Review: The Ages of Globalization

ages of globalization

The Ages of GlobalizationJeffrey D. Sachs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of seven ages of globalization, in which geography, technology, and institutions result in scale-enlarging transformations with global impacts.

Jeffrey Sachs is one of those big picture thinkers one needs when tempted to focus in the minutiae of life. I first came across this in The End of Poverty, published in 2005, where Sachs wrestled with the steps needed to eliminate poverty throughout the world.

Here, he enlarges his focus to the whole 70,000 year expanse of human history. He traces seven ages of globalization, contending that the interplay of geography (including climate, natural resources, and biodiversity), technology (from hunting implements and stone tools to steam driven machinery to digital information systems), and institutions (religious, economic, and political) came together in each age to create scale enlarging transformations with global implications.

The seven ages through which he traces these interactions are:

  1. The Paleolithic (70,000-10,000 bce): foragers arising from Africa to adapt to a variety of habitats, using tools to manipulate nature, and formal tribal societies.
  2. The Neolithic ((10,000-3000 bce): The transition to agricultural societies across the temperate zones (“the Lucky Latitudes”) allowing the rise of farming settlements with domesticated animals.
  3. The Equestrian Age (3000-1000 bce): The domestication of the horse facilitating transport and travel, writing systems, accompanied by more sophisticated administrative institutions allowed for the first empires.
  4. The Classical Age (1000 bce-1500 ce): The successive rise and fall of empires in Asia, the Fertile  Crescent and the Mediterranean, all aligned on travel routes and the Lucky Latitudes, including the rise of Islam. This was the period of the rise of  the major religions and the ideas and institutions multiplied the expansion of global reach.
  5. The Ocean Age (1500-1800): The explosion of knowledge disseminated by the printing press, the development of sailing vessels into ocean-going ships led the most effective countries to extend their power into the Americas and East Asia,  resulting in the expansion of capitalism.
  6. The Industrial Age (1800-2000): The steam engine and then the internal combustion engine, the massive growth in food production resulting led to global population growth and increasingly sophisticated financial and political structures and a parade of successive global powers: Great Britain, the United States, China and other East Asian countries.
  7. The Digital Age (Twenty-First Century): The shift to an age of global information systems, highly integrated economies, resulting both in political rivalries and the necessity of global political institutions to address global crises such as climate change.

Sachs combines description with quantitative tables and statistics to illustrate trends. His argument is that we have always been a global family (albeit the Americas and Australia and the Pacific Islands being isolated from Africa and Eurasia until the Ocean Age) and human migrations, technological innovations and ever-more sophisticated institutions facilitated global connections, and increasingly global empires and systems. He argues that all these have brought us to a place where we face three major challenges: rising inequality, massive environmental degradation, risks from major geopolitical changes, including the possibility of devastating conflict. He contends for working toward sustainable development with a dynamic and adaptive process of planning on a global scale. He argues for a social-democratic ethos as has contributed to the success of northern European countries. Most fascinating, and a check on the consolidation of power, is his discussion of the importance of subsidiarity, of moving tasks to the most local level compatible with effective management.

I suspect some version of what Sachs proposes may be right. Yet the rise of authoritarian movements, the denial or overly simple explanations of poverty or environmental issues, and the breakdown of international cooperation seems a cause of great concern for me. Sachs offers us a tour de force treatment of the development of globalization through human history. But it seems idealistic in a way that seems to rely on us heeding the “better angels of our nature” if there is such a thing. I wonder if the failure of such optimism to deliver on its promises contributes to the rise of authoritarianism. I wonder if the only hope is a somewhat pragmatic and proximate politics without grand schemes, tyrants or visionaries, a politics of adults who realize all solutions are proximate.  Yet that doesn’t mean resignation. We can come up with less than perfect political arrangements, less than perfect environmental solutions, and less than perfect economic arrangements. We might do something more sustainable, more just, and more equitable, and probably different than our plans. And reading Sachs, we may have a better sense of the connection of the local and the global, and the ways geography, technology, and our institutions link us together.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Political Church

Political Church

Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Jonathan Leeman. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Explores the nature of the church, arguing that it is a political institution that serves as an embassy of the kingdom of God, with implications for both its internal life and its engagement with the nations and governments of the world.

It seems that the relationship of church and state, which we often frame as spiritual versus political, and organic versus institutional, is a perennial discussion. In this work, Jonathan Leeman does a fine-grained analysis of both the biblical material concerning covenant-redemptive history and studies of the new institutionalism and turns much of the traditional schools of thought on their heads, arguing that both church and state are political and institutional, that our separations of spiritual and political realms don’t wash, and that our liberal idea of religious freedom ends in the destruction of religious freedom. He argues that both church and state function under the rule of God, albeit under different covenants and functioning in different “ages.” He contends that there is no neutral public square but that it is a battleground of the gods and that the state, ordained by God, either acting in accord with God or self-justifying.

Intrigued? I found myself growing more and more intrigued as I followed his carefully reasoned argument to its conclusion and thesis about the nature of the church. Leeman writes in his Introduction:

“Yet the primary claim of this book is that the local church is just such a political assembly. Indeed, the church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographic space but from across eschatological time.

