- Paperback: 624 pages
- Publisher: Little, Brown (5 Sept. 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1408706962
“Revolutionary in every sense.’
Tom Holland has had this date from the beginning. It has been a long time coming but what was once just a distant call, echoing from the beyond in Rubicon became inevitable by the time Shadow of the Sword hit the shelves and the Twitter-debates led into death threats. In his history of the fall of the Roman republic, Holland referenced the execution of an itinerate street preacher that grow to have more meaning than many of the deaths suffered by the emperors of Rome. Indeed, his new book carries on the theme of narrating a Rubicon moment, for the history of western Christianity is at it’s heart a tale of revolution. At some point around 2017 or so his tweets, a sure thermoriter of whatever he is writing about, began to take on a eclectically biblical sheen as he polled his followers about the prophets and regaled them with the semi-heretical thoughts of century’s of thinkers from ‘pro’ and ‘con’ camps.
Reading this book it struck me that though we tend to think of France and Russia when we talk of Revolutions, one of the greatest in world history occurred when over the course of many century’s a densely populated swathe of the world chose to believe in a common promise of an afterlife that came out of a dangerous backwater of the Roman Empire and grew to shape, in some way or another, everything that happened thereafter. Tom Holland’s new book is revolutionary in every sense.
Underpinning the fabric of western thought is Christianity, Holland argues, keeping up his revolutionary theme. The reason for this can be found in what Holland sees as the labour pains of the church. The initial idea of Christianity, which championed the poor and downcast turned everything that the western world had taken for granted on its head and it proved a rigorously subversive doctrine.
The teachings of Jesus offered a new kind of salvation and a new way to look at the world. Periodic bouts of persecution followed, which although never sustained, was what we would today call repression, as varying roman emperors championed, purged, and dismissed Christianity by turns. Persecution and repression was mixed with a great deal of confusion when the Romans embraced the faith as a state religion. The theological hierarchy of the church found themselves at odds, arguing about such topics as how Christians could remain true to their origins? How there could be such a thing as charity if there were no more poor? Could slavery really be an acceptable institution for a follower of Christ to be complicit in? Down to trying to rationalise and communicate the teachings and very divinity of Jesus and the Trinity for a international audience. The writers of the Torah, he writes, ‘formulated’ a divine covenant that would make sense to a geopolitical ancient audience much as the founding fathers of the USA would formulate a constitution to do the same.
These labour pains birthed the church and they were so acute and cut so deep into the very fibre of what it meant to be human; to seek purpose and to fear death, that with each successive convulsion layers of imperative significance began to be unconsciously dyed into the fabric of western society. No matter how rigorous the criticism, nor how indifferent the world has become, the more stringent the debate the more ingrained Christianity became. This is not only because it’s message speaks to a desperate need within the mass of humanity to be seen, but because unlike other major religions it has been made communicable and has bent and adapted to the culture that it in itself created. Rather than lose it, the western world has always sought to fit the message of Jesus into the changing world view of succeeding generations.
Christianity’s simple presence in society provoked the development of western thought. What is the nature of secularism and its place in the fabric of religion? What is it’s place in the world? What is sin in a world not of gentiles & Christians but of believers? In Dominion the rise of Christendom as a concept and the establishment of the church as an entity apart and separate from royalty and imperium was in itself the first revolution to rock the west.
It must be admitted that at times I wondered if what I was reading could truly find a ledge of continuity to swing from into the final summing up, or wether it would just end up as a good anecdote. Certainly within it all there is plenty to intrigue, such as how the Bible came to be and the strong Greek roots visible in the very contents of the old and new testaments.
There are times, I suspect, when in the ardour of narrative creation Holland sinks into the proverbial sand. There is a whiff of contextual dismissal as well in the force of some arguments. As an example, we may use his suggestion that God was once worshiped by the Jews as a bull. An interesting and academically attractive thought. To support it he cites 1 Kings 12.28 and Hosea 8.6 as inpirical evidence of that resolution. While no one would argue that a certain bovine sanctity is prescient within the early scriptures, it may be said that some of the footnotes are a little self conscious of the weak shoulders upon which this assertion is held up. The theory mentioned above ignores a great deal of the more logical explanation for the raising of the two golden calves by Jeroboam, but maybe that is the point. After all in its 30th verse does it not make clear that this was a sin, and did not the psalmist openly mock the re-enactment of Aaron’s folly at mount Sinai? The passage in Hosea is a passage which damns apostasy with gleeful vigour, for in the preceding verses the prophet begs for mercy as ‘with their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. Your calf is rejected O Samaria … an artisan made it; it is not God the Calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces.’
