After packing for the last two months and finally moving last week, I am shockingly behind on my book reviews. There’s a pile of books at least 18 inches high sitting on top of my bookcase taunting me—books that deserve better. Since the only way to tackle the pile is one at a time, I’m going to use the next few weeks to work through it. First up, Glenn S. Sunshine’s Why You Think the Way You Do.
One of the best things about this book is that it’s just so much darn fun to read. There have been several excellent books published in the last year with the purpose of analyzing Christianity’s impact on what has become the modern Western worldview, but this is the only one that made me laugh out loud. At times, Sunshine seemed to almost be channeling my favorite British historian, James Burke (check him out if you’ve never seen Connections or The Day the Universe Changed) with his combination of scholarship, insight, and dry wit.
While the back cover describes Why You Think the Way You Do as “tracing the development of the worldviews that underpin Western civilization and the decisive effect the growth of Christianity had in transforming the outlook of pagan Roman culture,” this rather dull blurb doesn’t do justice to what’s inside. This is one of those books that makes the reader feel smarter, wittier, and able to entertain people at parties with fascinating stories from history.
At the same time, it made me just a little more sympathetic towards the culture at large and the people around me who live unreflectively at the mercy of their worldview, unable to break free without the transforming power of Christ.
Beginning with the Greco-Roman world, Sunshine examines the pervasive philosophical assumptions that shaped the beliefs and habits of historical Western culture, then demonstrates how Christianity challenged those assumptions, eventually transforming them.
Did you know that Plato’s theories about the hierarchy of being logically led to the devaluing of human life in Greek and Roman society? When Christianity came along, it challenged that worldview with the belief that all people are made in the image of God, causing early Christians to reject things like infanticide, gladiatorial games, and abortion. Christians were the first people to systematically oppose slavery, buying slaves just to set them free. They were also the only people who didn’t run screaming from people with infectious diseases, remaining to care for them instead.
These descriptions of the first Christians are always deeply convicting to me, not only because they were constantly in danger of martyrdom, but because they realized that real faith is almost inevitably countercultural. 21st century Christians whine like toddlers when our nativity scenes are taken away, while first century Christians considered dying for Jesus an honor. And it was this willingness to give up everything—including their very lives—that eventually changed an entire culture.
After wandering around in the ancient world, Sunshine moves on to the Middle Ages, digging deeply into how both Plato and Aristotle influenced medieval theology (and, in some ways, all theology since then). He also effectively challenges the assumption that the middles ages were just a gaping pot hole between ancient Rome and the Renaissance and provides a fascinating description of just how many of the ideas we take for granted about how the world works were planted and watered in the thousand years between Augustine and Da Vinci.
Moving onto the Enlightenment, the author pops the balloon of anyone who still thinks that faith and science are historical enemies. Not only were many of the most famous Enlightenment scientists actually natural philosophers, asserts Sunshine, but it was the Christian worldview itself that motivated most of our modern assumptions about science:
All of the key figures in the scientific revolution were self-consciously working as Christian natural philosophers, with a worldview which said that a rational God would create a rational world, one that we as rational creatures made in the image of God can understand. Unlike the worldviews of other cultures, this fundamental concept made the emergence of science possible.
As fascinating as I found the entire book, it was the chapter on the British, American, and French Revolutions that really rocked my world. (Yes, I know that’s a strange statement). What Sunshine does in this chapter is analyze how the different philosophical foundations of the three revolutions resulted in three very different outcomes. In the process he provides a concrete (and bloody) example of why the philosophical foundations of our worldviews are so important. The French Revolution was by far the most ruthlessly violent of the three because, according to Sunshine:
Once enlightenment ideas were cut off from their Christian foundation, they no longer had a solid based to preserve them. They were free-floating ideas that sounded good, but lacked any underlying rationale to preserve them when social, political, and economic stress combined to make them less popular or expedient. The net result? In the name of freedom and equality, non-conformists, the wealthy, and other victims of the mob’s envy were executed.
As the author gets closer to the 21st century, he examines deconstructionism, post-modernism, and nihilism. While there isn’t really anything new here, Sunshine does an excellent job of analyzing and explaining philosophical concepts that get tossed around a lot but are often misunderstood.
If I have one criticism of Why You Think the Way You Do, it’s that the tone of the book seems to change as the author reaches the 20th century. It may simply be my own prejudice rearing its head, but the author seems to become more politicized when he begins talking about economics. While I agree that the post-modern West is, in some ways, coming full circle and “returning to Rome,” I think it’s a stretch to say that the right to property and the right to keep what we legitimately earn comes from God.
But the author redeems himself in the end when he returns to the theme that the key to a worldview that truly works is “the recovery of a fully formed appreciation of the image of God shared by all people.” “When Western civilization embraced a robust vision of the image of God,” writes Sunshine “we had our greatest successes; when we ignored it, we had our greatest failures….Christians should be at the forefront of the fight for human rights, and we should adamantly oppose racism, sexism, or any other affront to the common humanity we share.”
At just over 200 pages, Why You Think the Way You Do is engaging, insightful, and—oddly enough—inspiring. You’ll feel smarter for having read it and, perhaps, even want to walk out your door and change the world.