At a Distance
                    February 7, 2008

by Chilton Williamson Jr.

     Over Christmas, a kind and generous friend, who is 
also an unbeliever, sent me a copy of a book called THE 
MIGHT OF THE WEST, described on the dust jacket as "A new 
interpretation of Western history -- its development in 
medieval times and its decline today."

     First published in 1963 by Joseph J. Binns of New 
York and Washington, the book is readily available 
through Given its high approval ratings, it 
appears to be something of a cult classic, though I am 
unable to find matches for the author, Lawrence R. Brown, 
on the Internet. Brown, an engineer by profession, was a 
learned man, an excellent stylist, and an original and 
provocative thinker, whose striking thesis, contrary to 
the established reading of Western history, holds that no 
real continuity exists between classical and medieval 
civilization and that of the West, which Brown argues 
began in the 13th century and represents the living 
tradition of a people interrelated by blood and culture 
from the Carolingian era to that of the French 

     Brown traces the histories of the six preceding 
civilizations -- Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese, Indian, 
Classical, and Levantine -- with particular attention to 
the modes of thought typified by each. The flap copy 
states the argument clearly. "Mr. Brown is especially 
concerned with the Levant, and in a brilliant 
reconstruction of the life of Jesus, shows him to be the 
product of a civilization fundamentally different from 
our own, and not as rationalized into Western thought."

     I am not here concerned with Brown's interesting and 
partly persuasive views regarding the continuity of the 
civilization we call Western, nor with the implications 
of his contention that the Jewish civilization from which 
Christ arose has little in common with the Christian 
civilization of the West that came later. (Who would 
think, really, of denying the obvious?) Nor, finally, am 
I interested in Mr. Brown himself, an obscure author 
whose single work has been entirely without influence 
among historians, archaeologists, and the general public. 
Rather, my subject is Brown's mode of historical 
exposition and the counter-theological assumptions and 
expectations that underlie it, all of which appear to be 
shared by the more notorious atheists of the present day, 
including, especially, Christopher Hitchens, author of the 

     The primary thesis of THE MIGHT OF THE WEST, it is 
true, is not that there is no God and that Jesus Christ 
is not his son. But Brown does deny that ideas such as 
"cause" or "God" -- which for him are merely mechanical 
and emotional words for the same thing -- are illusions 
that exist within the mind, not beyond it.

     Moreover, he expends much intellectual effort in 
applying the historicist argument to the Old and New 
Testaments to prove (a) that the first was edited by 
Jewish priests to construct a historical pedigree for the 
Jews who predated the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, about 
400 B.C., when Brown claims the historic Jews actually 
became a people; and (b) that the second is a composite 
work whose individual Gospels were written by different 
men with varying doctrinal agendas. Christianity, he 
concludes, was actually founded not by "Christians" but 
by Hellenic Jews, and developed by them.

     Much of this was old hat almost 50 years ago, while 
the historicist method of Biblical criticism was a going 
operation in the 19th century. Moreover, Brown's 
measuredly skeptical argument is a far cry from 
Hitchens's adolescent rantings and insults. Yet both 
books, like the atheist traditions they represent, do 
raise a question, namely: What do atheists really want 
from the God controversy? Their answer would be, Nothing 
but the empirical truth, since God does not exist. The 
true answer, however, would seem to be -- =Everything!= 
What they want is for God to prove his existence for them 
directly and unambiguously, rather than speaking to them 
from behind a veil.

     Atheists actually demand =more,= not less, of God 
than do believers, the faithful. Indeed, their 
fundamental (and fundamentalist) approach to revealed 
religion demonstrates as much. The atheist quarrel with 
Divine Revelation at bottom is not that Revelation is 
nonsense and a fraud. It is that Revelation, such as we 
have it, is not direct enough.

     Like all men impatient of veils and indirection, 
atheists (of the garden variety, at least) have no use 
for poetry, which they are quite incapable of 
recognizing, let alone understanding. Lawrence Brown has 
made a thorough study of the Bible. Alas, he has given it 
a literal reading where he ought to have given it a 
poetic one. Revelation is nothing if not divine poetry, 
but Brown, like the vast majority of his kind, will have 
none of it. For him, the Bible is inaccurate and 
dishonest history that cannot be verified by modern 
historical research. How can it be said to have been 
divinely inspired -- he intimates -- when all of its 
books can be "shown" to have been edited and re-edited by 
priests and others seeking to fabricate a religion? The 
notion that the editing, as well as the writing, of the 
books of the Bible, might have been inspired by the Holy 
Ghost never occurs to him. (Perhaps the notion was too 
historicist for Lawrence Brown!)

     Of course, the problem with reading the Bible as 
faked history is that the most important passages of the 
Testaments, Old and New, are not historical at all but 
profoundly poetic, moral, and theological. To read the 
historical accounts in this context allows the reader to 
understand that the story of the Bible is not the literal 
narrative of God's historical engagement with mankind, 
but the one he wanted us to have, for reasons known only 
to himself.

     One has to feel sorry for atheists. They can believe 
in the Word of God only if the Book that embodies it can 
be shown to embody as well the scientific proof of its 
Truth. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of 
Jesus Christ has, in one respect at least, been very 
explicit and direct in telling us that we are saved by 
faith alone, and that faith is the belief in things 

     Atheism is not independence, and it is certainly not 
freedom. Rather, it is human neediness and dependency in 
their most extreme form, a cry for divine aid that, in 
the case of such as Lawrence Brown, expresses itself in 
pseudo scholarship and, in that of Christopher Hitchens, 
assumes the form of a curse. Because the atheist, too, is 
a human being, craving God's certainty and his love. He 
only pretends to us -- and to him -- that he is not.


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Copyright (c) 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation,
All rights reserved.

Chilton Williamson Jr. is an author, columnist, and 
editor. He was history editor for St. Martin's Press and 
literary editor for NATIONAL REVIEW magazine. Since 1989 
he has been senior editor for books at CHRONICLES 
magazine, where he also contributes a monthly column, 
"The Hundredth Meridian," recording his life and 
adventures in the Rocky Mountain West.

A more detailed biography can be found at

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