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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 2

25 centuries of Christian history

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

Tom Holland | Basic Books | 2019 |624 pages


Reading Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, one is tempted to exclaim, “The grand narrative is dead. Long live the grand narrative!” Dominion charts the history of Christianity, spanning 2,500 years of the faith’s engagement with humanity. It is designed to show how our most basic presuppositions have been shaped by the teachings of Christ and the apostles. 

Holland writes that he set out to “explore how we in the West came to be what we are, and to think the way we do.” This outlook conflicts sharply with notions that Christianity has lost its hold on the Western mind. Even to make the assertion that Judeo-Christian principles shaped modern society brings forth a series of outraged denials. A predictable series of questions follows in retort: Is not Christianity in decline? Are we not living in an increasingly post-Christian world? What are we to say about the “rise of the nones”? Are not millennials and members of Generation Z staging a mass exodus from the churches? Is it not a fact that Christian mores are a thing of the distant past, mere relics of an America once dominated by a Protestant consensus that is now long gone?

Perhaps some of this is true. Christianity, if measured by church attendance or adherence to the doctrinal precepts of any orthodox understanding of the faith, is in decline in many places in the Western world and has been for some time. Still, a large body of scholarship proves that reports of Christianity’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The enduring cultural and social impact of the Christian faith has been chronicled in works like Rodney Stark’s Victory of Reason and his America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists. We could add to this works like Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom and his book Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made Our Modern World. 

From Stark, Jenkins, and many other thinkers—whose ranks now include Holland—we learn that terms such as “post-Christian” are ill-informed by history. In violation of the multicultural philosophy that dominates academia, prophets of Christianity’s imminent extinction ignore the demonstrable growth of Christianity outside the West. This continuing conversion of the non-Western world is expertly detailed by Mark A. Noll in Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia and From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story.

Reading their work alongside Holland’s, we would learn that in the history of Christianity, the church has weathered profound threats to its existence: wars, pestilences, corruption, moral failures, doctrinal divisions, widespread persecution, revolutions, social upheavals, political uprisings, economic disruptions, intellectual challenges, and technological advancements. Through them all, the faith has not only survived, but thrived—much to the consternation of its enemies. 

Holland joins his voice to many others who have argued that Christianity is basic to human existence, that its influence is much broader and more resilient than we often assume. They collectively argue that, despite the generational shifts that we in the West are experiencing—shifts which appear to highlight the growing irrelevance of the Christian message for modern youth—the same Christian message continues to advance. 

The chief value of Holland’s work, and others like it, is that it presents the history of Christianity as a grand narrative. In so doing, Dominion departs markedly from the spate of atomized personal stories and postmodern epistemologies of identity that so often dominate academic history. Holland’s broad scope classifies Christianity as an “inescapable” influence on modernity. 

This work is not a church history textbook but rather a coherent story of the growth of the faith through the twists and turns of often-obscure events over the course of 25 centuries. Holland begins his history with the Persian invasion of Greece in 479 B.C. and ends it in 2015 with references to mass migration, the #MeToo movement, Charlie Hebdo, and the effects of secularism. Throughout his sweeping account of a period that includes eons of the human experience, the deepening indelibility of Christianity’s influence on the West is the abiding theme of Dominion. Holland does not recount the familiar chronology of Christian history from the first century to the twenty-first century, following the familiar grooves of persecution, institutionalization, theological development, reformation, and the like. Instead, he often assumes that his reader is already familiar with these well-worn paths. His panoramic epic guides the reader through the history of the Christians by going down little-known alleys to present the coherent theme of pervasive Christian influence. 

Holland is a brilliant storyteller, and his book is a grand and great story. Still, while Holland achieves coherence in general—no small achievement for a work spanning such an unfathomable time period—he often jumps around in his chronology while developing his chapters. In doing this, it is necessary for the reader to have a fair level of comfort with Western history in order to appreciate and be convinced of his overall theme. At the same time, Holland’s style is what sets his work apart from scholars whose works are similar in theme, including Stark, Jenkins, and Noll. 

In 2014, David Brooks lamented a “spiritual recession” among Americans as they seemed to be abandoning, and even disparaging, lofty liberal ideals that transcend the individual experience. Six years later, we can see that Brooks’ lament remains appropriate. But to those who would express a similar concern for the church, a work like Holland’s offers comfort by demonstrating that the power of the Christian message transcends the peculiarities of passing human circumstances. Dominion is an important work for this moment in our culture, which sees the still-Christian West threatened with the undermining of the very institutions which have upheld it and made such an undeniable and enduring benefit to the entire human race. 

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John D. Wilsey, Ph.D. is Affiliate Scholar in Theology and History at the Acton Institute. He is Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America (Pickwick, 2011) and American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015); he also edited Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous work, which recently appeared under the title Democracy in America: A New Abridgment for Students (Lexham, 2016). Wilsey is 2017-18 William E. Simon