It makes for an exhaustive, demanding and hugely impressive interpretation of our past, bursting with fresh ideas and perspectives on every page. Holland even argues that the reason that the genocidal Nazis occupy prime position in “today’s demonology”, rather than the equally genocidal communists, is because communism is still a kind of warped Christianity, with its reverence for the proletarian underdog, while the Nazis routinely loathed this Jew-based religion.
... Dominionpacks an astonishing amount of stuff into its 500 pages on Christianity’s enduring influence. Holland has all the talents of an accomplished novelist: a gift for narrative, a lively sense of drama and a fine ear for the rhythm of a sentence. He also has an intense, sometimes rather grisly feel for the physical: the book is resonant with the cracking of bones, flaying of flesh and shrieks of small children tossed into fires. Some of this was inflicted on Christians, and some of it inflicted by them... You can, however, make a fetish or idol out of anything, as Freud instructs us. Such false gods fill every chapter of this illuminating study. Yet Holland is surely right to argue that when we condemn the moral obscenities committed in the name of Christ, it is hard to do so without implicitly invoking his own teaching.
He examines the anti-Christianity of Lenin and Hitler and the anti-Nazi Christianity of JRR Tolkien, the Christian character of John Lennon’s atheism and the role of Christianity in shaping the moral culture that gave birth to the #MeToo movement. There are many, many more brilliant insights and vignettes.
Dominion presents a rich and compelling history of Christendom. What makes the book riveting, though, is the devastating demolition job it does on the sacred history of secular humanism.
Holland brings the past to life through his characters, which are always vividly drawn, and with accessible scene-setting, which is always lush with detail. Yet the illustration of the conquest of the west by Christianity risks becoming so total that it explains everything and nothing: “There were many gateways, many roads,” writes Holland. “The only constant was that they all had their origins in Christendom.”
The book has already usefully ruffled feathers; contemporary liberals do not particularly like to be reminded of their debt to a world view that they feel they have outgrown and discarded; indeed which many regard as an obstacle in the way of social progress... The past comes to life in smelly ascetics, authoritarian popes, queen-saints, mad philosophers and landladies — women are prominent in this narrative. The geographic scope ranges from the Canaan of Abraham to Skellig Michael, where ascetic Irish monks did penance in the freezing Atlantic... What this book may do is persuade others to recognise the revolutionary character of the beliefs that our generation is hastening to discard.
The task Holland sets himself in his book is pretty straightforward. He seeks to give a comprehensive answer to the question ‘How was it that a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal in a long-vanished empire came to exercise such a transformative and enduring influence on the world?’ He doesn’t claim groundbreaking archival discoveries or archaeological revelations. Instead, Holland offers a remarkably nuanced and balanced account of two millennia of Christian history – intellectual, cultural, artistic, social and political. The book’s scope is breathtaking: it covers everything from Persian influences on the formation of Christian doctrine to Martin Luther King Jr’s theology, from Origen to Nietzsche, from Gregorian chants to the Beatles, from monks hiding themselves in the Libyan desert to missionaries trying to Christianise India.
Holland’s starting point is Christianity’s conquest of the Roman world before the conversion of Constantine, i.e. at a time when it did not have the support of government or social convention, and was certainly not the way to worldly fame or fortune. This was when Christianity developed its basic corpus of doctrine and moral precept. How was it able to sweep the civilised world? The key figure is St Paul, the Jew who transformed Christianity from a Jewish sect to a universal faith, the teacher and orator who skilfully adapted the message to the audience wherever he went.