By Dave Dentel
It may have been the dust jacket design that threw me off. The title is set in ornate lettering and illuminated with a medieval-style vine-and-serpent motif, which led me to think this was a book about the ancient origins of the Bible and how it emerged in its present form.
Instead, The Book That Made Your World examines a much more familiar theme—how the Bible influenced and accommodated the rise of Western civilization. But what makes it different, and unusually potent, is that its thesis is propounded by an Easterner who sees this historical influence as a good thing.
Author Vishal Mangalwadi was born and raised in India. But he is a Christian who seeks to reform his native land by employing the principles laid out in Hebrew scriptures and expounded upon by Europeans and Americans.
This unusual juxtaposition has much to do with why I found the work so engaging, even though many of the ideas it forwards I’ve encountered before.
For example, when Mangalwadi discusses how the biblical doctrine that human beings are made in God’s image fosters a regard for life and the worth of the individual, he does so in more than a purely academic sense.
Ideas that Make a Difference
Quite early in the book Mangalwadi recounts how he and his wife launched a ministry to India’s rural poor, and how their efforts were thwarted in part by values born of Eastern tradition.
He details how they struggled to persuade a neighbor to let them provide medical care for a younger daughter who was gravely ill. Ultimately, the girl died, because her parents did not regard her life worth the effort and expense of saving.
Mangalwadi writes, “Sheela’s parents starved her to death because they saw her as a liability.”
Not that Mangalwadi relies solely on emotionally charged anecdotes. He dives deep into history and philosophy, making the case that the Christian worldview fostered all sorts of society-boosting developments.
Among his many arguments:
- Medieval monks laid the groundwork for the rise of technology;
- Christian reformers inspired the common man to demand just government;
- The biblical model of the family elevated the place of women and eventually led to their empowerment.
But don’t think that Mangalwadi merely parrots more commonly known apologists from the Christian West. For instance, he doesn’t think much of the ancient Greeks and their populist democracies. And unlike C.S. Lewis, he is certainly no Neoplatonist.
It’s clear that what Mangalwadi desires is a way to apply the best of the Judeo-Christian ethos in order to benefit his own unique culture. And his book is most compelling when he recounts ways in which this has already happened.
When Learning Leads to Freedom
His chapter on language offers a prime example. Casting back to the 18th and 19th centuries, the author shows how it was mainly American and British missionaries who revived and refined native dialects into the national tongue of modern India. These proselytizers also built schools that developed into some of India’s first modern universities, an effort which gave rise to the Indian Renaissance and ultimately the drive for independence.
These missionaries, Mangalwadi declares, “wanted Indians to come to their college to begin cultivating their minds and spirits, to question the socioeconomic darkness around them, to inquire and find the truth that liberates individuals and builds great nations.”
And what is this truth? That the gospel of Christ offers not only spiritual redemption and reconciliation with God, it also points the way toward applying justice and mercy here on earth in the hope we might spend our brief sojourn together working in peace and dignity.
And is this grand vision even possible?
To illustrate that it is, Mangalwadi tells the story of his friend, Dr. Rochunga Pudaite, one of the Hmar people, former headhunters who inhabit the rugged uplands along India’s border with Burma.
Ro, as the author calls him, is the son of early converts to Christianity. With the aim of furthering the faith among their own people, Ro’s parents sent him off to school to learn to read, write, and study the Bible.
And study Ro did, first at Saint Paul’s College in Calcutta, then at Allahabad University (the author’s alma mater), and in Glasgow, Scotland, and Wheaton, Illinois.
Eventually he returned to his people with a version of the New Testament translated into Hmar. Ro also helped found an organization that has, Mangalwadi writes, “opened eighty-five schools, a college, and a hospital—all without any help from the government.”
Mangalwadi insists that the dramatic transformation of the Hmar is simply a microcosm of what applying biblical principles has achieved in the West—and what it can do elsewhere.
“The Bible generates hope for all people,” he declares. As for his friend, Ro, he adds: “The Bible set his imagination free to dream what his tribe ought to be—educated; free to interact with neighbors and enemies; able to overcome hunger, hate and disease; and ready to contribute to the world.”
Mangalwadi concludes: “This fascinating story … can be multiplied across every continent and country.”