Last time in The House on a Rock – Part I of III, we introduced Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (2019) by Tom Holland. We’re often told versions, like Dominion, of a broad history of Western civilization were once common knowledge.
Well, we who attended good American schools during the 1960’s to 1980’s are not so sure. Has our educational system ever done a terrific job here? We don’t think so.
And how many of you realized somewhere in your thirties or forties that your education was completely inadequate? If Western history wasn’t enough, our multiculturalist age has broadened the academic territory across the world, far beyond any mortal’s capabilities.
Nevertheless, for American worldview purposes, we think it essential to be able to think broadly about all of Western history. Why? In the words of a great American Southerner who got mentally stuck like the rest of us: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The level of civil strife today across America and Europe are proof that we can’t escape the history of “modern times.” As a result, we must familiarize ourselves with all of the West’s past, even what led to it BC (Before Christ).
In the West, the past is never past, Thank Goodness. Now, we can’t prove that point in one post, but we are raising the issue now with our three primary book recommendations in this series.
Simultaneously, given the West is arguably in a Postmodern Age, we’re also raising this issue: Why do postmodernists study history in the first place? After all, doesn’t postmodernism mean anti-modernism, and isn’t modernity itself based on truth, reason, and knowledge, the foundations of historical study? Why would one consider history at all without a belief in truth?
Also last time, Dr. Bart Ehrman, a religion scholar, gives us his answer, and Dr. Deirdre McCloskey, an economic history scholar, gives hers in the video clip above. In fact, some postmodernists do think history is worth our attention and others don’t. Dr. Ehrman concentrates on the front end of Western history, Biblical times through the end of the Roman Empire, and Dr. McCloskey on modern times, beginning around the Renaissance. On that basis, these two scholars offer historical bookends.
What all of our postmodernist Praxis Circle Contributors say is that they apply reason to analyze language and evidence to better understand narrative and power relationships and to gather useful information. In addition, they emphasize the role of feelings, emotions, and passions as drivers of human behavior, often over and above reason.
We will briefly dive into these themes in Part III with an examination of After God, our third featured book in the series, by Dr. Mark Taylor, a well-known Ivy League postmodernist.
But today, speaking of narrative, let’s start Part II with a Trivia Question concerning military history and love:
What’s the name of the famous battle that resulted in a white male military general elevating a “man of color” to king, who then spread freedom, equality, and love throughout the land?
We hope the phrase “man of color” doesn’t get us canceled. That would hurt. But we really don’t know what the right woke term should be. Our last book Dominion suggested being woke is important, at least an issue worthy of thought. Indeed, “What is being woke?” might be today’s most popular question.
As an alternative to man of color, then, let’s just say, the new king who spread love was certainly not a Caucasian; not a white man. And are we really surprised? Don’t think so. In fact, no one then, especially the general, the king, and most of their contemporaries and subjects, had any confusion about differences in human color. No one could miss them.
Come to think of it, even if you know the answer, this Trivia Question is really tough. More clues are needed:
After the white general won the famous battle, he was happy for the new non-Caucasian king when he abolished race, gender, class, religion, and national origin as categories to separate people. He was also happy as the other white people in the realm focused more attention on the non-white king than him.
Alright, no more clues. We’re giving away the answer to you at this point. In particular, pay no attention to that picture of the magnificent Cathedral of York, England above. And by the way, the white male general who won the battle and turned authority over to the non-white king grew up in a non-British slave-holding nation.
In any case, we’ll give you time to think about this question or riddle and return to it later in the series.
- By David Bentley Hart
In contrast to Dominion, The Story attempts to cover the entire global history of Christianity concisely with less background and fewer asides. By comparison, Mr. Holland covers modernity since the Reformation in 179 pages and Dr. Hart in 112 smaller pages. In our opinion, Dr. Hart also succeeds in spades.
Dr. Hart divides the entire history of Christianity into 50 rather short chapters that also include subheadings. The product is interesting and readable. Just boiling such a vast history down into 50 categories is a Herculean task. We see the world’s largest religion as it starts, survives, grows, splits, further divides , survives, morphs, remakes itself, and grows some more, all at once and every step of the way. In the process, Christianity also absorbs and remakes literally everything it touches, while rejecting what doesn’t make sense or fit well with what does.
The Story is beautiful in its simplicity and vision, hitting only the high spots. It’s a readable account for professional historians or serious armchair historians (like all of us here at PC). The Story is your perfect guide the night before the comprehensive final exam, with enough insight and detail to get the Alpha, if you happen to get lucky with the right questions.
Don’t let The Story’s 343 pages scare you at all – it doesn’t feel nearly that long and it moves along quickly. It’s a good quick reference source. You can skip over whatever you don’t want to read, but, once familiar with Dr. Hart’s style, you’ll only find yourself looking forward to the next chapter or section. Dr. Hart has produced a much-needed book that serves the function of bringing an amazing set of facts together in one document. No doubt, this was his purpose.
As noted in The House on a Rock – Part I, each of the three authors in the series have worldviews very different from ours. Tom Holland is an English naturalist whose politics are more leftward than we are. Today’s featured author, Dr. Hart, is an Eastern Orthodox Christian and Democratic Socialist.
On the one hand with respect to Dr. Hart, our worldviews about Western history and the experience of God in this life, which we’ll touch on soon, are almost in lockstep. On the other hand, Dr. Hart is on a totally different planet – no, in a completely separate universe – when it comes to how he reads the Bible and translates that reading into politics. Our Biblical reading and practical experience telling us what we should do and what will work well are utterly different.
