A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Andre A. Gazal
Though the assertion that Christianity is under attack might come across as a cliché that unduly expresses the alleged paranoia of ultra-conservative Christians obsessed with sundry opinions of the “End Times,” there is much truth to the notion as the continuous shift of religious, philosophical, and cultural attitudes in the West strongly suggest. According to the aggressively secularist, woke narrative, Christianity has been one of the most deleterious forces in civilization as it proved itself to be intolerant, oppressive, imperialistic, and utterly regressive. More tellingly, many professing Christians, even Evangelicals, have acceded to this hostile and inaccurate account of Christianity’s influence. Sharon James, however, has provided a needed corrective to this revisionist portrayal in the very accessible volume, How Christianity Transformed the World.
The book begins with a commendatory preface by the renowned Christian humanitarian Caroline Cox, Baroness of Queensbury who says of the work that it “is a wonderful tribute to the Christian faith and its underpinning of individual freedom and dignity” (12)! The thesis, nature, and purpose of the work are quite simple. James argues that since its beginning at Pentecost, the Christian Church, in its endeavor to follow Jesus, reflecting God’s love and moral character, has impacted the world in beneficial ways. James does this by drawing together the essential material from longer, scholarly works such as those by Thomas Holland, Rodney Stark, Timothy Shah, Allen Hertzke, and Vishal Mangawaldi as well as many others in order to provide the general reader with a helpful primer of historical scholarship attesting to Christianity’s salutary influence on the development of civilization. In so doing, the author seeks to equip readers to answer common objections as, “Christianity is violent and intolerant”; “Christians are on the wrong side of history”; and “Christianity is terrible for human rights.” Yet, in striving for intellectual honesty, James clearly reminds readers of the following facts: 1. Injustices have been perpetrated in the name of Christ. 2. One must distinguish genuine, biblical Christianity from institutional religion. 3. Christianity does not have a monopoly on virtue and compassion. In keeping with the thesis and purpose, James produces a practical, historical apologetic for Christianity. Each of the ten chapters comprising the book covers one significant area to which Christianity substantially contributed.
Chapter 1 discusses Christianity’s positive influence on the concept of human freedom. This came about largely as a result of Christianity’s response to slavery. The chapter begins with instances of oppression in Communist North Korea, and the People’s Republic of China. It is within this contemporary context that the author relates the story of a Chinese man, Joseph, who discovered Christianity and trusted in the Christ of the Christian gospel. Being thus transformed, Joseph thereafter dedicated himself to helping North Koreans find freedom. Taking this moving story as her point of departure, James argues that the notion of human rights, the source of the concept of freedom, derives from the idea of the human person, which in turn rests upon the biblical view that all human beings are created in the image of God. This image of God gives human beings their intrinsic worth. Moreover, the Incarnation of Christ confirms the significance of humanity in that God taking on human flesh elevates human dignity. After establishing these theological principles, James goes on to explain how the classical view of slavery, as espoused by the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, maintained its necessity in order for enlightened people to pursue the life of the mind, and that those who functioned as slaves were suited for this position because they lacked souls.
The advent of Christianity, however, challenged the inhumane institution of slavery by asserting the equal, inherent value of all human beings as argued eloquently by Christian thinkers such as Lactantius, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa. This Christian understanding of human dignity furthermore informed the Frankish rulers of the early Middle Ages such as Clovis and Charlemagne who actively opposed slavery in their realm. By the eleventh century, slavery in Christendom was virtually abolished. Christians later opposed the institution of slavery when it was revived in the early modern period. Among the most notable of these opponents, whose efforts ultimately brought both the slave trade and the revived institution of slavery to an end were Bartolomao de la Casas in the sixteenth century, and William Pitt the Younger along with William Wilberforce in the eighteenth and nineteenth, as well as Christian abolitionists in America during the same period.
Chapter 2 on religious liberty is arguably the weakest part of the book. The chapter begins with a strong exposition of the biblical basis for religious liberty, which is humanity’s unique status as image-bearer of God, and continues with a helpful discussion of the early church’s conception of religious freedom, particularly as represented in the thought of Tertullian and Lactantius. Here James points out that Tertullian was the first to employ the phrase, “religious liberty” in his Apology, arguing that one must voluntarily accept religion out of personal conviction. James also notes that Lactantius, in his Divine Institutes, urged Emperor Constantine to adopt a policy of religious freedom, which he did in his issuing the Edict of Milan (313). As the chapter transitions into the early Middle Ages, it mentions Alcuin of York’s attempt to dissuade his student, Emperor Charlemagne, from imposing Christianity on the Saxons—advice the Frankish ruler did not heed. However, the narrative begins to falter with the section on the Sacral Era in which James alleges religious liberty to have been “undermined” (43). Here James seems to parrot the popular and ironically naive, a-historical as well as whigish opinion that the Sacral Order was something of an anomaly that halted the seeming advance of religious freedom in that it institutionalized the persecution of dissenters. James’ appraisal disregards the nuances of Christendom as the definitive paradigm the Sacral Order produced. Moreover, the Christian society that was Christendom provided the context which made possible all of the other contributions of Christianity that James discusses in subsequent chapters.
