(Thomas Nelson, TN: 2011) Reviewed by Lee Duigon
Vishal Mangalwadi has written a great book-a book that not only should be read, but also kept and studied. It will be a challenge, here, to do it justice.
Thankfully, the book's subtitle says what needs to be said: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization.
This may at first strike some as a dubious achievement. Western civilization? "Gay pride" parades, rap music, reality TV, welfare recipients rioting in the major cities? But Dr. Mangalwadi is acutely aware of what Western civilization has become in recent years. His concern is how the Bible made the West, once upon a time, the greatest civilization that the world has ever seen: and maybe by returning to the Bible, he suggests, it can be great again.
A Unique Perspective
What makes this book unique is Mangalwadi's personal background and perspective. Born and raised in India, he studied in Hindu ashrams and became familiar also with India's other major religions, Buddhism and Islam-these were part of his cultural environment-before going on to study at several modern, secular universities. After his personal conversion, Mangalwadi was able to compare Christianity point by point with Indian religions and their worldviews. For a Christian reader who has lived in a superficially Christian culture all his life, these comparisons can be startling; but also illuminating.
Buddhism, for instance, teaches that "the self is an illusion" (p. 6). Hindu scriptures are not available in the Hindi language, making much of their teaching inaccessible to ordinary Hindus. Mangalwadi knew, and tried in vain to help, a Hindu family who let their baby daughter starve to death "because they saw her as a liability" (pp. 58-60).
But in the Hindu-Buddhist worldview, "life is empty" (p. 67) and there is no point in trying to help anyone, or even to help oneself, because it is that person's "karma" to suffer. If his allotted suffering is abated in this life, then it will only be continued when he is reincarnated (p. 308). Thanks to such an outlook on life, Mangalwadi writes, "Our history was frozen ... Moribund cultures are fertile fields for fearful, fatalistic worldviews" (p. 28).
The secular worldview he encountered in the university was no better. His professors denied that truth could be known, or even exist: " ... not a single professor believed that reason could lead human beings to truth" (pp. 39-40), giving way to "the profound intellectual despair of the postmodern intellectuals" (p. 40).
As an embodiment of postmodern despair, Mangalwadi discusses the life, work, and suicide of "musician" Kurt Cobain, contrasting him with Johann Sebastian Bach and bringing in J. R. R. Tolkien for seasoning. Mangalwadi always seems to find the most vivid and telling real-life examples to illustrate his line of thought-an artistry which makes his book not only edifying, but also fascinating.
A Long Way from Buddha
This is an extremely meaty book, and it will not be practical to try to summarize it in great detail. Instead, let's see what were the aspects of Western civilization which made it so much more successful than the others; and how, according to Vishal Mangalwadi, those positive attributes arose from the teachings of the Bible-and, indeed, can be traced to no other source.
The West believed that a rational order underlay the natural world; and that man, as a rational being, could discover the laws of nature and then act on nature, effectively and rationally.
Created in the image of God, man is not only rational but also truth-seeking, capable not only of action, but in possession of a divine mandate to take action and exercise dominion over the natural world. There is thus a separation between man and the rest of Creation. We are not simply part of nature, not mere biological entities, but uniquely different from all other living things. And even more importantly, because man is made by God in God's image, every human life has intrinsic value and significance.
We have already come a long way from the teachings of the Buddha.
To drive home the point that different cultures really do believe in, teach, and practice sharply different principles, Mangalwadi takes readers along on his "personal pilgrimage" from Hinduism to Christianity.
"I first discovered the Bible as a student in India," he recalls (p. 23). "It transformed me as an individual and I soon learned that, contrary to what my university thought, the Bible was the force that had created modern India." By "modern India" he means the modern Hindi language itself, schools and colleges, business, modern agricultural techniques, a free press, an independent judiciary, and so on. Indeed, "I was astonished to discover that the Bible was the source of practically everything good in my hometown, even the secular university that undermined the Bible" (p. 190).
