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Book Review: Dominion, by Tom Holland

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020

[ intro only by Charles Cameron — I’m delighted to welcome blog-friend Dr Omar Ali, who here reviews Tom Holland‘s book, Dominion — no, it’s not about Rushdoony-style Dominionism. This review was originally posted in our companion blog, Brownpundits !
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Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World
Tom Holland
Basic Books
ISBN-13: 978-0465093502
$22.97 at Amazon
Brownpundits / