Dominion - a critical review

You can never escape your past – or at least your Christian past. Such seems to be the central idea in Tom Holland’s aptly named book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. But is the idea alarming or reassuring? It will depend on how the reader views the world. Whichever you think, it would be hard to begrudge the author anything less than the highest praise for this superbly narrated history of Europe and the West’s religious and cultural heritage in which he traces its influence down the ages from Jesus (and before) to the #MeToo campaign.

Dominion CoverHolland contends that every idea, every event, practically every thought is either a development from, or a reaction against the influence of the world’s central defining life: the life of Christ. Yet he writes as an unbeliever about ‘the most influential framework for making sense of human existence that has ever existed’ (519). Like Yuval Noah Harari and Jordan Peterson he knows that absence of meaning will be both the greatest threat and greatest fear of humanity in the twenty-first century. Both his Preface and his final chapter suggest that he personally regrets the loss of it.

A historian with a novelist’s gifts

Holland has the rare gift of making history into story and he weaves the pictures in his tapestry with a novelist’s care and attention to telling details. Not since, perhaps, John Buchan’s Montrose or Augustus has a historian created such a feel of the age by the deftness of his selection of scene, by sentence arrangement and by the suspension of information. He is a master at choosing the right psychological moment in order to make the greatest impact on his reader. His characteristic method in opening each chapter is to choose a particular moment in a life or a campaign: the sudden collapse of a tower, a ship gliding into a harbour, a pirate attack, Lady Elizabeth cleaning the sores of the sick in hospital. He captures brilliantly, in the most dramatic syntax, how pivotal moments in history changed not only the lives of those present, but the rest of us afterwards: ‘The Mediterranean was now a Saracen sea. Its waters were dangerous for Christians to sail. The world was cut in half. An age was at an end’ (181). Such passages work on us as if we were present not only at a captivating illustrated lecture but almost like a novel, as if we were there. Clipped sentences decreasing in length, imposing in their monosyllables, heighten the immediacy of the drama.

The dramatic tone is present prior even to the first chapter. Using the telling image of the construction of Rome’s first heated swimming pool which exposed the stinking bodies of slaves dumped in a ditch, Holland moves swiftly to the gladiatorial arenas and from there to other punishments, in particular crucifixion. He does not spare us the horror and humiliation of it. No other fate was considered more shameful or contemptible. If his aim is to shock, he has some success here. However, his more historical motive is to awaken his audience to the strangeness of history, especially Christian history, and most especially the moment of its inception. A beginning inspired by events ‘so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely’ (xv). It is therefore quite extraordinary that we have any written accounts at all of the process of crucifixion. Holland sees and makes the point forcibly that for a religion to grow out of such an event was, and in some sense still is, unthinkable. And yet it happened. To my mind, however, the author does not quite emphasise enough the counter-cultural and unprecedented way that the four writers who recorded the life of Christ make the events of the final week of his life (including his words from the cross, and some of his agony) absolutely central to their picture (xvi–xvii). And this is made more strange when we reflect that, unlike the Romans, the Jews had a theological objection to anyone suffering such a punishment. To make such a victim into the central and divine figure of an entirely new religious system initially understood to be for the Jews only was beyond imagining – until it took place. For even the Roman world, Holland reminds us, would see such a belief as ‘scandalous, obscene, grotesque’ (xviii). For the Jews it was not ‘merely blasphemy, it was madness’ (xviii). The apostle Paul would later describe the cross as a ‘stumbling block’ (scandalon in Greek) so Holland is precise in his choice of word here – though he does not mention that scandalon is Paul’s word (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was only centuries later that crucifixion became an acceptable theme for any artists to depict.

Objectivity is the declared intention

At the end of the book Holland says that he tried to be as objective as possible in the writing of it, and this is a fair claim. Of the burial of Jesus he writes that ‘The accounts are not implausible’ (xvii). Of the Resurrection accounts, however, this reviewer feels Holland is less exacting of the texts. Holland suggests rightly that the border between human and divine was seen as more porous or permeable then than now and as a result, a mortal becoming a god was not of itself shocking. Heracles, Romulus, Julius Caesar himself had been immortalised. Augustus was divi filius son of a god.

