Tom Holland is famous for writing large volumes on history in an age when many people do not read big books or care (ignorant?) about anything before the invention of Facebook. Despite such trends, Holland has found a strong following. In his newest volume, Dominion, Holland covers about three millennia in an engaging style. His thesis and aim catch the eye of any cultural analyst and Christian who likes to read. The premise is that “Time itself has been Christianised,” therefore, Holland’s “ambition is hubristic enough as it is: to explore how we in the West came to be what we are, and to think the way we do” (p. 12). In short, the book attempts to trace the influence Christianity had on Western thought and its embeddedness in Western societal structures.
I found Holland’s writing very well-researched, engaging, at times humorous, and despite being 543 pages of material, to be a page-turner. While not my favorite style, he writes in circular patterns to display the interconnectedness of events and movements. For those who do not like dull history books, you will find the writing style enjoyable and informative. I want to offer two points; one is the reason for my enjoying the book, and the other is my critic.
On a positive note, I like many parts of the book. I like that there appears to be an audience in the world that still cares to hear about Christian history. As a Christian with a history degree and serving in scholarly engagement, the book hits a sweet spot for me. But more importantly, I like how Holland looks at Christian history with a different lens than those from within the guild of Theological Studies or as a church historian. He portrays events more bluntly, which I find refreshing. For instance, he colorfully highlights the irony of Roman Catholicism’s tyranny against any who infringed on her authority. Holland says, “Such exclusivity was sternly guarded. Those who disturbed it, and refused to repent, might expect to be silenced, expelled or put to death. A Church that worshipped a God executed by heedless authorities presided over what has aptly been termed ‘a persecuting society’” (p. 11). Holland continues to make pointed and unique observations through the middle-ages, the Reformation, Enlightenment, the rise of modern science, Marx, Lenin and John Lennon, and right up to Pulp Fiction and Donald Trump. Many readers will find lots of facets of the story to enjoy.
On the flip side, as a Christian pastor-scholar, I was often curious precisely Holland meant by describing something as being very much in the vein of Christianity. For instance, to place Voltaire, the Quakers, the Collegiants, and Spinoza in the same stream as Constantine, John Paul, and Luther does seem rather odd. However, Holland does attempt to make his case that “Voltaire’s dream of a brotherhood of man, even as it cast Christianity as something factious, parochial, murderous, could not help but betray its Christian roots” (p. 392). Holland sees Marx, Lenin, and Lennon as having similar paradoxical roots as Voltaire. To be sure, Holland is not claiming people or movements were Christian, but that what was driving them was the spirit (Geist) of Christianity.
In short, what Holland sees as an essential spirit--not Holy Spirit-- of Christianity is an engine for change. For Holland, Christianity functions as a means to criticize the perceived wrongs of society and recast the way society should evolve. However, Holland betrays that his version of Christianity is not the one faith proclaimed around the world for two millennia, but the version of Christianity known in America as Modern Liberalism (note the capitalization). Modern Liberalism attempts to address the felt needs of the present moment with the elements of Jesus believed to be most applicable to evoke change, but it often lacks roots or long-term direction.
As a Christian pastor, I do not participate in this version of Christianity. While I agree that Christians should call out the ills of society and spread a message of change, it is not a wild free for all to address felt needs. Instead, Biblical Christianity is anchored in the covenant document of the one God who rules over all time and place. The document of the scriptures is a rule-governed basis for Christian thought and practice. It is broad and deep enough to be applicable in different times and places, but there is still a clearly defined basis. Therefore, Biblically-based Christianity can say that Spinoza and Voltaire were not developing in a Christian vein, even if they were influenced by Christianity. Holland’s approach neuters the capacity of Christianity to determine if something is wrong or right, or in other words, if something is orthodox and orthopraxis or not.
As Christians called to discern rightly, we need to read and think deeply about what is claimed to be a ‘Christian thing.’ We need to think deeply about what it means to change the world, be in the world, and be against the world. These are different things, and Christians are called to engage in all three in different ways.
In conclusion, I think folks in my circles will enjoy Dominion. They will enjoy reading one perspective on the history of Christianity, even if we may demure if it is authentic Christianity or not.
Rev. Dr. Chris S. Stevens
John Knox in Ruston