How did we end up here?
BOOKS | After 1776, the West became weird and WEIRDER
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Civilization took a sharp turn around the year 1776, according to U.K. pastor and author Andrew Wilson. Captain Cook set out on his last voyage to the Pacific. Immanuel Kant drafted his greatest (and least comprehensible) work, A Critique of Pure Reason. Edward Gibbon published The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. James Watt’s first steam engine was installed at Bloomfield colliery. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, laying the foundation for modern economics. David Hume completed his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a fictional debate concluding religious faith was a product of ignorance and fear. The Holy Trinity Church was established in Clapham, which would lend its name to future congregants, the “Clapham Sect” of British anti-slavery activists.
And oh yes, the Declaration of Independence created the United States of America.
Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West (Crossway 2023) is an ambitious title, and this is an ambitious work. In a little less than 300 pages, Wilson surveys the political, economic, social, cultural, and philosophical ferment of the late 18th century to explain how Western civilization became “WEIRDER.”
WEIRDER branches off from Joseph Heinrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World, where the acronym stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. To these descriptions Wilson adds Ex-Christian and Romantic. Remaking the World explores the roots of all seven adjectives, in a narrative teeming with fascinating characters and vignettes.
Why is the West the wealthiest civilization in history? Because of a swift upward climb that began 250 years ago. Do we casually assume any health or social problem can be fixed? Blame it on the Industrial Revolution changing our attitude toward nature—even human nature. Do we give our emotions the same weight (or greater) as our reason? The Sorrows of Young Werther and the German vogue for “Storm and Stress” had something to do with that. Do we assume each individual has the right to determine truth for himself? That’s the sprawl of democracy. “By the time Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vogue in 2015,” Wilson writes, “an apparently sudden transformation had been two and a half centuries in the making. Society was individualized; the individual was psychologized; psychology was sexualized; sexuality was politicized.”
Ranging across the Western landscape in 1776, as well as touching other shores and dipping into timelines of earlier history, could have produced an informative but turgid text. Instead, Wilson accomplishes graceful leaps from geography to sociology to technology to philosophy with ease, making startling connections and insightful conclusions along the way.
In all these changes and upheavals, the Church was hardly a passive bystander. In fact, “[the Church] is also indirectly responsible for bringing many of them about.” The revolution of A.D. 33 planted the seeds for revolutions in 1776 and beyond, but at every step of the way the Church has faced challenges from without and within. The Enlightenment, in popular thinking, spelled an end to religious superstition. But there would be no Enlightenment without Christianity, and the Christian response to secularist trends created a framework for today. Preachers like Augustus Toplady and John Newton brought new urgency to “Amazing Grace.” Former slaves Rebecca Protten and Olaudah Equiano forced the Church to reevaluate the concept of freedom. And the brilliant theologian Johann Georg Hamann foresaw and answered secularism’s critique of Biblical truth.
The closing chapters, “Christians” and “Opportunities,” pose an exhilarating challenge to believers worn down by constant bad news from the cultural front. The Enlightenment has failed; if our society is post-Christian, it’s also post-secular. To an anxiety-ridden, depressed, and drifting population, we have a message of real grace, true freedom, and reliable truth.
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