But what Holland fails to do is to distinguish the sort of contexts (and texts) in which such claims were made and the way in which they were made. Intelligent Romans, many of whom were not of Caesar’s party, not only did not believe he was a god, but did not believe in the actuality of the pantheon it was (politically) suggested he had been elevated to. Earlier, Heracles and Romulus were part of the mythology of two great states but were written of in remote antiquity, anonymously, and quite unlike the genre of realistic historical prose that the Gospels and New Testament letters present. In addition, what the Greeks understood by immortality was the escape of the soul from the imprisonment of the corrupt body. The idea of the resurrection of a body was remote, even impossible, in Greek thinking. Moreover Paul’s first letter to Corinth (not doubted by any serious scholars to be anything but genuine) was written in affirmation of the resurrection only twenty years after the event. It was sent to a mixed Jewish and gentile community at a time when many were alive who could remember those astonishing ‘forty days’ of appearances. Such readers would deny their reality if they felt Paul was lying. Holland does not explore any of these important distinctions between cultures in this instance.

Christian roots now lost to view

To be fair to the author, in a book with a sub-title as grand as ‘The Making of the Western Mind’, it would be impossible to cover every issue. Holland aims to show us how we came to be what we are and think as we do today (xxiv). So saturated are we in Christian concepts and assumptions, he shows, that most of us have no idea of their origins, their significance, or the alternatives. He deals very well with this in the later part of the book but does not mention anywhere the role of Mathew Arnold, the Victorian poet and essayist who was important for England in this sector of the history of ideas. Those to whom Christian history is important insofar as it either helps validate or undermine their belief in the goodness of God’s purposes – and of his people – would do well to understand what the secular world is missing. Namely, that human rights and Western values in general have no validation in nature once Christian beliefs have been peeled away.

Holland’s early chapters are very powerful in depicting a world in which compassion, equality, freedom and respect based on ‘the golden rule’ simply had no place whatever. The pre-Christian world was quite unabashed in its cruelty and the book demonstrates that fact beyond argument. What is more strange than that, however, (and not mentioned by Holland) is the fact that as little as two generations ago this was widespread knowledge and taken for granted among academics and the historically literate.[1] Today it is something that a historian has to re-assert just to get the discussion off to a meaningful start. Holland’s study of antiquity taught him that the values of the Greek Leonidas or the Roman Julius Caesar were utterly alien to his own, even though he was (and is) a long-term sceptic of religious faith of any description (xxviii). The roots of Christian belief, or at least its impact on how we view the cosmos, are so profound and pervasive that they have been lost to view. The idea that the oracle at Delphi might give ethical instruction to anyone would have been bizarre in that world and ridiculous to a classically educated graduate up until the middle (or a little later) of the twentieth century: ‘The gods…never thought to regulate morals’ (15). Compare that with the moral injunctions in the Torah, the prophets, the Gospels and the New Testament letters and you begin to get the picture that Holland paints through the book. The idea that the world was a battleground between good and evil would not have occurred to a general such as Pompey or Caesar. It is not only that if God does not exist, all things are permitted (which is itself a reaction to Christian belief) but that the world is simply a struggle for power where the strong will win. The pre-Christian world was curiously Darwinian.

Distinctive monotheism

Refreshingly, in the chapter ‘Jerusalem’ Holland gives due emphasis to the emergence of monotheism as a cultural force, something which Harari singularly fails to do in Sapiens. Before Troy was founded, in Mesopotamia Abram made the startling discovery ‘that there existed, unique, intangible and omnipotent, just the single deity’ (34). Along with the Jews’ uniquely revered scriptures, this concept of a single god not only gave rise to the world’s greatest religious influences but also allowed the Jews a continuing existence despite their repeated exiles. Wherever they went, their scriptures and their God went with them. The impact of such a belief on the world’s history can hardly be exaggerated. Though those scriptures chronicled rebellion at least as much as submission, the God of Israel ‘was a deity with whom it was possible to have a profoundly personal relationship’ (43).

Whether that deity orchestrated the conquest of Canaan, or whether it was more a case of the scribes recording what they felt they should for the sake of Israel itself, is something Holland discusses in a way that should interest thoughtful Christians faced with this awkward part of the Bible. He is equally thought-provoking in looking at how monotheism brings the problem of evil into acute focus. The twin conviction of the Jews that their God was both omnipotent and all-just was revolutionary: ‘Never before had such incongruities been so momentously combined within a single deity: power and intimacy, menace and compassion, omniscience and solicitude’ (50). Needle-point precision is achieved here in the way that C.S. Lewis managed while starting from a different premise. Lewis’s memorable description of Aslan as good but certainly not a tame lion springs to mind. Perhaps Christians are sometimes rather reluctant to accept an entirely objective picture of the God of the Bible. It is a welcome change to find a writer from outside a strictly Christian worldview who is able both to do justice to texts and be theologically literate. A good, if simple, example of this is where Holland understands that the commandments are not just instructions but an expression of God’s identity, a call to men and women ‘to share in his nature’ (53). That is a useful reminder to us all: whatever we may think of how Christians behave, there has never been a God like this, one who loves jealously and expects the highest possible moral behaviour in return for his protection and guidance. Moreover, for God to enter a covenant with his people rather than just being called as witness to worldly ones was without precedent.