The Sacral Order’s persecutorial response to dissent, though seemingly abhorrent to early twentieth-century sensitivities shaped by pluralism, voluntarism, and autonomous individualism, must nevertheless be considered within its unique historical context. According to the political theology that defined society during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, the Christian magistrate, whether monarch, territorial prince, or conciliar magistrate, was the guardian of both the spiritual and temporal estates of the Christian commonwealth and was thus obligated before God to ensure the integrity of both. The existence of religious dissent threatened to undermine and destroy the Christian society, resulting in simultaneous physical and spiritual ruin. There were some real justifications for this concern such as the radical Anabaptist attempt to establish a theocracy at Munster in 1534—something that James conspicuously omits from her romantic celebration of the Anabaptists as restorers of religious liberty. Furthermore, James overlooks some of the magisterial reformers’ unique contributions to this subject, especially as it pertains to the relationship between magisterial and ecclesiastical authority—something that John Calvin addressed within the very real context of his struggles with the city council in Geneva. As already implied, James’ account is overtly slanted towards an Anabaptist interpretation of Christendom which seems very much to divorce these diverse religionists as well as their successors from their overarching context, resulting in her lionizing those who stridently objected to the societal entity that produced the things she extols as having “transformed the world,” a telos that would have run counter to their vision of separation from that same world. Without regard to the complex nuances associated with the Sacral Order that produced Christendom, this chapter potentially causes the work to be inherently self-contradictory, and therefore self-defeating.
Things steadily improve in chapter 3 on Christianity’s contribution to justice. Here James masterfully traces the biblical basis for the English legal tradition (from which the American one descends), especially the Magna Carta (1215). Especially valuable in this regard is the chart that shows how biblical principles influenced major portions of this foundational legal document.
Chapter 4 is a detailed discussion of Christianity’s historic role in protecting the sanctity of life. Beginning with the foundational biblical doctrine that God is the giver of life, highlighting especially the value that he ascribed to it in the act of the Incarnation, James moves on to the early church’s witness to the sanctity of life. Whereas abortion was widely practiced in the Greco-Roman world and advocated by philosophers like Plato as a means of population control, the early church strongly condemned it. Not only did the early church condemn abortion and infanticide, it proactively saved unwanted infants. The theologian, Basil of Caesarea, for instance, mobilized Christians to help women with unwanted pregnancies and organized protests against the guild of abortionists who sold the bodies of aborted infants to manufacturers of body creams. Eventually, the Christian emperor, Valentinian, enacted a law prohibiting abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment. Christian influence in the late Roman Empire was also largely responsible for the abolition of the gladiatorial games which made human violence a sport. Due to the leavening effect of Christianity, Western Civilization fostered a culture of life. Yet tragically, as James also observes, as the West continues to abandon Christianity in favor of materialistic, dehumanizing ideologies, it has increasingly encouraged a culture of death as evidenced in the widespread legalization of abortion and in some nations, even euthanasia. Towards the end of the chapter, James draws the striking conclusion, on the basis of contrast with other religions, that respect for life emerged from Christianity alone.
Chapter 5 highlights the position of Christianity in affirming the dignity of women. Throughout this engaging discussion, James attributes the elevation of women’s status to the Christian doctrine that they were equal before God as his image-bearers, and therefore also fully received redemption by Christ. From there, the author examines the effect Christian missions have had, as evidenced in the work of William Carey and many others, on the improving social position of women in places like India.
Chapter 6 examines the Christian origins of philanthropy. Throughout this chapter, James argues persuasively that philanthropy arose from the revolutionary Christian concept of compassion. Whereas the ancient world highly regarded virtues like courage, strength, and self-control, it generally disdained compassion as a weakness. Exemplifying this contempt, was Plato, who argued that a poor person should be left to die if he/she was unable to work. By contrast, Christians were known for their compassion. Even their detractors noted the willingness of Christians to give freely without reward, even demonstrating love for their enemies as Jesus taught. Acting against the prevalent repugnance towards the poor, Christians intentionally reached out to them, cared for them, and included them. James further traces the development of Christian philanthropy through the Middle Ages, into the period of evangelical revivals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, resulting in the establishment of multiple charitable works that continue worldwide in the present day.
