I don’t read much “theological” nonfiction, so it was only happenstance that I stumbled across David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions, The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies after reading a very thoughtful column by New York Times commentator Ross Douthat. Douthat’s article, “The Return of the Jesus Wars,” centered on controversy surrounding a just-released and now-best-selling tome on Jesus that portrays him as a fierce revolutionary and “zealot,” who was more of this world than any other. Douthat criticized that book but then mentioned two others that he recommended instead. Hart’s was one.
Published in 2009 by Yale University Press, Hart’s tome is an apologia for Christianity and a specific retort to several best sellers purporting to show that religion is bad and God is either dead or never existed. Hart’s targets include Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and, of course, Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great.
To say that Hart takes a muscular approach to defending Christianity and its positive influence on the world is to understate his tone. He uses his rhetorical muscle to wield a machete, slashing through these famous arguers’ arguments with ease and relish. While his style is sometimes so fiercely acerbic as to make gentle readers cringe, I must admit that, as a Christian, it’s hard not to experience a sort of grateful exhalation of relief as he goes into battle, a sense that, “Thank goodness there is someone with this level of knowledge and ability who can articulate what I could only feel.”
Hart’s main premise is that Christianity represented a cataclysmic departure from the brutality of the ancient world, that its loving approach to the poor, the disabled, the slave and—heavens!—women, set it apart from the philanthropic gestures of ancients. But more than just charity, Christianity brought a new and previously inconceivable idea to the world: that every human life carried equal dignity.
“For those of the lowest stations (in the ancient world)—slaves, base-born non-citizens and criminals, the utterly destitute, colonized peoples—legal personality did not really exist, or existed in only the most tenuous of forms,” Hart writes. “Under the pagan emperors, such as Augustus, certain legal protections were extended to slaves; but, of themselves, slaves had no real rights before the law…. For the slave was a man or woman non habens personam: literally, ‘not having a person,’ or even ‘not having a face.’”
From this brief explanation of ancients’ disregard for certain classes of humanity, Hart goes on to describe how, in this context, Christ’s exchange with Pontius Pilate would have been so jaw-dropping:
“To the ears of any ancient person,” Hart writes, “Pilate’s question to his prisoner….—‘Where do you come from?’—would almost certainly have sounded like a perfectly pertinent, if obviously sardonic, inquiry into Christ’s pedigrees, and a pointed reminder that, in comparison to Pilate, Christ is no one at all…Christ’s claim, on the other hand, that Pilate possesses no powers not given him from above would have sounded like only the comical impudence of a lunatic.”
This “comical impudence” is what, Hart argues, makes Christ and His message such a game-changer. Not only does this “slave” speak truth to power, but God endorses it:
“The Gospel of John, however, approaches the confrontation between Christ and Pilate from a vantage unprecedented in human culture: the faith of Easter. And the result of this new angle of approach, soberly considered, is somewhat outrageous. God, it seems, far from approving the verdict of his alleged earthly representatives…entirely reverses their judgment and in fact vindicates and restores to life the very man they have ‘justly’ condemned in the interest of public tranquility. This is an astonishing realignment of every perspective, an epochal reversal of all values, a rebellion against reality.”
Hart’s other main point is that this “realignment” became so vast and so accepted as Christianity spread that we now have no sense of awe or perspective for how grand a “reversal of all values” it was. We live in a world that, despite its flaws, has steadily marched toward the full equality and dignity of each human life, no matter what strata of society into which a person was born. This, Hart argues, is a decidedly Christian influence. And those who argue that society would be better off purged of such religiosity don’t understand the brutal void into which humanity could descend without this influence, he says, pointing to the high body counts of Godless or secular violence. That is not to say that Hart doesn’t recognize the violence and even hatred perpetrated in Christianity’s name:
“….men and women have done many wicked things in Christ’s name….(but) Christianity expressly forbids the various evils that have been done by Christians, whereas democracy, in principle, forbids nothing (except, of course, the defeat of the majority’s will).”
Hart’s book is a dense read (keep your dictionary handy) but a short one, well worth the time. One of its delights is the author’s use of ancient pagan critics of Christianity to make salient points about Christianity’s world-changing philosophy. Atheist Delusions will both uplift and depress the faithful, as the reader sees one’s Christian faith from a fresh perspective and ponders its future in a modern world.