The Romans, in absorbing the Jews into their universal empire, had taken aboard the ship of state not some shipwrecked strays but a driving force which would, all too quickly for some, suddenly be found to be captaining and directing the fleet.

A subversive gospel

Chapter Three, Mission, depicts Paul in his context almost as Tom Wright might and affords a wide range of insights to the first century world not usually found in, for instance, a biblical commentary. Instead of defining Paul by the controversies of our day, Holland sees the larger picture of just how controversial he was in his own. Subversive of the cult of Augustus and of the Torah, Paul was the bringer of euangelia (good news) that emanated not from palace or fortress but from an instrument of torturous execution, an advocate of what was seen by Greeks and Romans as repellent folly. Against this backdrop Paul brought a message of a universal love without borders, without divisions. Suddenly, to be at the bottom of the pile, to be degraded and abused, was to share in Christ’s glory in place of being of no worldly account. He told the Galatians, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). The sheer monstrosity of the idea twenty centuries ago is now hard to grasp. It gave Christians a status that Nero never could, even when he provided the people with games and street parties for a day. ‘Only the world turned upside down could ever have sanctioned such an unprecedented, such a revolutionary announcement’ (69). Holland’s dramatic style combined with his scholarship can bring a startling freshness to over-familiar, if much loved, texts. The Pauline opus, Holland asserts, consists of the most revolutionary letters ever written – a huge claim but one substantiated by what resulted from them. Paul saw that history now had a new beginning, but its reverberations through a world far larger than Paul could know were beyond his imagining. It is worth saying at this point that this is something Christians today make far too little of, mainly because they are not taught to realise it – either from history (what school or university syllabus would point to such a thing?) or from the pulpit. Some hard questions need to be asked by the Church of itself here.

It is also refreshing to be reminded that the Gospels (written after the earliest letters) are a new departure in literary form, a genre that is suited to their central character for ‘No one quite like him had ever before been portrayed in literature’ (86). They depicted a man who wept, sweated and bled and yet is presented as ‘the Son of God’ and unconquered by a death which came to him in devastating humiliation for the victim, his family and his followers. The explicit and implicit claims to historical veracity which the Gospel writers make also pose unbelievers with problems of a rather technical kind. If the accounts are fabrications then four Middle Eastern first-century writers, not known to be authors outside their biblical writings, invented some of the conventions of realistic prose fiction (the novel) produced a millennium and a half later only by highly literate northern Europeans. If they are not fabrications then something very, very strange happened in a small Roman province around AD30. Holland does not enter this arena, but his book raises these questions quite brilliantly.

Persecution in the amphitheatres, and heroism

The narrative of Dominion continues to combine enthralling detail with historical perspective. Few such sweeping histories bother much with the writers of the immediately post-New Testament period but Holland is clear about the seamless thread of historic belief: Gospel-writer John had at his feet Polycarp who, in turn as an old man had at his feet the young Irenaeus, priest in Lyon at the time of the great persecutions (AD177) in the Rhone Valley. Irenaeus was instrumental in establishing the centrality to the canon of the four Gospels and in countering heresy. This sort of provenance of tradition and text meant that the Christians who suffered in the colosseums of Gaul could feel a closeness to their master who had suffered likewise. It is a sobering and salutary experience to stand, as I have, in those colossal arenas and to imagine the noise, the bestial hostility, the stench of blood, and the mutilated bodies of the Christian victims casually tortured for the holiday amusement of the local populace. The details, even on the display boards for tourists, are more shocking than the generally imaginative visitor can stomach. Yet, to realise this is essential to the realisation of the opposite enormity that was to take place within 150 years: Caesar himself would bow to the crucified master of the despised Christiani whom all had mocked for so long.

In this respect, Hollywood was right. This story had become the greatest ever told. Within twelve years of Constantine’s turning point in belief, the Council of Nicaea (AD325) had produced a statement which would unite peoples across the empire to a degree which rituals and laws had never yet achieved. It gave substance to an ideal which remains to this day (115). It was also, sadly, an ‘unpredictable and fissile source of power’ (118).

