Swimming in Christian Waters: A Review of Tom Holland’s “Dominion”

Understandably often mistaken for the Spider-Man actor, Tom Holland is ancient history’s literary version of, well, Hollywood. Nobody cared much about Iron Man or Dunkirk or, uh, New Zealand until cinema gave us the sound, the fury and the excitement. Likewise, I never cared about ancient Roman or Greek history until I read Holland’s books which brought them to life for me.

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown: London, 2019) presents Holland’s thesis that Christianity had a transforming effect on the entire world and how many of today’s most cherished values and standards are somehow ‘Christian’. If Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads showed the importance of irruptions and collisions every time societies met each other throughout history, Dominion attempts to show how Christianity permeates almost every major historical milestone in Western civilization.

Readers are treated to an epic huge narrative covering the span of history from the Persian King Darius’ invasion of Greece to the Battle of Marathon, from Pompey’s siege of Jerusalem to Jesus, Paul and the early Christians, from Emperor Constantine and the creation of Constantinople to the emergence of Islam and the Arab wars, from the Charlemagne’s forced conversions of pagans to the Church’s first burning of heretics, from Martin Luther’s Reformation and the Peasant Wars to the first pilgrims to America to the Enlightenment, from Galileo to Cromwell and Napoleon, from the Battle of Somme to the Holocaust, from Martin Luther King Jr. to the Beatles, all the way up to today’s era of #metoo and Trump.

Are we swimming in Christian waters?

The book comprises three sections: Antiquity, Christendom and Modernistas. The first two sections provide the building blocks for the final one in which Holland makes the case that many of our most cherished values and concepts (if not institutions) are historically rooted in Christianity and the Bible. A small ‘warning’ here that readers may find themselves wading through about three hundred pages wondering where and how — as per the hype surrounding the book — it is shown that twenty first century society is, as per what Holland said in a recent interview, “swimming in Christian waters”. Rest assured, though, that the final section, Modernistas, is where Holland begins to trace modern movements and ideas (like secularism, human rights, etc.) back to concepts introduced in the first two sections (see note 1).

So, for example, Holland argues that the idea of human rights can be traced back to Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish colonist arguing for the rights of the Indians in America for self-government, an idea itself connected to Genesis in God granted inherent worth to every mortal. Likewise, the New Testament’s proclamation that “there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28) serves as the historical baseline for Abolition, for equality between the sexes, for the battle against anti-Semitism and racism. In essence Holland reminds his readers that the idea that, say, men and women are equal in the eyes of God and therefore in society is something the ancient Romans and Persians (and, even, the leaders of the Islamic State) would mock and laugh at.

More saliently, the enemy-loving and forgiveness-oriented examples of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr (yet, curiously, not Gandhi) are held up as stellar moments in modern history in which Biblical principles were wielded to overcome injustice.

This is not to say that Holland is some starry-eyed apologist for every Christian leader in history. Throughout the book, Holland portrays in vivid details much of the cruelty and violence committed by Christians upon each other and non-Christians in the name of Jesus, towards securing colonies, gold and power. Nevertheless, a paradox about such Christian conquerors cannot be denied:

“No other conquerors, carving out empires for themselves, had done so as the servants of a man tortured to death (i.e. Jesus). No other conquerors, dismissing with contempt the gods of other peoples, had installed in their place an emblem of power so deeply ambivalent as to render problematic the very notion of power.”

The point is that injustice and brutality committed in the name of Christianity were themselves undermined by the very tenets of the faith subscribed to. With a nod to concerns about ‘white supremacy’, Christianity whilst serving as an impetus or platform for global and systematic wickedness nevertheless contained the seeds of the very reversal and defeat of such evil.

More controversially, Holland also argues that the very notions of the Secular could not have come about if it had not been constituted in negative relation to religion. Thomas Huxley, in the late nineteenth century, had already characterized the idea of ‘Science’ as a New Reformation, itself harking back to Europe’s Christian past. Go back nine hundred years further, and it can be shown that he concept of the ‘secular’ as a domain distinct from the ‘religious’ emerged from the conflict between popes and emperors, spectacularly climaxing in the showdown between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV.

