Friday, October 11, 2019

Dominion

Everybody seems to be reading Dominion, the latest offering from popular historian Tom Holland.  Everybody has the right idea; this is an excellent book.  If you're not already familiar with Holland, he is a) not Spiderman and b) a writer of gripping narrative history.  If you want to get a feel for the collapse of the Roman Republic, a sense of what it was like to live through, you can't do much better than his Rubicon.  If you want to become acquainted with the Caesars and their world, and if you can stand to wade through the inevitable smut which goes with that acquaintance, then Dynasty is fantastic.  And In the Shadow of the Sword tackles the origins of Islam in a way which is both fascinating and - in the way it challenges orthodoxy - brave.  He has also written other things; I have not yet read them.  So many books, so little time.



Dominion is something a bit different.  It is, if you like, a narrative history of the whole of Western culture, in particular of Western Christendom.  How on earth would you write something like that - and keep it to a size which the average mortal would be willing to read?  Holland does it through snippets, visiting a particular incident and exploring its significance before jumping sometimes hundreds of years to the next episode, all grouped together into three broad eras: antiquity, Christendom, modernitas.  The impression is like a vast picture which has been sketched out, with only some details here and there painted on in full colour.  But those individual episodes are enough to give the shape of what is going on more generally on this vast canvas.  To mix metaphors, through these little tasters one gets the genuine flavour of the different moments, and anyway there would be far too much to digest if you ate everything on the table.

The overall picture, beginning in pre-Christian antiquity, is of a world turned upside down.  In a classical world in which power was everything, the news of the crucified God explodes like a bomb.  Values are decisively changed.  The weak are valued; status hierarchies are upended.  And in the ebb and flow of the centuries Holland shows how this revolutionary message lay behind so many of the cultural movements of the West: from the Christianisation of the Empire, right through to the building of new empires.  The revolution often ossifies - the Papacy under Gregory VII sets out to reform the world in the image of the Gospel, but the same institutions, now settled down and entrenched in power, in the next few centuries become the targets of reformers with the same aim.  The revolution creates tensions - it is Christianity which makes European powers feel superior and therefore entitled to enslave others, but it is Christianity which gives Europeans an uneasy conscience about this state of affairs and ultimately leads to abolition.  The revolution can be and has been misunderstood, misappropriated, misdirected.  But it has kept coming back.

Holland's main thesis is this: that we are so steeped in Christian values that we have forgotten they are not universal.  The modern humanist who asserts the worth and dignity of each individual thinks they are stating something self-evident - so did the French revolutionaries.  But in fact these claims have their roots in Christian teaching.  Even such anti-Christian movements as revolutionary Marxism make no sense apart from the revolution of the cross; why care for the poor and downtrodden at all?  The modern 'woke' scene springs from very Christian apprehensions.  The #MeToo movement only makes sense to us because of hundreds of years of sexual ethics which are rooted in the Christian message.

I find all this very persuasive.  One senses behind the narrative the influence of Charles Taylor - but to be honest, this is much more fun to read than Taylor's magnum opus.

Some quibbles - in a book of such vast scope, some detail necessarily gets left behind.  The treatment of the apostle Paul, and the tension between the law written on the heart and Torah, does not, to my mind, get to grips with the complexity of the issue - in particular, why does the apostle continually cite Torah if he is primarily (only?) interested in an internal law written by the Spirit?  I think that's important, because by the time we get to The Beatles we really do need to understand that 'all you need is love' means something very different on their lips than it does coming from, say, St Augustine - and the difference lies in the objective content which the law of love possesses for the apostolic writers and their descendants.  I'm not saying Holland doesn't see this difference - clearly he does - but that the particular contours need to be brought our more clearly.  But then, this is not a work of philosophy or theology, but history, and as such it really works.

Just a thought about what Christians should and shouldn't do with this book.  Firstly, what not to do: don't make out of the narrative a theology of glory.  'Aha!  Everything good in Western culture comes from Christianity!  Behold, the clear and straightforward link between Christian belief and goodness!'  That wouldn't do justice to the nuanced picture that Holland paints, in which Christian belief has often led to oppression and war; nor would it suit the gospel itself, which as Holland shows is about the triumph of weakness, a victory through obscurity and suffering, not through just being the best.  Then again, we also need to avoid overstating the conclusion.  Holland does argue that many contemporary movements only make sense because of our Christian past; it would be incorrect to infer that they are therefore Christian.  We cannot, in a straightforward way, claim #MeToo or Extinction Rebellion or whatever as Christian movements.

The use we should make of this work is much more limited.  It is helpful to be able to show that the values which many of us take for granted are not, in fact, universally obvious.  The world order which has been shaped by the influence of the West bears the hallmarks of the Christian past.  As Holland argues, even the universal claims of these value systems derive from the universal claims of the gospel.  Perhaps, then, those of us who are Christian apologists might be able to use this work to show that in fact the influence of Christian belief on the world has not been as negative as many of our contemporaries assume - precisely because many of the good things about Western culture which they and we take for granted actually stem from Christianity.

