If you’re reading this, you’re weird.
More precisely, you’re historically weird—much of what you take for granted about life is unusual, if not unprecedented.
To name just a few examples: This morning, you enjoyed access to indoor plumbing. You (most likely) didn’t grow any of the food you’ll eat today. You expect your society to include people of different religious beliefs. You think people should choose for themselves whom to marry. And you’re literate, unlike most people throughout time; even more surprising, this language you’re reading is presently used by over 2 billion people around the world.
In each of these ways you and I are weird—or, more precisely, WEIRD, to cite scholar Joseph Henrich’s acronym for modern societies that one could describe, by and large, as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. In his new book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, Andrew Wilson argues that the modern age is WEIRDER still, adding two adjectives to Henrich’s formula: Ex-Christian and Romantic.
Wilson, a UK pastor and author (and columnist for CT) does a brilliant job of showing us our strangeness. Much of what we experience as normal, in historical perspective, is quite odd. These “quirks” arise from relatively recent developments, and Wilson sets out to explain where they came from and what they mean for being Christian today.
An era of revolutions
How did we become WEIRDER? The answer, for Wilson, is found in the year 1776. This year saw seven different transformations—political, philosophical, cultural, technological, and economic—which produced the post-Christian West.
One of these is particularly famous: Independence Day, which kicked off an “era of revolutions” that has culminated in most of the world’s population living in a democratic republic. But this was only one of the dramas underway.
In 1776, the HMS Resolution, captained by James Cook, began an epic voyage around the globe, blown, in Wilson’s words, by “the winds of curiosity and commerce.” Understanding how and why this trip was undertaken helps us understand the beginnings of globalization—how the world became Westernized.
In 1776, James Watt’s steam engine, a massive cotton mill, and a canal connecting Manchester and Liverpool all opened for commercial use. The Industrial Revolution that kicked off in northern England would change virtually everything about how we work, marry, consume, wage war, and more.
In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, just as living standards around the world began a spectacular rise. The following “great enrichment” means that the average person in 2023 “has a standard of living around ten times higher than in 1776.”
In 1776, the seeds of Romanticism were sown: The philosopher Rousseau celebrated “authenticity” and self-discovery; German literati experimented with emotionally intense styles; celebrity sex scandals in London undermined traditional sexual norms. The Romantic movement that emerged in following decades produced an understanding of the self we now take for granted.
In 1776, important works were written by Kant, Gibbon, Hume, and Diderot, “enlightened” philosophers who changed how we think and how we educate. Long-standing Protestant iconoclasm combined with a new appreciation of pagan antiquity. The result? A corrosive skepticism that eventually made the West post-Christian.
Wilson explains each of these massive developments (the American Revolution, the beginnings of globalization, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Enrichment, Romanticism, the Enlightenment, and the rejection of Christianity) with remarkable nuance and brevity. The result is a gripping narrative in which worldwide transformations and fascinating characters both come through.
Tracing global revolutions to a single year might sound like a stretch, but such focus proves helpful. By peering through a narrow frame, chronologically speaking, Wilson can portray a wide range of developments side by side. This history resembles life itself, in which national elections don’t take place in a different world from industrial engineering, family dinners, or best-selling celebrity memoirs.
Examples of fidelity
Wilson’s historical narrative is interesting in its own right, but he wants us to learn it for a particular reason: living faithfully in the post-1776 West.
Thankfully, the book doesn’t offer a silver-bullet solution. For those wanting a key that will magically unlock every problem faced by the church, Wilson won’t satisfy. Instead, his concluding interpretations are just as thoughtful and measured as his historical research is well supported.
Wilson draws our attention to examples of Christian fidelity from 1776: those who spoke eloquently about God’s grace, such as John Newton and Olaudah Equiano; those like Lemuel Haynes and Granville Sharp who advocated for physical and religious freedoms; and a brilliant philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann, who robustly critiqued the skeptical Enlightenment’s reductive understanding of truth.
