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Book Review: The Air We Breathe

It is sometimes argued that the Western world is now post-Christian. Christian belief appears to be on the decline with the so-called ‘Nones’ (those who identify as having no religious belief) on the ascendancy.1 The rise in secularism has also appeared to coincide with an increased concern for issues such as social justice, individual rights and diversity, and some have suggested this correlation is no coincidence.2 Perhaps, then, the term post-Christian can be understood, not only in terms of religious belief, but in terms of the progression of values as well. Freed from the shackles of dogma and superstition we can now concentrate on what really matters: people.


In his book The Air We Breathe, Glen Scrivener sets out to make the opposite case. While not denying the decline of Christian belief in Western society, Scrivener argues that our cultural values of freedom, human rights, equality and such like are anything but post-Christian. On the contrary, he argues, such values “have been distinctively shaped by the Jesus-revolution”3. In other words, our culture is infused, top to bottom by Christianity. It is as pervasive as the air that we breathe. Or as Scrivener says, whatever your religious belief, “you are a goldfish, and Christianity is the water in which you swim.”4 Scrivener aims to show, not only that the values of the western world are products of Christianity, but that only Christianity can make sense of these values. Without Christianity we have no coherent foundation for our moral norms. The result is that, despite the decline in religious belief, Christianity is in fact supremely relevant to our cultural narrative, and we cannot help but live as though some of its fundamental assumptions are true.


Scrivener begins by challenging the idea that the values we hold dear are universal, self-evident truths. He takes us back in time to before the birth of Christ and paints a picture that makes for grim reading. He speaks of ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, teaching on the inherent and fixed inferiority of some people to others. He recounts a mass crucifixion of 400 slaves, including children, which was ordered as a deterrent after one slave killed his master. He shares with us the time that thousands of prisoners were fed to the lions due to a shortage of meat. Scrivener wants us to get a glimpse of a very different world by removing our modern western glasses and enabling us to see reality through the eyes of the ancients. Such occurrences, he tells us, horrific though they are to our modern sensibilities, were simply accepted as the way things were. Executions became half-time entertainment; social inequality was just the nature of the universe. The point is clear: the values that we cherish have not always been recognised. They have come from somewhere. For Scrivener, the answer is to be found in the God who has turned the world’s cultural norms on their heads by becoming as a slave, dying for the undeserving and bringing hope and value to all.


With the ground laid, Scrivener takes us on a journey around seven values: equality; compassion; consent; enlightenment; science; freedom and progress. Each of these, he argues, finds its roots in the revolution that Jesus brought about. Consider equality: Scrivener makes the case that the biblical teaching that human beings are made in the image of God, tasked with stewarding creation, provides inherent worth and dignity to all people. Such dignity is compounded by God himself entering our world as a man. Scrivener notes that the second century historian Celsus felt “horror” at such an idea and dismissed it as “nonsense.”5 The idea of equality was absurd to the ancients. Our contemporary culture holds it as sacrosanct. Scrivener’s point is that, in pursuing equality, people are in fact pursuing a Christian ideal.


As Scrivener proceeds through the other six values, he constantly confounds the reader’s expectations by turning popular opinion on its head. The Enlightenment (chapter 5), far from being a breakaway from dogmatic Christian religion, actually depended upon Christian foundations laid in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’; the scientific revolution (chapter 6), far from being at odds with Christianity, was born out of a Judeo-Christian worldview; the idea of progress (chapter 8) finds its source in the Christian claim that God is the ultimate standard of goodness. On this latter point Scrivener suggests that God’s role has now become occupied by humanity which, he argues, removes the foundation for belief in progress entirely.


Throughout the book, Scrivener constantly seeks to challenge the reader’s own assumptions regarding our contemporary values and to expose the fragility of grounding them outside of the Christian worldview. He does this with humour and wit, in a way that is instantly accessible and avoids being preachy. He uses everyday examples to illustrate and apply many of his points. From George Floyd to Boris Johnson, Family Guy to Jordan Peterson, Scrivener constantly shows how his arguments are applicable to the modern world.


At the start of the book, Scrivener identifies three groups he wants to address: The ‘Nones’ who have no interest in Christianity, the ‘Dones’ who have left Christianity and the ‘Wons’ who profess to be Christians today. As such, this book has a wider reach than simply Christians interested in defending their faith. Seekers and sceptics alike will find much to chew over as they read Scrivener’s work and, in the final chapter, he draws out some key points for each group to consider.


Although remaining firmly at the introductory level, Scrivener puts forward a convincing case and whets the reader’s appetite to consider these things further. His work comes at a pivotal moment when the values he highlights are at the forefront of public consciousness. As he grounds our Western, modern values in Jesus, Scrivener demonstrates, not only the relevance of Christianity today, but the dependency upon it by a culture which so often sees Christianity as anachronistic.


Whether the reader is a ‘None’, a ‘Done’ or a ‘Won’, this book will bring insight and challenge. For the Christian it will help to equip for deeper cultural engagement. For the unbeliever it may serve as an eye-opener to just how “Christian” we really are.




Endnotes

1. According to the UK census, the decade from 2011 - 2021 saw a sharp rise in ‘Nones’ (up 37.2% from 25.2%) and a similar decline in those who claimed to be Christian (down 46.2% from 59.3%).


2. Professor of Sociology, Phil Zuckerman contends, “throughout the democratic world, on issue after issue related to well-being, equality, and morality, secular people are more likely to come down on the side of social justice than the religious.”


3. Scrivener, 2022, p. 12

4. Ibid. p. 11

5. Ibid. p. 57

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