Book Review by Steven Daly
Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization . Thomas Nelson 2011. ISBN 9781595555458
The Book That Made Your World is a thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly un-put-downable, thoroughly encouraging look at what makes Western civilization so very different to all the others.
Vishal’s purpose is not to uphold Western civilization as faultless or the model to be emulated. He is nevertheless crystal clear that our Western European intellectual-social-political heritage carries with it some astonishing advantages when compared to any other historical civilization or human culture; and that these advantages are all plainly the inheritance of generations of people who have taken the Bible seriously.
Here are some examples: Western civilization alone takes seriously the inherent dignity of every human being as created equal—not only “before God” but in the very image of God, vouchsafed in the Incarnation. Western civilization alone sees heroism as self-sacrificial behaviour, rather than the ability to impose one’s will on others by force or deception. Western civilization alone develops the concept of truth, and invests that concept with authority. Western civilization alone gave birth to Science, because it alone envisioned the Cosmos as the product of a rational mind. All these things, and many more, are the fruit of generations who took the Bible seriously as God’s Word.
As an historian-philosopher, Vishal unpacks just what an astonishing difference these ideas make to the way people live, and how societies are ordered and governed.
Here’s just one of many insights I gleaned from Vishal’s book: We’re all familiar with Pontius Pilate’s response to Jesus with the words, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38). We think we recognize this sentiment. And we label it as a cynicism. Pilate, the jaded politician, lives in a world of spin and propaganda.
That’s not really it at all. Pilate isn’t responding with cynicism, but with confusion. As a product of Greco-Roman culture, any appeal to truth as a form of authority was alien to him. The Greeks, who played around with democracy for a while but then rejected it, found it unworkable because power always fell to the most cunning rhetorician. Their politicians didn’t and couldn’t appeal to truth because that idea carried no power. How could it, in a society based on myth?
To amplify Pilate’s response, then, what he is really saying is something along the lines of: “You want to be taken seriously as a king yet you speak about truth? What does truth have to do with power?? I don’t understand what you are talking about.”
But in any society that takes the Bible seriously, truth has A LOT to do with power. Sure, our politicians still try to use rhetoric and ‘spin’ to win power. However, in Western civilization, they must ultimately tell the truth, because liars are discredited and — hopefully — disempowered. This is critical because (in government) lies lead to corruption, and corruption leads to economic stagnation, and that in turn leads to poverty, illness and an early death for the vast majority of the populace.
It is the Bible alone that gives humanity a robust concept of Truth. The God of the Bible is True, and he speaks only the Truth. Anything that is not true is against him, his character and his purposes. No other culture or civilization can or does value truth.
In ministry in our Australian church context, we may be very aware of how post-modern thought is leading our own society into a profound distrust of the idea of truth.
“That may be true for you! It doesn’t make it true for me,” is the catch-cry of a generation. We may falsely understand this to be a new phenomenon. But, of course, there is nothing new under the sun. The truth is that it doesn’t matter to what people turn—whether it be postmodernism, Hinduism, or atheism—any turning away from believing God’s word is a turning-away from the idea of truth, especially as a source of authority.
Vishal shows his readers how it is that Western civilization, understood as the product of a biblically-literate people, has progress: We work to find solutions to illnesses, injustices, oppressions, inequalities, and deceptions. They must all be challenged as an affront to the goodness of God’s creation. Take this biblical vision away, indeed replace it with anything at all, and you get no change—the tyranny of the strong over the weak, the establishment of might over right, the victory of corruption over truth and justice. As an Indian gentlemen, Vishal is not afraid to tell us that—without the Bible—the vast majority of us would be either labouring peasants spending our short lives in back-breaking servitude, or idle beggar-philosophers sitting in the dirt in our underpants desperately trying to clear our minds whilst chanting, “Ommm … .”
As pastors we often understand the importance of our work from spiritual perspectives—eternal life, the coming of Christ, souls won for Jesus. This book has given me, if you like, one more reason to keep on teaching and preaching the Holy Scriptures—that it is the most practical thing that you can do if you’re interested in making a practical difference, today, to life here and now, for human beings.
Steven Daly is the Rector of St Barnabas Anglican Church, Leederville.