If anything all this should have gone towards his argument that the Jews saw life as one long trail of sin, from the Apple in the garden to the Calf on the mountain. True, the Jews may well have once worshiped a graven image of God, but it was called sin and counted against them. Yet Holland, captured by the fancy that God existed to the ancient Jews in multiple forms, both benign and cruel, hammers and crafts his own image of a murky past where the God of Israel was legitimately idolised as a beast.
Another early theme is to offer a theology that God once fought for control of the heavens with other supernatural beings. Certainly the Jews of the Old Testament entertained household deities as is seen in the story of Jacob. God might well also be translated from old texts in the sense of all gods but such a linguistic ambiguity might merely further the idea of that long, wide, road from apostasy.
Sometimes the revelations which are meant to surprise, come as no surprise. For instance Holland hints strongly that God had once been one of many ‘gods’ in the eyes of his chosen people who came to dispose of the others. The scriptures tend to be quite suggestive of the many spiritual powers at work in the world and the heavens. argument for God as the one and only is that of coming to accept him as the one and only sovereign, it is not to the exception of the existence of other ‘gods of men’. It seems clear that while the Jews proffered allegiance to one God as their own, their rejection of the others was not based on a lack of knowledge of the existence of other spiritual powers, but of the supremacy of their own over the others. It is generally accepted that whenever Jewish scripture refers to God over all, the ‘all’ represents heaven, earth and the children of Israel, the chosen all, not ‘gentiles’. Thus when a psalm speaks of God and gods, it is essentially placing those lesser beings under the feet of the Almighty.
Yet Holland keeps mostly to the argument, prevalent, it must be said amongst zealots, of the existence of a single divine being without exception. It occurred to me that the Jews, (or perhaps this is a more Christian outlook, forming part of the said revolution) were capable of recognising a spiritual universe at work, that in itself was under the influence of personally unknown spirits, worshiped as gods by unclean foreigners. The argument becomes somewhat more circular when he semi-concludes that in some distant theology, God made himself master of the heavens and all the beings in it, both good and evil. By which means he concludes his roving discourse on the clash of the idea of a merciful and avenging God, without quite saying it; that God is a testing God.
The ambiguity of the author’s graceful prose is useful for such an emotionally charged subject. Some of it will be outright provoking, though not in an obvious way. Holland, being an artful fellow, rarely outright challenges something, he massages it into flexibility. Thus Moses, whose grave cannot be found and whose deeds are recorded only in one place, is suggested, though never declared, to never to have existed.
He strives to find a new interpretation of how the scriptures have been interpreted, and wonders at what they were before. A lead objective being to try and lay out the character of God, on a purely intellectual basis, and what made him different and indeed more special, more attractive to an ancient mind than any of the others. He begins this quest by examining why it was such a big deal to be crucified, and it emerges very quickly that he wishes to trace back from the indelible stains of the Christian experience, to see why the passage of centuries have left them patched and remade but unfaded. The blood of Christ, he might be prone to say, hasn’t blotted easily.
Moving with method the book rolls through the centuries, and layers of significance build and build. By it’s end we can reflect on it and for me I drew a few conclusions. One being that surely one of the greatest strengths that Christians can claim is the knowledge that the Dominion of God is still potent. Though many might declare that God is dead and that nothing is now sacred because we have science, though many philosophers, writers, and historians, Holland included, say that at some point or another they grew to prefer the gods of Greece and Rome, it is a sentiment that everyone knows to be glib. The gods of the classical past are amusing, sterile things of fable, fertile in the realm of story but little else, save for the vertiginous potency of distant imagination. But neither they, nor anyone else believes in them any more than they believe in a work of theatre. Yet on a daily basis a vast index of western humanity will stub their toe, break a plate, or communicate surprise by invoking the name of God, Jesus or Mary. Truly, the name of God still weighs both light and heavy in the everyday life of the Dominion once called Christendom.
What can be argued is alive. And Holland proves, above everything else, perhaps, that one of the great legacies of Christendom is the ancient love of debate. Dominion is by turns awed, horrified, reverential and irreverent towards it’s subject. It is a fascinating journey from the Cross to the iPhone. An eye opening and thought provoking read about the revolution at the heart of western thought.