But before Holland gets on to the section called ‘Christendom’ he produces page after page of detail which serves to illustrate just how deeply Christian thinkers transformed antiquity. Porphyry, the third century Neoplatonist was an opponent of the Christians, but he noted that his opponents not only supported their own poor (a new idea) but the pagan poor as well. Without demur, Holland mentions the extraordinary width of Christian sympathy and compassion in collecting from their own scarce resources money for orphans, widows, those in prison, the shipwrecked (this was the first time I had heard this category – a sort of ancient RNLI) and the sick (121). Both Basil and Gregory were renowned for their labours in this but added a further dimension: they gave the poor and disadvantaged a precious dignity never before known in the ancient world: ‘Reflect on who they are… they have taken upon them the person of our Saviour’ (123). It was Basil who founded, in the mid-300s, the very first hospital. It included lepers, who might be greeted by the Bishop with a kiss. Gregory went so far as to describe slavery, hitherto a cornerstone of the ancient world everywhere, as ‘an unpardonable offence against God’ (124). Not many supported his view. An equally popular assumption was the normality of abandoning babies that were unwanted – for whatever reason. Few opposed the practice, but Basil and Gregory’s sister Macrina would tour the refuse tips to rescue infant girls and bring them up as her own.

Christian heroism of this kind – the renunciation of power and wealth in order to better emulate Christ’s compassion – was nowhere better exemplified than in Martin of Tours. Famously he gave half his cloak (capella), to a beggar, giving rise to both the word and the idea of a chaplain – the right person to have alongside you.The act itself, utterly alien to his class as the privileged son of a senior officer in the Roman army, can have derived from nothing save Jesus’s teaching which Martin was following. This was heroism – charismatic, compelling, crazy – of a kind that the heroes of old, whether Achilles or even ‘pious’ Aeneas could not emulate, indeed would not wish to. But it was done to exemplify Christ's dictum of the first becoming last; the last first (see e.g. Matthew 19:23–30). Though kings would defer to him, Martin spent his time caring for the poor, the sick, the suffering. As Holland remarks, there was now power in holiness (140). Had he time the author could have followed the theme through to Galahad, the chivalric code, Chaucer’s ‘parfit gentil knight’ and eventually to the Victorians and Lord Shaftesbury.

Before he has done with Antiquity, Holland manages to pick out some wonderful reminders (insights to those less familiar with the ground) about the gigantic developments of the first eight centuries, once called the Dark Ages. He reminds us that Augustine’s central message was, for all his moral sternness, one of love which reached out beyond the confines of Rome to the barbarians (a rare insight at the time); that both Augustine (of Hippo) and Origen were open in their non-literal interpretations of Scripture passages; that the word ‘secular’ means ‘of its time’ (and therefore ‘rapidly dated’ as G.K. Chesterton reminded us); that the medieval depiction of hell often derived more from Persia and paganism than from Scripture (155); that the origins of Islamic writing were very different from the way the Christian scriptures were formed (179–180). All of which is fascinating for a Christian reader, or indeed for anyone interested in the period.

The rise of Christendom

The middle third of the book is entitled Christendom and covers the period from the eighth century of Boniface and Bede through to Galileo in the seventeenth. Such an enormous period dealt with in a mere 160 pages needs a magisterial approach but the author’s eye for telling detail and his succinct commentary ensures that the whole section does not feel disjointed. Such actions as Boniface’s chopping down of the sacred oak, or the conversion of Eostre, the festival of the spring, into Easter, Holland shows to be emblematic of the rout of paganism and the totality of the Christian victory. The Church in Rome and Constantinople by AD754 was already so ‘august a presence’ (187) that people found it hard to remember that once upon a time it had not been there. Charlemagne may have been a warlord, but he was also perceived by the people as the anointed one of God, crowned by the Pope himself. Under the influence of the Northumbrian scholar, Alcuin, an utterly new idea took seed in an Emperor’s mind: true conversion was by persuasion not coercion, by the pen not the sword.

Little more than 250 years later, the Church was burning its first heretic in the history of the Latin West. Christian was persecuting Christian. Yet at the same time the Church became independent of the State (211) allowing it to be free of corrupt kings and emperors who would pollute it. The drive for purity therefore was paradoxically directly connected to a need to cut out the cancer that might destroy the whole. But diagnosis was never an exact science and many (all?) excisions were needless. And so it was to be until Europe, exhausted by the Wars of Religion, made peace with itself in 1648. So much had been lost but Christianity still endured.

