How Christianity Made the Western Mind: Joel Virgo Reviews Tom Holland image

How Christianity Made the Western Mind: Joel Virgo Reviews Tom Holland

The title “popular historian” might commonly bring to mind the equivalent of a tabloid hack, who won’t let facts spoil the yarn he’s spinning. If we imagine an author with no patience for scholarly rigour, it seems the wrong category for Tom Holland. His books do read like novels—good novels—but he’s not skipped the research. His latest book, Dominion, perhaps his magnum opus, could be mistaken for a standard history of the western church, but in fact it’s simultaneously less ambitious and more. Holland presents the modern west as largely bequeathed to us by the transforming interruption of Christianity. Our cultural norms, morals, sentiments, processes of scientific investigation, value judgements—even the ones on which we presume when we reject and abuse Christianity—are fruit from the tree of Christianity. It is the water in which we swim, consciously or not, willingly or not.

Holland presents a series of key developmental stages in the relationship between the western church and western culture. His exceptional gift for compelling narrative, often built-up from obscure anecdotes to sweeping epochal shifts, makes the landscape of the book frequently fascinating. But to this he adds superbly crafted passages of insight and observation, each supporting his overarching themes and argument. It’s one of the most stimulating books of history you’re likely to come across.

Holland does not claim to be a believer (though he has come close in some recent interviews), which perhaps makes some of his perspectives more remarkable. I am not very used to reading popular histories that give attention to Augustine’s insistence on the city of God as a pilgrim community distinct from the secular realm, or on John Calvin’s passion for social equity, or on Oliver Cromwell’s pioneering insistence on religious toleration, or on the biblical roots of the civil rights movement, or on the deeply theological (again, Calvinistic) basis for apartheid’s refutation as heresy. This list could go on and on. Holland does the work of many evangelical apologists, by sweeping away myths (e.g. Galileo as heroic martyr for ‘science’, oppressed by wicked Christianity; the Nazis as vaguely quasi-Protestant). To say that this makes the book refreshing is an understatement. At times it is almost breathtaking. Watching him debunk so many entrenched notions can be like watching a gang of seemingly invincible school bullies KO’d in succession—but strangely by the nerd who gets straight A’s for every history paper.

But it’s not just the much needed record-straightening that makes Dominion especially insightful. It’s also Holland’s uncommon grasp of some essential qualities at Christianity’s very heart. He is looking for what made Christianity’s stamp on the world so particular, so he goes to the centre. What is the nature of this pebble, whose ripples still lap the shores of the lake, two millennia on? He seems to have answered that question pretty accurately: the potency is in the centrality and the uniqueness of the cross. For Holland, the cross of Jesus is what made Christianity unthinkable, shameful and disgusting, but, by the same ticket, successfully revolutionary.

There are passages that read rather like some of history’s great expositions of 1 Corinthians 1 & 2. Holland sees that in the cross we have God presented as the oppressed one, the suffering one, the underprivileged one. So we have the ultimate basis for inclusion, concern for the weak and for the outsider, and for the ultimate cancellation of our false measures of greatness. Into a world where oppression was legitimised by superiority of strength and honour, a world in which it was self evidently true that all men were not equal, came the crucified God, and, within time, the world’s ‘strongest’ nation-state was built on the ‘self evident’ truth that ‘all men are created equal’. Holland plainly shows the relationship between these disparate events, demonstrating that even the church’s notorious human rights abuses can only be understood as such in a culture coloured (Nietzsche might have said ‘tarnished’) by the message of the cross. Dominion provides a view of the jagged hole that the cross of Jesus ripped through history.

As a historian, Holland doesn’t go into the philosophical implications of his insight, but he leads us near to questions (assiduously ignored by many atheists and sceptics) about the ontology of ethics. The moral grid assumed by post-enlightenment crusaders for liberty, equality and fraternity simply cannot be untethered from human history, and specifically our Christian heritage (although as he shows, contemporary institutions such as the UN, in efforts to globalise and formalise these values, will certainly keep all evidence of Christian influence away from their branding). In a brilliant moment, Holland presents liberalism’s myth of ‘enlightenment values’ as an alternative virgin birth narrative. In tracing the historical roots of modern western moral sensibilities he echoes Larry Siedentop and Michael Burleigh but, in showing the weak position of moralistic opponents of Christianity, he seems almost to channel Chesterton, Lewis, Francis Schaeffer or Tim Keller.

Holland has made the west his focus in Dominion. It’s only one book. It might be fascinating for someone to expand his project by unfolding the long term Christian influence in the non-western contexts of the Orthodox churches (routinely overlooked by western chroniclers). The differences and similarities would be instructive. However, I’d not expect many to do this with the insight of Tom Holland.

Although I’m praising Holland here for his understanding of Christian DNA, a few observations grew on me as I read. In some places, Holland sees such a broad range of cultural elements as legitimately Christian that he begins to ‘baptise’ features of western culture which actually contradict one another. The idea of cultural evolution plays a big part in his thinking (this becomes reminiscent of ‘trajectory hermeneutics’). He is alert to tensions here (e.g. Merkel’s radically inclusive policy in the refugee crisis and Victor Orban’s cautious and protective response are both shown as Christian heritage being expressed). The role of the state, and especially state violence are also problematic in telling the story of western Christianity. But that was bound be a bit perplexing.

What’s more troubling is Holland’s willingness to see modern progressivism (‘wokeness’) as more or less an evolution of Christian ethics. It’s here that the elasticity stretches to breaking point. If a line of evolution can be shown between a Judeo-Christian worldview and contemporary progressivism (think identity politics and critical theory), it has involved some pretty monstrous mutations. When, on the basis of this woke ideology, a doctor is sacked by an employment tribunal which rules that belief in Genesis 1.27 is ‘incompatible with human dignity’, we are no longer seeing a practice of Christian altruism that likes to stay covert in the secular space. We are beginning to see something else slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Like Tertullian asking what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, we must often ask (and sometimes it is enough just to ask): what has this ideology to do with the gospel?

And gospel (good news) is perhaps the key word. Tom Holland is remarkably insightful to see the cross as so central to the Christian idea of God, of history and meaning; but grace and forgiveness for the individual penitent (what makes the cross good news and not just good example) plays a smaller part in his account of the faith. I may have missed this in my reading but, as yet, I wonder if it is a blind spot in his otherwise broad vision. The liberal progressive project is intent on reducing human relationships to power dynamics. It might be argued that to identify and champion the most oppressed is always to bring the equity of Eden, the anger of the minor-prophets and the glorious redistribution of the Magnificat into the 21st century. But if this is understood only in a context of power in horizontal relationships, if it is not preceded by the more urgent matter of each individual’s desperate need for a merciful and forgiving God, we are headed for an increasingly shrill and pharisaic culture, in which the cross has been hollowed of its sweetest meaning and virtue is merely for signalling. This would be no Christian culture at all.

According to Paul it is of first importance that Christ died and rose for our sins (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). If atoning sacrifice and physical resurrection are eroded from Christianity, we don’t have a developed Christianity, we have Christianity gone bad. And the influence of that “Christianity” on the west, or wherever, will be poisonous.

This is a guest post by Joel Virgo, Senior Pastor at Emmanuel Church, Brighton. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoelVirgo.

← Prev article
Next article →