Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland

Little Brown, 2019, 594pp

When Paul arrived in Corinth sometime in the early 50s AD, the apostle was aware of the intellectual pretensions of that great city. The rock stars of the day were not musicians, but orators. Public speakers could command a handsome fee for their highfalutin disquisitions on aspects of philosophy.  'Greeks seek wisdom' (1 Corinthians 1:22). Paul's approach was very different. "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). The apostle's message was scandalous to the Jewish inhabitants of the city and utter folly to the cultured Greeks. Everyone knew that there was nothing more shameful and degrading than crucifixion. The idea that a crucified man was the Son of God and Saviour of the world was utter nonsense. Yet some believed, and a church was gathered in Corinth. The churches Paul planted and the letters he wrote to them changed the course of history.  

Dominion is the story of how this message of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" had a transforming effect on Western culture. As a boy Holland was fascinated by ancient Greek and Roman history. In their overweening power and brutality heroes of that age seemed more like terrifying dinosaurs than mere men. Holland went on to author several bestselling books on the period,  Rubicon,  Persian Fire, and Dynasty  But as he wrote these histories the writer found himself strangely repelled by by the enormities of the great men of Greece and Rome. The Spartans despised weakness and would expose sickly babies. Julius Caesar slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved a million more to get a name for himself and was duly acclaimed as a hero of Rome. We think, 'not so nice'. 

It dawned on the writer that he had viewed ancient Greece and Rome through Christian spectacles, or at lest through lenses that had been ground into shape by two millennia of Christian history. The Christian faith inverted the values of antiquity. Suffering not slaughtering was heroic, weakness was strength, shame was glory. For at the heart of the Christian faith was 'Jesus Christ and him crucified', the belief that the Son of God took the form of a slave and died for the sins of the world. The cross, which had been a brutal token of Roman power was transformed into a symbol of redemptive love. For Christians this Jesus, risen and ascended, not Caesar was was world's true Lord. Those who suffered with him would also share his glory. This world-upending message brought down the lofty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.

Dominion is not a work of theology. Neither is it a conventional church history. Rather, Holland has sought to identify ways in which the Christian faith reconfigured what he calls 'the Western Mind'. Fittingly enough, his account is structured to reflect the Bible's own numeric symbolism, where the numbers three and seven are of special importance. The work is divided into three main parts, Antiquity, Christendom and Modernitas, each part having seven chapters, which, in turn have three sections a piece. The chapters begin with a vignette that sets up the theme about to be explored. While Holland is an admirer of the Christian faith, he doesn't shy away from depicting occasions when believers failed to live up to their best principles. Rightly so. Reading his previous books I'd always enjoyed the author's sweeping, cinematic style and eye for telling (usually gory) detail. I sometimes wondered what it might be like if he turned his hand to Christian history; the origins of the faith and its impact on the world. Well, here goes. 

The gospel

In setting out the key elements of the Christian faith Holland doesn't begin with the Gospel accounts, but the writings of the apostle Paul. His letters, were, after all the earliest New Testament documents. For the apostle the crucifixion of Jesus was not an embarrassment to be hushed up, but the fact that he placed literally at the crux of his teaching, 'the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me' (Galatians 2:20). This was deeply personal, but also of universal significance. As a Jew who was steeped in Old Testament Scriptures, Paul believed that all human beings were made in the image of God. As a Christian he taught that Jesus had died for people of all nations. Through Jesus the God of Israel would become the God of all peoples and all peoples would become one in Christ, (Galatians 3:28).

The teaching of Paul's New Testament letters sent seismic shocks rippling around the world and down the centuries to this present day. Paul explained that the old covenant in which the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone had gone. Jesus had ushered in a new covenant in which the law was written on the hearts of believers by the Spirit, 2 Corinthians 3:3. Even non-Christians had the 'works of the law' written on their hearts, giving them a sense of right and wrong, Romans 2:14. Paul helped develop the idea of the conscience as an inbuilt moral arbiter, Romans 2:15. Unlike in Islam Christian's didn't demand a direct divine command for every rule and regulation in society. Man-made rules based on 'the light of nature' would suffice. This helped to pave the way for Church lawyers to develop the concept of natural law and human rights in the Medieval period. Which, in turn helped to pave the way for Western secular states, subject to the rule of human law.

