Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Book Review - 5 Cities that Ruled the World by Douglas Wilson OOO of OOOOO

Wilson's "5 Cities that Ruled the World: How Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London & New York Shaped Global History" (Thomas Nelson Publishers) is my kind of history book. In a similar vein as Mark Noll's "Turning Point", one of my favorite history reads, Wilson does a snapshot look at how various aspects of each of these 5 cities have come to influence our world today. Woven around the metanarrative of "freedom," I learned enough history to make the book worth the time.

Jerusalem, that city that struggles to birth peace today, is shown as the birthplace of religious freedom. God has done amazing things in and around Jerusalem, from Abraham and Melchizedek to David and Solomon to Jesus and Paul. Athens is presented as the birthplace of democracy, where men first saw fit to rule themselves. Rome is the birthplace of freedom under a law, the pax romana. Rome took the fledgling ideals of democracy and encapsulated them in the empire. London was the birthplace of artistic freedom, particularly literature. And New York became the place of financial freedom, the pinnacle of American capitalism.

The history in the book is impeccable, just the kind of overview that many Americans in particular will find entertaining enough to read (God knows Americans need to read more history!). Snapshots is the right way to describe it--it never feels like Wilson is trying to cram too much history into his pictures. And his notes offer plenty of follow up reading if one chooses to do so.

Probably the most challenging thing Wilson attempts is the recurring comparison of the Roman Empire to the American one. Are there corollaries, are there parallels? Wilson make an attempt at that answer, and without giving too much away, it's a decent attempt, albeit one that can get a little preachy about American freedom being more tied to biblical Christianity than I would be comfortable with. It's not quite as deep on this subject as say Claiborne and Haw's "Jesus for President" but that's because it's more of an emerging theme for Wilson than the reason he wrote the book.

One shortcoming--most of the thought and history is Western. I think I understand why Wilson would work this way--he's writing to Westerners and helping them understand their own history and how it has evolved them into who they are and why they think as they do. One chapter on a non-Western city (Jerusalem is non-Western in the time of Abraham and David, but I didn't feel Wilson dealt with it in that way) contrasting Eastern and Western thought might have added a good deal to the book.

All in all worth the read. Phatter Book Club gives it 3 bellybuttons out of 5.

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