Review of ‘The Evolution of the West’ by Nick Spencer

The idea that America is a Christian nation has a long, contested history. Believers can find evidence that confirms the thesis and unbelievers evidence that disconfirms it. The reality, in other words, is complex, and therefore our history writing should be nuanced.

I had America’s history in mind as I read Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West, which looks at how Christianity shaped the values of Western Europe and especially the United Kingdom in the course of its long history in those lands. Spencer opens the book with a nod toward New Atheists’ denial that Christianity formed the modern world in any meaningful sense but negation. In other words, modernity is the rejection of religion’s influence, not its effect. He then concedes that, going in the opposite direction, some Christians are prone to a simplistic affirmation of Christianity’s formative influence. “There is no end of cheap proof-texting that can show how the West owes everything to Christianity—or rather everything it currently holds dear.”

Spencer’s argument is that Christianity’s influence is real (against the New Atheists) but complex (against the proof-texting proponents of a Christian West). Using a theatrical metaphor, he writes: “Christianity has played a leading role in this show—indeed it has played the lead for much of the last 1,500 years—but the play has been no mere soliloquy, and the lead has had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the overall plotline.” The book’s twelve successive chapters then take up the complex story of Christianity’s influence over a variety of topics.

Rather than summarize the contents of each of the book’s chapters, let me highlight one chapter as an example of Spencer’s method throughout. Chapter 3 examines the influence of Christianity on the Magna Carta, which celebrated its eight-hundredth anniversary in 2014. Spencer highlights three principles embodied in the charter’s legal mandates: “due process,” “the arbitration of the king’s affairs,” and “the extension of liberties and rights…to those who did not occupy the top strata of English society.” He shows that, in each case, Christianity influenced the development of these practices “in the realm of ideas, of theology.”

“Magna Carta,” he writes, “was written after, and drew on, a century of ongoing development of (a theologically reflective and coherent) canon law. This was a great renewal and systematization of theological and legal thought (best embodied by a book by Gratian entitled Decretum, otherwise known as the Concordance of Discordant Canons). It provided intellectual foundations for key aspects of Magna Carta,” specifically, the three principles mentioned above.

Moreover, there were practical ways in which what Spencer calls “the fact of the Church” shaped the charter’s limitation of the king’s power. He writes, “Magna Carta and the legal culture in which it grew were profoundly shaped by the Church; not just by Christian beliefs but by an institution that was shaped (in theory) by those beliefs and protected itself fiercely from outward interference with them and it.” (The charter’s first clause states, “the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”)

As I understand him, what Spencer is arguing is that the combination of the Church’s beliefs and its institutional freedom both inspired voluntary obedience to moral norms and put boundaries around the growth of the State. The latter curbed the expansion of state power through positive law, while the former produced a citizenry capable of acting justly without a need for detailed legislation. What worries him (and frankly me) seems to be whether the State can be limited in the absence of Christian belief and the Church as a strong institution.

“In the absence of those deep cultural norms,” Spencer writes, “those religious and social conventions, which were historically embedded in institutions, there is a temptation to turn to the law to settle all disputes. And if that law is somehow seen as extra-political”—that is, outside the scope of democratic adjudication—“…then not only is society weakened but so, ultimately, is democracy.”

Obviously, the emergence of this kind of Western political norm—i.e., the limitation of law—is not a simple or straightforward affair. It is, to use Spencer’s biological metaphor, an “evolution.” We think of evolution as a process of “unrepeatable randomness.” As Stephen Jay Gould famously wrote, “If you could rewind the tape of life, erasing what actually happened and let it run again, you’d get a different [result] each time.” In that understanding of evolution, the conjunction of Christianity and Western political norms is an accident of history.

