HilWhat 06-6-94  


How it shaped the modern world


Jonathan Hill

InterVarsity Press, 2006, 191 pp.  ISBN 0-8308-3328-5


Hill is the author of The History of Christian Thought and Faith in the Age of Reason.  This book includes a little bit of everything related to Christian history.  The author’s knowledge is encyclopedic and his inclusion of obscure and fascinating details about the history makers plus many full color illustrations enlivens the reading.  Although Christians have done many things wrong, the book focuses on the positive heritage of Christianity and the debt we owe to the Christians of the past. 


“Today, Christianity is the largest religion in the world, and is followed by approximately a third of the planet’s population.” (Introduction)


Culture and Thought

The King James Bible (1611) is old-fashioned today, but “Because modern English has been so influenced by this translation, the text remains readable even four centuries on.” (9)


In the 1520’s Germans spoke a bewildering varies of languages, none of which resembled written German.  “What Luther had to do was translate the idioms of everyday German into a written form comprehensible to people who spoke quite different dialects from each other, a tough challenge by anyone’s standards.”  “His overriding concern was to produce a text that would ring true to ordinary, working people.” (10)  “Luther had, with his monumental translation, created a new standard of written German – what would become known as modern German, the standard spoken and written language of the country to this day.  But more than this, he…helped give the power of the written word to the people.” (12)


Cyril, a Christian missionary in the ninth century, “adapted the Greek alphabet to suit Slavic, and this is why modern Russian is still written in an alphabet that looks a little like Greek, and which is called ‘Cyrillic.’” (13)


The Arts

“The changing face of Jesus [in art] over the ages illustrates how central the visual arts have always been to Christianity – to expressing the Christian message, but also to influencing and spreading it.” (30) 


Through the Communist era, Russian Orthodoxy survived.  “The church buildings and monasteries may have been largely empty, but they remained as silent witnesses to the faith that had built them.  The great novels of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and others were read, and the religious questions with which they grappled continued to exercise people’ (31)


Icons are intended to be objects of great beauty.  “The tradition of icons has played an essential role in preserving and transmitting Christian culture.  Icons convey spiritual ideas to those unable to read them in theological tomes.”  “Icons preserved the spirit and the teaching of Orthodox Christianity, and with it the spirit of holy Russia, throughout the Soviet period.” (33)


“So Christianity has developed a large and rich tradition – indeed, a number of different traditions – of religious art.  But equally striking has been the influence of Christianity on art in general….  It was in the Renaissance, in particular, that modern Western art came into being, and Christianity had a great impact on the process.” (34)


“One of the most prominent examples of subtly Christian art in recent times is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, arguably the most popular book of the twentieth century.” (42)  “No one in the Lord of the Rings every mentions God, but that does not mean he is not there, under the surface.” (43)


Paradise Lost is generally considered the greatest long poem ever written in English and among the best works of poetry of all time.  The poem is an epic retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve….” (45)


Christianity draws much of its power from stories.  “People want to hear stories, and they always have done, because stories affect us at such a deep level.  The stories that affect us most deeply and timelessly are often called myths.  The word ‘myth’ is often used to mean something that never happened….  But it can also have a wider meaning, to refer to a story of some kind that is told and retold because it expresses some deep truth about human nature.  Such a story can be a myth whether the events happened or not.  “An example might be Homer’s Iliad. (47)  A myth speaks to us because it tells us something about the human condition.  “…the Christian myths – primarily the story of Jesus – are among the most powerful and enduring stories that humanity possesses.  C.S. Lewis commented that the Christian stories are exactly like the myths of any other culture, with the added bonus that they happen to be true….” (49)


Dante was perhaps the greatest Christian myth-maker but also one of the great figures in world literature.  (50)


Concern for individual spirituality, together with its remarkable imagery and poetry, makes Dante’s Divine Comedy one of the most important works of literature ever written.  “The great popularity of The Divine Comedy … played a central role in establishing modern Italian, just as Luther’s Bible translation would later do for German.” (51)


