Like a queen who rides a bicycle, Tom Holland’s “Dominion” is both majestic and down-to-earth. From antiquity to modernity, Mr. Holland traces a sneaky thesis that Christianity has changed the world—transforming it from the inside out.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland (624 pages, Basic Books, 2019)
Every once in a while an author comes along who not only keeps you turning the pages, but makes you think, “I wish this guy lived around the corner because I’d want him on the front porch with a long drink and a longer conversation.” As the writer happens to be an Englishman the scenario would shift to “I wish this chap lived around the corner because I’d want to meet him down the pub most evenings for a pipe and a few pints in front of the fire.”
There’s something hobbit-ish about Tom Holland—a certain homely humility not often found amongst academics. Like Bilbo, he has an accessible style and enthusiasm for telling his story. Like Frodo he has a cautious taste for adventure. Like Pippin he has a subversive twinkle in the eye, and like Samwise Gamgee he perseveres to the very end . . . in this case the very end of an impressively long book.
I love reading history, but there are few things more tedious than a historian who is a prisoner in his ivory tower—never venturing beyond the safety of his footnotes, his research, and his “objective findings.” So worried about the approval of his peers and so cautious for his tenure in the fantasy land of academia that he never ventures a daring opinion (if he even has one). So obsessive about “objectivity,” he never risks his reputation by voicing a view.
However, history is a story, and the dull historian who limits himself only to facts is the dullest of literalists.
Like a queen who rides a bicycle, Tom Holland’s Dominion is both majestic and down to earth. From antiquity to modernity, Mr. Holland traces a sneaky thesis that Christianity has changed the world—transforming it from the inside out. For those who love symmetry, Mr. Holland breaks down his sprawling history of the West (and from there the whole world) into three sections of seven chapters each. How neat for the numerologists! Three and seven are the perfect numbers and the three sections of seven chapters not only make a big book manageable, they make the obsessive compulsives among us feel snug, smug, and comfortable.
The first section is “Antiquity” in which Mr. Holland traces the germination of Christian thought among the Greeks before spreading through Jerusalem and across the Roman Empire. Part two deals with the flux and influence of Christendom from the ninth to seventeenth centuries, while the third section takes us through the enlightenment, the revolutions of the modern age, and the contemporary modern malaise. In each chapter Mr. Holland shows how a particular advance, philosophy, humanistic development, or philosophical insight was inspired and driven by the core tenets and worldview of Christianity.
Most brilliant are the sections in which Mr. Holland shows how even the most atheistic and anti-Christian writers and movements are actually inspired by essentially Christian ideals. The revolutions of the poor and oppressed are popular surges that would not have been possible without Jesus Christ’s up-ending of the social norms by teaching that the poor are blessed.
The development of science springs from a Christian theology that the natural world is real, and that it is ordered and structured and can therefore be studied and analyzed. The idea that one can take initiative and change one’s life and change the world springs from the empowerment that comes from the doctrine of free will. Human rights would never have been thought of without the belief in the innate dignity of each human being created in God’s image and likeness. Justice is possible because of the belief in an objective law—which would be impossible without a divine lawgiver, and even the atheistic rebellions of Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Marx would have been impossible without a higher belief in the values of truth and personal integrity that undermine hypocrisy, humbug, and injustice.
Another deadly tendency among historians is to focus only on politics and power struggles. Mr. Holland deftly splices the political strands of the story with the cultural, philosophical, and religious, and into the tapestry he always weaves the bright and unexpected yarn of some unusual, but illustrative personality: here a saint, there an inventor, here an insane prophet, there a popular writer, poet, or pop star.
This makes it sound like Mr. Holland’s book is a tract, a propaganda piece, or an ideological rant. He is far too hobbit-like for that. Instead, as a good Englishman, Mr. Holland is coy about his own religious faith. Embarrassed by enthusiasm, he understates his case and thus makes it much stronger. He manages to prove his thesis by avoiding blowhard rhetoric and focusing on the facts, and he does so with simple, eloquent, and articulate style.
Aware of modern man’s antipathy towards organized religion, Mr. Holland simply lays out his case for the power and fecundity of the Christian worldview. Aware of our boredom with dull politically correct lectures, he portrays the dominion of Christianity as a series of surprises and a great adventure. Aware also of modern man’s distrust of establishment authority figures, he manages to portray the dominance of Christian thought as the subversive strain in society that it always has been.
Mr. Holland wears his massive erudition lightly, and one gets the impression that he has learned all this stuff because he likes learning—not because he has had to do additional research for a third PhD thesis. It is this understated enthusiasm that also gives Mr. Holland’s book a genuinely optimistic tone. He does not cut corners when discussing the sometimes disastrous and miserable choices we have made, but the underlying tone is one of hope and great interest not only in our past, but in our future.
I realize that a reviewer ought to find something to criticize in a book, but I’m hard pressed. I personally wished, in his cultural references, that he might have included a few more sprinklings of poet and poetry to spice up the stew, but then he had the gumption to write creatively about the influence of Tolkien on the modern world. That was a pleasant surprise, and is probably the best example of Mr. Holland’s gift for making unexpected connections between the cultural trends and the underlying currents of philosophy and theology within the sweep of history.
That sort of detail sparkles throughout the book. It is as if the hobbit is tootling along the path and sees a curious trinket, pockets it and mutters to himself, “I think I know where that fits, and comes home to find it was indeed the missing part of some ingenious contraption” fits it in, and then plops himself down to enjoy a satisfying pint with a puff of pipe weed.
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The featured image is a detail from “Christ of the Coin” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.