Holland races across the centuries with breathtaking speed. There is no sensational debunking of heroes like Abelard or Francis for the sake of novelty; they are seen as the scholars and heroes they were – suffering loss and injustice like the rest of us, but still giants in whose debt and around whose feet we creep unknowingly today.

Figures as diverse as Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Columbus, Cortez and Las Casas are all woven, along with so many others, into the web of Christian heritage we all experience for good and ill. But rather than generalised statements of achievement or even influence Holland picks out their significance from the point of view of how the Christian mind was either reinforced, corrupted or seared by such huge names. The blood of the victims of the Aztec gods may have cried out for vengeance which Cortez delivered, but the Native Americans died in their millions because of the Spanish invaders (primarily through diseases such as smallpox which the invaders brought with them); and they did not trouble to win them for Christ by persuasion as Augustine or Alcuin would have. Instead, their gold was used to fund Spanish wars against France while the natives themselves were worked to death as slaves. That much is perhaps commonplace enough in the books. Where Holland differs from the mainstream is in what follows. He writes: ‘No people in antiquity…doubted their licence to slaughter and enslave the vanquished; but Christians could not so readily be innocent in their cruelty’ (291–2).

To justify their actions they had to turn to Aristotle rather than the Church Fathers for authority. The very fact that they needed such authority shows an underlying malaise about their actions that would find expression, if not in the soldiers’ consciences then in those of some of their observers. Bartolomé de la Casas was famously one of these. ‘They are our brothers, and Christ gave his life for them’ (292) he wrote, drawing on a tradition originating with Christ and expounded by Aquinas. But to the opponents of Las Casas, those outside Europe, outside Christendom, who had usefully lost the meaning of ‘catholic’ the barbarians were no better than monkeys.[2]

Protestant Reformation

Of course Holland has plenty to say about the Protestant Reformation, its origins and impact. He reminds us that Luther (now so often remembered for his intolerant attitude to peasants in revolt and to the Jews) ‘had opposed the burning of heretics well before self-interest might have prompted him to do so’ (298–9). His fear and dislike of the Jews is not understated but is balanced by the fact that there were some who felt sympathy, even admiration, for this much-abused people. Holland also understands the central Christian conversion experience that Luther underwent. Namely, the fact that despite his helplessness and sinfulness, he was still loved by God: ‘Afire with the intoxicating and joyous improbability of this, [he] loved God in turn’ (302). The reverberations of this fundamental truth ‘detonated’ across Christendom. It did nothing however to prevent the ‘godly vandalism’ of figures such as John Knox; worse still it inflamed those outside the experience till in 1572, thousands of Protestants were slaughtered on the streets of Paris by fellow ‘Christians’. Thus, the city that 400 years before had seen the engagement of brilliant Christian scholars in the translation of Aristotle allowing the rational investigation of the workings of the universe on a free footing had become a place like Lyon in AD177. There, in the arena, thousands of Christians were butchered for the pleasure of the mob and because of the sort of God they believed in. Holland misses, or does not point out, the irony that the Paris massacre took place on the day of St Bartholomew, whose name was shared by the Catholic peacemaker Bartolomé de Las Casas, who wanted to save the Native Americans just because they were humans.

This section of the book ends with a consideration of Galileo. Ever since the worldwide popularity of Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo (1943), this clash between science and the Vatican has been infamous. In the play, the Church plays the villain of the piece – presenting the hero scientist with the instruments of torture to secure a recantation of his heretical heliocentric ideas. Holland provides a much more historically accurate picture: ‘The entire debacle had been a concatenation of misunderstandings, rivalries and wounded egos’ (341). Galileo, though ‘supercilious and egocentric’, was a Bible-believing Christian – but the Pope needed to shore up his authority, having had it badly dented by Lutheran victories.

The century that followed may have found its thinking about the world confronted with many ways forward but what was ‘constant was that they all had their origins in Christendom’ (343).


In the final third of the book (Modernitas) there is no slackening of pace or of interest. For many readers this may be more accessible and of greater relevance to current situations than the earlier sections.

