Tuesday, 28 December 2010

What Does Google Ngram Viewer Reveal About Christianity in Modern TImes?


Google Books Ngram Viewer is a fascinating tool that tracks the usage of words and terms in published books over the last couple of centuries, basically the modern period, in fact, if we date it from the French Revolution. Ngam Viewer can also be used to do comparative word/term studies and trace the long term usage of words, e.g. 'kindergarten' vs 'child care'. I decided to experiment with classical theological terms - original sin, justification by faith, redemption, baptism, etc., in the expectation that the results might reveal something about the general Christian religiosity and theological literacy of the English book reading public over the years of modernity. The results confirmed my expectations, but provided some interesting detail.

They indicate that the 19th century was the era of the greatest incidence of classical theological terms appearing in books published in English. In fact, the year 1850, right in the middle of the century, marks the high point, after which there is a precipitous decline into the 20th century. The nadir for classical theological terms is reached about 1920, just after World War One, after which the trends for the appearance of theological terms in published literature of all kinds basically flatline. Interestingly, from the 1950s onwards there is a modest recovery (the graph pictured shows the results for 'baptism', with a little bump around 1960, which might show the peak of interest in the subject by the parents of baby-boomers). Indeed, terms such as 'theology', 'dogmatics', etc, rise quite noticeably in the 1980s, which coincides with the revival of published systematic theology, mostly from conservative quarters, in that decade and afterwards. But the recovery in no way attains to the relative heights of the mid-19th century.

Now for the Lutheran question: "What does this mean?"

These may not be scientific conclusions, but I suggest it confirms what we all probably suspected - the 19th century was the high point of religiosity among Anglophone Christians in the modern period, reflected in the peak incidences of theological terms in all sorts of published English literature. The period after World War I seems to mark the beginning of the reign of secularism in Anglophone societies, the US being an interesting partial exception to this trend (the data from books published in British English and American English can be separated, providing interesting perspectives on what was happening on each side of the Atlantic). The apparent significance of the WWI in the story of the decline of Christian religiosity in the Anglosphere is perhaps also shown by a comparative study of terms which reveals that around 1918 the incidence of the term "theory of evolution", steadily on the rise since 1860 (Darwin's The Origen of Species was published in 1859), first outranks the occurence of the term "Christianity" in English-language texts. Did the victory of Britain and her allies in WWI usher in the belief in the natural supremacy of "the British race" over all others, supplanting traditional religious belief and replacing it with a Darwinian pseudo-religion? Or did the carnage of the war render religious belief implausible in the minds of the book buying public, and turn their minds to naturalistic worldviews? These would be interesting questions to explore, but would take us well beyond the limitations of the Ngram Viewer.

It's not all bad news, however. The period following WWII sees a slight but noticeable revival of the usage of classical theological terms, which I would atttribute mainly to the rise of Evangelicalism as a force in English-speaking societies generally in this period, a factor which has definitely had an impact upon publishing. Indeed, so profitable has Evangelical publishing become that a publisher as astute as Rupert Murdoch bought into it by purchasing Zondervan in 1988. Whatever we may think of aspects of Evangelical theology (Is there an Evangelical theology?), we can at least be grateful that Evangelicalism at its best (think of influential best-sellers like John Stott's Basic Christianity and J.I. Packer's Knowing God) has largely used classical theological terms and kept the "language of Zion" alive for a new generation of readers.

Ngram Viewer is quite extraordinary in its potential, especially as Google Books expands their listings.

Click on the post title to check out Google Books Ngram Viewer for yourself.

3 comments:

Matthias said...

well Pastor here I am. re WW1 and the decline of Christianity.I got an inkling when nursing in 1979 an 86 year old man who said to me "you call yourself a Christian, i saw rats eating corpses in No Man's land".which battle i asked .Fromelles-yes where the 1st AIF had 5000 casualties in one day

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Yes, I'm sure that experience has something to do with our data, Matthias.

(Welcome back, btw!)

matthias said...

But then we have the great anglican evangelist John Ridley -won the MC on the western front whilst bringing supplies to his men-machine gunend through the jaw. Who in preaching to st Barnabas Church in Revesby sydney ,said " i wish i could write Eternity on the herats of all of Sydney". One man a former alcoholic -Arhtur Stace a former 1st AIFer- was inspired by this sermon to go around Sydney and write ETERNITY in copperplate on the footpaths.