After sitting on my reading list for almost two years, I finally cracked open Mary Eberstadt’s book “How The West Really Lost God,” and I regret not reading it sooner. I don’t normally review books on this blog, but as I read it, I couldn’t help but think that every Christian leader – particularly pastors – in Europe and America needs to read this book. The big question the book was based on is: “How and why has Christianity really come to decline in important parts of the West?” We would all agree that Christianity is in serious decline, but most believers are at a loss about how to stop the erosion.
There are certainly many culprits we’ve all wrestled with, and she takes the first chapters to explore each one in detail. But her focus is the conventional wisdom that the West first experienced religious decline, followed by the decline of the family. But as her website explains, “Eberstadt turns this standard account on its head. Marshaling an impressive array of research, from fascinating historical data on family decline in pre-Revolutionary France to contemporary popular culture both in the United States and Europe, Eberstadt shows that the reverse has also been true: the undermining of the family has further undermined Christianity itself.”
The idea that it was the decline of the family that precipitated the decline of Christianity is a rarely explored subject, but as she lays out her argument, it makes remarkable sense.
So, what does this mean for cultural engagement?
First, it means that if the case is that the direction the family goes, so goes the culture, pastors and Church leaders need to refocus on the importance of “family” to the life of a church. Pastors have recently been criticized for neglecting singles, and there’s no question that we need to enhance our ministry to that group. However, once you read just how critical the family is to the growth of the church, it will change your thinking about the importance of Biblical teaching on family issues.
Second, she documents that as churches soften their teaching on the family and morality, they enter a steep decline. In spite of the culture’s attack on traditional morality, it’s the churches who give in who lose their impact and often disappear completely.
Third, she reveals numerous studies from all areas of society that point to the fact that the fate of Christianity matters even to nonbelievers, because Christianity on balance is a force for good in modern society. From higher levels of giving to charity, to long and healthier lives, overall happiness, less likelihood to commit crimes, contributions to social capital and more, she painstakingly reveals research about the social good believers bring to the culture.
Fourth, she reminds us just how shallow the criticisms of the “New Atheists” actually are about belief. Beyond undermining their arguments, she says: “Despite broad agreement among [Atheists] on the perils of religious faith, today’s atheists remain in the dark about what exactly it is that has kept so many human beings believing in God.”
There’s so much more, but let me just say that every Christian leader who’s interested in engaging today’s culture (and who shouldn’t be?) should have this book on his or her desk. Her research and historical perspectives are fascinating, and I’m confident that she’ll give you enormous new information that will help you engage today’s non-believing culture more effectively.
While the book is a sobering look at the size of the challenge we face in today’s culture, it’s also a encouragement that the keys to turning around that culture are as close as our own family.
— by Phil Cooke
Cooke is a filmmaker, media consultant, and author of the new book One Big Thing: Discovering What You Were Born to Do. Find out more at philcooke.com