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Weighed in the balance

14 October 2016

William Whyte on the benign influence of the Christian faith

The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has shaped our values
Nick Spencer
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


THE great historian Marc Bloch was shot by the Gestapo in June 1944. Having been horribly tortured, he was handcuffed to a fellow member of the French Resistance and mown down by machine-gun fire before his body was left to rot in a field. He left behind him a wife and family, a series of important books, and a remarkable last testament. This made it clear that he wanted a purely secular, civil funeral, and not the religious rites that his proudly Jewish parents might have hoped for.

“But I should hate to think”, he added, “that anyone might read into this statement of personal integrity even the remotest approximation to a coward’s denial. I am prepared therefore, if necessary, to affirm here, in the face of death, that I was born a Jew: that I have never denied it, nor ever been tempted to do so. In a world assailed by the most appalling barbarism, is not that generous tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, which Christianity at its highest and noblest took over and expanded, one of the best justifications we can have for living, believing, and fighting?”

It is an extraordinary statement: extraordinarily brave, of course, but also extraordinarily revealing. It speaks of a time in which even a passionate secularist — a passionate Jewish secularist — could see the value, the utility, and perhaps even the nobility of Christianity. It is not an attitude that many contemporary secularists share. Indeed, for the Richard Dawkinses of this world, Christianity is not just ignoble: it is — like all religions — fundamentally evil.

As the research director of the Christian think tank Theos, Nick Spencer has been combating the new secularism for a decade now. In this book, he once again seeks to show that Dawkins is wrong and that figures such as Bloch are right. This is thus an attempt to demonstrate that the key positive values of the modern world — law, democracy, science, the welfare state, and much more besides — would be unimaginable without Christianity.

A collection of essays and substantial reviews, The Evolution of the West is somewhat fragmented and sometimes repetitious, but it is always intelligent and often thought-provoking, and makes a good case. Even if it does not convince the most aggressive secularists, it should give heart to Christians and give pause to some of those who would write off faith as an irrelevant relic of the past.

The whole book can be summed up in the a few sentences at its start. “Christianity, or rather Christians,” the author writes, “have been the vessel into which God has poured himself, but they hold that treasure badly: they leak, they spill, they contaminate. And yet, somehow, what they carry persists and preserves and heals and hopes. However many wrong turns Christians take . . . the treasure they purport to bear remains.”

It may seem not as bold a claim as Bloch’s, but, in the current climate, it is still a brave thing to say. This is a book that will, I think, inspire many.


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