The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
New York: Viking Penguin, 2011
Charles Dickens: A Life
New York: The Penguin Press, 2011
The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church
Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010
Every now and then a book comes along that won’t let go of you. It takes what everybody knows, shakes it up, and puts it back down head-first. That’s Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Go to any church you want and you can count on the preacher’s lamenting how things are just getting worse and worse. Violence is about to tear the human race apart, limb from limb, muscle from sinew.
Not so, argues Dr. Pinker, professor of experimental psychology at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With his usual stunning brilliance and scrupulous research (if you don’t believe me, check him out on such disparate subjects as how children learn to use language, how all of us see, or what makes the brain work), he here insists that violence has actually been on a decline over the last few centuries.
Wait a minute, you shout. What about World Wars I and II and Stalin’s slaughter of the Russians and Hitler’s of the Jews and the Cambodian Killing Fields and China’s Great Leap Forward and the genocides of Rwanda and Burundi and . . . and . . . and . . . ?
Exceptions to the rule, says Pinker. In this closely reasoned and generously documented argument (more than 700 pages, not including copious footnotes), he maintains ours is, on average, the most peaceful period in human history. That means, of course, some pretty gory times preceded this one.
He points to the “Long Peace” that followed World War II. No two major countries have attacked each other during these decades, a phenomenon without precedent. (They have, instead, fought lesser battles through their surrogates, as in Korea. As a result, fewer people died than when behemoths collide.)
I’m satisfied that Pinker proves his point, though I’m still pondering whether his analysis is the final word. He marshals evidence from fields as diverse as international politics, cultural history, criminology, archaeology, and population trends and statistics, in addition to his own academic areas.
His final chapter, “On Angels’ Wings,” summarizes his findings. He is convinced ours has become a safer, more peaceful planet through the following contributions:
1. The “Leviathan”—that is, the state. “A state that uses a monopoly of force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence-reducer.” If the government can make it more costly for an aggressor to do violence than to practice peace, he’ll opt for nonviolence.
2. Gentle commerce. Countries that trade together have a vested interest in maintaining peace.
3. Feminization. The calming influence of women’s values can cool the savage testosterone-driven breast. He quotes the prescription for peace offered by Yamaguchi, a survivor of the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “The only people who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breast-feeding their babies.”
4. The “Expanding Circle.” People who live among culturally diverse people are invited to take others’ points of view. This “changes our emotional response to their well-being,” so their well-being and our well-being are “so intermingled that we literally love our enemies and feel their pain.”
5. The “Escalator of Reason.” Here Pinker notes the pacifying effects of literacy, cosmopolitanism, and education.
I’m not doing the book justice. There’s too much here for a brief critique. Just let me say that to anyone who has grown weary of wars and rumors of wars, of terror-talk and retaliation threats, Pinker’s thesis is both a comfort and a challenge. He makes no promise that the trend will continue, but maybe with a little help from us, and our friends, it can.
Let’s hope he’s right.
A Conflicted Man
Charles Dickens still ranks among the world’s premier storytellers. From time to time I reread one of his masterpieces: Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Hard Times, Bleak House, Great Expectations. I know the stories. I cringe at the maudlin, melodramatic twists of fate. I marvel at the prolific imagination that gave us such unforgettable characters, and I admire Dickens’s crusading spirit against the injustices of a cruel, harsh, benighted society that was Victorian England.
No doubt about it, Dickens was a great writer. I can’t help wishing he had been a less conflicted man. The conflicts are made clear in Claire Tomalin’s readable biography.
On the one hand, Dickens was a prodigiously hard worker, a remarkably large-hearted and open-handed man who organized benefits for widows and their offspring, established a shelter/home for prostitutes and helped them to a respectable life, and assisted his large immediate (and even larger extended) family through their ongoing crises. Admirable.
On the other hand, after the birth of their 10th child, he banished his long-suffering wife, Catherine, providing her with a subsistence but wanting nothing more to do with her, ever. When people crossed him, he wrote them off. Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, he had to dominate or he wouldn’t play.
He was probably a functioning alcoholic in his last years, a time colored by the deceptions he had to perpetrate in order to hide his liaison with his mistress.
His daughter Katey, late in life, wrote of him, “I know things about my father’s character that no one else ever knew; he was not a good man, but he was not a fast man, but he was wonderful!” As the author says, Katey’s “‘buts’ acknowledged the difficulty of making a definitive moral judgment on him.”
Like his remarkable fictional output, Dickens encompassed a world. You don’t have to like the man to love his work. He was, in spite of himself, the greatest English novelist of his century.
A Confluence of Currents
I read Fritz Kling’s The Meeting of the Waters because my CMF boss told me I could read it for free on my Kindle. I’d have paid for this one!
“World class cities are the new unreached people groups,” Kling writes. Since American missionaries have long concentrated on the rural, the poor, the relatively isolated, and more recently on the 10/40 Window, if Kling is right then tomorrow’s missions enterprise will be about the urban, the congested and connected—and still the poor, as teeming millions shove their way into the planet’s ever more congested cities and their appalling slums.
I read all the more intensely because I had just had a disconcerting conversation with a very bright, very perceptive, and very critical former American/former Christian abroad who asked whether I was aware of how ridiculous America’s Evangelical church appears to most of the rest of the world. She sees no future for the “God industry,” of which I am representative, as she represents her generation, her culture, reacting to an all-too-close-and-quite-
disillusioned look at formal Christianity.
Kling doesn’t see much future either, unless the church learns some hard lessons. Soon.
“The Meeting of the Waters” is the confluence of the seven currents the author sees defining tomorrow’s missions: (1) service and proclamation of the gospel; (2) rearranging the world map, with the West out of the center; (3) mixing races and ethnicities in one large community; (4) paying attention to the global youth monoculture, where kids are making society over in their own image; (5) adapting to the new for-better-and-for-worse, high-tech world; (6) being civil to people of all religions and ideologies; and (7) taking into account the impact of a people’s history, which determines its present and future.
The American century is behind us. The 21st century belongs to Asia. So say the pundits. If they are right, it behooves us to pay attention to Kling’s currents.
LeRoy Lawson is professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee, and an international consultant with CMF International. He also serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.