Tom Holland
Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind
Abacus, UK, 2020
ISBN-13: 978-0349141206

 Tom Holland Dominion

 

"If you're intrigued by those who have gone before us in Christianity and the impact of Christian thought on the world we know today, Dominion is a good place to start that journey."

Cramming 2000 years of Western Christian history into a single 500-odd page book while doing some measure of justice to the various strands of the faith is no small feat. Yet UK historian Tom Holland manages to do both, producing a book that's at once expansive in its scope but also able to explore the detail of its subject. And all in a very easily accessible, almost at times, novelistic style.

We read here of the great sweeps of history: the rise of Christianity from an obscure sect to the state religion of empires; of the constant splintering of the church amid the clashing of theologies; of - and this is particularly importantant given the book's title - how Christians have grappled with and formulated responses relating to ideas encompassing everything from slavery to the creation of the Earth and universal human rights and, in doing so, shaped Western thinking.

We also read about the lives of those people who have shaped those broad arcs. We catch a glimpse, for example, of giants like Augustine, Martin of Tours, Boniface, Jan Hus, Martin Luther and his namesake Martin Luther King, Jr, each of whom has left their mark on Christianity - and, indeed, Western society - as we know it today.

But we also have some insights into the lives of more obscure and lesser known figures such as the 13th century saint Elizabeth of Hungary or 17th century Englishman Gerrard Winstanley, one of those reformers known as "Diggers", as well as of those who positioned themselves in opposition to Christianity and the church - people like Julian the Apostate, the notorious Marquis de Sade and even Karl Marx, who, Holland notes, claimed to offer his followers liberation from Christianity but a liberation "that seemed eerily like a recalibration of it".

This is, of course, not a work of Christian apologetics. Rather it's a warts and all history of the concepts - and those who defended or opposed them - which have shaped Western Christianity through the past 2,000 years (and even before). Holland's account attempts to capture a broad spectrum of views when it comes to the church and to explain, in historical terms at least, why certain perspectives took hold and others did not. 

As he writes in the book's closing pages, Holland has sought to be objective as possible yet is well aware that as he sought to "evaluate fairly both the achievements and the crimes of Christian civilisation", he has stood not outside its moral frameworks but within them.

There are, of course, omissions (as one would expect in a work with such a broad spectrum) and plenty of room for disagreement with Holland's conclusions. 

But if you're intrigued by those who have gone before us in Christianity and the impact of Christian thought on the world we know today, this is a good place to start that journey. It's an insightful and erudite account of the flow of Christian thought covering everything from St Paul to the recent migration crisis in Europe and, unless you're someone who works or studies in the field, it's all but guaranteed you'll learn something you didn't know.