Holland begins with the Commonwealth period (1649–1660) and sees both sides in the English Civil War as fighting for the establishment of the country’s proper relationship with God; not just a matter of State but also something intimate, personal. He reminds us that Oliver Cromwell was ‘England’s first-ever Protestant head of state to support liberty of conscience’ (353). He might surely have left out the word ‘Protestant’. After the Peace of Westphalia (1648), European princes too had pledged not to compel the religious choices of their subjects, but Cromwell’s position was based on his reading of Scripture (e.g. Romans 14). It allowed him to entertain Roman Catholics at his table: few others would. But the pendulum would swing back and by 1662 the Act of Uniformity would marginalise all dissent. It was predictable then, that thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza would emerge, who considered fighting over religion to be idiocy. Functionally, Spinoza was an atheist but even he was ‘a man utterly saturated in Protestant assumptions’ (361).

By this stage of the book it is hard, if one looks at the wood rather than the trees, to avoid the impression that the Church has been in a state of constant revolution and reform. Febrile, passionate, ever looking for an unobtainable lasting purity, it has all too frequently been its own worst enemy while at the same time providing society around it with an unrivalled and constant source of purpose, direction and hope. It was true especially of those who looked to America to provide the virgin territory wherein to start afresh. Philadelphia may not have lived up to its name but by 1758, any Quaker found to be trading in slaves would be disciplined. That was not something Britain would achieve for another fifty years.

In France, Voltaire railed against the Church as an abomination, something to be erased from the world. But in England he found the multiplicity of different churches a source of enviable tolerance, without which there would be tyranny. In a curious sense therefore, he found that society needed God. ‘If God did not exist’, he famously said, ‘it would be necessary to invent him’. Virtue without terror was, for him, impotent. This allows Holland to divert lengthily into the writings of the Marquis de Sade, who, admittedly, illustrates Holland’s case that the rejection of theism means that human rights are seen for what they really are: a legal fabrication. The high-flown phrases of the American Declaration of Independence about ‘inalienable rights’ were ‘not remotely self-evident truths’ (384) as the document claims, but actually owe their expression to the book of Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) and nowhere else.

Odd omissions

The inclusion of de Sade somehow points up two extraordinary exclusions from the book which are surely serious omissions. Nowhere to my knowledge, in either the index or the main text, do the names John Wesley and William Wilberforce appear. Which is odd when one considers how much they altered Christian history and contributed to the ‘making of the Western mind’. It would be hard to overestimate the impact of Wesley on the eighteenth century in the UK and eventually worldwide. Several eminent historians noted that not only was he the greatest man of his times but that the fact that England did not suffer the depredations of revolutionary Europe was due to his influence.[3] Wilberforce’s story is currently better known and Archbishop Rowan Williams named him unhesitatingly as the greatest Briton of the last thousand years. Holland remarks that the commitment of the mass of the British public was unprecedented in its desire for the abolition of slavery but does not sufficiently explore where that desire came from: Wesley followed by Wilberforce. Omitting their role is equivalent to leaving out Churchill’s name from Britain’s Second World War effort.

The dangers of moral certitude

There is here, however, another warning for all possessed of certitude about the immutability of their moral stances. By the 1840s slavery, only decades earlier taken for granted across the globe (including by many Christians), was seen as savagely reprehensible by nearly all. If one thinks of how rapidly other strongly held convictions have melted away under force of law, it gives pause for thought. One might cite capital punishment, blood sports, corporal punishment and attitudes towards divorce, promiscuity or homosexuality as examples. If attitudes about these can change in a decade or less, what remains secure? But this is not an area that Dominion explores. Holland does, however, let us know that if non-abolitionist Christians had to change their certitudes about slavery and find reason in the Bible to do so no less did Islam. The difference between the two religions, Holland says, was that the new interpretations of the Qur’an were derived not from Muhammed, or Muslim jurists, but from the apostle Paul. He also applauds the abolitionist campaign for its lack of cynicism and for being at odds with Britain’s interests, both geopolitical and economic. In other words, its altruism. This volte-face moved slavery among Muslims from being an institution approved since Adam to being a concept which Islamic scripture condemned (417). The change took only twenty years to complete.

Shortly before the author plunges us into the maelstrom of Victorian ‘science’ he makes an important point again about the word ‘secular’. He has already told us of its ultimately Christian origins but now reminds us that the concept is not one of neutrality as so many today like to think. The word, he says, should act as a signpost to the fact that there are two worlds and to Christianity’s infinite capacity for evolution. The current reviewer would say that ‘secular’ reminds us that such a world is limited to the viewpoint of its own day. A viewpoint that cannot see beyond its own closed presuppositions and which enclose it in a tiny ‘windowless’ universe (as C.S. Lewis once said). These are surely useful ideas for Christians to be familiar with.

