I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times. His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read. But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author. Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column. The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such. David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.
Most of us, or so I like to think in order to feel better about myself, steer away from actually reading St. Augustine. We know that he is an intellectual giant and one of the handful of core, key thinkers of Christianity, but everything he has to say seem so dense, and wasn’t he the mean proto-Calvinist who thought unbaptized infants go straight to Hell? Not to mention that, after all, it was all so long ago and far away. Like a lot of people, I own several works by Augustine, but mostly to show my erudition, not for, you know, actual reading. But after completing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, I think I’m inspired, or at least impelled, to sit down, concentrate, and read some of Augustine’s works. Assuming the feeling doesn’t pass, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.
This book is pure hagiography. While I suppose hagiography has its uses, mostly to gull and overawe the under-educated, I dislike hagiography. But at least it can be good hagiography; it can be great literature by towering men of intellect, or if not that, at least it can interest and inform the reader. Not this book, though, which is unrelievedly bad on every level, and whose only virtue is extreme brevity.
Sarah Ruden may be my favorite author. It’s not that I’ve read everything she’s written—her main oeuvre is translation of classics such as the Aeneid, and I find all the classics hard going. (The Aeneid is something that you know you should read—in college, I read the Cliffs Notes instead, and have felt guilty ever since). It’s not that I agree with Ruden on politics (she’s a liberal, though a thinking, nuanced one, as far as I can tell) or very closely on religion (she’s a devout Quaker, and there is only some overlap there with my Crusader-oriented theology, though we’re both Christian). I think that, ultimately, it’s two things. First, her work is original and fascinating, which in itself is a great deal. But, combined with the second element, the charm and humor that shines through her work, the reader of her books feels like he’s sitting down for a few hours of conversation in a nerdy version of the Dos Equis commercial—the Most Interesting Woman in the World (or second most interesting, after …
Already before I began writing this review, I was worn out reading books with a similar theme, that of Christian renewal, including Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. I was already going to retire and turn to reading biographies for a while. It is not, of course, Reno’s fault that this is the final book I read in the chain. I have tried to ensure that my being worn out does not color my perception of the book. Nonetheless, I was disappointed in this book. While what it says has value, and Reno’s heart is in the right place, his book is largely derivative and superficial, and it omits, for all practical purposes, any real plan for achieving the goal of its title.
This is a famous book. Together with Marshall Hodgson’s three-volume The Venture of Islam, it is the touchstone of modern long-form histories of the Islamic world. A History of Islamic Societies, as its title implies, covers both history and theology. Given that I like history, and that I have a particular interest in comparative theology (primarily as between Christianity and Islam, with forays into other religions, living and dead), you would think reading this book would be, for me, an ideal way to spend my time. But it nearly defeated me.
This is not the sort of book I normally read. It is spiritual fluff from a Singaporean megachurch “grace preacher,” Joseph Prince. But a friend of mine sent me a copy and suggested I read it, since he obtained a lot of spiritual benefit from it. I warned him that I would likely abuse the book and the preacher. I am here to execute on my warning.
The Benedict Option is, as I expected, an outstanding book. Rod Dreher has definitively shown that he is the Pope Urban of a new and dynamic movement, and this book has occasioned much commentary in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, the main point of Dreher’s book—to make a countercultural call for individual and group Christian renewal focused on communities of believers—has been somewhat lost in a secondary point, the real and growing persecution of Christian believers in mainstream society. This was inevitable, I suppose, because persecution is more interesting to outsiders than a call to holiness, but unfortunate, because it caricatures Dreher and tends to erode receptivity to his message.
We tend to think of Christianity’s global spread as somehow predestined. A little thought, of course, shows this to be far from the truth. In fact, many cultures have strongly resisted the message of the Gospel—most dramatically with violence and the creation of martyrs, but sometimes more successfully with intellectual arguments against the truth of Christianity. For example, Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence shows the torture and martyrdom of Christians—but it also shows vigorous and successful Japanese efforts to combat Christianity intellectually. In the Preface to this 2003 second edition of The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, the author, Robert Louis Wilken, ruefully relates that the Japanese translator of the first (1984) edition ascribed the book’s success in Japan to that it “has given Japanese intellectuals new arguments against Christianity.” This book, therefore, proves three things—that there are internally coherent intellectual arguments against Christianity, that those have been made for thousands of years, and that Christians equally have thousands of years of sound intellectual answers to those arguments.
Reading this book is like wearing sackcloth and heaping ashes on your head. It certainly brings home to you that things have gone wrong, but unless the act of penance itself calls forth redemption, which sadly today it does not, without further action it only makes you feel bad and gets you dirty.