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Culture Books

Not recommended


Not recommended

Three history books critiqued

Since my feature in this issue is on history books worth reading, I’ll use this space to note three that aren’t. Let’s start with Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower (Penguin, 2017): Parts are fun to read, but I don’t trust its 560 gossipy pages that take us from the Freemasons to Facebook, touching on Chinese revolts, European plagues, the economic and educational consequences of the Reformation, the interactions of the European royal house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the financial House of Rothschild, and much more.

The common denominator for Ferguson’s storytelling—that social networks may be more important change agents than governmental hierarchies—is a loose and obvious connector. The two other mediocre books I plodded through are Kenneth Woodward’s Getting Religion (Convergent, 2017), which overviews faith, culture, and politics over the past 60 years, and Melani McAlister’s The Kingdom of God Has No Borders (Oxford, 2018), which describes the impact of American evangelicals on international challenges since the 1960s.

Woodward was Newsweek’s religion editor for 36 years, so his liberal bias isn’t surprising. He gives good specific detail about denominational meetings—“the wives of Episcopal bishops, I noticed, tended to knit”—but shows little interest in serious theological discussion. For example, Woodward devotes eight pages to renegade Bishop James Pike but zilch to Francis Schaeffer, who was hugely influential from the 1960s to the 1980s.

The omission is curious because in 1982 Woodward wrote a Newsweek profile of Schaeffer, calling him the “Guru of Fundamentalism.” Woodward quoted sneers from Wheaton professors Arthur Holmes and Mark Noll: Holmes said he and his colleagues “use Schaeffer as an example of how not to do philosophy.” Both Holmes and Noll later said they had also spoken positively about Schaeffer, but Woodward used only the negative.

McAlister sees evangelicals enmeshed in Cold War politics, racial hierarchy, and “harsh repression” of LGBTQs—but she does give credit to evangelicals for fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa. Her history shows assumptions rather than careful research: She calls WORLD “deeply conservative,” but WORLD is conservative when conservatives follow the Bible, and critical of conservatism when it falls into social Darwinism or other ideological byways.

And here’s a personal correction: McAlister writes that I “enthusiastically described the Just War tradition as enabling the invasion of Iraq.” Actually, in 2003 I described the sadness of the situation: “I wish the British and French had not constructed Iraq after World War I by artificially uniting three very different regions. I wish that Bush 41 had not stopped the Gulf War after a PR-pleasant 100 hours, that U.S. forces had not permitted Iraq’s military helicopters to quash subsequent rebellions in the north and south, that Bill Clinton had not diddled while Saddam burned his promises.”

I concluded the lament, “that’s all prologue at this point. The battle against terrorism around the world must go on.” And it did. We know of the death and misery that occurred. We still don’t know what would have happened had the U.S. backed off, and whether an unimpeded Saddam Hussein, who had already killed probably 2 million of his own citizens, would have killed millions more. But all these unknowns don’t seem to matter to McAlister and other liberal historians.


Eighty years ago Nazis created Ravensbruck, the German Reich’s only concentration camp exclusively for women. About 100,000 inmates died there. Mark Shaw’s powerful Courage in the Face of Evil (Crosslink, 2018) emerges from the diary of a German Christian nurse who survived more than five years there. Elan Journo’s What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Post Hill, 2018) powerfully lays out the case for Israel. 

I missed the first and second editions of Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (Zondervan, 2014, 2016, 2018) but happily caught up with the third: It’s a great story of a devout Muslim encountering Christianity. Qureshi died of cancer last year. —M.O.