Foundations: No.78 Spring 2020
Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind
Tom Holland, Little Brown, 2019, 624pp, £16.99 h/b (Amazon), £9.99 (Kindle)
This is a big book; as it seeks to take us all the way from Xerxes crossing the Hellespont in 479 BC to AD 2017, Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement, it has to be. Tom Holland is a gifted and experienced writer, however, and this is a sure-footed and entertaining ride through the history of the Western world, a history that could have been a whole lot bigger.
Inevitably there are sweeping statements and huge selectivity but that is a virtue as much as a vice, even when your favourites are missing. His ability to make allusions and backward and forward references are a delight that enhances the reading experience. Examples would include a series of references to Pilgrim’s Progress when talking about the Puritans, without ever mentioning Bunyan, and his statements about Winstanley the Digger of whom he writes that his “foes might dismiss him as a dreamer; but he was not the only one” and that his hope was that someday others would join the Diggers “and the world would be as one” (350). These references to John Lennon are later justified when he tells us that Lennon came to live in time where the Diggers digged on St George’s Hill.
What Holland does is to choose stories, either unfamiliar but relevant ones or familiar ones that he has spun a little, to typify the periods about which he writes. The penultimate chapter takes us from 1967 to 2014 by talking only about the Beatles, Martin Luther King, Live Aid, Milingo, Tutu, Bush, Iraq and ISIS, so one can see how superficial such a work is in danger of being.
Holland writes at times very personally and wants us to know where he is coming from. Typical of many in this country perhaps, he grew up going to Sunday School and getting some sort of watered-down gospel from family and friends but rejected it all before he was old enough to grow a beard. As the years have gone by, however, he has thought about things a little more maturely and wonders if, in fact, he is more of a Christian than he ever realised. His previous works on Persians, Romans and Greeks leave him in no doubt that on the whole these people had a ‘complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value’. That disturbs him. Why? His conclusion is not that his concern is due to his human nature but that it is the result of the impact of Christianity on Western civilisation. What he aims to do in the book then 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.
The book seeks to explore what made Christianity so “subversive and disruptive”, how it came to saturate the Latin mind and why – for good or ill – the West, despite itself, retains its instincts.
The book is in three equal parts: The first, antiquity, covers the period up to Boniface and the conversion of the Germans. We then go, via Christendom, from Boniface to the Jesuits in China. The final section begins with the Diggers.
It is in this final section that Holland has his work cut out, even with the very broad definition of Christianity with which he is working. When dealing with Marx, he writes,
For a self-professed materialist, he was oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil… If, as he insisted, he offered his followers a liberation from Christianity, then it was one that seemed eerily like a recalibration of it.
Holland is hardly the first to see parallels between communism and the gospel; the fact that Richard Dawkins prefers church bells to the cry of Allahu Akbar is entirely subjective, as Holland himself almost admits. The only strength in such arguments is their accumulative one as together they appear to support what, at best, can only ever be a contentious hypothesis.
Holland is constantly hampered by his almost unquestioning commitment to the current scholarly consensus but he does have some few insights that you will enjoy and find stimulating. Do read the book if you can; it will rouse your thinking as well as raising useful questions in your mind.
Pastor, Childs Hill Baptist Church, London