Freedom for the captives 

If all human beings are made in the image of God, each with unique dignity and value and 'in Christ there is neither slave nor free' (Galatians 3:28), that makes the institution of slavery highly problematic. Yet slavery was regarded as a normal part of life in ancient times. It was rife in Greece and Rome. The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa preached against slavery in the strongest terms.  But it wasn't until the 18th century that Christians more widely began to grasp that slavery was an intolerable evil that had to be stamped out.  Did not Christ die the death of a common slave to redeem us from slavery to sin? Quakers and Evangelicals threw themselves into the campaign for the abolition of slavery, championed by William Wilberforce. 

Protestant England persuaded Catholic France to follow suit, arguing not so much from biblical principles as did the Evangelicals, but by appealing to the Roman Catholic idea of 'human rights'. This universalising tendency was extended further as British imperialists sought to pressurise Islamic countries to abolish slavery, this time appealing (with little basis) to Muslim texts. And so the idea of culture-transcending universal human rights, beloved of liberals and neo-conservatives alike was born.

Husbands love your wives 

A Roman nobleman felt himself entitled to have sex with any socially inferior woman (man or child) he pleased. Repeated rape and sexual assault was the lot of female slaves. Christians taught that women as well as men were created in the image of God and that women should therefore be treated with dignity and respect. Men and women were of equal spiritual standing in Christ, for in him there was 'neither male or female' (Galatians 3:28). Men were not to impose themselves on women, but restrain their sexual urges. Sex should only be enjoyed within the confines of marriage. Marriage between a man and woman was intended to be a picture of Christ's love for his bride, the church, Ephesians 5:22-33.

Following on from this, the Puritans of the 17th century insisted that men treat women with the utmost propriety. They took delight in the loving intimacy of marriage, but frowned on sex outside of that context. Christians held family life in high honour and regarded having and bringing up children  to be a noble calling. Weakly infants were to be cherished and cared for, not exposed and left to die. The Medieval noblewoman Elizabeth of Hungary devoted herself to rescuing abandoned babies. Apart from the value attached to women by the Christian faith it is unlikely that the struggle for women's rights would ever have got off the ground.


The abolition of slavery and the better treatment of women are but two examples of Christians attempting to reorder the world in line with their faith. Throughout Christian history the church has been swept by reformatio movements, the aim of which was to purify the church of corruption and turn the world upside down. Pope Gregory VII was concerned that the church had come too much under the sway of earthly rulers. He asserted the spiritual power of the church over and against the secular realm. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV made the mistake of offending Gregory, who promptly excommunicated him, thus absolving the Emperor's subjects of their loyalty. Henry had to head across the Alps to Canossa, groveling for the pope's forgiveness.

Separation between the religious and the secular can be traced back to Augustine. When the Roman Empire fell, people worried that the kingdom of God would fall with it. This prompted Augustine to write The City of God, in which he distinguished between the shifting world of the secularia, of which earthly empires were a part, and religio, devotion to God of which the church was an expression. The separation of church and state in modern democratic societies is a development of this deeply Christian way of viewing the world.

The Reformation was one of the most convulsive reformatio episodes. In this instance, rather than the papacy reforming abuses in the church, the pope himself was charged with presiding over a corrupt and ungodly system. Famously Martin Luther refused to back down at the Diet of Worms, his conscience was bound by the word of God and he would accept no other authority. The church had to be reformed according to the teaching of Scripture. Romish superstitions; indulgences, relics and masses had to go. Paul's gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone was brought to light and proclaimed afresh to the people. The religious life of devotion to God was not now the preserve of priests, monks and nuns. All the Lord's people were priests and were called to serve God faithfully in their daily callings. This had the unintended effect of privitising faith as a purely spiritual matter, leaving little room for religious expression in the secular realm. It also enabled English Protestant empire builders to make a distinction between the Hindu 'religion' of India and disagreeable cultural practices, like widow burning.


Drawing upon the Reformation teaching on the witness of the Spirit to the truth of the Bible, Evangelicals in the 18th century would speak of the enlightenment of the Spirit that gave them fresh insight into Scripture. This enlightenment had a transforming effect on their personal lives and led to attempts at reforming society, the abolition of slavery being one example. A line can be traced from Medieval reform movements, to the Reformation, to the Evangelical Revival. But these were attempts to reshape the church and the world in line with the Christian faith. 

