The Western world’s relationship to the Christian faith is like a celebrity marriage—complicated.
At one level, our culture’s rejection of its ancestral faith has never been so enthusiastic, so complete, so aggressive. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like an acrimonious divorce. And yet our world remains deeply Christian.
We continue to use the convictions, the thought forms, and even the metaphysics of the faith we’re so keen to reject. Our apparently self-evident commitments to equality, progress, and compassion are Christian artifacts, even as our relationship with the faith that bequeathed them to us comes unstuck.
If these values are Christianity’s children, their paternity is contested. Their family resemblance to the faith of Scripture isn’t recognized because the image of their father has become so grainy and low-resolution in our minds that no memory is jogged. Our collective ignorance of Christianity’s influence is so complete that we don’t even stop to wonder where these values came from. We imagine these things are just there. Like a fish in water. Like the air we breathe.
Enter Glen Scrivener’s new book, The Air We Breathe.
Debt to Christianity
Scrivener provides a compelling, well-researched, and confident account of the West’s debt to Christianity in general and to Christ in particular. He calls out the negligent parents, produces the DNA test, and gently suggests to the readers some of their options in light of the results.
We continue to use the convictions, the thought forms, and even the metaphysics of the faith we’re so keen to reject.
Glen Scrivener is an Australian-born evangelist and apologist, now based in the U.K., whose suite of resources includes some brilliant spoken-word evangelistic videos on topics such as Halloween and Christmas, which I often share during the relevant seasons. His latest book has been widely acclaimed, winning both The Gospel Coalition’s and Christianity Today’s 2022 book awards in the evangelism and apologetics categories.
When it comes to the West’s strange silence on the source of many of its most treasured values, Scrivener joins a growing host of whistle-blowers. Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books, 2019) is a magisterial account of similar space from a secular perspective. John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Zondervan, 2021) comes from the perspective of a Christian historian, and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009) from a theologian. Scrivener comes in as a straight-up evangelist. And it works. Brilliantly.
The writing is full of pluck and warmth. Despite its intellectual rigor, the book’s tone is more that of an animated late-night argument in a pub— friendly but with no holds barred. It’s written to be read. And the chances you’ll finish it having started it are extremely high. The hard-to-put-down force is strong with this one.
Scrivener has three audiences in mind: the “nones,” the “dones” and the “wons.” The “nones” are that increasing group who answer “none” when asked about their religion. These are the book’s primary target group—those (often left-leaning) secular Westerners who are simultaneously the most enthusiastic about many uniquely Christian values and the least likely to know where those values came from. These “nones” often carry an unreflective assumption that the equality of all humans, the value of compassion, and the hope of progress are self-evident. Scrivener means to disabuse them of this assumption.
The “dones” are those who were once Christian or Christian-adjacent but are now done with it all. This depressingly fast-growing group (like their secular progressive counterparts) doesn’t usually wander off into some post-ethical wasteland. More often than not, they double down on particular values, such as freedom and concern for people on the margins, even as they consider themselves “done” (for whatever reasons) with the faith that first gave those values prominence.
And the “wons” are those who have been won by Christ. For this last group (which probably includes the majority of those reading this review), Scrivener means to fortify our hearts and fill our cups with confidence and evangelistic spunk.
Haunted by Christ
Scrivener explores seven deeply held moral or epistemic convictions: equality, compassion, consent, enlightenment, science, freedom, and progress. In each case, he demonstrates that these values, far from being as self-evident as “the air we breathe,” are the products of Christianity. He explores how Christ continues (as Flannery O’Connor puts it) to haunt our culture.
The argument is compelling and communication style vivid and energetic. The chapters move more or less chronologically from the birth of Christianity to the present day. We begin with a picture of the ancient world, and, like a printing press adding one color after another, the book slowly composes a rich picture of how we got from the classical world to our world.
How did we come from a world in which equality was unthinkable, compassion undesirable, and consent unimportant to one in which, on May 25, 2020, the death of George Floyd sent us into collective convulsions of moral outrage? Such a response was, in the classical world, unimaginable. By 2020 it was inevitable. Why? The reason, in a word, is Christ.
Scrivener means to fortify our hearts and fill our cups with confidence and evangelistic spunk.
Some books on this topic are written in service of the culture wars, providing a theological argument for why the “West is Best.” This isn’t that book.
Others in this genre can be overly timid, addressing the modern, secular person as if Christianity was the beta version of the moral certitudes progressive secularists now enjoy. “Christianity wasn’t quite feminist, or LBGT-affirming, or 100 percent against slavery, but, hey! Look at the trajectory! Can we please have partial credit?” This isn’t that book either.
Scrivener’s book is neither cultural warrior nor apologetic apologist. It’s evangel. It’s pugnacious, confident, and willing to call out the assumptions and blind spots of its reader. It leaves us neither sentimental about our past nor smug about our present. It challenges us, calling the reader (respectfully and generously) to be more evidence-based, more critical, and less susceptible to the kind of magical thinking that says these things just are.
The Air We Breathe is a swashbuckling adventure ride of a book. It’s academically grounded, culturally attuned, and full of evangelistic chutzpah. I’d put this into the hands of any of my secular friends in a heartbeat.
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