Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland
Little Brown 2019
(594 pages, Hardcover $20.79)
As I sat down to collect my thoughts for the review of the distinguished British historian and author, Tom Holland’s latest book, Dominion- How the Christian Revolution remade the World, we are in lockdown, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the planet. Deprived of our usual liberties to roam where we will, humanity had risen above the drudgery of government imposed captivity, and shown its better side – if only for a while – helping those who are vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, the poor and the destitute, supporting our health care workers on the front line, raising countless millions of dollars for struggling charities, as well as lifting the spirits of families around the world with songs, stories, games and jests.
The irony of this predicament was not lost on me as I finished the final chapters of Holland’s latest tour de force. The thesis of Dominion is that, despite the west’s departure from Judeo-Christian values upheld for centuries and millennia, and though we largely live in a post-truth society more concerned with feelings than facts, the Christian message still casts a long shadow over the shared values of our contemporary, secular, civilisation. Acts of charity, selflessness, compassion and sacrifice – all of which are deeply anchored in the gospels of the New Testament- were abundantly on display in our societies during this time of crisis.
Drawing on 25 centuries of human civilisation, Holland calls upon a rich depository of ancient, medieval and modern history to drive his point home. Beginning with the Jews, who were the first people to receive instruction from the Creator God of the Bible, Holland contrasts the strict monotheism of Judaism to the polytheism of the surrounding nations. In addition, unlike the idols of silver, gold and fine polished stone used to characterise the gods of other nations, the Biblical God first revealed to the patriarchs was not to be worshipped in like manner. Drawing on the moral laws preserved in the Torah, Holland explores the implications of the Ten Commandments, the sabbath and laws establishing proper sexual relations in this ancient people. These laws and precepts, Holland convincingly argues, though resisted by the Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, gradually became written on the hearts of what we might call western civilisation in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman world.
The singular life of Christ – an itinerant preacher and healer born and raised in the Roman-occupied territories of Palestine, and subjected to a horrific execution on a Roman Cross – Holland argues, set in motion the greatest revolution in human cultural history the world has ever seen. Indeed, Holland goes so far as to suggest that the ideas conveyed in the New Testament effectively detonated the cumulative wisdom of the ancient world. We are not the benefactors of Greek and Roman civilisation, as many historians have asserted, but of Christendom.
Accordingly, Holland lays out the evidence for this startling conclusion, exploring how the early Christians followed the example of their Lord and Savior through great acts of charity, caring for the sick, the orphaned, the poor and the weak, not to mention heroic acts of martyrdom that shocked and horrified the pagans who lived alongside them. Surviving waves of persecution under tyrannical Roman Emperors, the blood of its martyrs sowed the seed of evangelism in the hearts and minds of both slave and free for the cause of Christ. And instead of stamping the new religion out, such heroism only served to swell its ranks across all tiers of society, from the mega-rich to the abject poor.
After Constantine the Great granted his imprimatur to the Christian religion in the 4th century AD, a golden age of Christian literature blossomed in its wake, including many of the writings of the early Church Fathers – Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, in the western tradition, and Basil of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria and John Chrysostom in the eastern tradition. And after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west in the late 5th century AD, Christian ecclesia become synonymous with centres of learning. On the precipice of the known world, Christian monasteries preserved the knowledge passed down from classical antiquity and would eventually become the seedbeds for the establishment of the first university towns such as Padua, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge and Madrid, to name but a few.
Holland explores the long ascent of what would emerge to be the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which came nearest to making the Christian religion truly catholic, or universal, but does not shy away from the problems within the Roman See which eventually led to its greatest schism; the Reformation and Protestantism. Holland displays a nuanced understanding of how key individuals of the Reformation such as Martin Luther, fanned the flames of antisemitism by equating Jews with vermin and calling for their extirpation for the rejection and murder of the true Messiah. How could Luther, who was in lockstep with the beating heart of so many ordinary people, turn out to be a hater of the original People of the Book? Are not all human beings made in the image of God? Whatever the reasons, antisemitism remained alive and well in the centuries that followed, as Holland explores in discussing the persecution of Jews by the Spanish Church throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, and culminating with the Nazi regime which ordered the extirpation of millions of Jews in the years leading up to and throughout World War II.
But antisemitism was just one aberration that emerged from what Holland couches more generally as muddled theology. The same could be said to have occurred with the problem of slavery and racism in general. Holland recounts stories about folk who could look you straight in the eye and tell you that their Bible – in both the Old and New Testaments – condoned slavery in its various forms. And yet, while it’s easy to take a few Biblical verses out of context to justify almost anything, most references to bondservants in the Old Testament do not have the same meanings we ascribe to slavery in our own society. Evidence of this is clear enough in Exodus 23:9 when the Lord warns the people of Israel not to oppress the ‘alien’ and the ‘foreigner’ in the land, and that to remember that they too were once under bondage. Furthermore, St. Paul boldly proclaimed that there is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek – all are one in Christ Jesus. It was with such convictions that prominent Christians such as William Wilberforce and others -curiously not mentioned by Holland – who provided the abolitionists with the political power to end slavery, first across the British Empire, and later in the New World, especially through the monumental efforts of Abraham Lincoln in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The author revisits racism later in the book in his discussion of the late Nelson Mandela and the thorny issue of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa.
Holland also explores the radical effects of science on the Christian faith, particularly the works of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s dangerous ideas gave intellectuals who either hated or held the Christian worldview in contempt – Aldous Huxley, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Andrew Carnegie and Adolf Hitler – plenty of ammunition to show that blind, impersonal and implacable forces shaped the origin and development of all life on earth. And man, long held to be a special creation by God – was merely just another evolved animal. One idea united all these men; if nature was red in tooth and claw, where the fittest only survived, surely human societies had a duty to follow suit. Suddenly the centuries old Christian ideals of compassion, sympathy and charity, respecting all individuals as unique creations of the Godhead, were now being portrayed as vice – deluded and ‘pusillanimous’ – and certainly not how an enlightened mankind ought to behave. And yet, all the while, there were (and still are) Christians who came to accept evolution, they do so ignorantly, since the latest scientific advances, which sadly, are not investigated by Holland in this treatise, are now rapidly and firmly demolishing those claims.
The God of the Bible is the God of love. Shouldn’t love always win? Holland looks at some controversial manifestations of ‘love wins,’ including the rise of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle in the modern world and the ordination of women clergy. If life-long monogamous relationships are the Christian ideal, Holland asks, what is so immoral about gay marriage? And if the Bible teaches that men and women are equal but different in the eyes of God, who shows no impartiality, why can’t women deliver sermons from the pulpit? Holland shies away from offering his own opinion on these questions but suffice it to say that a close reading of the Bible condemns all homosexual acts as gross violations of God’s plan for human beings. What’s more, such deviant behaviour has a strong destabilising influence on the nuclear family. And, as to the question of women clergy, St. Paul only offers his opinion (in the negative) rather than stating that it is a decree from Sovereign Lord, and thus is open to fresh debate.
Dominion is a book that deserves to be read by a broad cross-section of society, by people of faith and those of none. And while Holland maintains a decidedly agnostic tone throughout, he is certainly sympathetic to and, I suspect, somewhat in awe of the long shadow the Christian worldview has cast over human civilisation; a shadow that shows little sign of abating in the 21st century.
Dr. Neil English is the author of seven books in amateur and professional astronomy. He also earned a Diploma in Classical Studies from the Open University. His latest historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, demonstrates how the science of astronomy was profoundly influenced by observers fully committed to the Christian faith.