How did we come to believe virtually universally in concepts such as freedom, equality and compassion? How did those concepts come to be part of the “air we breathe” today? Join Scott and Sean in this fascinating interview with pastor and evangelist Glen Scrivener about his new book The Air We Breathe.

Glen Scrivener is an ordained Church of England minister and evangelist who preaches Christ through writing, speaking, and online media. He directs the evangelistic ministry Speak Life. Originally from Australia, Glen now lives with his wife, Emma, and two children in England, and they belong to All Souls Eastbourne. He is the author of several books, including The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality (The Good Book Company, 2022) and 3-2-1: The Story of God, the World, and You (10Publishing, 2014).

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Where do ideas like freedom, quality, compassion for the vulnerable, consent for sex, ideas that we take for granted today, where do they come from? It hasn't always been that way. How do these ideas become so widely accepted and how did it become unthinkable to deny them today? We explore these questions with our guest Glen Scrivener in his new book, The Air We Breathe. I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean McDowell: And I'm Sean McDowell.

Scott Rae: And this is Think Biblically from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Glen, when I first saw the title for this, I must admit I expected this to be about the cultural air of secularism that we breathe today, but you're talking about something completely different. What's the main idea you're get trying to get across? Why does it matter so much?

Glen Scrivener: Sure. Well, thank you so much for having me on. Yeah, I grew up in Australia and I never really realized how sweet the air smells in Australia. There are all these eucalyptus trees and so they kind of mentholate the air. It's basically like a cold remedy carried upon the breeze 24/7. I never noticed because I grew up there and then I left and came to the UK where I live now. And now only when I go back to Australia, when I touch down in Sydney, I notice the warm sweet air, because sometimes you have to leave your atmosphere in order to recognize what you'd always taken for granted. And the idea with this book is the air stands for the moral intuitions that we have, the assumptions that we hold, the gut instincts that we have about what is the good life. And I identify a number of those gut instincts that we have about the good life. Equality, compassion, consent, enlightenment, science, freedom, and progress, and like air, these are life giving to us. They are ubiquitous and they are invisible to us. And it's interesting that you say about secularism and whether secularism is more the air that we breathe. Even the concept of the secular is a value that Christianity has taught to the world. So the real thing shaping the values and the moral intuitions of this world is not secularism. It's the original Jesus revolution. In other words, Christianity.

Sean McDowell: Now you come to this with your background experience, like you said, from being in Australia. How does that uniquely shape what you're observing about the West and why focus just on the West?

Glen Scrivener: It's not because the West is best. I think the West has its own very distinctive and very poisonous brew of historical calamities. And I press into those in the book. And it's not that the church comes out as the hero of this book. Very often, we are the worst perpetrators when it comes to holding us to the standards of these values. I guess I talk about the West because that is the air that I breathe. I'm an Australian living in the UK. I'm writing for that kind of audience and a US audience. I'm writing an English. Other atmospheres are available, but it's interesting. I grew up in an Australian Anglican church. And when you think about the average Anglican in the world, I don't know what you think of, if you think of an Episcopalian in sort of American terms. Actually the average Anglican in the world is a Nigerian woman about 20 years old.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Glen Scrivener: And there are more Anglicans in Nigeria than there are people in England.

Scott Rae: Wow.

Glen Scrivener: And what's fascinating is I grew up in Australia and just imagine that 20 year old woman in Laos. We both share a spiritual heritage that goes back to certain developments in the church in England and the 16th century and back further than that. But those developments have really shaped the world and not just the West. The West has gone on to shape all sorts of other cultural interplays through international law and through Hollywood and all sorts of things like that. And then the church has gotten into so many other non-Western cultures. And I could have talked about Pentecostalism in South America or Anglicanism in Africa or Presbyterianism in South Korea. So I'm not wanting to say West is best, but I am wanting to say probably if you are picking up this book and reading it in English, these seven values have shaped you and it's worth centering on your breathing.

Scott Rae: And you're saying that all seven of these key values come explicitly from Christianity?

Glen Scrivener: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

Scott Rae: Okay. So it wasn't always this way. The ancient world you describe a brutal culture. Gladiator games, crucifixion, a whole host of other things. Infanticide, the sexual abuse. So would it be fair to say that Christianity civilized the culture?