These “prophets” are worth hearing, as each of them “cultivated Christian ways of thinking, acting, and feeling that were extremely well suited to the WEIRDER world that was dawning around them.”
What about today? Christianity is by no means dying, but the Western church is witnessing decline in both numbers and influence. Little wonder that some (on both the Left and the Right) insist that the church must radically revise its approach.
Not so Wilson. Instead, he argues, we must embrace repentance, prayer, and renewal. In particular, we should follow in the footsteps of the “prophets” of 1776, speaking about grace, freedom, and truth in ways that powerfully address the challenges of our WEIRDER world.
In a world burdened by privilege, fixated on identity, and anxious about status, the church celebrates God’s grace, which flips each of those obsessions on their head.
In a world that prizes external freedom—but fails to recognize our inner enslavement to sin—the church advocates for the holistic spiritual and physical liberation promised by Jesus.
And, in a post-truth world, the church offers an account of reality, grounded in Creation and God’s revelation, that is both meaningful and hopeful.
More to explore
Grace, freedom, and truth—to each of these exhortations, I say a hearty “Amen!” If I have a quibble, it’s that I’d like even more. I’m left wondering what else this history suggests about the challenges and opportunities faced in the post-Christian West.
For example, how has becoming WEIRDER changed our commitment to the church? Our religious lives are less and less defined by belonging to a local congregation. Even among those who identify as evangelical, church participation is often sporadic, if not optional. This neglect can be traced to the ways evangelicalism and its institutions grew in the world made by 1776, producing what the late J. I. Packer called “a stunted ecclesiology.”
How might faithfulness require a renewed doctrine of the church?
How, in turn, might spiritual disciplines matter in a WEIRDER world? One could narrate the post-1776 world as a story of eroding Christian practices. For example, one of the most alarming, if underrated, developments in the American church has been the conversion of Sunday from a day of worship to a day of work, consumption, and entertainment (especially involving youth sports). Increasingly, the ways that we spend our days and weeks look no different than any other American consumer.
How might we resist this corrosive effect by returning to classic spiritual disciplines—Sabbath practice, hospitality, and fasting, to name a few? How might these time-tested ways of being Christian deepen our faith and strengthen our witness?
Finally, what might we learn from the rest of the church catholic? As the West marches further toward post-Christianity, how might we find our identity in belonging to the “communion of saints” that stretches throughout time and around the world today? Perhaps more than ever, we need to recover the catholicity of the faith.
Part of this recovery involves greater attention to the other half of Western Christianity. Wilson’s cast of characters is diverse in many respects, but Roman Catholics hardly appear. To be fair, the countries that led the way in becoming WEIRDER were majority Protestant, and Wilson points out that Protestantism, more than Catholicism, seemed to encourage these seven developments.
Nonetheless, in 1776, 2023, and every year in between, Roman Catholics have outnumbered all Protestants combined. Over the last 250 years, Catholics have adapted to these global developments, provided their own examples of missional engagement, and bore witness to Christ, including through martyrdom on a vast scale. Incisive critiques of the post-Christian West have come from Catholic intellectuals, including Brad Gregory and Charles Taylor, whose own “grand narratives” Wilson acknowledges.
And, speaking of dramatic transformations, one of the most noteworthy developments in Christian history has taken place in the last half century: Catholic and evangelical believers and leaders alike have left behind centuries of mutual recrimination for increasingly charitable dialogue and cooperation.
What might we learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters about being faithful in a WEIRDER world? How might the post-1776 story change—or not—by including the other half of the Western church?
To ask more of a work that already covers so much ground risks sounding ungrateful. It’s a testimony to Wilson’s accomplishment that I’d be glad to read even more from him on the topic. Maybe that makes me weird. After this remarkable book, I’m not afraid to admit it.
Paul Gutacker is executive director of Brazos Fellows, a post-college fellowship in Waco, Texas. He is the author of The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past.