Mangalwadi describes the "culture shock" he experienced (p. 27) when he and his wife left the city-"modern India"-to be volunteer relief workers in rural India. That part of India was not so modern. Bandit gangs on motorcycles terrorized the peasants and went unmolested by police (p. 27), political corruption was rampant (p. 31), and the local police chief even threatened to murder Mangalwadi if he didn't call off a scheduled prayer meeting (p. 34). A furor created in the local newspapers saved Mangalwadi's life and got him out of jail (p. 35).
"My spiritual pilgrimage began in a moral struggle," he writes. "At a young age I had started stealing and lying ... What bothered me was my manifest lack of will power to control my words and actions ... Why then did I do what I knew was wrong? ... I did need someone to save me, so I asked Jesus to become my Savior. He changed me. I was then able to go to the shops from where I had stolen, offer restitution, and ask for forgiveness" (pp. 38-39).
But this kind of change had not come to the Indian countryside. The author's wife tried to hard to save the baby girl who was being starved by her parents. "Our neighbors did not understand her compassionate impulse because three thousand years of Hinduism, twenty-six hundred years of Buddhism, a thousand years of Islam, and a century of secularism had collectively failed to give them a convincing reason for recognizing and affirming the unique value of a human being" (p. 70). It can hardly be said more clearly than that! The teaching that there is such a value comes from the Bible, and from nowhere else.
Again and again Mangalwadi contrasts the Bible's teachings with those of Oriental religions and secular humanism. The contrasts could hardly be more stark. We think again of the contrast between Bach and Kurt Cobain.
As he came to know the Bible, Mangalwadi says, "The implication was obvious: The Bible was claiming that I should read it because it was written to bless my nation and me. The revelation that God wanted to bless my nation of India amazed me. I realized it was a prediction I could test ... If the Bible is God's word, then had he kept this word? Had he blessed ‘all the nations of the earth'?" (p. 54)
The answer, as the author discovered it to be in his pilgrimage through his own country, so vastly different from ours, was "Yes."
The Way We Were
We have, as it were, been flying over the wide landscape of Dr. Mangalwadi's book and taking snapshots, in hope of taking enough of them to give a reliable impression of the whole. His first task is to introduce the blighted condition of "the soul of the West" today, as embodied by the sad, wasted life of Kurt Cobain and the Western intelligentsia's wholesale rejection of God and of even the possibility of objective truth.
From there on, he marshals his facts into a logical array of chapters dealing with all those aspects of Western civilization that made it so successful-and so very different from the others. We might argue that "Humanity" or "Rationality," for instance, were not the exclusive property of the West. But we would lose that argument. Mangalwadi offers many examples of Indian, Arab, and Chinese individuals who achieved great things in science, mathematics, medicine, and many other fields; but nothing came of it. The achievements of those individuals withered on the vine for lack of cultural nourishment. Mangalwadi knows this because he comes from a non-Western culture. We can glimpse in the rural areas what India would be like without newspapers, schools, modern agriculture, laws and law courts, a common language, and all the other assets brought in-some of them forcibly-by the British. It is not a pretty picture.
As Christians we understand that man is born into a state of sin: so there is a limit to what we can expect of him. Thanks to the common grace of God the Father, life in the heathen regions of the world is livable. But without Christ the Son, it never gets much better than that. "If the Son therefore shall make you free," Jesus said, "ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:36).
To Mangalwadi it was no accident that the West forged so far ahead of the rest of the world. It didn't happen in ancient times, when Greece and Rome were on a par with India and China, or in the medieval period, when Western Europe lagged behind the world of Islam.
It did not happen until the Bible was translated into living European languages, and masses of people could read it-and be transformed by it. It was the Bible, says Mangalwadi, and nothing else, that set free the genius of the West.
Can We Find Our Way Back?
The Bible was the "single most important force in the emergence of Western civilization," writes J. Stanley Mattson in the Foreword (p. 5). To support this claim with a legion of facts is the mission of the book. From the Bible, Mangalwadi says, Westerners learned "that human beings were creative creatures"-because they are made in the image of the Creator God-"and therefore could change ‘reality' for the better" (p. 47).