Glen Scrivener: Well, it certainly took a long time about it and that's sort of one of the complaints that quite rightly people will raise. If Christianity is such a civilizing influence, why did it take so long to eliminate things like the gladiatorial games or slavery or any of these other evils? But I think when you take a very long term view, I think someone like the moralist William Lackey pointed to the elimination of the gladiatorial games in about the fifth century as one of the greatest moral reforms in history. And we could probably look back to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th century as another kind of [inaudible 00:05:28] moral transformation that happened. These things took a long time to happen because to go from Christ to church takes quite a long time and to go from church to the world takes and even longer time. But Jesus, I guess he doesn't mind taking his time. It might feel excruciating and infuriating to us, but he says that his movement will work like yeast works through a batch of dough or like a mustard seed grows into the largest plant. He's working on a very long and large time scale. But undeniably it is Christianity that brought about these sorts of reforms, like the abolition of the slave trade or the overturning of the gladiatorial games.

Sean McDowell: Make that connection a little bit more explicit for us in the sense of how freedom as it was understood in the ancient world contrasts with a Christian view of freedom and how Christian ideas helped overturn slavery.

Glen Scrivener: So for an ancient mind, inequality is absolutely baked into the world. It is just very obvious that the gods are at the top of the hierarchy and the slaves are at the bottom. And that is neither a good thing or a bad thing. It's just a thing. And justice for an ancient thinker was not really about equalizing people. Justice was about enforcing inequality. So ancient thinkers like Plato or Aristotle, they would talk about slaves as living tools. Just as you have a mechanical tool like a shovel to dig a hole, you have a living tool, a slave who can row your boat for you or grind your corn for you. They are living tools and they can be treated as living tools because nature itself teaches us, says the ancient thinker, nature itself teaches us that some were born to rule and some were born to be ruled over. And when you put yourself into the sandals of an ancient thinker, they start to persuade you because they start to say, "Haven't you noticed that some people are really good at taking care of their lives and there are some people who cannot manage their own affairs? And wouldn't it be good for those who are very good at ruling to rule over those who just can't handle their own lives, they can't manage their own affairs? Wouldn't it be great if you had masters and slaves?" And so that was absolutely natural to the ancient mind. And what's fascinating about that is that is so unnatural to our way of thinking. We are revolted by that idea. We're revolted by people being thought of as tools. Why is that? Well, Christianity gives us so many different angles on this, but we were created equally in God's image on page one of the Bible. We are made in God's image, both male and female. We are redeemed by the savior so that doesn't matter how much we've sinned, the blood of Christ is for us. It doesn't matter how righteous we think we are. The blood of Christ is necessary to be shared for us. And there's this incredible equalizer that comes in in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Again, it takes an incredibly long time to work its way like yeast through the batch of dough, to work its way through the church and then to work its way through society. But it's Christianity that has given us this instinct for equality.

Scott Rae: So Glen, let's think about the value, the virtue of compassion, especially toward the weak and vulnerable. What was the ancient world like when it came to things like pity, compassion, things like that? And what did it take for Christianity to change that?

Glen Scrivener: Well, the ancient virtues were things like wisdom and justice and courage and the sorts of things that work well as a soldier. And if you want to raise up an army, you want a lot of wisdom and justice and courage. And Christianity comes along and makes an absolute virtue out of love. And Larry Hurtado, who was a great sort of historian of the early church said that there's just really no parallel to the Christian church in terms of its love ethic. Suddenly God is love and Christ is, he's called in Titus two, he is kindness. The kindness and love of God our savior appeared. So that's Titus three. The kindness and love of God, our savior appeared. So Jesus is kindness himself. He teaches us the good Samaritan and says the moral to the story of the good Samaritan is not to try to be cleverer than the guy who got beaten up. It's not to try to be tougher than the guy who got beaten up. It's to be like the good Samaritan to go and do likewise and to stoop and serve and suffer and redeem. And so it burst a movement in which compassion was this great virtue. And it's fascinating to me to compare the way of Jesus with the way of nature. If we've learnt from biology that there is the sacrifice of the weakest and the survival of the fittest, I guess in Christianity, what we see in Christ is the sacrifice of the fittest Jesus, in order to save the weakest who is us. And Christ really overturns and upends, that way of nature that is read in tooth and claw and births things like hospitals, which just weren't really a thing in the ancient world. You would have a sick bay for your soldiers to try to return them to military service. You'd have a sick bay for slaves to try to return them to economic utility, but this idea of sort of healthcare that was universal and free at the point of access and was just an extraordinary development in the ancient world that was birthed out of Christianity. There's all sorts of compassionate movements that were birthed from this gospel.

