The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and EqualityWritten by Glen Scrivener Reviewed By Rory Shiner
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 a divorce of the acrimonious variety. And yet, our world remains so deeply Christian. We continue to use the convictions, the thought-forms, and even the metaphysics of the faith we are so keen to reject. Our apparently self-evident commitments to equality, progress, and compassion are Christian artefacts, 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 is not 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. In it, 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 reader some of their options in light of the results.
Glen Scrivener is a UK-based, Australian-born evangelist and apologist, whose suite of resources includes some brilliant spoken-word evangelistic videos on topics such as Halloween and Christmas, which I find myself sharing and resharing during the relevant seasons. His latest book, The Air We Breathe, has been widely acclaimed, winning both the TGC and Christianity Today 2022 Book Award Winner in Evangelism & Apologetics.
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 (New York: Basic Books, 2019) is a magisterial account of similar space from a secular perspective; John Dickson’s Saints and Bullies: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021) from that of a Christian historian; David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) from a theologian’s perspective. Scrivener comes in as a straight-up evangelist. And it works. Brilliantly.
The writing is full of pluck and warmth. And, despite its intellectual rigor, the book’s tone is more that of an animated late-night argument in a pub—all friendly like, 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 books 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 all have a kind of self-evident quality. It is this assumption Scrivener means to disabuse them of.
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) don’t usually wander off into some post-ethical wasteland. Rather, they more often than not double-down on particular values, such as freedom and concern for people on the margins, even as they find themselves “done” (for whatever reasons) with the faith that first gave those values their 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.
Between the first and final chapters, 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 in fact the products of Christianity, the means by which Christ continues (as Flannery O’Connor puts it) to haunt our culture.
The argument is compelling, and the 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.
Some books on this topic are written in service of the culture wars, providing a theological argument for why the West is Best. This is not that book.
Others in this particular 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 one hundred percent against slavery, but, hey! Look at the trajectory! Can we please have partial credit? This is not that book either.
The Air We Breathe is neither cultural warrior nor apologetic apologist. It is 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 swash-buckling 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.
Providence City Church
Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Other Articles in this Issue
The Individual and Collective Offspring of the Woman: The Canonical Outworking of Genesis 3:15by Jonathan M. Cheek
Studies on Genesis 3:15 often debate whether the seed of the woman refers to an individual or a collective group...
This article presents comparative textual analyses toward a basic grammar for understanding the interface between Reformed and Confucian sociologies of knowledge...
Various interpretations have been offered on how David sinned in taking the census of 2 Samuel 24, but too few have seriously grappled with the implications of Exodus 30:11–16 or the structure of 2 Samuel 21–24...
This essay considers the concept of the eternality of human memory and what the Christian may expect to remember after death...
Christian compatibilists believe that human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with theological determinism, i...