"What Has Christianity Ever Done For Us?"
The provocative title of Jonathan Hill's new book might prod Christians to think about salvation from sin, the promise of eternal life, spiritual solace, inspiration, doctrinal truth, moral guidance and community warmth.
But Hill, an Oxford-trained British historical writer, doesn't focus on such impact upon individual souls but rather on Christianity's role in world civilization. That's signaled by this InterVarsity Press book's subtitle: "How It Shaped the Modern World."
Hill offers an "objective look" at Christian contributions to balance histories that emphasize embarrassments from bygone eras when churches exercised political control - the Crusades, sectarian wars, inquisitions, witch hunts and oppression of dissenters.
The theme is worth pondering when the European Union's proposed constitution doesn't even mention the religion's historical role. Noting that, and commending this book, Yale historian Lamin Sanneh (an African) says that without Christianity "Europe would be unrecognizable and undistinguished."
Many of Hill's positive points are aspects of Jewish biblical culture that Christians spread across the world.
It would be hard to calculate or contemplate the vast impact of Christianity's teachings about charity and the practical applications to which they have been put over the centuries.
Hill says Christianity's teachings on love and selflessness "fostered some of the most profound and appealing moral approaches that have ever been taught," quite in contrast with non-biblical ethics from ancient times.
And think about language and literacy.
Ninth-century missionaries who brought Christianity to eastern Europe first developed the system for writing local languages that exists today. Centuries before, a missionary invented the alphabet for Armenia. Egypt's Didymus the Blind created a predecessor of the Braille system so sightless people could read.
Everyone acknowledges that Martin Luther's Bible translation virtually created modern German, and the literary impact of Bible translations in English cannot be overstated.
The reason for those developments, of course, is that Christianity is a religion of the Bible, of the written word. So, as Hill writes, throughout history Christians have gone to great lengths to secure books and education.
During the so-called Dark Ages, monasteries were the only centers of learning across much of Europe. As early as A.D. 797, the Christian empire ordered schools to be established in each town so children could study for free, with parents donating what they could afford. Cathedral schools to train clergy, ordered by the pope in 1079, eventually evolved into the earliest universities in places including Paris and Oxford, England.
Literacy and the availability of books exploded with the 15th-century invention of the printing press.
Hill says the first society in history where everyone could read was created in the 17th century by Jesuit missionaries who educated indigenous peoples in present-day Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil. In the same era, he says, Protestants in Switzerland established "the first free and integrated education system in modern times."
It shouldn't be forgotten that the modern benefits brought by democratic government could not exist without widespread education and literacy, and that Christians were also pioneers in devising democratic political theories and political systems.
In addition, Christian beliefs made possible modern empirical science, Hill argues.
What beliefs? Christianity taught that "the mind exists to study and the physical world exists to be studied" because the biblical God created a coherent cosmos. "The idea of the intrinsic rationality of the world was built into Christianity from the very beginning."
"Christianity and investigation of the world went hand in hand, for everything was created by God and imbued with his order and harmony."
All of that doesn't even consider the countless masterpieces of art, architecture, music and literature that have been directly inspired by the Christian message.