What’s So Important About Western Civilization?

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Two new books….If that were all there was to discuss this topic, we would be in for a treat.  But there is so much more.  Every book and every study opens up a vast field of people, movements, ideas, and events calling for examination and reflection.

In my high school classes, I use and enjoy Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live?  I assign the book; we watch the videos; and I test the students over a long list of names.  Along with almost any standard Western Civilization textbook, this provides a good grammar of the subject.  To some degree, the learner has to have a mental outline of history and a sense of where to peg certain people and events.  For example, if George Washington, the Protestant Reformation, and the death of Socrates are not in some mental order in your mind, you cannot make sense of history or the present.

We interrupt this blog post for this special announcement:  One of the helpful resources available for and geared for students is Ancient History from Primary Sources, edited and compiled by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn.  This work, published by Trivium Pursuit, contains a vast number of timelines, bullet point materials, and references for teaching younger children Ancient History.  While this might be gold to the homeschooling mom who is laboring over a history curriculum, I find it equally appealing as a history teacher with decades of teaching behind me.

Now back to the journey at hand:  I have found the study of Western Civilization to be all encompassing.  There are plenty of authors and books I find indispensable.  At the top of the list would be anything written by Christopher Dawson, Jacques Barzun (particularly his book The Dawn of Decadence), Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, Niall Ferguson (especially The West and the Rest), Paul Johnson, and more.

We cannot even begin to list all of the original sources, classics of literature and philosophy, biographies, and other books that are part of the arsenal of understanding Western Civilization.

So while this topic cannot be reduced to two new books, I am going to focus now on two new books.

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg is published by Regnery.

Regnery is a well known publisher of conservative books, and the books they publish are quality materials with depth.  We are not talking about talk radio conservatism, but well-thought out, tradition-based, serious conservative interaction in the world of books and ideas.

I try not to cut and paste from others in doing my book reviews, but this comment found on the Regnery page for this book is a gem:

“Gregg’s book is the closet thing I’ve encountered in a long time to a one-volume user’s manual for operating Western Civilization.” —The Stream

Gregg’s book is a not a historical narrative, but is a analysis of key thinkers who have positively or negatively interacted with the issues of reason and faith.  In many formats, the reason versus faith matchup has been discussed.  In one sense, it goes back to the old line by Tertullian, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”  But the debate intensified during the Enlightenment.

If your study of Western Civilization—whether it be a class you teach or take, books you read, or your “study” via popular culture, or your Sunday sermons–is not raising questions of reason and faith, something is missing.  “Something” here meaning only the most vital elements.  And like it or not, the struggle for Western Civilization is a war of coalitions.  Yes, Protestants differ from Catholics.  Yes, we differ from those other people whose definitions of faith are inadequate.  But this is war and struggle.

We face a host of opposing ideologies.  Among others, Gregg focuses upon authoritarian relativism, Jihadism, and liberal religion.  These ways of thinking attack boldly, seep in, disguise themselves, and find other ways of infiltrating our culture and thinking.  Consider this quote from the one time Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  (And we cringe to remember that Kennedy was a Catholic and a Reagan appointee.)  If that statement is truly the heart of liberty or belief in that statement is the norm, we are in trouble.

But this book is not a gloom and doom Jeremiad.  Concluding with a chapter titled “A Way Back,” Gregg follows up his making us better aware of the issues confronting us with a reminder of the hope and the means of recovery.  Western Civilization can, by God’s grace, say, “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

Dominion: How The Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland is published by Basic Books.

Dominion is simply too good.  I have been reading praises and seeing reviews showing up everywhere.  I had long anticipated this book and expected it to be an enjoyable, enlightening read.  But it was better than expected.  I can actually take comfort in the scattered observations of Mr. Holland that I found unconvincing or totally objectionable, lest I despair of ever speaking of history again without quoting directly from this book.

On the one hand, this book is something like a Church history.  From the ancient world to the present, it hits various Christian and church-related movements, leaders, ideas, and struggles.  But it is not a textbook or survey of the Church or of Christians.  In some ways, it does what Christopher Dawson did through a vast number of books and essays on the impact of Christians and Christian thought, but in a different style.

This is a narrative history.  It is a story, or a collection of stories.  Repeatedly, the stories are about how Christianity interacted with and impacted culture.  This is not hagiolatry.  There are saints described, to be sure, but there are some of the inescapable stinkers who used the cloak of Christianity to do wrongful things.  (Many of them were truly convinced that they were doing the right things.)

Holland’s use of the word “revolution” is truly on target.  Christianity has so permeated the culture, so impacted events, so structured the foundations, that no one can think without borrowing heavily from the Christian foundation.  Holland’s journey in life and in writing history began with an upbringing that included aspects of both nominal and real Christian belief.  His writing journeys carried him through different venues of the ancient world, especially among Roman and Persian cultures.  But in the course of years as an unbeliever, he has begun retracing the faith, both that of our culture and of his own experiences.

This is not a conversion story.  I am not sure whether Mr. Holland is a God-honorer or a God-follower.  But the contents of this book should be enough to strengthen every believer and to give the willies with a touch of fever to every agnostic, atheist, or skeptic.

There is no way that a history teacher can honestly step back into the classroom or up to the lectern without having read or starting this book.  Am I too fulsome in my praise?  Guilty.  Read it and see if I am right.

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