“DOMINION: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.”
By Tom Holland. Basic Books, 624 pages. $40.
Christianity is the largest religion on Earth. Although Christianity has been a powerful political force through the ages, it has not always held such a position of numerical or social primacy. Tom Holland has crafted a history of Christianity from its beginnings to recent times — presenting it as a revolutionary religion that has transformed the world over the past 2,000 years.
Holland begins “Dominion” by establishing the context of the beginnings of this new means of building and nurturing relationships among like-minded people and their deity — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and David and, through the house of David, the arrival of a man who would revolutionize religious and political life around the world.
After the arrival and short life of Jesus of Nazareth (the Christ), Holland focuses on the early leaders of this new movement. His initial focus is the work of Paul (né Saul of Tarsus) whose epistles (and those written by his followers but attributed to him) comprise most of the New Testament in the Christian Bible.
Those epistles became an outline for proper behavior for the churches of Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica and the Hebrew Christian. He also wrote pastoral letters to saints Timothy, Titus and Philemon — guidelines used by those who have worshiped Christ over the ensuing millennia.
The writings of Paul are an important foundation for Holland’s story, and in “Dominion” we encounter Paul’s influence at critical times in the evolution of Christian worship. Paul provides the main current of a river of theology flowing from its origin in Judea through the Levant into central Europe and the English isles, and to China and the Indian subcontinent.
Joining Paul to broaden this river of theology are other tributaries: Augustine, St. Martin, Alcuin, Aquinas, Pope Gregory VII, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and even John Lennon among many others. With the passage of time, Christianity saw leaders emerge whose work would swell the stream and also change its direction.
Holland focuses on those who made significant impact — people who sought government endorsement during the Roman Empire and those who would violently separate church from state as Christianity began to gain broader support.
The stream’s path and the nature of its contents have been influenced by those who were not followers of Christianity: Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, the French Revolution to name a few. And whatever flowed into the stream, or changed its course, it never lost its Pauline nature.
One of the factions of Protestantism that arose during the English Reformation was the Digger movement which refused to recognize private property. It was led by Gerrard Winstanley and Holland’s description of Winstanley may sound familiar:
“His foes might dismiss Winstanley as a dreamer; but he was not the only one. The occupation of St. George’s Hill was a declaration of hope: that others some day would join the Diggers, and the world would be as one.”
Holland would return to John Lennon and the Beatles in a chapter the book’s end and a discussion of the song “All You Need is Love” as an expression of the essence of Christianity — recalling the words of Jesus and Paul (the saint, not the Beatle).
Holland’s survey of the history of Christianity takes the reader on an informative and enlightening journey along the stream of Pauline theology from its wellspring in the Levant into all parts of the globe. On this ride, you will encounter many of the currents that accelerated and changed the direction of that stream, and you will be amazed by the journey.
For much of Holland’s story, the Roman Catholic Church is a major character. After having been established as the church of Rome, its power grew until Pope Gregory VII, in the Middle Ages, declared that the church was independent of the state (he even excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor). Indeed, the Roman Church was so powerful, that its practices became the target of Martin Luther and others who followed him as part of the Reformation.
Two new books complement ‘Dominion’
To see how the Reformation has lately affected the Roman Church, you may want to read a new book by George Weigel: “The Irony of Modern Catholic History; How the Church Rediscovered Itself & Challenged the Modern World to Reform.” (Basic Books, 322 pages. $30.)
Weigel looks at the past two centuries and confesses that the church faces a time when reform and purification are necessary. He shows how coming to terms with its own failings, the church has become stronger by making a commitment to human flourishing. Weigel chronicles the relatively recent new reformation begun within the church by its leaders.
With Europe solidly in the fold and before the Lutheran movement, the church was a major player in expanding European influence around the globe, including China. Jesuit astronomers were called to China to help solve a problem with fixing the Chinese calendar. While there, they believed that they had made significant inroads into China on behalf of the Christian religion.
The Chinese emperor maintained his supremacy, in part, by appearing to control such events as eclipses. He needed to have the calendar problem solved in order to maintain that supremacy, and his staff were clever at making the Jesuits believe that their message was being received. The inscrutable Chinese never abandoned their Confucian principles. Holland provides a masterful synopsis of this exchange and the Chinese strong adherence to classical Chinese philosophies.
A detailed examination of how the Chinese remained immune to outside influences such as Christianity is told in a new book by Roel Sterckx, Cambridge University’s Needham Professor of Chinese History in his new book: “Ways of Heaven; An Introduction to Chinese Thought.” (Basic Books, 512 pages. $35.)
Holland’s “Dominion” provides the casual reader of history and the religious and historical scholars with a history of the development of Christianity an enjoyable, readable story which will put into context many of the ways in which the Christian religion has influenced our past and our present.
“Dominion” will send those inclined to scholarship to the library to learn more about the people and events in this fascinating history.