Victorian science

It is inevitable that Holland should deal at some length with the evolution debate despite its being tackled so many times. He refreshingly brings lesser known figures into the arena and the dramatic style does not flag: ‘Every night the professor would suffer from nightmares…the nerves of everyone on the expedition were drawn tight’ (419). No, not the voyage of HMS Beagle, but that of Edward Drinker Cope in the Montana Badlands. In a crisis of faith Cope finds, practically overnight, that natural theology, the mainstay of much apologetics had an ‘Achilles’ heel’ (422). A system that had long seemed designed in order and beauty, after Darwin, suddenly seemed to become evidence of the reverse. It is curious though (to this reviewer) that Darwin found it difficult to reconcile the presence of a parasitic wasp in the living body of a caterpillar with a beneficent omnipotent God. The argument seems too anthropomorphic, almost sentimental, if we do not accord a high level of sentience or consciousness to caterpillars. But perhaps Darwin was at that stage reticent to cite the example of cancers in humans which is certainly a stumbling block to many. Holland goes beyond this sort of detail to suggest that more profoundly, Darwin’s theory rested on the evidence that weakness meant extinction and that this challenged Jesus’s commendation of the meek and the poor, and undermined the conviction that the divine was to be found as much in the rejected as in the powerful. Darwin seemed to be saying that instead of humans being created in God’s image, there was no image to copy, only an endless series of adaptations. Yet Darwin knew that ‘the great cause of social reform was Christian through and through’ (426). He feared for the future and one wonders to what extent today’s society would be seen by him to be found wanting. I would venture that just as Christianity had challenged and then reversed Roman and Greek mores, so Darwinism, had it been taken hold of without the restraints and moral compass of an enduring intellectual Christian substructure, would have reversed our moral attitudes. Classical thinking about man’s nature would then have reasserted itself, thereby creating a very different view of man’s duty to humanity. After all, where other imperatives have temporarily submerged Christianity – such as Nazism, Marxist–Leninist theory or dictatorship in South-East Asia – any sort of weakness or compassion for those who are weak has been rigorously extinguished with the result being the eradication of millions, the greatest persecutions in history.


On one superb page (430), Holland makes a list of historical falsifications including the idea that Christians ‘with their fanatical hatred of reason and their determination to eradicate pagan learning’ had held the world back from progress. He concludes with a stinging indictment of popular attitudes to historical events: ‘That nothing is this narrative was true did not prevent it from becoming a widely popular myth’. He then deliciously adds that Darwin’s belief in universal laws comprehended by human reason in a world that was both beautiful and wonderful links him directly to the distant and saintly monk, Peter Abelard, in the twelfth-century University of Paris. In the explosion of learning which that persecuted originator of medieval disputation was so much responsible for, Abelard was hounded for his pursuit of ‘secular’ arts and his love of Eloise. I like to think Darwin would be delighted with the comparison.

Global conflict and closing chapters

In the closing chapters of the book a good deal is written about Nietzsche, who many Christians see as the epitome of their intellectual enemies. In many ways though, this German byword for atheism was prescient to a degree which Christians should accept, if not be grateful for. ‘As if morality could survive’, he wrote, ‘when the God who sanctions it is missing’ (448). Nietzsche understood that human dignity did not derive from nature but from the faith that the enlightenment philosophers believed they had banished. He knew that the cross of Christ was a scandal, a proclamation that the weak and suffering mattered. Such an idea was poison to a state which wanted to endure and be victorious. He admired the ancients precisely because they had no time for such idiocy. What to the apostle Paul was glory almost beyond description was to Nietzsche merely repellent. At least some British and German thinkers and theologians were able to see that these ideas had influenced Germany in the run-up to the First World War.[4] In fact, it is hard to conclude that the theories of Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche did not have anything to do with the causes of both global conflicts in the twentieth century. That being the case, (this reviewer believes) it is odd that Christians are often on the back foot when it comes to the causative relation between war and religion. The study of the two greatest conflicts in human history would suggest, not only that they were not religious conflicts but that the absence of religion was a significant part of their causation. Darwin removed for so many the idea of God’s image in man; Marx believed it was scientific fact that religion would disappear; Nietzsche told us God was dead. It is not surprising therefore that Hitler, with his patchy reading of science and philosophy, knew for a certainty that any ideas of universal morality had long been discarded. By 1937 he was envisaging the total elimination of the religion that stood in the way of his ambitions: Christianity. ‘Otherwise, Christianity might once again prove the bane of the blond beast’ (460). On the other side of the conflict it was the English Bishop George Bell who spoke out against the carpet bombing of German cities – Hamburg and Dresden. Once again, it was theology (and Christians trying to act out that theology), which was the restraining voice in time of war. This side of Christian history is seldom told in our own age.