The Landscape

A belief that is perhaps more fundamental to Christianity than other religions is that the world matters.  “This means that places matter.”  “The god of the Christians is not some remote, spiritual reality to be discovered by turning away from the world.”  “The Christian belief in the presence of God in the world, which he created and which he became part of, and in which he continues to act as a presence in history, is just part of a general Christian interest in the physical world….” (67)


Francis of Assissi, perhaps the most famous Christian saint, “had a very strong sense of the natural world’s status as God’s creation, and he therefore believed that God could be encountered within it.”  “By revering and caring for the world, one honoured God.” (68)


“The development of church architecture is one of the most obvious and lasting contributions of Christianity to the world.” (70)  “A church’s “function is not only practical but religious.  “It is built, ultimately, to praise God.  So its design must also express ideas about God and the way he is worshipped.  A church, in other words, is both a functional thing and a work of art.” (71)  “When new mosques were built, they often featured domes, especially in Turkey, Persia and India – a sort of combination of the Christian church dome with an echo of the dome-shaped tents that the Turks had once inhabited.” (73)



“Christianity has always had a close association with the written word.”  “A religion that features a sizeable body of scripture must value not only literacy but also education.” (84)


Christianity played a central role in advancing learning and laying the groundwork for the great educational establishments of the Middle Ages and beyond.  “Books were clearly very precious to the monks and scholars of the Dark Ages.” (87)  “Monks realized that learning wasn’t just about endlessly copying books, but that it involved training people as well.  Thus, monasteries became schools – the only centres of learning in existence for most of Europe.” (88)


“While Bede was most famous in his day for his commentaries on the Bible, he has been celebrated since – and given the nickname ‘Venerable’ – for his work on history.  His famous Church History of the English was not only the first book on English history, but the first to speak of ‘the English’ as a group.” (88)


In the seventh century Muslims conquered most of the Middle East.  “But these Christians translated the works of Plato, Aristotle and others into Arabic, the language of the Muslims.  It was in this way – via the Christians – that the Muslims learned about Greek philosophy, a process that would lead to the great Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages…” (91) 


The Etymologies, by Isidore, bishop of Seville, “was essentially the first encyclopedia.  Isidore conceived it as a compendium of all knowledge, scientific and otherwise, and raided the works of classical Roman scientists and philosophers for anything of interest.” (91)


Charlemagne’s kingdom consisted of not only France, but much of Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Austria.  “But he was also committed to Christian learning and keen to promote it within his empire.” (92)  Charlemagne “commanded that monasteries had to establish schools where all boys could be educated, not just those living at the monastery….”  “In 797, Charlemagne ordered priests to establish schools in every community, where all children could be educated for free….” (93)


The Jesuits were known as the educators of Europe.  “The clear and highly structured courses offered at their schools contrasted with those at the traditional universities, which still followed the old medieval system and taught the same medieval subjects.” (99)  Jesuit astronomers contributed greatly to the science of astronomy.  John Baptist Riccioli published one of the first good maps of the moon in 1651.  (100)


Theodore Beza, successor to John Calvin set up the first free and integrated education system in modern times. (102)


The Individual, Society and the World

“How much should people take responsibility for themselves, and how much should they look out for other people?  It’s a problem that in the Western world has developed along lines defined, to a large extent, by Christianity.” (105)


“The conversion to Christianity of Augustine [387] was one of the most important events in the history of Western thought.  Augustine was destined to become the most important Christian writer of all time after the New Testament writers, but more than that, he was a major thinker whose thought covered a wide range of subjects.” (105)


“His Confessions was one of the first autobiographies ever written….”  “By narrating his spiritual journey and publishing it to the world, Augustine was acknowledging for the first time the importance of the self.”  (106-06) 


“Augustine gave to Western thought a characteristic division that is not found as strongly elsewhere….  He clarified the distinction, fundamental to later philosophy and science, between the subjective and the objective.   He gave it the basic conception of an interior, private life that is qualitatively different from the exterior, public one.  In making this distinction, Augustine initiated the self-examining, introspective side of Christian spirituality.  But more than this, in articulating more clearly than anyone before this fundamental difference between the self and the not-self, Augustine initiated the modern Western world view.” (107)