There’s a different way to think of evolution, however, one that is less accidental and more teleological. It draws on paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris’ concept of “convergence,” which is “the recurrent tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same ‘solution’ to a particular need.” Spencer comments, “For all the randomness involved in the process, there are certain inherent invisible conditions and constraints and contours that shape it towards ends that, if not predictable, are certainly probable.” In other words, re-running Gould’s “tape of Western history, erasing what actually happened and letting it run again, we might, assuming the same deep Christian conditions and commitments, end up with a set of values that, while superficially different, bore a striking resemblance to those we recognize today.”

If that is the case, then Christianity’s influence on concepts and practices such as human dignity, rule of law, welfare, humanism, capitalism, science, human rights, nationhood, ethics, democracy, and even atheism and secularism represents the outworking of a deep cultural logic, not a happenstance of history. It’s not a straight-line development, as some Western Christians might want it, but it’s not the New Atheists’ nothing either.

And perhaps that is a model for how American Christians might think about the influence of their religion on their own nation. At least that’s the thought The Evolution of the West caused this American Christian to think.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “yes” on my review page.

Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (London: SPCK, 2016).

Review of ‘The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History’ by Andrew F. Walls

Walls, Andrew F. 2002. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a collection of essays, originally published independently, which Andrew F. Walls has organized into three parts. Part One consists of four studies of “recurrent themes of Christian history, and of Christian historiography, viewed intercontinentally.” Parts Two and Three consist of eleven studies of “the transmission and appropriation of the Christian faith” in “Africa” and “the modern missionary movement from the West,” respectively (p. ix). Because of the wide-ranging nature of the book’s interests, it is difficult to review it as a whole. So, instead, this review will focus on the themes in three chapters.

Chapter 1, “A History of the Expansion of Christianity Reconsidered,” reviews the contribution of Kenneth Scott Latourette’s magisterial, seven-volume history of missions of that title. Latourette famously described the history of Christianity’s expansion in “the spread of the influence of Jesus.” He went on to propose what Walls calls “a threefold means for measuring the influence of Christ” (p. 9).

Walls devotes the bulk of chapter 1 to outlining and giving theological depth to Latourette’s “threefold means.” He names them “The Church Test” (p. 10), “The Kingdom Test” (p. 13), and “The Gospel Test” (p. 18). “The first sign of the expansion of the influence of Christ is the presence of a community of people who willingly bear his name, an ‘Israel’ that maintains his worship. The other tests themselves presuppose this one…” (p. 10). The second test regards “the numbers and strength of new movements owing their origin to Jesus Christ,” which was Latourette’s means of testing “the depth of Christian expansion at any one time in any given area” (p. 14, emphasis in original). “Kingdom movements,” writes Walls, “call the church to repentance and to alertness to the presence of Christ within,” and are thus inclusive of “many movements of reformation, renewal, and revival” (p. 15). The third test pertains to “the effect of Christ on people and on cultures,” an effect that varies in different times and places because the “scope of the principalities and powers and their corrupting rule is immense” (pp. 18, 19). An obvious example of this is the difference between the guilt-innocence cultures and honor-shame cultures hear the gospel.

Chapter 3, “From Christendom to World Christianity,” highlights the serial nature of Christian expansion. In two paragraphs that repay careful attention, Walls writes:

…The Christian story is serial: its center moves from place to place. No one church or place or culture owns it. At different times, different peoples and places have become its heartlands, its chief representatives. Then the baton passes on to others. Christian progress is never final, never a set of gains to be plotted on the map. The rhetoric of some of our hymns, and many of our sermons, about the triumphant host streaming out to conquer the world is more Islamic than Christian [!]. Christian history reveals the faith often withering in its heartlands, in its centers of seeming strength and importance, to establish itself on or beyond its margins. It has vulnerability, a certain fragility, at its heart—the vulnerability of the cross, the fragility of the earthen vessel

In other words, cross-cultural diffusion has been necessary to Christianity. It has been its life’s blood, and without it the faith could not have survived. It does not, like so many of the religions of India, belong to a particular soil; nor does it, like Islam, produce a distinctive and immediately recognisable [sic] form of civilization. The missionary movement from the West, therefore, seen in the total history of Christianity, is one of a series of major cross-cultural diffusions…” (pp. 66–67).

