BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Polemical fireworks from India's C.S. Lewis
, August 31, 2013
THE BOOK THAT MADE YOUR WORLD:
How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization
by Vishal Mangalwadi
Paperback: 464 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
This is a classic example of a “Yes, but…!” book.
In his commendation of it, the respected American church historian, George Marsden, notes wryly that Dr Vishal Mangalwadi “recounts history in very broad strokes”.
In fact, Mangalwadi gallops along tossing polemical fireworks in all directions, while the poor old reader pants along in his wake muttering, “Well, maybe, up to a point…”, or, “You’re right, there’s probably some sort of relationship there. However….”.
The author is in the grip of a Big Idea and, as they say, to the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.
All the preceding is not to imply that The Book that Made Your World is not readable or stimulating.
First, Mangalwadi — who recently visited Australia on a speaking tour — is a thoroughly Westernised and globalised Indian, but he retains a deep connection with his country, and a deep love for his people, reminiscent of the apostle Paul’s heart for Israel. As a result, he has involved himself in Indian politics and journalism, as well as grass-roots identification with the Indian poor, and advocacy on their behalf.
His most gripping chapters are those which describe his experience of choosing to live in a depressed rural area of the huge Madhya Pradesh state, and his consequent confrontations with corrupt authorities — not to mention goondas and dacoits (hired thugs and armed robbers)! — in that anarchic milieu.
Second, he reads and travels widely, and thinks laterally. You will not agree with everything which he creates from his historical material, but you will probably be struck by its originality, and forced to think and research for yourself in order to justify any reservations regarding it.
This book was written in reaction to a prominent Hindu’s denigration of Western Christian mission in India. Mangalwadi set out to show the innumerable blessings which have flowed from the Bible, in contrast to the failures of both non-Christian religions and contemporary post-modern nihilism to help humanity.
His list of benefits includes human dignity, freedom and egalitarianism; rationality and education; language and literature; democratic and transparent politics; science and technology; wealth and prosperity; compassion and altruism; and the self-sacrificial ideal of heroism.
As indicated above, there are at least a few problems with Mangalwadi’s approach.
For a start, it is not always obvious when he is referring to the Bible in particular, and when he is talking about Christianity in general.
The Bible did not become available to the masses until after the 16th century; but of course its influence, mediated through the Roman Catholic Church, had powerfully influenced Western civilisation for well over a millennium prior to that.
Dr Vishal Mangalwadi
As a Protestant, Mangalwadi is often ambivalent about Roman Catholicism, lauding or criticising it according to whether or not it helps his thesis.
For example, he is enthusiastic about the monastic movement’s role in the development of learning, education, science, technology, industry, agriculture, urbanisation and hospital care. On the other hand, he is dismissive of what he considers to be its unbiblical promotion of celibacy, withdrawal from society, and a two-tier division of Christians into the religious and non-religious.
The next problem is that everything is forced to become grist to Mangalwadi’s mill.
For example, Shakespeare is roped in as a believer, despite his religious outlook having always been, and continuing to be, an unknown and contested subject.
Likewise, Luther and Calvin are cited as progressive apostles of democracy, liberalism, pluralism and the right to individual judgment. It is possible to approve of the Reformers’ theology, while recognising that they were creatures of their time, and that if modern values such as liberal democracy were consequences of their influence, they were unintended ones — just ask the Anabaptists!
Third, it is a recognised Christian position to maintain that the Bible clearly teaches a number of core beliefs and principles of behaviour, which are self-evident to anyone who reads it with an open mind.
Mangalwadi, however, seems to believe that the Bible’s remit is far broader than this, and provides a black-and-white blueprint (if that is not an oxymoron!) for every conceivable aspect of life.
Thus he appears to believe that the Bible supports democracy and capitalism and is opposed to government health-care schemes, despite the fact that believers have always been divided over what constitutes “Christian” political and economic ideals.
By all means, buy The Book that Made Your World, read it and learn from it, but make sure you also interact with it — don’t swallow it wholesale and uncritically.