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Talking with Andrew Wilson About "Remaking the World"

October 26th, 2023 | 5 min read

By David Moore

Andrew Wilson is the teaching pastor at King’s Church, London. He is a regular contributor to The Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today. The following interview revolves around his fascinating book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West.

Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West: Wilson, Andrew: 9781433580536: Books

Moore: The subtitle to your book, How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, could easily confuse readers (especially Americans!)  to think that your book is simply about the effects of the American Revolution. Would you clarify what you are doing in this book?

Wilson: Sure! The big idea of the book is that our world today is the product of seven transformative developments—globalization, Enlightenment, industrialization, enrichment, democracy, post-Christianity and Romanticism—and that the story of those developments can be told through the story of 1776. Obviously, the American Revolution is a significant part of that story. But it is only a part of it. Numerous other world-shaping books, inventions, voyages, speeches, economic changes, and artistic contributions were happening at the same time, and that fusion is what makes the modern world so distinctive, and the year 1776 so fascinating.

Moore: In the late 1940s, Richard Weaver popularized the notion that “Ideas Have Consequences.” Certain ideas do make a massive impact, but so does material culture. For example, Carl Trueman reminds us that the car has much to do with driving (pun intended) the rabid individualism of our time. How did you balance telling the story of influential ideas with the undeniable impact of material culture when it comes to the post-Christian west?

Wilson: I wanted to tell a story that blended both. Of the seven central chapters on the transformations of 1776, three of them are mainly concerned with ideas (Enlightenment, Post-Christianity, Romanticism), three are mainly concerned with material and economic circumstances (Globalization, Industrialization, Enrichment), and one is primarily institutional (Democracy). I hope that the balance of those chapters gives the book the right sort of blend of idealism and materialism. History is always a product of both ideas and material developments working together.

Moore: Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus wrote a book called The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution (also published by Crossway). In it, they label Jared Diamond a “fatalist” who says geography is the only determinant for why certain cultures prosper. They write:

According to Diamond, geography is more important than everything else, and his analysis gives no room for the impact of differing human choices, cultural values, and moral and spiritual values.        

You have a more favorable opinion of Diamond’s work in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Would you explain a bit why that is the case?

Wilson: I think Diamond’s book is a marvelous example of how to do big history in a compelling and readable way. I don’t think all differences between cultures can be explained by geography alone—and I don’t think Diamond does either—but I do think it has an influence on human development that is vastly underestimated by most Western Christians, for whom ideas are intuitively much more important. As I said in the previous answer, history is always the result of material and ideological forces working together. I imagine Grudem and Asmus would agree. But my general sense is that most accounts of the modern West put far more emphasis on the “chaps” than on the “maps”, and Diamond is one of the best writers out there at redressing that balance.

Moore: One of my favorite chapters is the one on Romanticism. It explains some significant issues very well. One surprise is how the German Romantics (I am thinking especially of the Sturm and Drang playwrights) are largely forgotten today. They seem so well-suited to the kinds of things many of us in the West value! What caused them to fall out of favor?

Wilson: Well Goethe obviously hasn’t; he is still celebrated as Germany’s greatest writer, and he had written much of Faust by 1776 (although he later came to regard his Sturm und Drang phase as a period of youthful exuberance). But in general you’re right: nobody today reads Klinger or Lenz outside of Germany. And I think that’s because they are simply not very good! Their intensity and eccentricity make for unbelievable characters, forced dialogue and implausible plots, at least when contrasted with a more refined writer like Schiller, let alone Goethe. Even at the time, their work was a bit of a flash in the pan, and many contemporary critics found it irritating. But it paved the way for another group of young writers a generation later, whose work (especially poetry) would leave a far more lasting impression.

Moore: Since you spend a fair bit of time on the Enlightenment and Romanticism, I would like to get your reaction to something the late literary critic, Roger Lundin, wrote in his seminal book, The Culture of Interpretation:  

In the Enlightenment, to be sure, faith was centered upon rationality as the instrument of power, while in romanticism it was the intuition or imagination that promised to deliver humans from their bondage to ignorance and injustice. But the adherents of the Enlightenment and romanticism were more united by their unshakeable faith in the self than they were divided by their disagreements about the mechanism through which that self did its work. (Emphasis added)

Wilson: That sounds about right to me. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s comment about reading old books: the besetting errors of our day are things on which Roosevelt and Hitler would probably agree, because they are things nobody even thinks to question. Cultural assumptions are like that. (I think the late eighteenth century view of the self is also connected to the progress of democracy, by the way, so it’s not limited to Enlightenment and Romanticism.)

Moore: One of the delights of your book (and there are many) are the obscure figures you bring to light. In particular, I want to highlight Johann Georg Hamann. Hamann was a brilliant scholar who had a dramatic conversion. People need to buy the book to see the brilliant way you unpack Hamann’s stunning critique of the Enlightenment. I am interested here how you first learned about Hamann.

Wilson: I honestly can’t remember whether it was from David Bentley Hart or Peter Leithart that I first came across Hamann (but it was definitely one of the “harts”). Until then I had simply never heard of him! But one of them pointed me to John Betz’s outstanding work on Hamann, which launched me down a delightful rabbit warren of stories, sources, mischievous philosophical arguments, and hilarious pamphlets. The man is a genius, and as you say, a man with a wonderful conversion story. Meeting him was probably the intellectual highlight of working on the book.

Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers take away from your book?

Wilson: Firstly, I hope they enjoy the story. Books should be stimulating and interesting and fun to read, and I hope Remaking the World is. But I also want people to see coherence in the story and get their heads around how these various developments are connected to each other. When people are caught off-guard by cultural developments and unable to make sense of them, they are more likely to be threatened or even panicked by them, and that’s not a response that usually leads to constructive engagement; I hope my book can help with that. And in the final two chapters I hope to equip Christians to respond wisely in our current cultural context. If people take away a sense of confidence in God’s sovereignty, in his good purposes for the world (and the West) in spite of everything, and in his grace, then I will be very happy.

David Moore

David George Moore is the author of several books. Most recently, he wrote Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians to offer a resource for more comprehensive spiritual formation and discipleship. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: Dave’s new YouTube channel features his interviews and commentary.