How The West Really Lost God

After sitting on my reading list for almost two years, I finally cracked open Mary Eberstadt’s book “How The West Really Lost God,” and I regret not reading it sooner. I don’t normally review books on this blog, but as I read it, I couldn’t help but think that every Christian leader – particularly pastors – in Europe and America needs to read this book. The big question the book was based on is: “How and why has Christianity really come to decline in important parts of the West?”  We would all agree that Christianity is in serious decline, but most believers are at a loss about how to stop the erosion.

There are certainly many culprits we’ve all wrestled with, and she takes the first chapters to explore each one in detail. But her focus is the conventional wisdom that the West first experienced religious decline, followed by the decline of the family. But as her website explains, “Eberstadt turns this standard account on its head. Marshaling an impressive array of research, from fascinating historical data on family decline in pre-Revolutionary France to contemporary popular culture both in the United States and Europe, Eberstadt shows that the reverse has also been true: the undermining of the family has further undermined Christianity itself.”

The idea that it was the decline of the family that precipitated the decline of Christianity is a rarely explored subject, but as she lays out her argument, it makes remarkable sense.

So, what does this mean for cultural engagement?

First, it means that if the case is that the direction the family goes, so goes the culture, pastors and Church leaders need to refocus on the importance of “family” to the life of a church. Pastors have recently been criticized for neglecting singles, and there’s no question that we need to enhance our ministry to that group. However, once you read just how critical the family is to the growth of the church, it will change your thinking about the importance of Biblical teaching on family issues.

Second, she documents that as churches soften their teaching on the family and morality, they enter a steep decline. In spite of the culture’s attack on traditional morality, it’s the churches who give in who lose their impact and often disappear completely.

Third, she reveals numerous studies from all areas of society that point to the fact that the fate of Christianity matters even to nonbelievers, because Christianity on balance is a force for good in modern society. From higher levels of giving to charity, to long and healthier lives, overall happiness, less likelihood to commit crimes, contributions to social capital and more, she painstakingly reveals research about the social good believers bring to the culture.

Fourth, she reminds us just how shallow the criticisms of the “New Atheists” actually are about belief. Beyond undermining their arguments, she says: “Despite broad agreement among [Atheists] on the perils of religious faith, today’s atheists remain in the dark about what exactly it is that has kept so many human beings believing in God.”

There’s so much more, but let me just say that every Christian leader who’s interested in engaging today’s culture (and who shouldn’t be?) should have this book on his or her desk. Her research and historical perspectives are fascinating, and I’m confident that she’ll give you enormous new information that will help you engage today’s non-believing culture more effectively.

Here’s an interview with Eberstadt from The Gospel Coalition website that will give you more information on her perspective.

While the book is a sobering look at the size of the challenge we face in today’s culture, it’s also a encouragement that the keys to turning around that culture are as close as our own family.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Tom Peers

    Thanks so much for steering us to this book. I’m looking forward to reading it. The points made above are no surprise really. But it will be good to see the research behind those deductions.

  • vincenta123

    I’m yet to read the book but based on Phil’s usual insightful synopsis, I would have to disagree with the basic point that the breakdown of the family precedes the breakdown of the Church. I would agree with pretty much else what’s been said BUT have to disagree on this fundamental point.

    As far as I can glean from scripture, personal life application and observation, it is always the other way round.

    Strong healthy robust Christians go on to lead and build healthy relationships and families.
    Weak ones don’t.
    Healthy christians = healthy families = healthy churches = healthy communities = healthy nations = healthy ‘West’.

    Authentic long-term morality always starts with and is sustained by personal holiness.

    • That was my perspective until I read the book. There’s no question that being a Christian contributes much toward having a healthy family, but when it comes to the decline of each in our culture, her research is very compelling, and I believe will change your mind.

    • Elizabeth Pringle

      God started with a heavenly family – the Trinity and the Angels. Not enough, he wanted more so he put his sights on the earth. He made Adam, and God was happy, Adam was not, That individual couldn’t hack it without another of his kind. Even God was not enough for Adam. So God made Eve. Now we were cooking. It took two to make all three of them happy, happy enough to reproduce. Now THAT’S a family! And now God has his family, which is his church. Bravo to the Father!

  • L Kiser

    Churches that don’t harp on morality are often considered soft on morality. Most of them aren’t soft on it. Some just preach the solution in a way that angers the hyper moralist types. Many of the love of God, favor of God, grace of God, diving healing of God type of churches are thriving. Examples are Osteen, Copeland and Prince. Many a moralist grip about them, but their churches are growing just fine.

    • However, here’s a question: does “growth” always mean good?

      • L Kiser

        True, hyper moralists might disagree that growing love of God, favor of God, grace of God, diving healing of God type churches is a good thing. My thought is that if moralistic
        churches on every street corner was the answer, then things would be great because in most towns and every city across the USA that’s exactly what we have. Maybe the solution is in growing a different kind of church on our street corners?

        • Not sure what you mean by “moralistic” – You were talking in your first post about churches that are growing. I’m all for that, but my question is about that issue – size. If Oprah started a church tomorrow she could fill any arena in America. But would that make it a good church?

      • mike

        I like this question. Pain and Adversity is part of growth. We do everything to avoid it, but it’s necessary part of life. It’s the instrument that drives the spirit to grow. to flourish we must suffer. Take for example. An Olympian , A champion can only become those Titles if they are prepared to go through the pain, and sacrifices to improve themselves.

    • jackets

      Osteen is a feel good preacher. Copland is a false teacher. Don’t know much about Prince but I am not impressed.

  • Tom Terry

    Finished the book yesterday. Read it on your recommendation. Great book! I would add one thing to her case for the decline of the church and society being so tightly related to the decline of the family.

    I believe the scripture actually makes the case she is making. There are three things established by the Lord that are necessary for society to function healthily. Faith, family, and function (meaning: work). Many people overlook the work aspect. However, before God established the institution of marriage, he established work. Work is a fundamental part of our identity in Christ. Thus, for society to function properly there must be healthy families and meaningful work, as well as family and faith. Eberstadt herself pointed out that the majority of people who do not work (regardless of how that happened), are far less likely to attend church and be involved in the church community to say nothing of being able to contribute to society through their work.

    Great book. I’ll most likely refer to it when speaking and writing on this issue myself. Thanks again for recommending it.

    Tom Terry

    • Very interesting point Tom. Thanks for making that connection!

  • Sabina Tagore Immanuel

    The reason that failure of family led to failure of church is because God constituted the church to be His family and to be made up of individual family unit. The church in essence is to be family of families and individuals find place within a family unit as Ps 65 says. We have made faith, salvation, bible reading, Christian walk and life and everything as pertaining to the individual. We have lost corporate consciousness and exchanged it for individualized isolation. Jesus coming for His church!