To the extent that the book’s fifteen independent chapters have a unifying theme, this is it. Christianity expands on a serial basis through cross-cultural processes. One can never assume its triumph in history; one must always be incarnating the faith once delivered to new contexts.

Chapter 13, “The Multiple Conversions of Timothy Richard,” examines the missiological shifts made by Richard, a Welsh Baptist missionary to China, over the course of his tenure there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Walls makes two points: First, these shifts took place in response to changing conditions in China. Walls writes:

[Richard’s] multiple conversions—from conventional [British] evangelism to methods that took China seriously, to famine relief work, to prophet of structural reform, to theologian or religions, to worker for peace and champion of the submerged tenth—mark stages that marked the wider movement in different parts of the world and at different periods (p. 258).

Richard,’ experience, in other words, was “paradigmatic…of the instincts of the missionary movement at work.” These instincts were additive rather than subtractive, however, “never abandoning its original position [of evangelism] but clearing space around it in response to developing perspectives” (p. 258). In other words, a mission that began with the goal of saving souls had to, in response to changing circumstances, take cognizance of the physical, social, and ideological elements impinged on would-be converts’ lived experience. Only in this way could the fullness of Christ’s kingdom be experienced.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a rich, suggestive work that needs to be read several times to fully digest its significance. This review has highlighted three chapters only because they identify themes that recur throughout the work: the measurement of Christian influence, the serial nature of Christian expansion, and the increasing scope of missionary concern.

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Review of ‘Speaking of Homosexuality’ by Joe Dallas

Joe Dallas, Speaking of Homosexuality: Discussing the Issues with Kindness and Clarity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

The Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is true across a wide range of heterosexual behaviors, such as premarital sex, cohabitation and no-fault divorce. But Christians are rarely called out for their opposition to those behaviors. When it comes to homosexuality, however, the response is different. Christian opposition to homosexuality generally or same-sex marriage specifically provokes accusations of homophobia and hatred.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation, further contributes to the marginalization of the Christian sexual ethic. Same-sex marriage is now understood as a fundamental civil right, and opposition to it is likened to support for segregation in the American South during the era of Jim Crow.

How should Christians speak of homosexuality in this adverse environment?

That’s the question my friend Joe Dallas seeks to answer in his new book, Speaking of Homosexuality. Until 1984, Joe was “a staff member with a pro-gay church, an openly gay man, and an activist, identifying as a gay Christian, arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality.” Then, however, his study of Scripture convinced him that he was in error. For the last thirty years, he has ministered to others, both gay and straight, helping them to develop a biblical perspective on human sexuality. He thus brings a unique personal perspective to bear on this controversial topic.

Joe frames much of the book as a conversation between “Traditionalists” and “Revisionists.” Traditionalists advocate the “traditional view of marriage and sexuality,” namely, that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, and that outside of marriage, a person should remain celibate. Revisionists advocate “revising our view of Scripture or of morality in general to condone homosexuality.”

The first three chapters of Speaking of Homosexuality provide a “contextual overview” of the debate between Traditionalists and Revisionists. Chapter 1 argues that “knowing the context of our conversation can help us anticipate problems, adjust our approach, and stay sensitive to the perceptions and feelings of others.” Joe points out that the often acrimonious conversations between the two groups typically revolve around “presumption, politics, and the personal” (emphasis in original). Both sides, that is to say, make assumptions about the other the side that renders them “guilty of stereotyping.” Consequently, “mistrust is a frequent companion” to such conversations.

Chapter 2 identifies three goals traditionalist Christians may have when speaking of homosexuality with others: “evangelizing an unbeliever, discipling a believer in error, or simply reasoning with someone about our different views.” These goals shape the content of those conversations in different ways.

