Quite a lot of my recent reading time has been devoted to the history of the Medieval period, or the Middle Ages, particularly in terms of the impact of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions and their respective influence on the development of Western civilization. Much of what I read and learned involved correcting many misconceptions about this period and the stereotypes that had worked their way into my thinking. The following three books were very helpful and I recommend them to those who want a better understanding of the period from the end of the Roman Empire to the late Renaissance in the early 17th century.
The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, by Rodney Stark poses an aggressive and, in some circles, probably controversial viewpoint that Christianity and its related institutions are directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, political, scientific, and economic innovations of the past millennium and that, contrary to the anti-religious assumptions of the modern academy, Christian theology is the very font of reason. He surveys all the major historical traditions and their influence, makes interesting comparisons and contrasts, and his arguments hang together very well.
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, has many parallels to the Stark book, but makes a number of key points in defense of Catholicism, often in opposition to what Woods describes as Protestant propaganda that has grown over the centuries. He defends Catholic cultural leadership in the areas of science, art, architecture, international law, economics, charitable works, and Western law, and does a particularly good job of explaining the “Galileo affair” and the misconceptions that have surrounded it.
The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, by Jonathon Lyons. I almost didn’t stay with this book past the first couple of chapters, being put off by Lyons’ introduction, which included a brief history of the Crusades that is heavily biased against the motivations and atrocities of the armies of the West. But I am glad that I persevered, because, in spite of the obvious advocacy for his point of view throughout, Lyons paints a plausible picture of the dramatic influence of Arab and Muslim culture on the evolution and development of the West. And this influence was considerable, a point which is not contradicted by other sources I have encountered, including the two books referenced above. Of the three books, this one was the most provocative for me, because it obviously required me to think “outside the box”.
The best read of the year so far, however, has been Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, by George Weigel. It is simply the most compelling explanation that I have encountered of the evil we face and its sources. Weigel draws on 25 years of experience in moral argument and its intersection with public policy to paint clearly the threat posed by global jihadism. He explores the ideology’s theological, social, cultural, and political roots and offers a new direction for public policy and interreligious dialogue. One point is driven home relentlessly: that our first step in understanding this enemy and achieving moral clarity is to overcome the powerful prejudice, grounded in progressive hope and naivete, that religious belief is disappearing as a factor in world politics.