Review of Vishal Mangalwadi, "The book that made your world: How the Bible created the soul of Western civilization" (2011)

Mangalwadi is an Indian Christian, and this gives his book its unique perspective. Only someone who is not a Westerner could have written much of what he says about the West without being immediately accused of bias and political incorrectness. 

The book's scope is immense. M’s basic theme is that just about everything that is good about Western society is a result of the Christian faith. Sixteen chapters show how Western culture and institutions have come to be the way they are as a result of Christianity. 

The review below was written in March 2014 for an informal book group.

Mangalwadi is an Indian Christian, and this gives the book its unique perspective. Only someone who is not a Westerner could have written much of what he says about the West without being immediately accused of bias and political incorrectness, and only an Indian could write what he writes about India without sounding neocolonialist.

M’s basic theme, which runs through the whole book, is that just about everything that is good about Western society is a result of the Christian faith. Periodically he looks approvingly at Indian institutions that were founded by Christian missionaries and British philanthropists during British rule (for example, Allahabad University). He points out how beneficial they have been for India and comments that none of them would have been established by a Buddhist or a Hindu, as these faiths lack philanthropic motivation.

M was evidently motivated to write the book by two events that took place in 1994, although the book was written much later. One was a talk given at the invitation of the Catholic church by an Indian politician in which he attacked Christianity and praised Hinduism (M dedicates the book to the hostile politician). The other event was the 1994 suicide of American rock singer Kurt Cobain because he found life meaningless and hurtful and believed that death and nothingness was the only available form of salvation. His death was followed by around 70 copycat suicides by his fans. M sees this as a measure of the West’s loss of its Christian faith and its increasing denial that its institutions and cultural traits have a Christian foundation. M believes that the decline in faith is bringing about a decline in Western institutions and Western culture, epitomised in Cobain’s suicide. So the book is not just a nice discussion of the West’s Christian history but a wake-up call to the Western church.

The sweep and scope of the book’s subject matter are immense. There are twenty chapters. The first is the introduction I have just summarised, and the next three are autobiographical. They describe something of how the author came to Christian faith, and how his and his wife’s attempts to serve in an Indian village by bringing about basic lifestyle changes were thwarted by both Hindu belief and endemic official corruption.

The remaining sixteen chapters are an account of how Western culture and institutions have come to be the way they are as a result of Christianity.

M argues that the greatest effects of Christianity on society have only been felt in the West since around the year 1500, when Renaissance thinkers founded modern Humanism and began to discover the dignity of man. The Renaissance is conventionally associated with the rediscovery of the writings of the Ancient Greeks and the Romans, but M gives evidence that the Renaissance concept of human dignity owed least as much to Renaissance writers’ reading of the Bible.

M then turns to rationality. The scientific, technological, military and economic success of the West comes from the fact that it had become a thinking civilisation. This is a theme that M returns to repeatedly. Jesus was the logos, the word of God, who became human and engaged with the world in order to save it. Buddhism and Hinduism regard the world as a place of suffering, and deal with it by turning away from it into mysticism. The god of Islam is remote, and doesn’t encourage active engagement with the physical and human world to the degree that Christianity does. Christian faith invites believers to engage with the world as Jesus did, and much of the book is devoted to showing how this has played out. For example, mediaeval monks devised technological devices, especially in the area of agriculture, to lessen their own and others’ labour and to improve living conditions. Throughout much of their history, Christians have promoted education in order to improve the lot of those who were educated. They have cared for the sick, and this has resulted in the establishment of hospitals and in medical research.

M suggests that post-Reformation Christianity has redefined the concept of a Christian hero. In the Middle Ages a Christian hero was a chivalrous knight, but with the translation of the Bible into European languages the emptiness of chivalry (with its basis in violence) was gradually recognised, and the heroic concept of the mediaeval knight was replaced by the concept of the heroic servant, modelled on Jesus. In this category M names a number of British Christians who had a profoundly positive effect on India (he doesn’t, incidentally, attempt to play down the negative effects of Britain’s economic colonialism in India).

In particular, M thinks that the access to the Bible that the translations by Luther, Tyndale and others provided was foundational in creating modern Western culture and institutions, as it gave rise to the spread of literacy and access to the Scriptures—and many of these readers read nothing else except the Bible. He discusses how this affected education, literature, and laid the foundations of modern science as Christians sought better to understand the workings of the universe that God had created. The spread of Christian faith through the reading of the Bible also affected morality, and he recounts a story of how shocked an Indian visitor to England was to discover that people there were fundamentally honest. M attributes America’s ascendancy in the world to the integrity of the family and to a Biblically based view that women have an active social role to play and are not chattles or playthings. Finally, he argues that modern democracy was not a Greek invention but is the outcome of the Reformation, and ends with a warning that without faith the institutions that Christianity has founded will be eroded and will collapse.

I have a reservation about M’s book. Inevitably it is a piece of tertiary scholarship. I don’t mean ‘tertiary’ in the sense of ‘tertiary education’, but tertiary as distinct from the primary historical evidence of original documents and archaeological digs, and secondary scholarship that tries to make sense out of primary evidence. Because M’s scope is so wide, he often bases a chapter on a single secondary work. I suspect that in some cases a Christian historian or sociologist would say that M hasn’t used the best secondary source. But M is very careful to give his sources, so if the reader wants to dig further, (s)he has an easy starting point.

M doesn’t major on the crimes that have been committed in the name of Christianity, presumably because these are well known and his purpose is to point out laudable features of Western society (at least until fairly recently) that have a Christian foundation. He does touch, though, on the evil of the Crusades in his discussion of heroism.

But this aside, the book is an extremely interesting and inspiring read. It woke me up to just how big a debt what we still enjoy today owes to Christianity—and to how radically the erosion of faith is undermining it in ways that secular society doesn’t perceive.

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