“In other words, this book is concerned with the biblical and theological question of what constitutes a local church. The answer, it will argue, is that Jesus grants Christians the authority to establish local churches as visible embassies of his end-time rule through the “keys of the kingdom” described in the Gospel of Matthew. By virtue of both the keys and a traditional Protestant conception of justification by faith alone, the local church exists as a political assembly that publicly represents King Jesus, displays the justice and righteousness of the triune God, and pronounces Jesus’ claim upon the nations and their governments.”

Leeman begins by calling into question our conceptions of politics and institutions arguing for a broader conception of politics that includes the church, and that an institutional understanding of the church’s life is warranted in scripture. A political institution is “a community of people united by a common governing authority,” and he applies this both to church and state.

His next four chapters explore a politics of creation, fall, the new covenant, and the kingdom. He argues that the state operates under the Noahic covenant and has delegated authority to maintain the social order in the present age while refraining from enforcing belief, or impinging upon religious liberty, rooting religious liberty in an absolute standard, rather than in the conflicted conscience of liberal democracy. The church, foreshadowed by Israel, operates under the new covenant as ambassadors of the coming age, ordering its own belief and practice through the “power of the keys” while announcing the coming rule of Christ and its character to the nations.

A particularly striking conclusion is that it is the local church that is the focus of this work, and the only meaningful place, in Leeman’s argument, that functions as a kingdom embassy. Furthermore, he argues that the “power of the keys,” that is, the power both to admit people into membership and instruct them in truth, and to remove those who, by their lives, repudiate Christ’s rule, resides not in a single person or in a hierarchical structure, but in the congregation as a whole. This certainly is consistent with a “priesthood of all believers” theology, but I am troubled with what seems an inevitable consequence of his conclusion, the highly Balkanized kingdom of schismatic Protestantism. Are local congregations the only institutional manifestation of the kingdom?

His development of the idea of church as institution also bears on his discussion of justification and a difference with N.T. Wright. He would contend that covenant inclusion is not the definition of justification which he would maintain is being “declared righteous, but rather the institutional context of justification. This is one example of the careful analysis one will find in this work, in contrast with what Leeman believes is often fuzzy thinking. One also sees this in his critique of “advancing the kingdom” through social transformation without conversion. For Leeman, this begins with defining terms carefully, and distinguishing from notions that accrue more to liberal, Western ideologies than biblical theology.

This is a short review of a very long book. It is not possible here to “show all the work” in Leeman’s argument. His premises about politics and institutions and his covenant theology are key to that argument. It is particularly helpful in its conclusion that the church’s witness is a political act, in the ways it defines what both church and state do under a sovereign God. His discussion of the politics of forgiveness versus self-justification was another highlight for me in bringing to bear the distinctiveness of the Christian message as it bears on both church and public life.

In a time where political engagement tends consist of knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues, slogans and soundbites, and efforts to return America to some kind of mythical Christian age, Leeman challenges us to the hard thinking about what our proper role is in our churches, and a framework for how Christians involved with the state might act. Whether you agree with all of his conclusions, the process he uses to reach them will challenge your own thinking and assumptions.

Review: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

17293092 (1)I think many of us have developed our understanding of power from Lord Acton’s axiom: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For most of us, that is the end of story and this accounts, at least among many Christians I know, for a deep aversion to anything like the exercise of power.

Andy Crouch has a different take that is evident in the word play in his title Playing God. We often think “playing God” is the worst manifestation of abusing power. But Crouch would argue that as image bearers, people who reflect something of the nature of God, we “play” like God in using power, and that this was originally intended for the flourishing of fellow human beings, and the creation, for creating cultural goods and even good institutions.

Crouch explores the original gift to power and how it has been distorted through idolatry, which he defines as giving to some cultural artifact ultimate significance. And idolatry leads to injustice as idols demand allegiance that undermines the flourishing of human beings. Crouch argues that instead of idol-making, our calling is to be icons, literally those who are seen through, giving glimpses of the Creator who made us to be like Him.

In the next part of his book, he explores the nature of power. Power is often hidden and yet exists, even in characters like Michael Scott from The Office. He talks about the realities of force, violence, and coercion and what impressed me is the nuanced fashion in which he did so, recognizing these can be used for evil or good (an argument pacifists may not accept). Finally, he exposes the realities of privilege, the perquisites of power we often are not even aware we have, except when we see ourselves through those who do not have them.

For me the third part of the book was most interesting because he explores power in the context of institution-making. Again, we often see institutions in a negative light but Crouch argues that institutions can be gifts for good if we assume our responsibilities as trustees of these institutions.

Finally, he explores the end of power through the lenses of discipline, sabbath, and the consummation of power in the return and ever-lasting reign of Christ. True power is like the prodigal father who uses all he has to maintain and restore his relationships and the flourishing of both of his sons, the younger profligate one, and the older resentful one.

This is an important book. What I believe often happens in Christian communities is that we try to deny the existence of power and thus become less self-aware of how we may exercise it, both for ill and for good. This, to me, seems greater than the danger of the conscious exercise of power that is cognizant of how power may be abused but also how power might be used to serve others and to promote their flourishing. Furthermore, our aversion to admitting the gift of power we’ve been given is the denial of the gifts of God, both those inherent in our humanity, and those spiritually endowed among the redeemed people of God. My hope is that Crouch’s book is widely read, that a new way of using power is charted that neither makes it into an idol nor denies its existence but redeems this gift and uses it for good.