Additionally, who your conversation partner is shapes the kind of conversation you have. Joe identifies five groups in particular: “militants, mainstream, millennials, Revisionists, and friends and family.” Too often, traditionalists lump all LGBT people and their allies into the militant category. Dallas thinks this is a mistake. Rather, “most…could be described as mainstream, fellow humans and citizens with whom we have more in common than differences. And, per Jesus, they’re our neighbors, whom we’re to love and serve.” That last sentence is key, as far as I’m concerned. Too often, Traditionalists approach those on the other side of this issue as enemies to be defeated rather than as neighbors to be loved. That’s not Jesus’ way of doing things.

Chapter 3 then outlines seven guidelines to follow when speaking of homosexuality:

  1. Speak clearly.
  2. Speak appropriately.
  3. Speak empathically.
  4. Concede what’s true.
  5. Consider what’s possible.
  6. Watch the apologies.
  7. Recognize and point out diversions.

I want to hone in on numbers 3 and 4, because this is where I think my fellow Traditionalists most often go wrong. We do not empathize with the “feelings” and “experiences” of LGBT people. Consequently, we are prone to speak “irresponsible, inaccurate, contemptuous words” at or about them. “Lots of Christians have said hateful things about gays,” Dallas writes. “Lots of Christians are more upset about homosexuality than they are about adultery or fornication, even though those are condemned in the Bible.” Both statements are true. There is no virtue in denying either of them.

If chapters 1–3 address the “context” of our conversations, chapters 4–13 address their “content.” Dallas examines the “origins of homosexuality” (chapter 4), whether “change” of orientation is possible (chapter 5), whether opposition to same-sex marriage is reasonable (chapter 6), whether moral disapproval of homosexuality in and of itself constitutes “homophobia” or “hate” (chapter 7), and in what sense a person can or cannot identify as a “gay Christian” (chapter 8). Dallas’ discussion of the issues in these chapters is nuanced, which is appropriate for the complex subjects they address.

Chapters 9–13 then take up the proper interpretation of the most commonly cited biblical passages disapproving of homosexuality: Genesis 19:1–11 (chapter 9); Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 (chapter 10); Romans 1:24–27 (chapter 12); 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:9–10 (chapter 13). Chapter 11 examines what significance Jesus’ “silence” about homosexuality has for the moral debate. Dallas’ treatment of these passages is brief but competent. Like him, I find it difficult to agree with Revisionist interpretation of these passages, for the reasons that he cites.

Indeed, in my opinion, it would be more intellectually honest for Revisionists to say that these passages are wrong or irrelevant than to say that they have been misinterpreted or misapplied. In other words, there is good reason why the Traditionalist position has been the default position of the Church for the last two millennia. It is because, as the children’s gospel song says, “the Bible tells me so.” If you’re familiar with the historical arc of the Revisionist position, it begins with “The Bible has been misinterpreted” and ends with “The Bible is wrong on this matter.” That is the arc of mainline Protestant thinking on this topic. My guess is that that is where evangelical Revisionists will land eventually as well. Disagreeing with the Bible is not a place where evangelicals should want to be.

Speaking of Homosexuality is a countercultural book. As I wrote at the outset, the Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is nothing new, however, since Christianity’s sexual ethic was out of step with the culture of its own time as well. The question, then as now, is with whom—or rather, Whom—we will walk in step going forward.

I’ll conclude this review with Joe Dallas’ closing words:

A steward is rewarded for faithfulness, not outcomes. We hope greater faithfulness means greater outcomes. But ‘other things’—such as God’s and the hearer’s will—come into play. And since those factors are out of our hands, we keep those hands on the plow, striving to improve our understanding, articulation, attitudes, and faithfulness to the standards we preach. Above all, we continue seeking deeper intimacy with the Master we serve.

Speaking of homosexuality is a small part of that life commission. Our more general commission is to speak of Jesus, His teachings, His invitation, His nature, and His soon coming. Any truth we can lovingly communicate to better prepare people for eternity, binding them to Him, is critical.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review originally appeared at

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