The name Tom Holland is fairly well known in the world right now, unfortunately, most people know the name because of its connection to the actor who plays Spiderman, and not the academic who is a world class historian and writer. Both are from England, but it is the later who is author of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. I have read several books that attempt to write a history of Christianity, including some written as academic works. This book is quite different in that it was written from a secular perspective, but with a kind of respect for the movement of Christianity that is often found lacking in mainstream academic culture. The author points to his own drift from a Christian upbringing and the dismissal of Christianity’s influence as persistent in his studies.
“Assumptions that I had grown up with – about how a society should properly be organised, and the principles that it should uphold – were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’, but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past. So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted. The ambition of Dominion is to trace the course of what one Christian, writing in the third century ad, termed ‘the flood-tide of Christ’: how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was. This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain – for good and ill – thoroughly Christian. It is – to coin a phrase – the greatest story ever told.”
In the modern western world, it is common to dismiss the Church and to look down upon religious people for their conservative beliefs. The new terminology that is often used is to talk about being on the right side of history. Those who do not go along with progressive thought are condemned as being stuck in the past and held in contempt for failing to wake up and get with the program. This book presents a compelling case that without the influence of Christianity, the entire framework from which arguments about human rights are made wouldn’t exist. As stated in the quote above, declines in the prominence of Christianity in many western nations has actually allowed this influence to become hidden and unknown. What Mr. Holland has done in this work is to systematically walk the readers through a pre-Christian world, the events of the founding of the religion and key points of societal shift that occurred over the last 2000 years. He is not a champion for the Church, or any specific branch of Christian faith, but rather a defender of the powerful formative influence of the teachings of Jesus and the practices of His followers as they lived out those teachings.
A few such examples are as follows:
- Women’s rights in marriage and in the community. “The insistence of scripture that a man and a woman, whenever they took to the marital bed, were joined as Christ and his Church were joined, becoming one flesh, gave to both a rare dignity. If the wife was instructed to submit to her husband, then so equally was the husband instructed to be faithful to his wife. Here, by the standards of the age into which Christianity had been born, was an obligation that demanded an almost heroic degree of self-denial.” Double standards were the norm in pre-Christian society and it continued in the world into which Christ came and into which the Church grew, but the Church was called to a radically different view of the woman’s role in the marriage and in the world. Even the very idea that sex should be consensual didn’t exist on any widespread basis before Christianity. Marriage, as envisioned in the New Testament, was a great protection for women.
- Similarly to women’s rights, the idea that human beings inherently had rights because they were human was a Christian invention. This is a foundational principle for what is considered good law, justice and governance today. None of this existed prior to the Christian religion. This included the right to practice religion freely. “We are fortunate to enjoy the rare happiness of living in a republic where every person’s liberty to judge for himself is respected, everyone is permitted to worship God according to his own mind, and nothing is thought dearer or sweeter than freedom.” Human life was cheap in the ancient world and Christianity, more than any other influence, has acted to add value to human life and individual liberty.
- Scientific progress was driven by a Christian viewpoint that the world was real, unlike the eastern view that much was an illusion. The rational pursuit to understand God’s creation was a driving force behind much discovery. This idea is addressed here, but is not fully developed.
- Slavery was the norm in the ancient world, the Biblical world and the NT teachings didn’t abolish slavery, but taught a different way for its followers. Slaves were not to be treated differently. Teaching about this and other human rights led Christians to lead the way to eventually eliminate slavery from their cultures. It still exists in societies that do not hold to this Christian heritage. “To target it (slavery) for abolition was to endow society itself with the character of a pilgrim, bound upon a continuous journey, away from sinfulness towards the light. It was to cast slavery as a burden, long borne by fallen humanity, but which, by the grace of God, might one day loose from its shoulders, and fall from off its back, and begin to tumble.” Christian abolitionists like Benjamin and Sarah Lay and William Wilberforce were willing to stand against the tide of the world to see this changed.
- Protestant and Catholic missions were not driven by the profits of colonization, but rather by the call of the Gospel and the Great Commission. They brought not only the Good News, but also the same culture-transforming views of liberty, human and women’s rights that helped transform the societies they encounter. For a more complete documentation of this, I recommend Robert Woodberry’s excellent paper, The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.
- Generally, Christianity brought not just the hope of Christ to a world in need, but a hope for a better tomorrow. A belief that history would allow for progress in areas like justice and peace was a uniquely Christian idea. Christians believed in eternal life, but they also believed in the ability of people to be transformed on this earth by the power of God working in them. “Repeatedly, though . . . it was Christianity that . . . provided the colonized and the enslaved with the surest voice. The paradox was profound. No other conquerors, carving out empires for themselves, had done so as the servants of a man tortured to death on the orders of a colonial official. No other conquerors . . . had installed . . . an emblem of power so deeply ambivalent as to render problematic the very notion of power.”
These are but just a few examples found in this sweeping history. There are other books that are more thorough, offering a more complete coverage of Christian history, such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. I’m partial to Rodney Stark’s works on the subject, such as The Rise of Christianity and The Triumph of Christianity, which I believe Christian readers will find overall more satisfying. What Holland offers that makes Dominion special is the specific connections to Christianity’s influence on the modern world, from a more secular perspective. As our world attempts to pretend that it is possible to hold to morality without a belief in God, this is a very significant reminder.
Recently, I read another article that talked about how the TV show Ted Lasso was presenting a main character who had all the markings of an evangelical Christian in his character and behavior, but without any connection to the Christian faith. The author, Mike Frost, suggests that this sitcom seems to suggest, “we can have all the things Jesus taught without having to bother with Jesus himself.” This is also the message that Mr. Holland seems to be addressing as well. He is explaining to the world, every so carefully, that these many things that they find virtuous, did not exist without Christianity.
Another author, Mark Sayers, talks about the desire of society to create a “Kingdom without the King.” He said in an interview, “Post-Christianity is ultimately the project of the West to move beyond Christianity whilst feasting on its fruit. Thus, it constantly offers us options and off ramps, in which we seemingly can have what we enjoy about faith, but without the sacrifices and commitments.” This is a common dream, to have all the benefits of a Christian morality while at the same time not having to be answerable to a Christian God.
Mr. Holland ends his book with an open question that relates to this, “If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution—a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead—then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth?”
This question doesn’t point to the inability of an individual to hold to a high standard of morality without God. We have all seen examples of that over time, but instead it is the question of whether or not whole societies will be able to continue to hold onto morality and values even as they abandon everything that brought that morality into existence. That is a question that we don’t know the answer to yet, but if we hold to the truth of the Bible’s teaching, we are likely to find ourselves expecting a very negative outcome.