Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World
Tom Holland. Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. Basic Books: New York 2019. 612 pp. ISBN: 978-0-465-09350-2, $32.00
It is difficult, if not impossible, for contemporary inhabitants of Western civilization to grasp how utterly different the ancient world was from our own. Even popular and violently graphic movies such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator fail to convey the enormous oppression and blood lust of Roman society. For example, in The Gallic Wars, Caesar’s famous account of his conquest of today’s Western Europe, he bragged that he killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. For that, as well as numerous other military victories, he would gain enough fame and power in Rome to eventually overthrow the Republic and be named dictator for life. In stark contrast, we currently see hundreds of thousands of contemporary Americans marching, protesting and rioting in an effort to promote social justice for themselves and others. How did such a vast cultural change come about? The answer to that question is what Tom Holland’s superlative book, Dominion, is all about.
Holland is a popular historian of the ancient world whose book Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic won the noted Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History in 2004. Moreover, he has published five other books on the ancient and early medieval eras as well as being a regular contributor to the Guardian, The Times of London and The New York Times. In Dominion he has produced a lively tome that is a paean to the influence of Christianity over the past two millennia. This is not a church history text per se; instead it’s a survey of the enormous moral, social and cultural impact that Christianity has had on the development of western civilization. The origin of the book comes from Holland’s own halting recognition that his life and ethics reflected nothing from the exploits of ancient heroes such as Leonidas, Caesar and Augustus. Instead, it is rooted in the moral teaching and horribly tragic death by crucifixion of a Judean peasant named Jesus. The reality that life was cheap, slavery was a given and the poor and weak were viewed as sub-human in the ancient world finally awoke in Holland an honest assessment about the origin of his worldview. As he notes…
…in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian. For a millennium and more, the civilization into which I had been born was Christendom. Assumptions that I had grown up with – about how a society should properly be organized, and the principles that it should uphold – were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’, but very distinctively of that civilization’s Christian past (p. 17).
From that realization Holland proceeds to tell what he coyly labels ‘the greatest story ever told.’ This is the surprising – and in some ways even shocking – narrative of how belief in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection so thoroughly transformed our civilization that the West remains, despite its current secularity and religious pluralism, fundamentally Christian.
Holland structures this story chronologically. Part One covers Antiquity from the time the Greeks defeated the Persians in the fifth century B.C. up to the conquest of Christian North Africa by the Muslims in the early seventh century A.D. Part Two surveys what we now call Christendom. This takes us on a bird’s eye view of the development of Christian civilization during the medieval era and moves thru the Reformation into the early decades of the seventeenth century. Part Three he labels modernitas. Holland begins this section with an engaging discussion of the revolutionaries of the English Civil War, shows some of the tangles and tensions Christianity has faced in the modern era and then wraps it up with the rise of the Woke movement of 2015.
Church historians and those well versed in the history of Christianity may not find much new in this overview but none will be bored. Holland’s exceptional gifts as a storyteller keep the narrative moving and provide numerous highlights along the way. One of Holland’s great strengths is his ability to mix and match the lives of different people who lived in proximate eras. Thus, from the fifth century we learn about the impact of Christianity on Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great and their formidable sister Macrina, as well as how the lives of Paulinus of Nola, Martin of Tours and Augustine were transformed by the Faith. From the thirteenth century we encounter saints such as Elizabeth of Hungary, Conrad of Marburg and Thomas Aquinas. And, in a brilliant section on the horrific World War I Battle of Somme, Holland reveals how the war effected either the embrace or the denigration of Christianity by such diverse combatants as Otto Dix, Adolf Hitler and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Another of Holland’s strengths is his eye for the ironies and explicit contradictions of various people who have either promoted or pummeled the Faith. Thus, while Karl Marx hated Christianity, his worldview was strikingly like that of the early church fathers, ‘a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil’ (p. 457). Peter Abelard and Martin Luther were not only theologians of a unique stature but also self-promoters of the highest level. Galileo may now be remembered as a man devoted to scientific truth in the face of an oppressive ecclesiastical authority but in reality he was far more of a social climber than a rebel; a man given to worldliness and self-aggrandizement and pugnacious in the extreme (p. 354). These and so many other vignettes make Dominion a delight to read.
One of the more important facets of Holland’s larger narrative includes his emphasis on what he calls reformatio. This was the attempt on the part of certain Christians to return the church to an earlier, more pure version of itself. The most significant of these people were the eleventh century Pope, Gregory VII, and the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century. Gregory leveraged the power and popularity of the Cluniac reform movement in the early medieval era to instigate an ecclesiastical and social revolution in his own time. By wresting control of the church from its Germanic overlords and placing it on an independent footing focused on reform, Gregory facilitated its dominance in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Protestant reformers worked towards similar goals three centuries later. Claiming that the late medieval church had forfeited its spiritual power by its materialism and corrupt doctrine, they too sought the reformatio of the church albeit in a different manner from that of the Gregorian papacy. While each of these movements contained some significant downsides, they reflect the underlying truth of Holland’s overall thesis: Christianity is a revolutionary force that in some way or another always seeks the moral transformation of individuals, the church and eventually society itself.
This reality is, perhaps, best seen in the slow but sure eradication of slavery over the centuries. In the ancient world slavery was a given and rationalized as ‘natural’ by no less a figure than Aristotle. Most authorities in the early church, including such luminaries as John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine, saw it as a regrettable but natural result of the Fall. But the seed of Paul’s revolutionary statement in Galatians 3:28, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’, began to sprout objections to slavery as time went on. The first to do so was the Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395 A.D.). Rooting his argument in the belief that all people are made in God’s image, Gregory declared slavery wrong, period. And while it took the church another 800 years to accept this, by the High Middle Ages slavery was eradicated throughout Western Europe. Slavery was tragically re-introduced during the colonial era and imposed on the New World by the Spanish, Portuguese and British but would never again be an unquestioned social reality. As Holland makes clear in one of his most engaging segments, some Christian groups such as the Quakers fought against slavery tooth and nail. Here he introduces us to Benjamin Lay, a four-foot hunchback who along with his wife Sarah immigrated to America from England in the early eighteenth century. Along with some other Friends, they devoted themselves to the destruction of this most wretched institution. This, of course, brought them into continual conflict with much of eighteenth century American society. But Lay’s commitment to follow wherever the Spirit led ended in the abolition of slavery at least among the Quakers. Sick and on his deathbed in 1759 Lay was informed that a new assembly had voted to discipline any Quaker who traded or owned slaves. Lay sighed in relief and remarked that ‘I can now die in peace.’ His stringent commitment to the social implications of the Gospel made his community a little bit more like him and, in Holland’s words, ‘…[a]…little bit more progressive’ (p. 386).
Reviews are generally supposed to highlight not only a book’s strengths but also its weaknesses or limitations. Given Holland’s purpose and his consistent focus on that, I am reticent to offer much in the way of criticism. Perhaps the best course would be to suggest that, in addition to reading his outstanding volume, readers of The Denver Journal supplement it with British historian Paul Johnson’s monumental work Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (copyright 1983). Johnson shows in excruciating detail the carnage, destruction and genuine evil that arise when people and civilizations move away from a Judeo-Christian framework of life. Taken together, these two outstanding works of popular history demonstrate the horribly fallen and predatory nature of humanity and the extraordinary redemptive impact that the Gospel has on both individuals and societies. They also provide motivation to double-down on our efforts as believers to see people of all nations, ethnicities and backgrounds come to saving faith in Christ.
Scott Wenig, PhD
Professor of Applied Theology
Haddon Robinson Chair of Biblical Preaching