This surprisingly ‘Christian’ idea of the secular remains to this day whenever world leaders seek to persuade their societies to accept the existence of many other religions as (merely!) religion.

“To hail a religion for its compatibility with a secular society was decidedly not a neutral gesture…If (secularism) were to be embraced by Jews or Muslims or Hindus as a neutral holder of the ring between them and people of other faiths, then it could not afford to be seen as what it was: a concept that had little meaning outside of a Christian context.”

This ‘watering down’ of religious belief essentially, so Holland argues, owes its lineage to Christians thinkers as far back as Pope Gregory, Columbanus (an Irish monk) and Augustine (a Roman-African theologian, widely regarded as the most influential in Western Christianity).

On the critical side, some may see Holland’s book as a fascinating case of special pleading, in which the barest association with historical Christianity is used to ‘baptize’ many of today’s social phenomena. At times, Holland does seem to stretch it like when he characterizes the battle between today’s Right and Left-wing ideologies as deriving from ancient Christianity’s divisions between tradition and progress. I find it hard to believe that the clash between Young and Old Turks is specifically or uniquely ‘Christian’ although, even assuming it is, I would ask so what? How can, say, U.S. politics be positively transformed with the knowledge that the deepest partisan conflicts today originate from historical Christianity?

On the other hand, with an issue like caring for the poorest and weakest in society, the association with Biblical roots is important because there could be no better place to study a problem than by going to the earliest formulations of its solution. In this sense, understanding why the early Christians put a premium on serving the poorest of the poor or taking care of prisons can certainly help inform (if not interrogate) our own values.

But, to go back to U.S. politics, how does knowing that the fanatical hatred and/or love for people like Trump harkens back to the Bible serve anything, except as the latest manifestation of something gone terribly wrong in society?

In this vein, Holland also yokes the two world wars and Communism (their visionary and militant core, their willingness to overturn society, etc.) with visions of the Apocalyptic (or the battle of Light vs Darkness), a notion which is undeniably Biblical. He makes the interesting point that people hate fascists more than communists because the latter (at least in theory) seek to create a society for the poor working classes, and this concern with the under-privileged is a distinctly Christian element.

Tolkien Would Approve

Not unlike how Holland’s Persian Fire first spurred my interest in ancient history, this book is a great read for any beginning enthusiast on the ancient world (from Athenian democracy to the Muslim invasion of Spain) with a focus on Christendom (from Boniface to John Calvin). It has Holland’s trade-mark novel-ish style, sprinkled with many stories of the macabre and the gory (Holland used to write vampires stories).

In closing, I’m glad to note that fans of Lord of the Rings will be treated to a section on JRR Tolkien, and how one of the world’s most famous trilogies was inspired not only Tolkien’s experience in the trenches of WWI but also by Biblical visions of good and evil, fall and redemption. To my surprise, I learnt what Tolkien possibly believed to be the ultimate moral of his amazing book (brought to cinematic life by Peter Jackson so many years ago):

“The climax (of Lord of the Rings) told of the overthrow of Sauron. Over the course of the novel, he and his servants had been searching for a terrible weapon, a ring of deadly power…that would have enabled him to rule all of Middle-Earth. Naturally, Sauron’s dread had been that his enemies would turn it against him. But they did not. Instead, they destroyed the ring. True strength manifested itself not in the exercise of power, but in the willingness to give it up.

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that last line in the Bible somewhere?

Note 1: Nevertheless, even in the first two sections, Holland doesn’t miss a chance to show, for example, how the name ‘England’ came about. There was this monk, Bede, who had seen blond-haired boys for sale in Roman’s slave market and, discovering they were Angles (a Germanic people), admiring the beauty of their angelic-like faces, and seeking a connection between the Angles and God’s salvation plans, made a pun with the world ‘angels’. In time the kingdom of the Saxons and the Jutes would be known as ‘Anglia’ or, in their own language, Englalonde.

This is one of many tiny gems scattered throughout Dominion.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.