"All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution which has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross."

6 comments:

  1. Some questions I've become interested in with regards to these matters: could it be that apparent goods or improvements in a society can be used to mask worse or new oppressions elsewhere as a sort of pacificatory mechanism? So alms may be given, but feudal oppression and gospel-less churches remained divinely mandated; or we may have the NHS, but it remains afloat due to taxation on products produced in exploitative conditions overseas. Abolition would fall into this as a tactical move in the broader context of the British Empire. Call me a perfectionist, but are there really such things as 'Christian values' divorced from the Church-Kingdom context, or are they rather mutated borrowings put into a different form, ultimately for different ends, regardless of individual sincerity? I think that to describe anything as 'revolutionary' it really would have to overturn a whole order rather than aspects of it.

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    1. Anonymous10:36 pm

      This will sound ridiculous and I understand why anyone would think so, but the entire Christian story is like a mysterious journey, or spiritual tour. Christian values are born from the experience of opening the door and walking through. It's like the radio, the broadcast and the frequency combined into a single element that ends in Christian values. You read the scriptures, hear the stories, feel the passion, experience the spiritual influences and ineffable moments. And somehow you have a clear sense of God, sin, mercy, grace, charity and love. You understand what is required of you in relation to your family of brothers and sisters in a world of joy, happiness and peace. You will just simply know what Christian values are, and quite clearly what they are not.

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    2. Ben, I think in the end you're thinking too highly of the church and not highly enough of the world... I don't think it's wise to hyphenate Church and Kingdom. The Church is a sign of the Kingdom, but really - were there ever really 'Christian values' in the Church? Were there ever - really - any Christians, if you take the NT definition of a Christian? I just don't think that sort of thinking ends up lining up with the way the NT speaks about God, or the Church, or the world; it ends up very sectarian, always looking for the pure remnant, the tiny number of elect... I'm not saying you've gone all the way down that road, but I think that's the road which your 'Church-Kingdom' hyphen sets you upon!

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    3. I'm sorry if I've given the impression of being sectarian. That's never been my intention. Even if I felt I had all the answers about how to live in 'this present evil age', which I certainly don't, Jude would imply that we have to stick things out in the church as it exists to quite some extent.

      I meant 'church-kingdom' in the sense of Luke 22:24-30 and John 18:36, and as implied in 1 Cor 5-6, and as opposed to what we're told about the powers behind the world in texts like (to name a few) Psalm 82, Luke 4, and John 16:11. I think the Ante-Nicene church, among other later groups like the Waldensians, had a reasonable witness of NT living, as the epistle to Diogenetus represents. Not perfect, but enough to be inspired by.

      I only comment if I feel I have something to say that could further the conversation: I think my questions are reasonable things to ponder. But tone and intent are often lost over the internet.

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    4. Okay, sorry, let me walk my comment back a bit. It is definitely valid, and important, to be asking these questions. Wherever a church, or an individual Christian, stops asking whether their conduct reflects the gospel the spiritual rot has set in, and unless there is change spiritual death is likely to follow. So the questions are valid.

      Perhaps what I'm meaning to highlight is that I think we have to bear in mind that the Kingdom is an eschatological reality, and when we pray for it to come we implicitly acknowledge that it isn't yet here. So I think we should take every glimpse of something which seems to reflect Kingdom values as a blessing, and a signpost to what is to come. In other words, I want to be in a position where I'm not asking so many questions that I can't appreciate the good and see the Greater Good to which it points.

      I think reading Holland's book is great to get a feel for how much really has changed, though - I think 'revolution' is not inappropriately applied to the change in Western culture brought about through the spread of the gospel. (That's why it's particularly helpful that he starts with a pre-Christian episode; the contrast is striking). Even if we rightly hope for much more, the gospel really has turned the world upside down.

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    5. Yes, I'm not going to say that I wish the poor weren't helped in various ways by the powers that be: God providentially uses the state for some good (Romans 13). The church may well set an example that is appropriated by such institutions. But when this happens, I do think these things take on quite a different character or function, which thinkers of the radical left can bring out quite well. It's that interesting dualism in the Scriptures that the servant of God in Romans 13 can be at the same time a horn of the Beast in Revelation 13.

      To me, pre-Colonial African and other indigenous societies had (and still have where surviving) a lot going for them in terms of communalist provision, child-rearing practices, and constitutional forms of local government, which they developed without Christian influence. They had their own evils too, of course, but for me they present a greater shadow of the eschaton than Christendom in many ways. Which is not to be purposefully snotty, but to say that many are apt to be overly triumphalistic about Western Civilization, as you rightly criticise.

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