I think I just found my favorite book of the year. At least it’s my favorite of 2023 so far. Andrew Wilson’s new book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, is outstanding. I spent every extra minute I had over this past weekend reading it. In truth, I had trouble putting it down.
This book is a Christian analysis of one historical moment, the late 18th century, with special attention given to 1776. Lest, however, you think that this is a book only about the American Revolution, be forewarned that the scope of the book is oh-so-broader than that. Only one chapter is dedicated to the American Revolution, since, according to the author, it was only one of seven key “revolutions” that were in the process of emerging in 1776.
The author, Andrew Wilson, is “teaching pastor at King’s Church London and a columnist for Christianity Today” (from flyleaf). In this book, though, he is less Pastor Wilson (though he is still that — especially at the end of the book), and more Historian Wilson, or Public-Intellectual Wilson, or even Apologist Wilson (although the nature of his apologetic is subtle). Wilson holds degrees in history and theology from Cambridge (MA) and King’s College London” (Ph.D). In my opinion, he is an exceptionally gifted historian. (Noted historian Mark Noll apparently agrees: “Andrew Wilson’s book is extraordinary in every way. A triumph of both creative historical analysis and winsome Christian interpretation.”)
Wilson develops two main ideas in this book: one concerning today’s world, and one about Western Europe and America during a key moment of development two and a half centuries ago.
Concerning today’s world, Wilson argues that the modern Western world — and the presuppositional mindset of people living in it — is dramatically different from how most people in history (European or otherwise) lived and thought. He borrows anthropologist Joseph Henrich’s acronym WEIRD to describe modern Western society, then adds two letters to it to make the acronym (even!) WEIRDER. That is, there are seven characteristics that describe assumptions and attitudes current in Western society. Unlike our predecessors, we are: 1) Western, 2) Educated, 3) Industrialized, 4) Rich, 5) Democratic, 6) Ex-Christian, and 7) Romantic.
After a scintillating analysis of the assumptive world of 2023, Wilson makes a bold historical claim. Seven of the “revolutions” that would produce such a WEIRDER society were at a key inflection point at the end of the 18th century. The seven revolutions (if they all deserve the label) are: 1) Globalization, 2) the Enlightenment, 3) the Industrial Revolution, 4) the Great Enrichment, 5) the American Revolution, 6) Rejection of Christianity, and 7) the Romantic Revolution. Wilson utilizes the year 1776 to describe these seven movements. The year 1776 works well for his organizational project since in that year seminal books were being written or published (Hume, Gibbon, Smith, Kant, Rousseau, Herder), voyages were voyaged (Captain Cook, Forster), inventions were invented (preparatory work for the steam engine), plays were produced (Goethe), factories and canals were constructed (Arkwright’s mill, Bridgewater canal), and a history-altering war was fought (American Revolution).
Wilson’s historical analysis is incisive. Best of all from the perspective of the reader, Wilson is a storyteller. Illustrations abound. So rather than merely listing facts and arguments, he drops the reader into key moments that were important to the development of one of the seven streams that he argues had such an influence on producing societal change in the West. The reader should be prepared, though, that despite Wilson’s facility as a storyteller, this book will still require concentration, particularly because of the scope of some of the topics discussed therein.
Depending on your educational background and interests, you will find certain aspects of Remaking the World easier or harder to read. If your background and interests lie in the history of peoples and events, you’ll love this book, but you might struggle with the sections on philosophers, economists, or the nature of romanticism (which isn’t about romance, per se). But this book really is well-written, and to the degree that I am qualified to evaluate it, I find most of Wilson’s argumentation compelling. More importantly, I feel like I understand the society in which I live much better for having read this book.
As an aside, one feature grabbed my attention. The book is filled with many quotable quotes, which, interestingly, tend to appear as a paragraph’s final sentence. Here are a few of my favorite quotable lines, all from the final chapter:
- “Everything is unprecedented once” (276).
- “The more privileged you are, the more tempting it is to seek justification by works” (277).
- “All of us are less likely to notice oppression if we benefit from it than if we suffer from it” (281).
- “Free people free people” (282).
- “It is hard to promote or proscribe certain behavior if you think your moral framework is merely a useful fiction” (285).
I’m finding it difficult to locate enough laudatory words to praise this book. I heartily recommend Remaking the World to anyone (Christian or not) who wants to think deeply about how the predominating ideas of our contemporary historical moment came to predominate.
Do you want to learn a bit more about the book before you decide whether you want to read it? Here is a nice summary by Wilson himself. But, really, the book itself is better than the summary …
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.