Sean McDowell: What about the view of women? Maybe compare and contrast how the ancient world women are viewed in terms of their value and their rights and how the church kind of challenged that and potentially what you think that contributed to women growing so significantly within the Christian church?

Glen Scrivener: Well, Larry Hurtado in his book, Destroyer of the Gods at one point makes this estimate that in Rome, there were about 130 men for every 100 women. Largely because of the exposure of little girls, the infanticide practiced on little girls because little girls were not as economically useful. And so they were simply exposed. There's a harrowing letter that has sort of been passed down from antiquity in the first century BC, a Roman soldier writes back to his wife and he says, "I'm in Alexandria until the spring. And I'll send money soon. And I know that you're pregnant. If it's a boy keep it. If it's a girl, throw it out, I'll be back to you." Apollonia sends her greetings about ... And it's just passed off just with a carelessness and an ease. That kind of exposure of little girls especially and the disabled was kind of how the ancient world operated. And yet Larry Hurtado in his book says while there are about 130 men for every 100 women in Rome, in the church that was flipped on its head. There were about 130 women for every 100 men. And this was noticed at the time. There was a very acerbic critic of Christianity called Celsius, who in the second century just said, "Well, Christianity, it's just for women, children, and slaves." And you can almost hear the curl in his lip as he says that. Women, children, and slaves. And yet Rodney Stark, another historian says, he doesn't know why every woman didn't become a Christian back in the early church. Why? It's a little bit hard for us to hear some of the reasons why. Because actually it was the marriage and family program of Jesus that had such a large impact on the equalization of the sexes. Jesus comes along and basically says that men must be as restrained in their sexuality as women had always been expected to be. And there was an incredible equalization of the sexes. There was a dignity to singleness that Jesus gave to women. And so there were not simply prized for their childbearing. He brought in an incredibly strict kind of lifelong monogamy within marriage, which was wonderful for women in the early church and in the early centuries because it meant that men were tied to their women and to their children and in the society that had no sort of social safety nets. This was brilliant for the dignity and the worth and the protection of women. So for lots of reasons, women started to have a far higher status and import within the church than they did in the wider culture.

Scott Rae: So Glen, in light of that, why do you think that Christianity over the centuries has gotten the reputation of being harmful to women?

Glen Scrivener: Well, sometimes it's because it has been. And sometimes the church has very often gotten a bad reputation because it's been bad. And so that really needs saying over a whole range of issues. So sometimes the church really, really has been appallingly misogynistic. And I think the church does need to repent where that has been the case. But what I always want to do is while acknowledging the failures of the church in so many different ways, I also want to point to the standard by which we're judging the church. Who was it who taught us to treat women with such dignity and such equality? And when you look at pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures, you realize that is not a natural or obvious or universal thing, but that it has come to us through the Jesus revolution. So has the church at times failed women? Yes. Has the church at times failed all sorts of people? Absolutely it has, but I always want to go back to, by what standard are we judging these things? And I think to come to Jesus, we get the most beautiful and life giving standards of the equality of the sexes.

Scott Rae: So let me pursue that just a little bit further. Well, especially when it comes to sexuality and consent for sex. What was sexuality like in the first century for women? Was there even a concept of sexual abuse of women in the first century?

Glen Scrivener: Yeah. Oh, it's interesting you say that. Kyle Harper wrote a sensational book called from Shame to Sin, looking at the original sexual revolution. When we think of the sexual revolution, we think of the 1960s, but he says the most significant, the most enduring, the most influential revolution in sexual values happened in the first century. And what really happened there, if the 1960s was all about saying to women, "You can be as licentious as men have always been," the sexual revolution of the first century was saying, "Men, you must be as restricted as women have always been." And that was very new in the ancient world. There simply wasn't a word for an adult male virgin in Latin. In Latin, if you refer to a virgin, you were referring to a woman because it was expected that a man, an adult male was obviously not going to be a virgin. There was no Latin word for an adult male virgin. There were 25 words for prostitute.

Sean McDowell: Gosh.

Glen Scrivener: So this is the kind of culture and Tom Hollands, the historian writes about how in Latin, the same word for urinate is the word for ejaculate. And he said basically to a freeborn Roman male, anybody who was your inferior, which was pretty much everybody could be considered like a toilet. And it was a terrifying world really of what we would call exploitation. But that is a category that was invisible to the Roman mind. And Kyle Harper makes a great case for saying what we consider as abuse, an ancient Roman male would consider the perfectly appropriate use for sex. So here was a world that's just so alien to today and in the book, I talk about Rachel Denhollander who was one of the first whistle blowers against a great abuser, a terrible abuser, the team doctor of US gymnastics.

