Human Events Book Review
By Gene Edward Veith
How Now Shall We Live?
By Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey
Tyndale House, 1999
572 pages, cloth, $22.99
Conservatives have often concentrated on winning political battles, while leaving the culture firmly in the hands of liberals. Despite the victories of the Reagan years and the conservative takeover of Congress, "progressives" continue to dominate the art world, the educational establishment, the entertainment industry, the media, and other culture-making institutions. The inevitable consequence has been family breakdown, sexual promiscuity, abortion, crime, and educational fraud, as well as the inability to distinguish between elephant dung and actual works of art.
No wonder conservatives are frustrated, with some pulling back from politics and others pronouncing the culture war lost. A new book by Nancy Pearcey and Chuck Colson, How Now Shall We Live?, is perhaps the best answer to this dilemma. It shows how the various secularist ideologies responsible for our Gomorrah-bound slouch are actually as weak as a house built on sand. And it gives specific examples and practical suggestions for how to take the culture back and how to place it on secure foundations.
Charles Colson, an inspirational speaker whose story is told in Born Again, is a former Nixon aide who went to prison in the Watergate purge (something about having a single unauthorized FBI file, as opposed to the current White House, which had boxes full of them). In the midst of his legal troubles and imprisonment, Colson converted to Christianity, and, after his release, went on to launch Prison Fellowship, a ministry to convicted criminals whose success rate in reducing recidivism is unmatched. (In New York, the recidivism rate of inmates who participated in Prison Fellowship programs fell from 41% to 14%.)
Nancy Pearcey [see "Conservative Spotlight," HE, Oct. 22, 1999, page 19] is a gifted intellectual and writer who has worked on worldview issues since studying under theologian-philosopher Francis Schaeffer at L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in the early 1970s. She is the head of Colson's brain trust and is policy director of the Wilberforce Forum, a think tank connected to Prison Fellowship. Directing a staff of writers, she is also largely responsible for "BreakPoint," Colson's daily radio program of cultural commentary. In addition, Pearcey is managing editor of the journal Origins and Design and a fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. Her articles have appeared in such publications as First Things, American Enterprise and Books & Culture, and she is co-author (with Charles Thaxton) of an earlier book titled The Soul of Science.
This latest book amounts to a "cultural apologetic." Instead of defending Christianity by philosophical proofs of the existence of God, and the like, the book argues that the Judeo-Christian worldview set forth in the Bible corresponds with reality--as it is actually lived by individuals and societies. Not only that, the secular ideologies that people try to use as a substitute for truth-the various humanisms, socialisms and mysticisms--are catastrophic failures.
This work is also a good introduction to "worldview criticism," a mode of analysis that penetrates to the assumptions about reality that underlie human ideas, expressions and systems.
Pearcey and Colson argue that every ideology, every worldview, is, in effect, religious. "Modern pluralistic society," they write, "provides a smorgasbord of worldviews and belief systems, all clamoring for our allegiance. And whether their trappings or terminology are secular or religious, all are in essence offering means of salvation--attempts to solve the human dilemma and give hope for renewing the world."
From Marxism to pragmatism, from postmodernism to the New Age movement, each worldview has a doctrine of Creation (a vision of what is real), the Fall (what our problem is), Redemption (how the problem is to be solved), and Restoration (how we should then live).
Using this model, the authors scrutinize the whole menu of contemporary secular belief systems. Science, for example, functions for many people today as a religion. The book quotes the late astronomer Carl Sagan on his hope for salvation through the discovery of extraterrestrial lifeforms, which, he believed, would give us earthlings information as to how we can solve our problems "of food shortages, population growth, energy supplies, dwindling resources, pollution, and war."
The book gives a fascinating account of the new "design theory," which shows that the gene amounts to an encoded language that is irreducibly complex and could not have arisen merely by chance. Other scientific discoveries point to the same conclusion: that the objective universe is not the result of mere random events, but was designed.
The book is also illuminating on the origins of the sexual revolution, laying bare the crackpot mystical utopianism of Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, Wilhelm Reich, and other apostles of salvation through promiscuity. Simply quoting these people in their own words should be enough to keep anyone from taking their ideas seriously, yet their ideas continue to ruin lives today.
One by one, point by point, Colson and Pearcey demonstrate how the secular versions of salvation have failed. The utopian dreams of socialism led to the Gulag. Scientific materialism has led to frank, open despair. Reich's gospel of the orgasm as "man's only salvation, leading to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth," has given us AIDS, single mothers, abortion on demand, and severely dysfunctional relationships.
"In recent years," the authors observe, "all the grand propositions advanced over the past century have fallen, one by one, like toy soldiers. The twentieth century was the age of ideology, of the great 'isms': Communism, socialism, Nazism, liberalism, scientism. Everywhere, ideologues nursed visions of creating the ideal society by some utopian scheme. But today all the major ideological constructions are being tossed on the ash heap of history. All that remains is the cynicism of postmodernism, with its bankrupt assertions that there is no objective truth or meaning, that we are free to create our own truth as long as we understand that it is nothing more than a subjective dream, a comforting illusion" (emphasis in original).
This is no time for Christians to abandon the culture war, they maintain. The competing ideologies have all failed, and our cultural problems are just proof of their failure. The time is ripe for Christians to press their advantage, to apply their faith in the cultural arena in a way that will breathe life back into the culture.
Pearcey and Colson trace the way Christianity has historically had a salutary impact on society. The Biblical emphasis on a transcendent moral law above the state led to political liberties, social reform and individual rights. Biblical ideas played a key role in the development of Western art and science. Rehearsing how the Irish church saved civilization through the dark ages, the authors show how even today the solutions that are working--to rehabilitate criminals, bring the poor up from welfare, cure drug addiction, and improve academic performance in our schools--are growing out of the life-changing power of faith based on that which is objectively true.
The Biblical worldview affirms the intrinsic value of every human being as having been created in the image of God, yet it also has a realistic view of human sinfulness. It affirms the order of the created universe, yet recognizes that nature is not ultimate. Above all, it recognizes that human beings, for all of their pretensions and grandiose schemes to do so, cannot save themselves.
Though the book conveys big ideas on a wide range of issues, it is easy to read, addressed to a popular audience, and illustrated with colorful examples and extended narratives about people's lives. Some were "fictionalized accounts" of real people and events, which seemed a little Edmund Morris-like to me. And I had some theological quibbles here and there. Finally, Pearcey's contribution to the book should not be underestimated, despite the fact that ad copy from the publisher has, oddly, omitted references to her as co-author.
This is a book that can re-energize cultural conservatives. It can help them sharpen their analyses, give them direction for building genuine alternatives, and encourage them that they are, in fact, on the winning side.
Mr. Veith, professor of English at Concordia University-Wisconsin and director of the Cranach Institute, is author of Postmodern Times and Modern Fascism.
Copyright © 2000. Gene Edward Veith. All
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File Date: 2.03.00