When I set out to review Unimaginable - What Our World Would be Like Without Christianity by Dr. Jeremiah Johnston, my concern was that I wouldn’t have time to fact-check Dr. Johnston’s claims. Upon completion of the book, it turns out this worry became a minor concern in light of some of my other apprehensions.
Before I launch into my issues with the book, I’d like to highlight what I found enlightening. Though not stated, the premise of the book turned into an argument about human dignity and inherent worth. Johnston contrasted Christianity to humanistic and pagan views of human dignity. He effectively layed out the destructive ends to which the former views arrive if left unchecked - the devaluing and systematic destruction of individuals.
Johnston quoted original documents and this proved very effective. The story at the beginning of chapter one - the letter from Hilarion to his pregnant wife, Alis, was both gripping and jarring. Likewise, the quotes and ideas from Sam Harris, Nietzsche, Huxley, Russell and Kinsey helped to add color to the narrative.
That said, I have four major concerns with this book. I will first state what my concerns are, then I will attempt to explain my concerns, and, finally, I will lay out what I think could help resolve my concerns.
First, I felt the thesis, or at least the foundation of the thesis, was incorrect, and it left much room for objections to the argument. Second, the title and subtitle seem to oversell the actual text. Third, Johnston never dealt with a large time period which was highly damaging to the witness of the followers of Christ. Finally, I found the flow of the text to be confusing, and I couldn’t track with the narrative until I was well into the middle third of the book.
As I stated, I felt the thesis of the book - that humanity is protected by Christianity’s views of the world - didn’t get to the center of the concern. It doesn’t materially change the defense of the argument, but the book neglects Common Grace and Original Sin (or Total Depravity), two topics that are nearly universally accepted within Christian circles. The issue of how people treat people is less rooted in the Christian moralistic argument and more rooted in the base nature of mankind. That is why practicers of other religions, non-religious people and atheists can and do good works for fellow humans. Neglecting to state the nature of humankind leaves the entire argument open to arguing the exceptions in all worldviews.
The stated scope of this book was far too broad. The subtitle indicates that the book deals with many manners of society...and it will do this in 200 pages. To deal with treatment of people, societal structures, economic systems, governmental constructs, legal views - in a short book - is, at best, ambitious, and, more likely, nearly impossible even for the most skilled of writers.
The book itself primarily focuses on the unique views of the value of humanity contrasting to pagan, humanistic and Darwinian views, and the book does a compelling job of arguing why Christianity is unique in this. His drawing from Ancient Rome and the 20th Century brutal regimes is highly effective. In this one topic, by itself, the book is very compelling.
Johnston’s book skips from Ancient Rome to the humanistic philosophers of the Enlightenment. There is good reason for this, as many modern philosophers drew inspiration from Rome’s Golden Age.
The challenge is the book skips the very dark time of the Middle Ages. Often, Christianity’s strongest critics will point to this period as evidence of the failures of Christianity. It’s hard to disagree, especially as scientific exploration and mathematics flourished in the Muslim world, and Christianity grew more and more brutal.
I wish Johnston had devoted one chapter to this period. It could be a short chapter that explained the differences between the strains of true Christianity that existed in spite of a very pagan culture with a veneer of Christianity placed on it. Even a quick survey of the Dark Ages quickly reveals that the dominant strains of what was called Christianity had no foundations in the Scriptures, and a short chapter stating this could have prevented the argument from being left open.
The book never clearly states up front where it is going with the argument. Maybe I’m just a lazy modern reader, but I like to be told what I’m going to be told, to be told, and then to be told what I was told.
I was completely lost in why the book started in Ancient Rome. I understood a need for showing the brutality and inhumanity of the period, but Johnston doesn’t really get around to starting to make the connections until much later. It left me feeling like an unanchored reader.
I would have preferred the author, at the close of his opening chapter, state his thesis and roadmap. As a reader, I didn’t need anything elaborate, but I would have preferred a hint as to where he was going with the book.
I think few small changes would greatly improve this book. First, I would recommend a section that deals with Original Sin. This section can be short, maybe part of the introductory chapter, but I think it’s necessary to understand the origins of worldviews and why the Christian worldview is unique.
Second, I’d add a quick roadmap in the first chapter explaining how the book is structured and where’s he is headed. This gives some context.
Third, I feel the the subtitle is too ambitious. I think it oversells the work. I like that the book focuses on the treatment of humanity, especially the vulnerable and marginalized, but the subtitle makes it sound more ambitious and broad than the book really is. Focusing on the value of humans - image bearers of God - is a big topic in and of itself.
Finally, I would strongly recommend a chapter to deal with objections and damaging history. Don’t shy away from the medieval Catholic Church; run to confront the anti-biblical views. Don’t ignore how the Lutheran and Catholic Churches were complicit in Nazi Germany; explain how they were wrong. If the premise of the book is built on Original Sin and Common Grace, the dark moments in the faith’s history become part of the redemptive stories of the faith.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t recommend the book, though some big names (Thom Rainer, Lee Strobel, Sheila Walsh, and Sean McDowell, to name a few), have endorsed it. I think there is value in exploring the contrasting worldview implications of the inherent value of humanity - and with the changes I recommend - this book could move from my “Don’t Read” to “Read” list.
Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher. I was required to provide an honest, not necessarily favorable, review, and the opinions expressed are mine.