David Bentley Hart’s latest book is a brilliant work of contemporary Christian apologetics. Prompted by the new atheist movement, Hart argues that the common assertions made by these critics of religion in general and Christianity in particular rest upon an ignorance or misreading of history. Hart examines in detail episodes in the early history of the church to support his larger argument that Christianity represents a revolution that, despite its lamentable failures and errors, has functioned to transform the moral sensibilities of western civilization.
Although Hart shows little respect for the historical knowledge of these contemporary atheists, his apology is rarely so much polemical as humorous. He sees them as examples of “scholars” who rely upon a distorted view of history, which has had wide circulation in our culture since the Enlightenment. Thus, for example, it is “widely known” that Christianity is violent, that Christian faith gained adherents largely by coercion, that Christian zealots destroyed the library in Alexandria so that only through Islamic virtue was the heritage of Greek thought preserved, etc. These assertions and attitudes have had wide circulation, which the latest group of critics has adopted, Hart argues, understandably but erroneously.
Christianity has often been distorted, he says, because human history and culture are distorted. Nonetheless, the slow, subtle, deep revolution in values that Christianity produced in the world is “one of the few true revolutions in culture.”
The special value of Hart’s book lies both in its over-arching argument and in his careful examination of some particular questions. Thus, in discussing whether it is fair to say that Christianity has been “intolerant,” Hart argues that contemporary values based in materialism and a certain kind of rationalism are less tolerant.
Hart’s prose is often scintillating; his interpretation of episodes of Christian history is compelling; his scholarship reminds us that much of the Christian church has lost awareness of its own heritage. At the conclusion of his book, Hart makes two important summary statements. In a damning summary dismissal of those critics who prompted this apology, he identifies “one of the rhetorical strategies especially favored in New Atheist circles: one labels anything one dislikes … “religion” … while simultaneously claiming that everything good … has only an accidental association with religious belief and is really, in fact, common human property.” The whole weight of Hart’s historical essay challenges the validity of such a strategy. His second concluding rumination concerns the nature of post-Christian culture. Nonetheless, he wonders what may be lost when contemporary notions of freedom are no longer rooted in the freedom given by God, but rather in the freedom of nihilism. He suggests that the desert fathers, who were “the final revolutionary moment” within ancient Christianity, may offer some contemporary lessons.
This is an unusually provocative, and helpful book. Careful historians may disagree with some of Hart’s judgments. Some will argue that he has been too forgiving of some of Christianity’s failings. Probably the new atheists will not read it, but Christians who want to know that “the story can … be told quite differently,” and more accurately, should.
RICHARD R. CROCKER is College Chaplain and Dean, the William Jewett Tucker Foundation, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.