Book review: The Evolution of the West
Amanda Jeavons

The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has shaped our values – Nick Spencer (2016, SPCK, United Kingdom)

In The Evolution of the West, Nick Spencer delves into a number of characteristics of western nations to trace the historical impact of Christianity on their development. He was prompted by a growing trend, he describes, in the years since the Enlightenment for people to downplay or have complete amnesia for the role that Christianity has played in forming many aspects of western culture.

the evolution of the west bookWhat makes this book most convincing, in my mind, and to Spencer’s great credit, he does not paint a rosy picture of Christianity’s influence, nor does he exaggerate the breadth of its reach. Rather he attempts to present a balanced view of the evolution of certain aspects of western culture and how the Christian context of the time affected them to varying degrees—as the development of any country is affected by its religious context.

With 12 chapters, each focusing on a new topic, this is the kind of book that you can pick up and comfortably start at whatever point interests you most, although there is a small benefit to reading the chapters in order. Many of the chapters began life as essays, reviews or lectures and Spencer relies heavily on the research of others at times, pointing out the gaps, including his own research insights and transforming all this information into a comprehensive history lesson on each topic, which argues for acknowledging Christianity’s contextual importance in western history.

As you can imagine, The Evolution of the West is dense, but not so much as to be unreadable. It provides a good starting place on a number of topics, as well as supplying plenty of fodder for further reading in the many books and authors Spencer refers to throughout each chapter. The topics themselves include:

  • Nationhood
  • Law and the Magna Carta
  • Democracy
  • Humanism
  • Atheism
  • Science
  • Human rights
  • Secularism
  • Capital and inequality
  • Welfare

The chapter on capital and inequality was a particular highlight for me, diving into the economics of wealth, income and inequality, and the ‘absence of war’ in the West’s recent history when compared to the first half of the 20th century. This is also the only chapter where Spencer draws a direct line between what he is writing about and a possible response for contemporary Christians, brief as it is.

Here we find the only major downside to the book and in truth, it was probably outside the scope to begin with. Reading it, I kept being struck by the sense of what do I do next? How does all this information affect how I live and relate to people, especially non-Christians, in the western world? Spencer doesn’t address this aspect of the equation, undoubtedly because first and foremost, The Evolution of the West is a history book and his goal was to address the removal of Christianity from said history. However, it does leave you wanting more—the next step to take.

That said, he provides a solid understanding of how the past has influenced the present western world we live in. This lays the groundwork for readers to do their own reading and thinking on how Christians today can relate to and evangelise contemporary society. After all, the more you understand where you culture has come from, the better you can influence where it is going.