Holland has an interesting ten pages on the influence of an Oxford professor who, after two World Wars ‘interpreted all of history as the record of human iniquity’ (461) and who wrote ‘the most widely read work of fiction of the twentieth century’ (470). In it ‘True strength manifested itself not in the exercise of power, but in the willingness to give it up’. The writer was of course J.R.R. Tolkien; the book, The Lord of the Rings. He does not mention that other Oxford don (later professor at Cambridge) whose influence might be considered equal: C.S. Lewis. Their relationship was certainly symbiotic if not always close. Lewis’s The Last Battle, a book at the opposite end of the scale in terms of length or grandeur, has an extraordinary imaginative power and sends the same message: there is victory in final defeat; gain through loss.

Even as Holland’s book draws to a close, ideas seem to cascade out of it. The sexual revolution, which the author can see has presented the churches with agonisingly difficult choices; Martin Luther King’s role in Civil Rights, ‘An orator of genius with an unrivalled mastery of the Bible and its cadences’ (474); a brief discussion of Empire (with a welcome understanding of the abyss between what the missionaries – including Livingstone – were trying to do and their white, plundering, commercially greedy compatriots); Mandela’s realisation that forgiveness might be the most devastating but constructive tactic of all. There is also a fair assessment of the threat from Islamism and how the West responded.

Whatever those responses were and are, Holland argues, Christianity is embedded deep inside them – often hidden from view. This is as true for Angela Merkel’s policy on immigration as it was for Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine proclaiming ‘the myth of Christ’s resurrection’ (505). For ‘battle-hardened’ secularists ‘it was easy to forget that secularism too was founded on a myth’, Holland writes (505). The magazine’s obscenities owe less to the Enlightenment and Voltaire, he suggests, than to the ‘first flush of the Reformation’ (506) which loved to trample on the religious superstitions of the Church – in the most graphic ways. Tradition in France had proved that the Catholic Church was capable of tolerating terrible blasphemies against their faith. Why then could Muslims not do the same, the magazine asked. To answer the question was to expose a mistake, the ‘core conceit’ of secularism, namely that ‘all religions were essentially the same’ (507).

#MeToo is, the author suggests, even more obviously the result of Christian influence and assumptions: the human body is not an object, a commodity for the use of those with more powerful bodies or minds. Two thousand years of Christian history proclaimed it and Harvey Weinstein felt the impact of disregarding that belief. But in the sophisticated pre-Christian world his behaviour would have been entirely unremarkable.

This book, however, is not in any sense unremarkable – whatever Holland’s critics may say. Indeed, those who don’t like his conclusions may wish that he wrote less irrefutably. Atheism does not go inevitably with liberalism; much that liberalism sought to cast as universal is nothing of the kind; Christianity has sent earthquake-like reverberations across the world; the power of its strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been; a myth can be true (Christians would add that history can inform mythology.) These hammer blows from his final pages are a tour de force and he ends, as he began, with crucifixion – as telling a frame for the book as any he could have chosen. Above all I like ‘The Christian revolution was wrought above all at the knees of women’ (519). That statement has so many implications, not least that if it is no longer being wrought there, where should the Church look to be bringing it about? In addition, for generations growing up without God, what might Nietzsche’s prescience foreshadow? If ‘meaning’ is to be humanity’s greatest need in the age of AI (as Harari and Peterson believe), how will it be found if we abandon ‘the most influential framework for making sense of human existence that has ever existed’? (519)

In the Middle Ages, Holland writes, ‘Anecdotes no less than homilies could serve to instruct the faithful’ (130). In the case of Dominion, the same can be said of history.


[1] My book, The Evil That Men Do: Faith, Injustice and the Church, (Sacristy Press, 2016) provides extensive evidence of this.

[2] Holland draws a similar lesson much later in the book when considering slavery and the British Empire. It was a Christian mindset, and the presence of guilt which meant that from 1833 our pursuit of slavers on the high seas was so assiduous. The British felt a moral imperative to serve ‘the Hands of Providence’ (414).

[3] For details see my book The Evil that Men Do: Faith, Injustice and the Church, (Sacristy Press, 2016).

[4] See Chapter 10 in my book The Evil that Men Do: Faith, Injustice and the Church, (Sacristy Press, 2016).