In the 18th century others proclaimed a new age of Enlightenment, not because they understood the Bible in a new way, but because they rejected it in favour of science and reason. The object of their reforming zeal was an overmighty church that had to be cut down to size so that people could be set free from oppression and religious superstition. As Holland points out, the irony was that Enlightenment rationalists had bought into the Christian idea of pulling the lofty from their thrones and exalting the lowly. They took that a little too literally in Revolutionary France. Similarly, today's woke lefties with their hierarchy of oppressed victims are, consciously or not, drawing upon a faith that has Jesus 'crucified in weakness' at its heart.


Dominion is a meditation on the transformative effects of Christianity on Western culture. But it also exposes the dangers inherent in 'cultural Christianity', where the moral imperatives of the faith are uncoupled from the theological indicatives of the gospel of Christ. You end up with a selective appropriation of Christian morality that is devoid of spiritual power. The result both for the church and wider society is often disastrous. Holland gives the example of Elizabeth of Hungary in the Middle Ages, who submitted to horrific abuse at the hands of churchman 'Master Conrad' in an attempt to save her soul. Luther would have told her to trust in Christ. Witness also the 'Great Terror' of the French Revolution. Unwittingly #MeToo feminists are busily demanding a return to the old Puritan emphasis on respect for women and male self-restraint. The Puritans, however, would have deprecated woke identity politics with its virtue signalling and self-righteous denunciation of opponents. The old Puritans were too conscious of their own sins and too aware of their need of God's grace for that.

More troubling even than 'cultural Christianity' is 'post-Christianity'. Frenchman Marquis de Sade and German Frederich Nietzsche both despised the Christian faith with its bias towards the weak and downtrodden. They favoured the stance of the ancient Greeks and Romans, 'let the weak be crushed and the strong dominate'. Nietzsche pronounced, 'God is dead'. In his place was the 'will to power' that brooked no opposition from Christian scruples. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution put the accent on the 'survival of the fittest' in the natural world. Eugenicists applied the same insight to the human race. Nazi Germany put these 'post-Christian' ideas into practice. The disabled and people regarded as morally degenerate were marked out for elimination to preserve the purity of the Aryan race. Millions of Jews were consigned to the gas chambers. Against this backdrop J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings as a warning against man's urge to seek power at all costs, 'One ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them'.

The audacity of the cross 

Holland's cinematic sweep of Christian history is full of interest as he zooms in on key characters in the unfolding drama and zooms out again to reveal big themes that recur throughout the book. The cast includes Paul, Augustine, Gregory VII, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, John Calvin and John Lennon. Paul McCartney may have dismissed Christianity as 'goody-goody' stuff, but in singing, 'All You Need Is Love', The Beatles betrayed the their Christian influences. No other faith tells us "God is love", "God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us", and "love is the fulfilling of the law" (1 John 4:8, Romans 5:8, 13:10).

The historian concludes his brilliantly written account on a personal note. He confesses to having a rather fluctuating Christian faith, with perhaps one breakthrough moment. When making a film on Islamic State, Holland was close to an area where the Islamists had crucified their enemies, much as did the Romans. The cross in that context was an instrument of terror, the threat of which cowed people into submission. It was totally devoid of any Christian connotations as a symbol of self-giving love and forgiveness. That seemed to speak to Holland in a deep way, but I sense he's not quite there yet in terms of personal faith in Christ.

As the writer himself says, "To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient instrument of torture, remains what it always has been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it - the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe - that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth'. (p. 524). Which takes us back to the apostle Paul and his determination to make the cross the heart of his message, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." 


Jesus called his followers to be the 'salt of the earth' and the 'light of the world'. By their words and actions believers are meant to make a difference. But Christianity is not ultimately a project of cultural transformation. Its scriptures herald a new Dominion, the kingdom of God. This dominion is different to the kingdoms of this world. It advances not by military or political power, but by the preaching of the cross in the power of God's Spirit. The American edition of Holland's work has on its cover Salvador Dali's painting, Christ the King. It depicts Jesus ruling the world from his cross. His is a kingdom in which the King was crucified in weakness, but now lives by the power of God. Cultural Christianity admires the faith for its benefits, often picking and choosing the bits it likes, while rejecting the rest. But the kingdom of God is not to be selectively admired from outside, but entered as a person is transformed on the inside. As Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus as recorded in the Gospel of John, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3).

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