We see this from his interviews and when he describes his theological views, as in his most recent book, “That ALL shall be SAVED” (2019). It’s not so much what he says about salvation and heaven & hell that leads us to say this, it’s more what he says in describing his central thesis that have critical political implications. Whereas Dr. Hart was able to leave politics mostly aside in The Story and in The Experience of God (mentioned next), he simply could not do that when writing about salvation.
Our main point is not that our Biblical theory and practical experiences are radically different; it’s that at some unavoidable point worldview theory ventures onto the hard and straight railroad tracks of life. We do not want to debate theology, philosophy, politics, or practical experience here, but we do want to suggest that we can all learn from each other.
Furthermore, when we are thinking about worldview today, we need to realize we’re walking into a high-end grocery store, like Publix. At every aisle in the worldview supermarket, we’ll have more choices than we can count for every item to go in our cart. As we age, we must be more thoughtful about what we take home, and more thoughtful about bias.
Moreover, when we’re addressing individuals on worldview matters, we can’t assume, just because there is disagreement on major-league metaphysical or political issues, that he or she will not have anything good to say or that there can be no overlap. If you believe in truth, you need to remain open to the idea that you might be wrong, might need to adjust, or might need to change your views totally.
In fact, those who believe in truth, like the military general mentioned in the Trivia Question above, might be far more likely to change their views than those who don’t. This also should be kept front-of-mind, and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated. We aren’t certain about answers, but we’ve raised an interesting question about believers in truth versus non-believers and the role of praxis that’s beyond the scope of this post.
Before we finish with The Story, we must offer a major plug for another Hart book mentioned above, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013). This is a world class book. If you know someone on the intellectual side who is struggling with issues about God and truth, this book could be a terrific recommendation.
Our own personal experience with life is that experiencing and understanding the supernatural is much like playing in the NBA: Some people just have the talent for it and others do not. The point? When it comes to writing about the supernatural and truth, Dr. Hart has the talent. We would say he is a Hall of Famer up there with MJ (Michael Jordan).
In The Experience of God, he doesn’t write so much about theology (as in “That ALL shall be Saved”) and very little about history (as in The Story), but instead about why and how we really believe in God in the first place. Why do we believe? Not as much because we read the Bible or other holy texts; we believe because we experience God in our daily lives. Dr. Hart describes how this happens and shows clearly why such ideas as God, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are readily apparent.
In fact, he’s so clever in much of his writing that, after finishing the book, the words “The Dr. Evil of Supernaturalism” were written in red Sharpie on the book cover, a high compliment from anyone at Praxis Circle. The Experience of God deserves a full book summary itself, and we will give it one over the next year.
In the meantime, we are kind of hoping it could help Tom Holland from Part I or Mark Taylor in Part III (next time) back over the top and onto the saddle of some form of faith. At their stages in life, that might be like Michael Jordan’s famous buzzer beater in the 1982 NCAA Championship basketball game, putting Dean Smith’s UNC Tarheels over John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas.
Rethinking the supernatural is always worth a try, and adversaries often wind up and remain close friends.
To conclude, The Story offers many insights about Christian and Western history, but the one we want to mention in passing is that many of the same theological, philosophical, and practical issues recur over and over again in human history and are developed further at each step. For example, many of Dr. Hart’s ideas in The Experience of God are Platonic and found in St. Augustine and St. Anselm’s writing.
Our next statement might be a “bummer,” as we used to say in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but there’s little today that’s truly new under the sun. Time and praxis always force us forward into rethinking our worldview, we humans not being as smart as we think we are. In fact, we are lucky to survive with grace, much less prosper. The Story shows this.
After continued assaults from tribes from every direction – East (e.g., Angles, Saxons, Franks), North (Goths of every variety and then, worse, Vikings!), West (again, those Goths and even Huns popping up . . . then Slavs generally), and South (Islamic tribes, one of the other great monotheisms with Biblical roots), just to name a few of the near fatal threats – Christianity’s Western European base somehow stabilized.
Through all of this and very important to today, the Roman Catholic Church kept civilization in sight. Its monastic orders were crucial to Christianity’s survival and growth, as well as the development of today’s Western political-economy. But, as we know and are proving again now, there’s nothing worse for humanity than relative peace and prosperity.
By the time The Story’s reader gets to the Reformation in the early 1500’s, she sees clearly that Protestants were simply the Roman Catholics who finally do get kicked out of the Church for misbehaving en masse; at first, they weren’t intending to create new churches – they were trying to help, and it just kind of happened.
In simple language, Dr. Hart shows how modernity and secularism were foreshadowed in the medieval world and how the Reformation sprung forward and proliferated, almost immediately. With freedom, the devilish human mind takes apparently novel ideas instantly to their logical conclusion, almost always threatening new paradigms with strange new behavior.
We will be talking more next time about the Reformation beginning in 1517 and that reluctant revolutionary, Martin Luther. In essence, Dr. Taylor suggests Martin Luther was so ahead of his time, like that military general in the Trivia Question, that he was the first modern, postmodernist.
In sum, welcome to now. Confusion usually happens fast and can be dangerous. The same destabilizing forces that rocked Europe in the 1500’s and 1600’s are still at work in American and Europe today.
To end, here is a run-together quote from Dr. Hart’s Story:
“The story of Christianity is not merely the story of a religion indigenous to Western civilization; in a very real sense, it is the story of that civilization itself . . . In both absolute and relative numbers, the world’s community of Christians is far larger than it has ever been; and its rate of expansion is as nothing it has ever known in the past. It may very well be the case that now, after 2000 years, the story of Christianity is still only beginning.” (From The Story’s near beginning page xi and from its ending page 343).
So, just remember, “Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near.” The Revelation to John (The Apocalypse) 1:3.
And, no. Sorry. You’re not getting the answer to the Trivia Question until next time.