Saturday, February 27, 2010

5 Cities that Ruled the World

By Douglas Wilson, 236 pages,, $14.99.

“Jerusalem has bequeathed to us a legacy of the spirit; Athens, reason and the mind, Rome, law; London, literature; and New York, industry and commerce,” Douglas Wilson notes in 5 Cities that Ruled the World. He roots through the biblical and classical sources to locate the genius in the three ancient cities he includes, and looks to early English literature and contemporary culture for his sketches on London and New York.

Wilson takes an ambiguous view of cities, noting that they are centres of depravity yet places of excellence, including spiritual excellence. He chooses to focus on this goodness, looking at how each has played a unique, central role in constructing the great, dynamic core of Western civilization.

Unlike countless other scholars, Wilson offers no apologies for the direction of Western civilization, though he is no triumphalist either. Through the various, complementary qualities that these five cities have offered, he sees balance and maturity in our culture. This makes the book a refreshing read.

5 Cities that Ruled the World is also refreshing because Wilson avoids another great sin of modern academics – microscopically examining the evidence for his discussion. This method usually serves to deconstruct and fragment the subject at hand, forcing readers to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Wilson relishes and respects Western civilization in its great wholeness, and conveys that attitude to the reader.

Rather than fragmenting and inviting scepticism, Wilson sees richness and depth. Each strand in the tradition of freedom and excellence given by one of the five cities has helped Western culture to develop in a better, more enlightened direction. Each as an individual strand had many shortcomings. Athens was not really a democracy, at least not in the modern sense. Though known for its legal genius, Rome was much too harsh in the law's application.

Athens and Rome needed a greater sense of the human dignity that Jerusalem's spiritual conception of life and humans envisioned. Central to the story of Western civilization is its Christian core. Wilson turns to the Bible to show the unique spiritual insights of Jerusalem and the Israelite-Jewish people.

Jerusalem has rarely had military or economic power. Its spiritual pull, first on the Jewish and then later Christian and Muslim populations, has been unparalleled, exemplified by the Jewish hope, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Throughout the book, Wilson intertwines theology with the cities, showing how history itself possesses religious meaning. Jerusalem plays an obvious role in this divine history, as he notes: “According to Christians, the sacrificial system of the Jews was fulfilled and superseded by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. And if the sacrifices were superseded, what need was there for a temple?... That is why, from the earliest years, the Christians had begun to think in terms of a spiritual Jerusalem, a heavenly Jerusalem.”

As with the other cities, Wilson spends time bringing readers up to date on its entire history, including the more recent Zionist movement and the power of Jerusalem to pull both Muslims and Jews toward her, bringing about conflict.

5 Cities that Ruled the World examines the other cities through a Christian lens as well. Each has played its vital part in Christian history, and Athens is almost as foundational as Jerusalem because of its contribution to the Greek orientation of the New Testament and the apostolic age.

Yet the Greek view, centred in Athens, took Christianity in a different direction from the incipient religion's Jewish moorings: “[W]hen Paul came to Athens, he was preaching in a city with a long tradition of reliance on reason. Paul confronted the philosophers there, but he did not do so by insisting that the Athenians drop their entire heritage – he knew their history well enough to appeal to it in support of his case.”

Athens entered the flow of history before Christianity did, and its contribution to the religion, Wilson shows, was vital to its growth and to Europe's eventual Christianization. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the entire Greek philosophical system aided Christianity. Its preoccupations became Christianity's preoccupations, and an inexhaustible dynamic sprang up between theology and philosophy, something Wilson hints at but unfortunately doesn't develop fully.

Wilson treats Rome and London in the same way, showing for instance how the literature of England was inspired by Christianity. Interestingly, he argues that we have long misunderstood the Puritans. They were not the party-poopers of lore, but were dynamic, restless scholars and adventurers, “swashbuckling” Calvinists who drank, passionately, studied the classics, and enjoyed marital relations. Their genius was also in literature, including writers such as William Tyndale, John Bunyan, and John Milton.

The discussion of New York, as steeped in historical detail and myth as with the other cities, is inadequate. A big fan of American-style economics, Wilson fails to acknowledge capitalism's role in damaging both the environment and human ecology. As capitalism has spread from England and New York outwards, it has forced change and industrial landscapes upon countries from South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Panama, and Mexico, whether those populations wanted it or not.

Nonetheless, with 5 Cities that Ruled the World, Wilson gives readers something to cheer about. As John Paul II and Benedict XVI have stated, history has meaning beyond either material progress or post-modern hopelessness. A theological view of history can be faithful to the historical record because it gives readers a sense of movement towards the truth.

This movement is irresistible for humans and human culture, because people hunger for God and the truth in every historical era, something that the historical experience of these five cities reflects.

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