Do you know what happened in Lyon in AD 177? Or in Milan in 1300? Or in Baroda in 1825? You probably don’t, but you shouldn’t worry: few do. Whatever happened, it was, by ordinary standards, something quite humble. In Dominion, Tom Holland explores such happenings for precisely that reason. Yet in his telling, the humbleness disguises something more consequential. For all their seeming insignificance, these events – the persecution of Christians in Lyon, a case of heresy in Milan, an instance of suttee in Baroda – proved to be shapers of things to come. In the great scheme of history, they put grander happenings to shame. Holland uses such events (twenty-one in all, one for each chapter) as entry points into the complex narrative of his book, which examines the role of Christianity in shaping the Western mind.
This device reveals one of this book’s finest accomplishments. What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holland’s an all-absorbing story. He did something similar in his earlier books Rubicon, Persian Fire, Dynasty, Millennium. But whereas those works were primarily about events, people and movements, which lend themselves naturally to storytelling, Dominion is concerned with things that normally resist simple narration: philosophical ideas and religious doctrines, theological controversies and intellectual debates, the dissemination and transformation of beliefs. It takes a master storyteller to translate the development of a philosophical notion into a captivating story, and Holland proves to be one.
An expert on the classical world, Holland has a good sense of the fundamental historicity that structures and shapes his subject matter. For all their commonly shared ‘human nature’, people do change in space and time, and it would be wrong to judge behaviour in the ancient past by 21st-century norms. And yet Holland can recognise a meaningful historical connection when he sees one: ‘For a self-professed materialist,’ he writes, Karl Marx was ‘oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil’. He also has a keen feeling for human psychology. Like Abelard, he notes at one point, Luther was ‘a theologian whose capacity for daring speculation was combined with a quite exceptional talent for self-publicity’. In general, Holland has a knack for making the most of the sheer ludicrousness of the human material he is working with. To give one example, in his assessment, Galileo ‘was no Luther’. The astronomer was a compromiser, a self-aggrandiser and, ultimately, a very worldly man. His ‘instincts were those of a social climber, not a rebel’. It takes a gifted writer to detect dark spots like these from such distance.
The task Holland sets himself in his book is pretty straightforward. He seeks to give a comprehensive answer to the question ‘How was it that a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal in a long-vanished empire came to exercise such a transformative and enduring influence on the world?’ He doesn’t claim groundbreaking archival discoveries or archaeological revelations. Instead, Holland offers a remarkably nuanced and balanced account of two millennia of Christian history – intellectual, cultural, artistic, social and political. The book’s scope is breathtaking: it covers everything from Persian influences on the formation of Christian doctrine to Martin Luther King Jr’s theology, from Origen to Nietzsche, from Gregorian chants to the Beatles, from monks hiding themselves in the Libyan desert to missionaries trying to Christianise India.
Inevitably, some things had to be left out. Holland decided that he could only cover Western Christianity and passes over in (sometimes awkward) silence various Eastern versions of it. The absence of any engagement, however sketchy, with Orthodox Christianity is frustrating given the significant impact this branch of Christianity, its adherents and by-products (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tarkovsky, Russian Messianism) have had, not only in places where it is the predominant faith but well beyond too. But then again, for Holland to have included all this in Dominion is probably too much to expect – the book is intimidatingly long as it is.
Holland is a sympathetic historian of Christianity but no apologist for it. He deals at length with some of the more embarrassing episodes in the Christian past (the Inquisition, the Crusades, corruption in the Church in the Middles Ages and whatnot) and is not shy about formulating charges. Yet – and this is a recurring theme throughout his book – he also shows that, no matter how serious such accusations, they were first brought up by Christians themselves. A quest for purity, for self-improvement, for reformatio has been part of the Christian way of life from the beginning. From Donatus to St Francis to Jan Hus to Martin Luther King Jr, Christianity has never stopped looking at itself in the mirror, judging itself and finding itself wanting. It was Christianity that set the high standards by which it was to be judged: ‘Any condemnation of Christianity as patriarchal and repressive’, Holland writes, ‘derived from a framework of values that was itself utterly Christian.’
Indeed, the bedrock of much modern social activism and protest – discontent with the status quo and the desire for a better world – is something we may owe to Christianity. ‘To dream of a world transformed by a reformation, or an enlightenment, or a revolution’, writes Holland, ‘is nothing exclusively modern. Rather, it is to dream as medieval visionaries dreamed: to dream in the manner of a Christian.’
The impact of Christianity on the way we live, think and speak has been extraordinarily pervasive, and not only in the West, Holland concludes. Whether we like it or not, we live in a ‘society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions’. We could not even rebel against this heritage without resort to Christian vocabulary, Christian ethical tools and Christian notions of rebirth and renewal. It is not for nothing that Nietzsche came up with the notion of the Ubermensch: to unlearn Christianity would take nothing less than a superhuman, quasi-divine effort.
And, when you think about it, the starting point of the whole story was something humble in the extreme, featuring the unlikeliest of gods-to-be: a pariah and a criminal executed by crucifixion, the most repellent and degrading form of punishment known in the ancient world. Something humbler is hard to image. Yet the executed criminal would eventually prevail and put to shame the empire that put him to death. The humblest, the utterly insignificant, serves only to mask the extraordinary. Holland is fascinated by this. Indeed, he is so taken by it that he seems to have based his method of storytelling on it.