Douglas Murray’s identification of the root of our current cultural ills, set out in The War on the West, is a good introduction to the arguments made by Glen Scrivener in The Air We Breathe. Both these books (published within a few days of each other) are an examination of the values we hold in the West, although they approach this from different angles – Murray: why are these values under such attack? Scrivener: would we even have these values if it wasn’t for Christianity?
The Air We Breathe explores seven Western values (Equality, Compassion, Consent, Enlightenment, Science, Freedom, Progress) and provides a narrative for why they hold the place they do in our WEIRD-world. These are not values that came from nowhere but are in fact the consequence of Christianity. Christianity is the air we breathe: it is the oxygen that allowed these values to develop and flourish and it is the atmosphere in which all Westerners live. But, without understanding those Christian origins the values themselves are (to use Murray’s phrase) flimsy and empty.
This argument is convincing, and will be familiar to anyone who has read Tom Holland or Larry Siedentop (who the author quotes), or Carl Trueman (who he does not). We don’t have the moral assumptions we do thanks to Greek philosophy but because of the legacy of Christianity. If we were heirs only of the Greeks and Romans George Floyd’s death would not have raised an eyebrow, much less precipitated the protests and statue-toppling that it did.
It is Floyd’s death that in many ways provides the backdrop to The Air We Breathe, as it does to The War on the West. Scrivener poses the question, “Why did Floyd’s death affect us so profoundly?” The answer is found in the air we breathe.
Floyd’s death gripped us because our moral universe has been birthed out of similar pains. It was an echo of what happened on a hill outside Jerusalem two millennia before: an unarmed victim of oppression; an uncaring authority; a public and humiliating death; and a world that came to see the virtue of the victim and the tyranny of the oppressor. Even Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe”, could have been placed on Christ’s own lips. As author and tech entrepreneur Antonio Garcia Martinez has said, “The Western mind is like a tuning fork calibrated to one frequency: the Christ story. Hit it with the right Christ figure, and it’ll just hum deafeningly in resonance.”
That is an acute observation and a good reason for trying to get The Air We Breathe into the hands of as many people as possible. This is a stellar apologetic for Christianity and would provide a brilliant basis for a discussion group or teaching series. Why is it that we care so much about racism? About freedom of expression? About minority rights? Because of the air we breathe – the atmosphere created by Christianity. But that observation contains within it a challenge, the challenge identified by Murray in The War on the West: that these very values are themselves under threat as all that is identified as ‘Western’ comes under attack.
Scrivener is clear that he is not writing a defence of Westernism: “My telling of the story is very Western focused. This is emphatically not because ‘West is best’. It’s not.” Murray would not concur. For him West very much is best, in that it is Western culture that has given the world the best things in the human experience: those values of equality and enlightenment and science; the benefits of liberal democracy and market economics; the greatest flowerings of music and medicine, art and architecture. It is the benefits these things confer that mean the West is still the destination of choice for the world’s migrants: there are not boatloads of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in a southerly direction, nor tens of thousands trying to cross the borders into China. In making these claims Murray knows that he is operating at the very margins of what can be publicly articulated in the contemporary West – that to make such claims is to lay oneself open to accusations of racism, imperialism and colonialism: of the dreaded sin of “whiteness”. The reason Murray is prepared to take this risk is his concern that the West is devouring itself, busily tearing down the very structures that have made modern Europe and America the best places that humans have ever lived.
So what to do?
The sub-title of The War on the West is ‘How to prevail in the age of unreason’ but while offering plenty of analysis Murray offers less by way of practical suggestions as to how the unravelling of Western values might be halted. Perhaps his keenest insight is that we need to learn gratitude. Murray states that,
Without some sense of gratitude, it is impossible to get anything into any proper order…There are many attitudes that we all take in our lives, some of which dominate at one point in our lives and recede in another. But a life lived without gratitude is not a life properly lived. It is a life that is lived off-kilter: one in which, incapable of realizing what you have to be thankful for, you are left with nothing but your resentments and can be contented by nothing but revenge.
Like our values, gratitude doesn’t come from nowhere. It needs a foundation, an objective measure, and the surest such foundation is belief in a personal God. Murray quotes his friend, the Indian-born economist Deepak Lal, as saying, “Everybody claims that after the age of Christianity, we are going to enter an age of atheism, whereas it is perfectly clear that we are entering an age of polytheism. Everybody has their own gods now.” This does not provide a foundation for gratitude but for the unhappiness and deconstruction we see all around us.
In the conclusion to The Air We Breathe Scrivener offers us a different vision: one that when embraced elicits profound gratitude.
We ought not to grasp at power as though we are the history-makers. We should instead trust in the King of the kingdom and shine his distinctive light into the world. The future is not in our hands, nor is it in the hands of the powerful, the popular or the perverse. The government is on Christ’s shoulders.
It is a belief in that Christ, and the gratitude that evokes, that results in the values Scrivener identifies and Murray fears for. And it is this belief that in the end makes The Air We Breathe much more hopeful than The War on the West. While Murray recognises that a lack of gratitude lies at the root of many of our contemporary problems he doesn’t draw the line to a lack of gratitude always being the human problem: the line that is so clearly drawn in Romans 1:18-32. It is when we neither glorify God nor give thanks to him that everything begins to unravel, and we are handed over to the consequences of our lack of gratitude.
So our real challenge is not the war on the West, but one of mission, the challenge that shapes the Letter to the Romans: to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations (Rom. 1:5) – East and West, North and South. It is not ‘values’ that will save us: only Jesus can do that.