Professors at Southeastern Seminary are always reading new books. Center for Faith and Culture Director Ken Keathley is no different — and we want to give you a peek into what’s on his reading list in the series, “Ken Keathley’s Bookshelf.”
By Ken Keathley
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books, 2019) is an unusual book for an atheist to write. Author Tom Holland (not to confused with the movie star who plays Spider-Man) has written several best-selling books on ancient and medieval history. It’s not often that a book is able to interweave the destruction of Jerusalem and the Spanish Inquisition with the Beatles singing “All you need is love.”
The subtitle says what the book is about: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. Holland makes his point with a remarkable sweep of western history that displays his ability for storytelling, engaging narrative and making history come alive.
The notion of human rights is a distinctly Christian idea.
Critics of Christianity, particularly Enlightenment skeptics and modern atheists, borrow from Christian ethics and worldview in ways that for the most part they either do not realize or are not willing to admit. For example, the notion of human rights is a distinctly Christian idea. To make his point, Holland presents the ethos of the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity arrived. Violence, rape and subjugation was not just the norm, it was extolled.
The promotion of love, compassion and mercy as virtues is also distinctly Christian. Love, not just love of family, kin and nation, but of one’s enemies, was a radical, even revolutionary, notion in the ancient world. This is the reason why certain opponents of Christianity, such as Sade and Nietzsche, denounced Christianity as “the slave’s religion.” By this expression they meant that Christianity protected the weak to the detriment of the strong, and gave value to those who really should be slaves.
Speaking of slavery, Holland points out that, for millennia and throughout the world, slavery was universally accepted as an institution. How did the modern world come to see the enslavement of human beings as inherently evil? Holland demonstrates that Christian belief in the intrinsic dignity of all persons played the pivotal role. The abolitionist movement was very much a Christian campaign.
Holland points out that secularists who desire to remove any expression of religion from public discourse are also inadvertently thinking in Christian categories. The very notion of “secular” is Christian. Jesus taught, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). Paul reinforces Christ’s teaching when he declares that Christians have a dual citizenship (Phil 3:20). Augustine later fleshes out the implications of secular and sacred in his The City of God. This why the concept of “secular” is so alien to Islam, and therefore it is also why Islam seems so incompatible with democracy. Holland explains that when Western democracies expect Muslims to accept secular governments, they are in effect expecting Muslims to think like Christians.
It is Christianity itself that provides the categories and concepts for evaluating the Church’s failures.
Holland also demonstrates that Christianity provides its opponents with the tools for its own critique. In this way Christianity is unique. Holland does not shy aware from Christendom’s failures. He presents the blind spots, the warts, the hypocrisies and the failures. Yet here’s the interesting thing: it is Christianity itself that provides the categories and concepts for evaluating the Church’s failures. Holland explains this “profound paradox”:
The pattern was a familiar one. Repeatedly, whether crashing along the canals of Tenochtitlan, or settling the estuaries of Massachusetts, or trekking deep into the Transvaal, the confidence that had enabled Europeans to believe themselves superior to those they were displacing was derived from Christianity. Repeatedly, though, in the struggle to hold this arrogance to account, it was Christianity that had provided the colonized and the enslaved with their surest voice. The paradox was profound. No other conquerors, carving out empires for themselves, had done so as the servants of a man tortured to death on the orders of a colonial official. No other conquerors, dismissing with contempt the gods of other peoples, had installed in their place an emblem of power so deeply ambivalent as to render problematic the very notion of power. No other conquerors, exporting an understanding of the divine peculiar to themselves, had so successfully persuaded peoples around the globe that it possessed a universal import. (pp. 503-504)
The very idea that Christians should be held accountable for the times they fail to be loving, humble, gracious, kind or merciful is, well, Christian.
Holland may be an atheist, but he is an honest one. One detects a wistful tone in the book, particularly at the end. In a number of ways Dominion reminds me of Francis Schaeffer’s How Shall We Then Live? Both books demonstrate the foundational role played by Christianity in western civilization’s understanding of truth, morals and ethics. They ask what the modern world will look like as it continues to deliberately abandon the Christian faith. Both books end with that question left hanging.