"The Bible generates hope for all people," he writes (p. 366); and yet the West nowadays has turned away from it. Today in the West there is a "loss of a sense of truth and goodness" (p. 368). Worse, "Secular universities have blocked the West from the truth" (p. 370).
"Does all of this matter?" Mangalwadi asks. "Yes, it is a matter of life and death. Jesus and Paul were highly respected public servants. Yet even their lives were not safe in a culture that had lost the very notion of truth ...
"What happens to a culture that is clueless about what is true, good, and just? ... When we believe truth is unknowable, we rob it of any authority. What is left is brute power wielding arbitrary force ... Any nation that refuses to live under truth condemns itself to live under sinful man" (p. 390).
Bullseye! Without the Bible, the West's hard-won freedom has degenerated into a "freedom" to fornicate while paying confiscatory taxes to the state; its science, once based on the observation of nature, becomes "Science" based on man's manipulation of computer models which he creates himself; and the modern nation-state, once a barricade to would-be rulers of the world, becomes their choice instrument of tyranny.
Mangalwadi asks, "Must the sun set on the West?" (p. 368) Will its people sink into "secular fatalism?" (p. 371)
His answer is inspired by people he has known who have revealed in themselves the image of Christ. "How are we to understand a biological organism who forgives and blesses those who ridicule, mock, strip, insult, and beat him? How can he love those who spit on him, put a crown of thorns on his head, and then murder him by nailing him to a wooden cross?" (p. 375)
Quite simply, the materialist, reductionist paradigm of the postmodern West cannot explain Christ or Christian love. Why not? Because the paradigm is not true! It cannot account for what we can see is true. To believe in that paradigm, we must stop seeing. Professing ourselves to be wise, we must become fools.
But Christ is true, Mangalwadi argues: and it is on this truth that he bases his hope of revival in the West. After all, it has happened before-in the eighteenth century, in England and America. England in 1738 "had collapsed ‘to a degree that was never before known in any Christian country'" (p. 255). Its cultural deterioration, vividly described with facts and figures (pp. 256-259), was fully as degenerate as our own: the postmodern era does not exceed the "Gin Age" (p. 257) in wickedness. And across the Atlantic, American culture was almost as corrupt.
But thanks to Christian preachers like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitfield-and to the God who blessed their heroic efforts and made them fruitful-there was a "Great Awakening" in both England and her American colonies: setting the stage, indeed, for the abolition of slavery in England and the creation of the United States in America.
What God has done once, He can surely do again.
The difference between the Bible and the messages of secularism, paganism, Islam, etc., is that the Bible is the true revelation of the true God. How can it fail? We are sinners, and we can fail. To the extent that we are faithful to God and allow ourselves to be guided by the Truth, we prosper. To the extent that we exalt ourselves and turn our backs on God, we lose contact with the Truth, and we fail.
This is why the West is in eclipse today. But the Word of God has not lost its power to transform both individuals and nations, Mangalwadi says (pp. 384-385). "The Bible's amazing story of Israel's total destruction due to sin and rebirth through repentance and faith breathed hope into cultures that believed the Word of God. It moved them to build uniquely just and righteous nations. In America, the Bible's story produced the power for peasants to overcome the world's superpower"
Our flight is over and it's time to land. We hope we have shown you enough of Dr. Mangalwadi's landscape to inspire you to visit it yourself, spend time there, and come to know it better.
Mangalwadi's Indian perspective on the West makes his book one of a kind. Through his eyes-and he is a very good reporter-we can see ourselves more clearly. We also learn to see more clearly how religious beliefs shape their believers' whole way of life, leading to enormous differences from one culture to another. We need this insight to counter the humanist claptrap that all religions teach the same thing and all cultures are "equal." Let some of those who say such things live in rural India for a while, as peasants.
This is a book we strongly recommend. Add it to your personal library. Better yet, add it to your thinking.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.