‘Dominion’ tracks the influence of Christianity across centuries

Historian Tom Holland has written an engaging chronicle of the ways in which Christian thought gradually spread through the West.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” by Tom Holland, Basic Books, 624 pp.

Christianity has been at the heart of Western civilization for nearly 2,000 years. Today, in a world where traditional churches are struggling to fill their pews, it is tempting to believe that its influence is waning. In fact, according to English writer Tom Holland, the opposite is true: Christian values permeate Western culture and thinking so completely that, if anything, the religion’s influence and reach is underestimated.

Holland is a supremely gifted writer. In “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World,” he attempts nothing less than to explain how an obscure, itinerant street preacher who died the death of a slave and his small group of followers who lived in a far-flung corner of the Roman Empire gradually transformed the world through a message of love, charity, and reconciliation.

Holland organizes this expansive and impressive book around a series of episodes that outline the emergence of Christianity, its growth, and the acceptance of its core values. One of his starting points is, appropriately, the tenets of Judaism, which would bequeath to Christianity the notion of a single deity “who ruled the entire world, and upheld the harmony of the cosmos.” By the end, Holland is examining German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open her country’s doors to Middle Eastern refugees in 2015.

Along the way we meet Saints Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea, 4th-century brothers who devoted their lives to the poor and established the central Christian principle that “There was no human existence so wretched, none so despised or vulnerable, that it did not bear witness to the image of God. Divine love for the outcast and derelict demanded that mortals love them too.”

And Holland introduces the French philosopher Peter Abelard, who – more than half a millennium later – devoted his life to the proposition that scholars could, through rigorous, systematic thought, establish that Christian truth is “clear, and whole, and logically ordered.” The view soon became Catholic orthodoxy and spurred the establishment of universities that institutionalized and vastly expanded the reach of Christianity.

But the story he tells is far more than a summary of the historical figures directly involved with church doctrine. Among the men who (intentionally or otherwise) helped advance Christian values, Holland counts Oliver Cromwell, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, Charles Darwin, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Martin Luther King. Surprisingly, even the Beatles get a mention – because, well, “All You Need Is Love.”

This is not a straightforward history of Christianity. Indeed, some of the most prominent events that would be central to such a volume, such as the Crusades and the Reformation, appear only in passing. Rather, the book is a series of historic and biographical vignettes, in which Holland argues that Christian teaching, values, and morality – if not the details of Christian theology or ritual – were created, advanced, and became commonly accepted in the West and beyond. 

Importantly, Holland does not whitewash the extent to which Christianity has often veered far from the course its values should have demanded. Over time, he writes, Christians “have themselves become agents of terror. They have put the weak in their shadow; they have brought suffering, and persecution, and slavery in their wake.” He notes, for example, that the efforts of missionaries to bring Christianity to Africa were undermined by a “colonial hierarchy” in which black people “were deemed inferior.” But he also argues that the very standard by which we condemn colonizers is itself Christian.

Holland’s book is extraordinarily wide ranging, and he writes with grace and verve. He blends an array of information and insights into a narrative that slowly but relentlessly builds his case that Christianity has shaped our thinking and standards in ways that we may not even recognize. 

“Dominion” is an answer to the seemingly dispiriting times that we live in today. Though we are bombarded daily by news reports of suffering, hatred, intolerance, and violence, Holland’s view on the influence of Christianity is a hopeful and optimistic reminder. Christianity provides an ethical and moral framework to show where humanity has fallen short, and offers signposts to chart a new course.

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