Friday, December 16, 2011

The Third Book of Christmas: "Atheist Delusions"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the third day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: revitalized Greco-Roman thought and morals.
David Hart is as urbane, pugnatious, witty, combatative, meandering, and dangerously informed as a writer as you want to enjoy on a long Sunday afternoon, with lazy dragonflies flitting past in the sunshine. In some ways this works best for an essay: one wants to come to a conclusion, and digest the ideas for a while before you take another bite.
This book is NOT a response (in a very recognizable form) to the New Atheists.  It is a book about how Christianity shaped and shaped up western civilization, especially in the Greek and Roman world of late Antiquity, with a few words about Dawkins & Co added at the beginning and end after Hart got jabbed in the ribs by his editor.
One thing Hart attempts is to set a context for what Christianity accomplished in the ancient world:
"Pagan cult was never more tolerant than it is tolerance -- without any qualms of conscience -- of poverty, disease, starvation, and homelessness; of gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixion, the exposure of unwanted infants, or the public slaughter of war captives or criminals on festive occasions; of, indeed, almost every imaginable form of tyranny, injustice, depravity, or cruelty."

How long would it take to properly digest those two sentences -- or even to spit them out?  One does slowly develop the feeling, though, that Hart knows what he's talking about, and that the picture he paints of the ancient world, and how the Gospel began (sometimes quickly, but often over long centuries) to transform it, may be the central story of human history.  This is one literary, pugnatious, and dogmatic bookend to that story. 

Related books:
The Durants' Christ and Caesar confirms many of the points Hart makes, though in fairly brief clips.  Charles Williams' Descent of the Dove offers a very different kind of overview.  Stark helps with concrete data from antiquity.  

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