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On A Hill Far Away

Tom Holland 's DOMINION: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books: New York, 2019)
On A Hill Far Away

Books abound on the making of the Western world and its mindset. Now Tom Holland, who has written two well-respected popular histories of events in classical times: Persian Fire, about the Greco-Persian wars of the fifth century B.C.E. and Rubicon, about the fall of the Roman republic to the tyrannical rule of the Caesars, has joined the fray. Holland is almost unique among historians because he freely admits in his prefaces to those two books that he has been obsessed with these two particular subjects since childhood. This obsession, though, makes him write with a passion about them that is hard to find among other ancient historians.

In a similar way, he says in his preface to Dominion that he was raised as a Christian, but as a teen-ager rejected the faith because he could not accept a god who had seemingly arbitrarily destroyed his favorite animals, the dinosaurs. His faith, such as it is, has mellowed considerably since then, but he still steadfastly contends that he is not a Christian, though he is sympathetic for a reason. He believes that everyone in the West is so saturated with Christian thinking that they simply cannot avoid the faith’s influence on them.

One would expect an agnostic like him to be upset by that realization, but he is glad of it because the more he studied the Greeks and Romans, the less he saw himself in them. One of his favorite examples of how little he can relate to them is the reveling in brutality he found in Caesar’s victory march in Rome, where he was extolled, not for saving the homeland from invaders (he didn’t), or even for victoriously expanding the borders of his beloved Rome (he did), but for slaughtering almost a million Gauls and for enslaving a million more. Holland began to see that everywhere he looked in the ancient world, cruelty and barbarity were enthused about in virtually every sphere of human life: torture in war, theft in public property, rape and profligacy in sexuality, lying in business practice, and so on.

The common narrative in the intellectual world at the time he was mulling these things over a few years ago, and still the common narrative today, is that America and Europe inherited all that was good about them from the Greeks and Romans. Modern democracy, nobility, science, education, art: all were founded in Athens and Rome. If that is the case, Holland reasoned, why are the rights of the poor and dispossessed of all different races and genders of such importance to us in disputes about property, health care, education? Why is the illegality of not only rape, but even certain kinds of inappropriate touching or speaking so much an issue between men and women? Nothing remotely like the values of Rome, much less Greece, could spawn such widespread discussion and action.

Holland began to look into the history of the West, and, the more he searched, the more the importance of one event for explaining everything that has happened right up to the modern day leapt out at him. That event was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He may not be a believer in the religion that grew up around Him, but Holland certainly believes that Christianity informs every discussion we have in the western world today.

The book he has written to explore this idea is both thorough and spotty. Holland has chosen not to write a continuous history of all the “big” events—the politics, the wars, the major social movements—of the last two thousand years, but rather to choose events, people, or places of different epochs in that history and to focus on them, telling the story around them as examples of his thesis. This tends to make him wander in his descriptions of things. So, for instance, he incorporates thoughts about Hitler and Himmler, Charlie Hebdo, and the siege of Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings, in a framework of Angela Merkel’s immigration policies, centered on her encounter with a Palestinian girl in Rostock, Germany in 2015; all this in just a few pages. Nevertheless, Holland’s marshalling of a massive number of elements as proof for his ideas rounds out and fills in so much that the story is convincing even while feeling sketchy.

Part of the problem may be that the Christian reader is caught not being able to read Dominion objectively, since its main idea—that the assumptions of the Christian faith about reality, humanity, action (in short, everything) permeate every thought, discussion, even fact in the West—is one we believe to be true because we believe all human history demonstrates a reaction to, or a reception of, God’s revelation of Himself in history and nature. Even in the East, where Christianity has had the hardest time taking root, the strong rejection of Christianity is based in ideas and values that themselves can be seen as Christian but taken to emotional extremes, or as the irrational repudiation of such.

But still the unease persists. If Christians know anything about the West, it is that the so-called “Christian influence” has had its own checkered history, not to mention the Christian penchant for listening, considering, and incorporating even secular thoughts and actions into their own views of the world. One has to look no further than Aristotle’s influence on Aquinas to see that clearly. As Nick Spencer says, quoting Samuel Moyn, in Spencer’s book The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2018):

…“it would be fictitious retrospectively to edit the long and tumultuous history of Europe, as if everything we liked about the outcomes were due to its hegemonic religion, while the rest was an unfortunate accident or someone else’s fault.” In other words, Christianity has played a big role in this show—indeed it has played the lead for much of the last 1,500 years—but the play has been no mere soliloquy, and the lead has had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the overall plotline.

In Dominion, one can find a full and well-argued defense, of the idea that the greatest influence, even today, in what most would call a secular age, is found in the teachings and events of the Christian story. Holland’s book also demonstrates in an interesting way the truths of common grace, since he is not grinding an axe that he wields as a Christian, but rather is a non-Christian attempting to look soberly and fairly at why we in the West are the way we are, do the things we do, argue the way we argue. Dominion proves that even a confessing agnostic can in some sense see that the event of the old rugged cross is part of, as he himself puts it, “the greatest story ever told” and that this story still holds sway in the life of the West today.

Drew Trotter

June 3, 2020

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