Sean McDowell: Nassar.

Glen Scrivener: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn't want to say his name, but yeah.

Sean McDowell: Oh. Sorry. I thought you forgot it my bad.

Glen Scrivener: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Wow. And we consider him rightly to be a man of unconscionable evil. She, in her victim impact statement in 2017, before his sentencing, she said, "I want you to give the biggest sentence you possibly can to this man because I want you to send a statement about what a little girl is worth." And Rachel's written this book called What a Little Girl Is Worth, a terrific book. And she says, "Please give him the harshest sentence possible to send the message about what a little girl is worth because we know that a little girl is worth everything." And I think everything in us rises up and says, "Yes, you're right, Rachel." And yet, if you asked an ancient Roman what is a little girl worth, you might get the answer, "Well, if you buy her from a slave master, she's worth about eight months wage, or if you just want her for an evening at the brothel, she costs the same as a loaf of bread. Or if you tour the rubbish dumps where the little girls are getting exposed, and if you get there before the slave master ends the master of the brothel, then you could probably get it for free." To ask the question what is a little girl worth receives a very different answer in pre-Christian societies. And if we answer the question what is a little girl worth the same way Rachel Denhollander does by saying everything, I think that genuinely is our Christianity talking.

Sean McDowell: That's such a great answer that we so often hear the failings of the church and you recognize them and concede them and talk about them. But we also got to go deeper and say what even enabled us to have the value of a girl and what led to society valuing young girls? It has Christian roots. So it's beautiful. I love the way you approach this. Now you also talk about in a way that I think is really interesting, transgender ideology. You say it emerges from convictions that would be inconceivable without Christianity, but is ultimately divorced from them. Explain.

Glen Scrivener: Well, my first three values that I look at in the book, equality, compassion and consent. And I think equality is just that the moral equality of every single human being, no matter their race or religion or class or wealth or anything. What happens when you divorce equality from its roots in the Christian story is you start to get a kind of a hyper individualized sense of equality. And one of the great sins of the West, West is not best. One of the great sins of the West is our hyper individualism. And for us, this beautiful gift of equality that Christianity has given to the world, we've kind of turned that into an individualism. So that in the Bible our equality is basically to all be equally welcome around the same table. Nowadays, we think of equality as being equally high up our individual ladders. So that's a very different kind of sense of equality that we've now taken. When we think of compassion in the Bible, compassion is to be the good Samaritan and to show mercy on those who are weak and marginalized and can't help themselves. Nowadays, when we've divorced compassion from the Christian story, we get what sociologists call competitive victimhood, where we don't try to help the victim so much. We try to be the victim and it becomes the oppression Olympics and so that's another kind of detachment of compassion from the Christian story and a sort of distortion of it. And then when it comes to consent, we pretty much think that is the only value that now holds when it comes to sex and sexuality, as opposed to one value out of a rich tapestry of values. And so choice in the sexual realm becomes almighty. Now recombine those three detached values, and you've got individualism, competitive victimhood, and the absolute nature of my choice when it comes to my sexuality. Recombine those three things. And what do you get? You get transgender ideology essentially. And is that a very different thing from what you get on page one of the Bible? Absolutely. But that transgender ideology is inconceivable without the Christian revolution that has given us the air that we breathe and the moral apparatus that we've taken, divorced, distorted, and then recombined in this new way.

Scott Rae: Glen, let me go a little bit further with this notion of what happens when these values become separated from their Christian roots and their roots in the Christian story. I love what our friend Oz Guinness calls this, the cut flower of civilization. That we can't expect these values to bloom indefinitely if they're cut off from their roots. How much longer do you think that these notions of freedom, equality, consent, progress and so on will remain part of the air that we breathe?

