We live in interesting times to say the least. Many within the church struggle to make sense of what we now call the “post-Christian era” in which civilization itself appears to be falling apart. Many Christians are wondering just how Western society got to this point. In the midst of this searching for answers, Kevin Swanson presents his arguments in his new book, Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West. While anyone can easily lament the decline we see before our eyes, Swanson takes the reader on a historical and biographical journey to demonstrate where things went wrong. His analysis is sure to be controversial, even within Reformed circles. Those who know Swanson (and particularly his eschatological viewpoints) won’t be surprised by what they’ll find in this book.
This might be a crude comparison to make, but Swanson’s book is basically the Calvinist equivalent of Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West. Whereas the trajectory of Buchanan’s book is more political in nature and focuses more on demography, Swanson’s writings are far more theological in nature and focus on the toxic philosophies of unbelieving humanists. My overall impression of Apostate is generally good, but this book is definitely not without its flaws. While some reviewers have chosen to attack the text because they disagree with Swanson’s eschatology and his views on theonomy, I’m not going to take that approach. While I certainly have theological differences with Swanson here and there, I aim to judge the book based upon its own merits.
In chapter after chapter, Swanson gives a biographical overview of those “big name” apostates in Western history. Each biographical sketch is designed to fit into the larger narrative of societal decline. All of these men added their own fuel to the fires of apostasy. Perhaps the most controversial name given in the list of apostates is that of Thomas Aquinas. While Swanson admits that he is hesitant to call Aquinas an apostate, he sees the 13th century theologian as the starting point for a centuries-long decline in the West. I’ll be the first to say that I’m not crazy about much of what Aquinas taught, but I would probably fall short of actually labeling him an apostate. So far as we know, he did not depart from the Christian faith. There’s certainly a broader discussion to be had about the legacy of Aquinas, but I’ll save that for another time.
All things considered, the biographies were very helpful and Swanson’s analysis of their contributions to the deconstruction of Western culture. However, Swanson has a tendency to repeat the same bad history which he often faults coming out of the textbooks used in the government schools. For example, he repeats the overused myth that John Locke’s philosophy provided the foundation of the American Republic. Locke often gets way too much credit for providing the intellectual framework for the founding of the United States. Another prominent historical myth repeated by Swanson is the portrayal of pious New Englanders set in contrast to the corrupt Southern slaveholders during the colonial period. Swanson writes:
The roots of Southern slavery are significant as well. What Mark Twain fails to mention is that Southern slavery was born out of the English and Spanish apostasy. The American church was always stronger in the North at the beginning of the nation’s colonization. While the Puritans and Pilgrims were forming strong and healthy family economies in the North, the South was building plantations and contributing to English mercantilism.
This is an example of the historical inaccuracies perpetuated in the book. In point of fact, chattel-slavery was practiced in the Northern colonies and this was not at all uncommon. Massachusetts had legalized slavery before Virginia. The famous New England shipping industry gained much profit from the slave trade, even after it was made illegal in 1808. I’m really not trying to nitpick here, but these details really do matter. If Swanson is trying to persuade his readers from the point of view of history, then he needs to labor to write a coherent and accurate history with proper sources. Another huge red flag is the fact that Swanson repeatedly cites Wikipedia as a source for information. He simply cannot do this if he expects to be taken seriously as a scholar.
While I appreciate much of what’s in this book, there’s also a lot that needs to be said about what’s not in the book. It’s one thing to point out the sources of humanistic philosophy which influenced Western civilization for the worse, but what about the corruptions within the church? What about those who were not visibly apostate and still professed the Christian faith while at the same time sowing the seeds of its destruction? For a book that spans three hundreds pages, he definitely left a lot out. There’s no in-depth discussion of theological liberalism and its cancerous effects upon society. Similarly, there’s no mention of dispensationalism and the defeatist attitude it continues to perpetuate within the church. Swanson mentions the plague of centralized government and the tyranny associated with it, yet he never tells the story of America’s great centralizer (and apostate)–Abraham Lincoln.
To be perfectly frank, Apostate should be considered a good working manuscript that happened to be published way too early. The concept of the book is wonderful and we definitely need the story of the West’s demise to be told from a solidly Christian perspective. We certainly need to be told the “who” along with the “how” and “why.” Swanson does a good job of diagnosing the fundamental problems we face in modern society. However, this book needs to be read with discernment and not without a bunch of comments written into the margins. Swanson should have found better editors and used better sources–at the very least. The book has a lot of potential, but it’s yet another example of how Christians need to step up their game when publishing works like this. On a five star scale, I’ll be generous and give the book three out of five stars.
(Thanks to Cross Focused Reviews for providing a complimentary copy for me in exchange for my honest review.)