“What is truth?” This was the question that Pontius Pilate put to Jesus of Nazareth when the two men came face to face. Pilate’s question was rhetorical. He did not expect, nor would he have likely accepted, any answer given to him by Jesus. As the crowds outside of his chambers chanted for the death of an innocent man, Pilate stumbled. He had the means to rebuff the mob’s cries for blood that day, but instead he acceded to their demands and took his place among history’s great moral pygmies.
The ethical wishy-washiness that afflicted Pilate is not unique to the first century or to the city of Jerusalem. It can, and does, strike anyone, anywhere, at any time. Keeping this ethical vertigo at bay, preventing the moral pygmy from again raising his ugly little head, is the life-and-death challenge of every generation.
In his latest book, In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and Struggle for Humanity, David Brog unapologetically argues that the Judeo-Christian idea of the sanity of human life is the only antidote to the deadly moral relativism that has afflicted Western culture for centuries. The bearers of that antidote, Brog writes, are men and women of faith who have sacrificed life and limb for the sake of others. When people of faith fail to do this, Brog points out, when they fail to act on the principals of universal love, things can and do go terribly wrong. The slavery and genocide that Christian Europeans brought to the Americas, to the Holocaust, and to Stalinist Russia are just some of the examples that Brog uses to point out the failure of Westerners to measure up to their best cultural benchmarks.
In Defense of Faith is a pleasure to read. Brog’s style is witty, confident, and smooth. Using a mixture of historical examples and moral philosophy, Brog convincingly argues that the Judeo-Christian value for human life is the only reliable bulwark against the savagery of man’s dog-eat-dog tendencies.
Brog begins the book with a brief discussion of the ancient Jews’ reverence for life, the source of our modern, Western respect for the individual. Brog does a good job summarizing how the Jews’ unique love and admiration for life stood in sharp contrast to the values of the ruling powers of their day, notably the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks and Romans both weighed the value of someone against what he could do for the state, city, or clan. This calculated approach to life allowed the ancients to kill their unwanted children and to enslave millions who were clearly, they argued, not as fully human as they themselves were.
Though the ancient Greeks and Roman are gone, Brog points out that their utilitarianism is not. The shameful stains of slavery and genocide can be found on nearly every page of our Western history. Fortunately for us, Brog concludes that Judeo-Christian theology can be used, if we so choose, to clean up the mess. It is no accident, he notes, that the abolition of slavery in the West and the Civil Rights movement in the US were both conceived in the hearts and minds of Jews and Christians, and planned in their synagogues and churches. Why did these developments happen? Because only Judaism and Christianity offer a belief system in which everyone has within him a divine spark, the very breath of God the Creator. As a result, everyone has inherent value above any that could be conferred upon him by the state.
Though Brog is the director of Christians United For Israel, a DC-based, pro-Israeli organization founded by pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, Texas, In Defense of Faith is not a religious work. The book’s focus is the nature and effect of Judeo-Christian morality in the West, rather than a treatment of that morality’s religious underpinnings. Brog’s non-religious treatment of a belief system that many argue comes from God does not, however, blunt the force of his argument. Brog writes boldly, “Let us be entirely clear. In the West’s moral progress, the Judeo-Christian idea has not been an effective force. It has been the effective force. The Judeo-Christian tradition has given the West a clear moral map.”
Brog is absolutely correct. The Judeo-Christian tradition has been the guiding force behind the best of Western culture. And as Brog notes, culture forges morality, and morality forges nations.
In addition to his treatment of what the Judeo-Christian idea for human life is and is not, Brog spends several chapters cautioning us that this value system is not our birthright. It is not genetic, nor is it even self-evident. “Our values,” writes Brog, “are not written on our hearts and minds with indelible ink. They have been penciled in and are subject to being erased.”
To illustrate this crucial point, Brog uses works from ancient Greek philosophers, Enlightenment thinkers, Darwin, Dawkins, and even members of our Supreme Court to demonstrate that we are, at any time, surrounded by many who argue that morality is up for grabs, and that each of us is a tabula rasa upon which we can write anything we choose. Our cultural foundations, Brog notes, are constantly being tested by these master deconstructivists. When the United States legalized the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of its citizens, we failed the test. When a recent Presidential candidate declared (with a straight face) that the question of when life begins was “above my pay grade” and we did not react with unequivocal shock and scorn, we were caught sleeping through class.
Brog’s book is refreshingly well-reasoned. Many books concerned with the current culture wars suffer from as much hyperbole as the blowhards that they purport to take on. Brog resists the temptation to set-up rows of straw bogeymen and then to knock them over with sweeping generalities. In Defense of Faith is also well-researched and well-written. It would be equally at home on a bedside table or in a college classroom.
The book’s most outstanding shortcoming lies in what it does not cover. While Brog gives good treatment to past and present Western-borne challenges facing the Judeo-Christian idea of the sanctity of life, he give little or no treatment to rising threats from cultures outside the West. Brog acknowledges that the treatment of non-Western ideologies is beyond the scope of his book. Nonetheless, a discussion of the threat posed by Islam to the Judeo-Christian idea of humanity would give In Defense of Faith greater present-day relevance.
This book is not a political work. Nevertheless, after reading it, one cannot help but connect the dots between the nature of our value system and the question of whether we will prosper as a country. Brog states plainly that ideologies like Fascism, Communism, Atheism, and Relativism are not evil to start with and reject the Judeo-Christian idea of humanity as a consequence, but rather that they are evil because they reject that idea. Ideas—the gateways to actions—have consequences.
Brog concludes In Defense of Faith with an inspirational story coupled to a sobering question. Towards the end of World War II the Nazis ordered their Bulgarian collaborators to round up and send all the nation’s remaining Jews to the death camps. When the Metropolitan of the City of Plovdiv, Bishop Kyril, heard this order, he contacted the Bulgarian authorities and demanded that it be rescinded. When it was not, Metropolitan Kyril went down to one of the holding areas where Jews were awaiting deportation and threatened to lie down on the tracks if the trains tried to leave. His actions, along with those of many other Christians, saved the Jews of Bulgaria from certain death.
Though Metropolitan Kyril’s actions were heroic and inspirational, they were not an ideological aberration. “Time after time,” Brog notes, “throughout Western history, the people most willing to take selfless action on behalf of their fellow man have come out of churches and synagogues.” In an era in which human life is cheap, in which it is frozen, dissected, bought, and sold like mail-order tulip bulbs, who among us—as a people of faith—will lie down on the tracks? We must answer this question, Brog concludes, and “we must do so quickly. The next train is already leaving the station.”