Thursday, August 11, 2005

Book Review: "Christianity on Trial"

Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity On Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry. San Francisco, Encounter Books, 2002. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003).

Until some time roughly in the middle of the twentieth century, defenders of the Christian worldview employed as part of their apologetic arsenal the claim that Christianity’s impact on history was one of its most stellar credentials. The crucified and risen Christ of the Scripture transforms not only individuals, but family relationships, institutions, politics, education, race relations, charitable endeavors, and much more. . How else could one explain the conversion and civilization of the pagan nations if not by divine grace shown through Jesus Christ invasion of history? This kind of argument was used by Athanasius in the Fourth Century in his treatise, The Incarnation of the Word of God. More recent is a large book in my library dating from 1929 by Charles David Eldridge, Christianity’s Contributions to Civilization (Cokesbury Press).

Yet the practice of arguing for Christianity based on its salutary contributions to history has fallen on hard times. So hard, in fact, that the aim of Christianity On Trial is not to argue positively for Christianity given its unique achievements, but to argue against Christianity’s detractors by setting the record straight. As the subtitle states, the arguments of the book address “anti-religious bigotry.” This defensive strategy is called for given the Western media’s penchant for making Christianity a scapegoat for nearly all forms of evil in the world today.

As journalists, the authors are both well aware of media prejudice against Christianity. Carroll is the editor of the editorial pages for The Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado, and Shiflett is a free-lance writer. In their eight well-written and amply documented chapters, the authors argue that Christianity was foundational to the major social structures in the West. The book presents a strong case that Christian ideals are behind many beneficial aspects of contemporary culture, including an appreciation of science and education, equality before the law, universal suffrage, the structure of American government, and much more. One area where the book does not deliver adequately is in addressing the charge that Christianity is misogynistic. Some attention is paid to this complaint, but much more could and should be marshaled. (Chapter XVIII of Christianity’s Contribution to Civilization is entitled, “Christianity’s Contributions to the Uplift of Women.” However, this book is long out of print.)

The authors certainly grant that the history of Christianity is checkered, since Christians remain sinners who fail to live up to their ideals. Nevertheless, despite the incessant media references to crusades, witch trials, and racism, the Christian influence on the West has been pervasive and, all things considered, positively ennobling. To see this, however, one must dig deeper than sound bites and factoids. For those so willing, this book is a needed corrective. For a similar work demythologizing the Christian past, see Philip J. Sampson, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization (InterVarsity Press, 2001).


ambrs said...

There is also How Christianity Changed the World
by Dr. Alvin J. Schmidt
. It is a bit polemical at times, but it makes a good case for Christianity as an important source of much that is good in Western culure. Another older book worth a look is England: before and after Wesley
by John Wesley Bready
. Bready demonstrates the decisive impact of the 18th century Great Awakening on the social transformation of England and America leading to the development of democracy and the abolition of slavery, among other things.

stc said...

Surely we have to take a historical perspective here. Whatever positive contribution we made in the past, we had better not be reactionary with respect to current social issues.

I agree, for example, that Christianity made a significant contribution to an elevation in the status of women. "There is neither … male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus", Gal. 3:28, is an extraordinary text for the first century. Acts 2:17-18 is another remarkable text.

But Western society has caught up to the Church's initial revolutionary impulses, and left the Church far behind. The Roman Catholic Church, with its opposition to female priests, is an easy target. But evangelical churches are still taking half measures as well — for example, allowing women to function as ministers only as long as they are ultimately under male oversight.

That's why it is difficult for Christians to boast about the great social advances led by the Church. It is not entirely unreasonable for people to say, "Maybe, but the Church is now an obstacle to further social progress."

Some day Christians are going to be embarrassed by our generation's rigid opposition to rights for same sex couples, just as we are currently embarrassed by the witch hunts, the Crusades, etc.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

If the church endorses homosexual coupling, it will have betrayed its Christ, its calling, and its Bible. Homosexuality is a result of the fall, not of creation, and it must be treated in that light. See Romans 1:18-32. Marriage is ordained by God as defined by heterosexual monogamy. See Genesis 2 and Matthew 19.

For the record, I am egalitarian and do not want to find women restricted in ministry. But I do not put the Bible aside for this conviction; it is a biblical conviction. See two books by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis: "Women Caught in the Conflict" and "Good News for Women," as well as one she co-editted, "Discovering Biblical Equality." There is no logical connection between supporting egalitarianism and endorsing homosexual practice or coupling.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Something inside of me (is it my Mennonite, "Christ Against Culture" upbringing?) just has a hard time caring about what the world thinks about Christianity.

Certainly we're to be salt and light to this world, and in doing so it is said that our Father will be glorified. And not to do so off somewhere in a community by ourselves but living it out in the world. If we have God's kingdom ethic and substantially (not perfectly since we won't succeed) live out by the Spirit God's kingdom, surely it will make a difference for good in the world.

stc said...

Mr. Groothuis:

I think there are some parallels between these two social issues, though I acknowledge that they are not perfectly parallel. (The parallels would be stronger if it were certain that homosexuality is inborn; personally, I suspect sexual orientation is determined by a mixture of nature and nurture.)

I should perhaps clarify what I said. I don't think the Church must necessarily condone homosexuality among Christians (e.g. by ordaining homosexual ministers).

But outside of the Church — that's a different matter. Must the Church oppose homosexual marriage, for example, if solemnized by secular officials?

In generations to come, this will be perceived as another black mark on the Church's record: trying to control events outside of its relevant sphere, and attempting to deny human rights to a minority group.