Chapter 7 on Christianity’s contribution to healthcare is arguably one of the most fascinating features of this book. James begins this chapter with a stroke of irony as she notes China, home of one of the most brutal, totalitarian regimes of this century as well as the geographical origin of the Coronavirus that has ravaged much of the world, is the sight of several functioning hospitals founded by Christian missionaries as acts of love towards the people to whom they ministered the gospel. This profound observation by James serves as the backdrop for her survey of Christianity’s impact on medicine and healthcare. Beginning with the early church, James shows how Christians were instrumental in founding hospitals originally as places for the destitute as well as the sick in order to live the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Among the founders of these early hospitals whom James highlights are the Roman noblewoman, Fabiola, Ephraim the Syrian, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and Benedict of Nursia. Moving into the Middle Ages, James calls attention to the priest Guy de Chaluiac, who wrote the first “modern” work on surgery.
One of the most important figures James discusses while touching on the Early Modern period is Thomas Sydenham, “the Father of English Medicine,” whose major work, Observationes Medicae, became the standard medical textbook throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sydenham, moreover, developed a Christian view of care that emphasized intentionally selecting a treatment that was best for the patient. In addition to authoring his prodigious treatise on medicine, Sydenham sacrificially cared for patients during the 1665 outbreak of the Plague in London. Throughout the remainder of the chapter, James surveys the pioneering work of Christians in caring for the mentally ill as well as the rise of modern nursing from voluntary Christian efforts, particularly emphasizing the part played by Theodore Fleidner and Florence Nightingale. James ends the chapter with a discussion of the effects of medical missions on the well-being of people in various parts of the world.
While the material in chapter 8 concerning the pivotal part Christianity played in the development of education would be familiar to most Christians, James helpfully organizes this narrative around certain important ideas that drove the Christian educational enterprise: “We are able to study because the cosmos is ordered,” “We are able to study because we are created in the image of the Triune God.”
Chapter 9 credits Christianity with redeeming the sanctity and dignity of work. Countering the disdain for physical work and commerce by the elites of the ancient world, Christianity stressed that God ordained humanity to work as an act of worship to him in an expression of the image in which he created it. James then proceeds to survey the manner in which Christianity continued elevating the significance of work from the technological agricultural innovations by the monasteries in the Middle Ages to American entrepreneurs like Cyrus McCormick. Throughout this chapter, James stresses the difference between indiscriminate exploitation of earth’s resources from the divinely ordained dominion which is the reverential exercise of care for the creation as an essential aspect of humanity’s holy vocation of work. She ends the chapter with a discourse on work as mission.
Chapter 10 serves as an encouraging and triumphal end of the book with a call to participate in Christ’s work on earth by participating in the advancement of his Kingdom through contributing to these endeavors. James anchors her charge in the moving account of the formative influence Jonathan Edwards’ History of Redemption exerted upon the young Nehemiah Strong who later became professor of mathematics and philosophy at Yale. Strong pursued these fields based on his having situated himself in God’s redemptive story. He viewed his endeavors as his appointed means of participation in this grand narrative. James then challenges the reader to reconsider his/her view of the world. Rather than succumb to despair over the perceived worsening conditions of the world, assuming a posture of withdrawal, Christians need to recover confidence in Christ’s triumph over the forces of darkness in this world, and actively resume their role in its transformative work.
How Christianity Transformed the World generally accomplishes its purpose in vindicating Christianity’s salutary effect on the world by way of a lucidly written, thoroughly researched narrative. Not only does James provide an effective historical apologetic for the transformative work of Christianity, but a reasoned, yet impassioned call for Christians to embrace their roles in bringing Christ’s transformative work to every sphere of human endeavor, thereby infusing the world all the more with the gospel. Another possible weakness in this work, other than the problematic nature of chapter 2, is the author’s tendency to quote cited excerpts in secondary sources rather than the primary sources in which such statements originally occur. Nevertheless, How Christianity Transformed the World is a useful primer on the historical record of Christianity’s positive, substantive impact on the world through its contributions in many areas that have fundamentally improved humanity. It is suitable for Bible study groups and Sunday School classes as well as high school and undergraduate students. Indeed, How Christianity Transformed the World is a useful resource in discipling the Church for redemptive service as Christ’s “salt and light.”
Andre A. Gazal
Montana Bible College