Glen Scrivener: I don't know, but I also don't think that's the goal. In that the there's something very dangerous about us having detached the values from the story, which gave rise to the values. What has tended to happen is we want the values of the kingdom. We don't want the king. And that has revealed a very surprising turn of events. I think we thought that without God, everything would just be permissive. Now we're realizing that without God, everything is preachy really painfully so. And we're not just licentious. We're licentious and legalists about it. Why is that? I think so much of why that is we've kept the desire to be preachy. We've kept the desire to enlighten those who are in the dark. We've kept the desire to anathematize people and call them blasphemers and heretics and excommunicate them, AKA cancel them. We've kept that religious instinct and we've kept so many of the values of the kingdom, but without the king who embodies them and without the savior who forgives us when we fail, so my great desire is not so much that we hold onto the values, but while ever we have such values and while ever there are these moral intuitions that are operative in people, what I really want to do is say, "Pull on that thread. You believe in compassion? Keep pulling on that thread because there's someone at the other end of that." And he's so much better than an abstract moral value. He is kindness himself who sacrificed himself for you, the weakest that you, the weakest might survive and more than survive, thrive. And so my real goal is not let's preach the gospel so that we get the values. It's let's look at whatever values there are out there in the culture and use them to get us back to the king because the values of the kingdom without the king, it just becomes hellish. I use a quote from CH Spurgeon who says that semi Christianity is the worst kind of religion in the world because it's all law and no grace. And for the whole world to have a semi Christianity, for the whole world to simply have the values of the kingdom without the king himself, that's that's really no good. So my goal is not let's get back to values. My goal is you already have values. Therefore you are already a believer, whether you've ever set foot inside a church or not, you are a believer. You believe in all sorts of nonsense stuff that makes no sense without Jesus. And I want through those values to you to come to the king who makes sense of the values.

Scott Rae: Yeah. I appreciate that the goal is not to maintain these values as important as they are apart from a relationship with the king. I think that's absolutely right. I will say though, that these values have provided pretty fertile soil for the advancement of the king as well. So one final question I think. What gives you hope? And recognizing that these ideas are not the goal. I get that. But what gives you hope that these values will remain self-evident evident in our increasingly, according to some, increasingly secular culture?

Glen Scrivener: I don't think they will be self-evident to anyone if we do not preach them and if we do not preach them as though we believe in them. And in a sense, before I want the world to believe in these values, I want the church to believe in these values. I want us to believe in Christ and Christ had no anxiety whatsoever about the success of his kingdom. He knew that like yeast working through a batch of dough, it would do the job. Like the mustard seed that grows into the largest plant, the kingdom of Christ will have dominion and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, which is a fantastic prophecy, isn't it? In Matthew chapter 16. Because gates do not advance. The church advances and plunders the kingdom of darkness and has continued to plunder the kingdom of darkness since Matthew 16, which is just an extraordinary comfort. And it gives incredible confidence to Christians that the church continues to grow and will continue to grow. I have no anxiety about the success of the kingdom. And I think what Christ really wants us to do is not be anxious about the growth or the lack of growth within that Matthew 13 parable, where he ends up with the mustard seed. He talks about all sorts of opponents to the kingdom. There are birds that peck at the seed and there's shallow soil and there's thorns and there's weeds. And Jesus never says, "Dig up the rocks." He never says, "Prune back the thorns." He never says, "Kill the weeds." He just says, "Sew the seed, sew the seed, sew the seed, sew the seed." And by the end of Matthew 13, even the birds that at the beginning of the chapter had pecked at the word, even those who had opposed the kingdom end up perching in the branches of the tree that the kingdom has grown. And I guess my big plea to Christians is have real confidence. It doesn't seem self-evident to a Roman that the gladiatorial games are wrong. It never seemed self-evident to them, but Christians believed that they paid for it with their own lives as they got fed to the lions, and somehow through the blood of Jesus and the word of their testimony, they gained victory. It never seemed self evident that you should care about the little girls exposed on the rubbish dumps, but Christians kept on preaching and they kept on living out this gospel. It did not seem self evident to people that Africans were of the same value as Westerners. And yet people preached and people preached. And eventually there was transformation. So I guess my real plea to Christians is no matter how weird it sounds to the culture's ears, let's have confidence in the growth of this kingdom. Let's keep sewing the seed.

Scott Rae: Here, here. That's a great final admonition I think to all of us. That we keep first things first, and the priority of preaching the king with the coming of his kingdom. So Glen, thank you so much for being with us. I want to commend your book to our listeners, entitled The Air We breathe, subtitle, How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality. It's a terrific book and we highly recommend it. So, Glen, we're very grateful for your work and for coming on with us today. Thanks so much.

Glen Scrivener: Thanks so much for having me.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online bachelor's program in Bible theology and apologetics. Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our friend Glen Scrivener, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.