers the same spans of history over and over again. This leads to a breakdown in cogency and some not insignificant repetition (he covers Kepler's New Astronomy and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin twice, for example).

The book also struggles to affirm the good work of Christ in parts of the church Schmidt differs with theologically. He criticizes Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Calvinists throughout the book, making half-hearted apologies on their behalf at times and at others simply attacking them as wrong. While I certainly have my points of difference with different groups of Christians, I have no problem acknowledging that the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions have, by and large, done a better job with the arts than their Protestant brothers. While I certainly have no problem in dealing with those theological points of difference, there is a place and a time for them; a catalog of the ways Christianity has changed the world probably isn't it.

This struck me as particularly ironic given his own criticisms of various ways in which Christians are seeking to contribute, particularly in the arts. For example, he outright dismisses all "hard" rock as automatically anti-Christian. While I certainly share his appreciation for classical art and hymnody, making some sort of distinction - as he does - between "hard" and "soft" rock is simply silly. He quotes a virulent anti-jazz author from the 1930's, comments that he may have overreacted slightly to jazz, and then proceeds to argue that the comments are certainly applicable to all of rock music. I'm not a fan of rock. I also believe that medium impacts message. But to outright declare that a given form of music (or art, for that matter) is inherently anti-Christian strikes me as not only incorrect (which I believe it is) but also pointless.

These preceding two points can be summed up by my ultimate major criticism of the book: rather than being an informative work on the historical and sociological import of Christianity, How Christianity Changed the World ends up being primarily polemical. In nearly every chapter, Schmidt takes the opportunity to criticize this or that modern trend against Christianity. In particular, he seems thoroughly affronted by the postmodernization of America and its slow release of Christian morality. While I share his sorrow over this point, and think it will only bring the nation harm to walk away from a Christian morality, I find this troubles me for two reasons.

First, I don't think it serves the book itself terribly well: the pages would be put to better use simply showing how Christianity has changed and continues to change the world, rather than polemicizing. Second, and more importantly, I think it reflects a sad state of affairs among evangelical circles: that we are more concerned about losing our influence in the public square and about the possibility of some minor degree of persecution than we are faith-filled that God is moving and capable of bringing redemption no matter how terrible the circumstances. I do not believe it coincidence that the church in Europe has all but died, the church in America is dying, and the church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia - all places of difficulty at best and fierce opposition at worst - is growing marvelously.

In short, this is not a book I recommend. I've no doubt that Schmidt is an extremely knowledgeable and competent man. It certainly took immense time to compile the information presented here, and his background as a sociologist shows through. Unfortunately, though, that's part of the problem: this book became more a compilation of interesting sociological insights than a tracing of the impact of Christ's work in the world. How Christianity Changed the World has considerable pertinent information in it - but it also has a good deal of extraneous information and grasping at straws in it (the last chapter, on holidays and words, being a particular example of the former, and a number of agnostics who sort of reflect Christianity's impact being good examples of the latter). Christianity is stronger than that, and the deep desire to hold onto political capital reflected in this and other similar books saddens me immensely. I would much prefer that we were consumed with the ability of the gospel to change hearts than with the ability of the office to change laws. If people wish to lie about Christ, His good news, and His church, we ought not be affronted. After all, He told us as much would come to be. Rather, we ought to proclaim the truth in love and boldness, not ourselves thinking we need to somehow rescue the faith from its persecutors.


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