One thing the Bible gives us is an understanding of history, both a sense of progress and purpose. It answers the question “Where are we going in this life, in this world?” Douglas Wilson, in his new book Five Cities that Ruled the World, applies that sense of direction and purpose in five significant snapshots of history. In a brief look at Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York City, he surveys the progress of Western civilization with a clear sense of divine providence in their contributions.
Wilson reminds us that man’s story begins in a garden but will end in a city. How many of us would choose or imagine a city as a picture of eternal paradise? Did God change his mind after his original garden? Of course, he didn’t. For all their problems, cities are not all bad, any more than the sinners in them; many prefer them for their dynamic vitality, multitudes of things to do, access to jobs, and almost unlimited social interaction. While Wilson cites his reasons for choosing cities for his refection, from them he pulls a thread of significance, one that perhaps explains why paradise lost was a garden but paradise future will be a city. That thread is liberty.
On the way to discussing each city, Wilson notes that people loved their cities as they came to love their countries. In this he commends patriotism, to a point, saying, “Affection and love for your own people are an extended function of honoring your father and mother.” He uses this to distinguish what is good about patriotism from what is not. I found that an encouraging alternative to the often stated notion that we should somehow love the whole world.
I found his overviews of each city’s history and their place in the progress of civilization under the influence of God through his people interesting and insightful, although at times I found myself losing track of the discussion. I recall my own tendency to assume my audience knows as much as I do, a weakness a good teacher much overcome, and suspect the fault is also mine for a lack of reading on the history of the West. I also found it odd that he mixed the mythology of each city’s origins with a more factual history. Nevertheless, the critical part of each focused carefully on its lasting contribution to the social fabric of the civilization we still enjoy today, a social fabric resting in liberty anchored in the work of God.
In a sense, that makes the final chapter, that pulls all the threads together, the most insightful. In it, he writes: “Jerusalem represents a soul set free. Athens established the idea of free inquiry. Rome passed on to us liberty of movement. London was the place where the literary imagination was set free. And New York, with its commercial success, has shown us freedom to trade, and the subsequent freedom from want.” Of course, the conclusion without the arguments used to reach it isn’t very compelling, but it gives you a hint at what he is arguing. In a day, where multiculturalists tend to dismiss and even attack Western civilization as misguided, I recommend Five Cities that Ruled the World as a Christian response, as well as a fine introduction to a study of Western civ.