Saturday Book Review: Mary Eberstadt

How the West Really Lost God by Mary Eberstadt, Review by David Moore

Several theories have been proposed as to the cause(s) of secularization.  Mary Eberstadt’s book, How the West Really Lost God, is an important new addition to the debate.

From the outset it is critical to pick up on the spirit of Eberstadt’s book.  Her subtitle, A New Theory of Secularization, highlights her approach.  The author has a particular view and argues it with intelligence and conviction, but she is not making a dogmatic pronouncement.  According to my count, Eberstadt mentions at least three times (pages 101, 103, and 215) that “speculation” can’t be avoided in the argument she is making.  So hers is a modest proposal.  It should be added that speculation can be informed or simply “spitting in the wind.”  Eberstadt’s is clearly the former.

So what is this “new” theory of secularization?  Simply put, Eberstadt states “…family decline is not merely a consequence of religious decline, as conventional thinking has understood that relationship.  It also is plausible—and, I will argue, appears to be true—that family decline in turn helps to power religious decline.”  (emphasis of author)

Eberstadt’s argument is confined to the Western context.  She is keenly aware that Christianity is thriving in other parts of the world.  Eberstadt employs George Weigel’s definition of the West.  I will not reproduce it here in full, but the following gives a good flavor of what Eberstadt means by the West: “…the deeper taproots of our civilization lie in cultural soil nurtured by the fruitful interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome: biblical religion, from which the West learned the idea of history as a purposeful journey into the future, not just one damn thing after another…”

The breakdown of the traditional family is not a debated or seriously contested issue.  Everyone (again those in the West), irrespective of their religious convictions, believes the traditional family is undergoing a seismic shift.  And note before we move on that I modify family by “traditional.”  C.S. Lewis wisely said words like Christianity have lost their meaning when you have to modify them.  Yes, the traditional family is in decline, and all kinds of alternate iterations of “family” have emerged as substitutes.

Declining numbers of church attendance, especially in Europe are also not debated.  Eberstadt soberly describes: “Across the Continent, elderly altar servers shuffle in childless churches attended by mere handfuls of pensioners [one who collects a pension, of retirement age].”

The family and the Christian faith have a symbiotic relationship that previous theories of secularization have failed to appreciate.  Eberstadt uses the famous double-helix model of Watson and Crick, to depict the intertwined relationship of family and the Christian faith.

Eberstadt concurs with Nietzsche (and those who follow in his train of thinking) that “the great Christian cathedrals of Europe had become tombs.”  She disagrees as to the reason why.  Again, the breakdown of the traditional family has been neglected in theories of secularization and the alternate explanations of secularization do not seem to have sufficient explanatory power.  For example, Eberstadt rightly notes the Enlightenment does not provide the answer.  In that same line of thinking, John Woodbridge of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School regularly reminded us that the Wesleyan revival was concurrent with the Enlightenment.

Eberstadt, if I have read her correctly, does not believe her book settles once and for all the knotty issue of secularization’s cause(s).  However, she does present a compelling thesis which should be seriously considered.

Eberstadt quotes Peter Laslett’s 1965 book, The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age, which describes how we are now living in a new world.  Indeed, I starkly remember reading Brave New World in my earlier adult years.  Aldous Huxley wrote his dystopian classic in 1932.  Later, Huxley reflected on what he would change, if anything, about what he wrote in the early 1930s (see Brave New World Revisited).  Huxley responded by saying that the “brave new world” was not in some “remote future,” but one that was now “just around the corner.”  And the corner Huxley spoke of was 1958, so it seems safe to say we have now turned it!

Now that the modern family is malleable and can be whatever “optional association” (to quote Eberstadt) we desire, what is one to do?  How the West Really Lost God raises many important issues.  Allow here one application which struck me after reading Eberstadt’s fine study.

Even for people who come to our churches from broken family backgrounds, Christians have something to offer that the world can’t: true community.  Robert Bellah and his associates argued in Habits of the Heart that most people don’t experience community, but rather have “lifestyle enclaves.”  These are groups of similarly minded people who have similar socio-economic backgrounds.  Note well the use of “similar.”  In contrast, the church at its best offers people, very different people, even those from terribly broken families, a place to find true community.   Joseph Hellerman’s book, When Church was a Family, underscores this reality.

Eberstadt’s provocative and insightful study got me to remember not only the importance of family, but the importance of the church family, regardless of how well our own families have parented us.

The ultimate goal is to have both stronger churches and families.  If that happens the appeal of a secular worldview would certainly be less enticing.  Imagine scholars wrestling not with theories about the decline of the family or Christianity, but with theories about the decline of secularization!

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • tanyam

    “Traditional family,” the lynchpin– really? We follow a savior who never married, and never really let on to being terribly concerned about “the traditional family.” (All that hate your family stuff must have been pretty controversial in a kinship society.) He gathered around him a bunch of unmarried men, and probably women — (though maybe Peter was married but not hanging around the house much) and his early movement was led by Paul, (unmarried) and was known to be populated by plenty of widows.

    If by “traditional family” you mean people held together by laws that don’t allow them to legally part, and by economic systems that never gave women a chance to live independently — well sure, I suppose it is in decline in the west.. I’m not sure that happy marriages and families are in decline however. And I honestly have no idea how one begins to quantify the number of families a century ago that were abandoned by one parent or both, or who simply lived with an alcoholic or abusive member. Surely our standards should be higher than “traditional families.”
    I suppose one could argue that religion thrived when patriarchy ruled, and when racism and well defined class systems were in vogue. It went well with monarchies and constant war in Europe as well. But I wouldn’t want to say these things are necessary for healthy, faithful religion.
    As for those parts of the world in which religion is thriving — I’d sure like to see some statistics not only about the numbers of “traditional families” but about the quality of life of women and girls. I would like to know what constitutes “healthy families” — and for that matter, healthy religion.

  • Jean

    Good points tanyam. I would love to see a response to your critique from the author.


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