“So Christianity provided the West with two basic notions: first, the ordered state of the universe, and second, its basic rationality and comprehensibility.  Both of these were, of course, inherited from the classical world that came before, and given a Christian spin by figures such a Justin Martyr, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  And this world view provided the kind of context in which modern science could begin to develop.” (126)


A Way of Life

Regarding the slave trade in the Congo (and many other bad things), “It was certainly Christians that did these things – at least, those who professed to be Christians.  And yet it was not Christianity that was responsible for what happened.”  “It certainly wasn’t merely a matter of evil Europeans exploiting the Africans, but one of Africans exploiting each other too.”  (138)


“Throughout the Gospels, Jesus takes every opportunity to overturn or oppose the natural human instinct to look after number one.” (141)


Changing the World

“From the earliest days, Christians have been concerned about the injustices of society.”  Justin Martyr (about 165) “seized upon the Roman practice of ‘exposition’ – the abandoning of unwanted babies on hillsides….”  (152)


“Paradoxically, Christians have sometimes found that they are more effective when they are not in a position of power.  It is when Christianity is distinct from the dominant culture of a society, or its political leaders, that Christians can be a voice of dissent.” (152)


“By the end of the fourth century, one of the church’s major roles was that of a public welfare system.”  “Not only were the Christians leading the practice of charity, they were largely responsible for the new notion that it was a good thing to do in the first place.  By thinking in terms of helping ‘the poor’, Christians were making society broader and more inclusive than it had been in classical times.” (159) 


“This Christianizing of society (under Constantine) and the law would have great results later.  It was one of the underlying principles of the radical reorganization of the Roman law that the Byzantine emperor Justinian oversaw in the sixth century.”  ‘Roman Law’ later became central to the modern European legal systems. (160) 


“Although the conquistadors and the Spanish settles (in South America) often treated the native Americans cruelly, the priests and missionaries who accompanied them tended to be much more humane.”  “Many of the friars defended the natives and preached on their behalf to the settlers.”  “Bartolome de Las Casas (was) the first in a long line of Christians in South America who were concerned about social justice.” (162-63)


“The struggle of Martin Luther King Jr for black rights parallels the struggle of many of the South American Catholics for the poor and indigenous people of that continent.” (173)  Perhaps the most famous Christian in the struggle for equal rights was Desmond Tutu of South Africa.  (175) 


“Slavery had virtually completely died out in Europe by the Middle Ages, since more or less everyone was not Christian and it was by this time felt impossible to have a Christian slave.”  (176)  “Still…slavery reappeared with the exploration, in early modern times, of the Americas and Africa.”  “It began in the 1430s, when the Spanish occupied the Canary Islands and enslaved their population.  Pope Eugene IV immediately issued a papal bull condemning the action and ordering it to be reversed…but his orders were ignored.”  (177)


However as slavery became more entrenched [in the colonies] opposition to it began to grow.”  It was among the British that opposition to slavery became especially prominent.” (178)  In America a number of Christian groups were stridently opposed.  “The most famous of the abolitionists, however, was William Wilberforce….  “It was not until 1833 that Parliament eventually abolished the whole thing.  Wilberforce, satisfied at last, died three days later.” (180)


What Will Christianity Do for Us?

“Christianity remains a potent force across the world.”  “Over the past century, its centre of gravity has been slowly but undeniably shifting, until the southern hemisphere has overtaken the northern in importance.” (181)


“As the religion grows and spreads its character changes.”  “Christianity in Africa is, typically, authentically African, combining the world view and culture of traditional African religions with the new beliefs of Christianity.”  “And this means a different kind of Christianity is developing and becoming dominant….increasingly dictating the future of Christianity.” (183)  “African Christianity is not only doctrinally conservative and open to notions of the supernatural, but it is especially concerned with this-world issues, with issues of poverty and justice.” (184)


“There are more Roman Catholics in the world than there are Muslims.  Despite the continuing growth of Islam, that situation looks unlikely to change, for the Catholic Church remains strong in South American and throughout Africa, and even in Europe and North America it is still an important institution.”  (185)


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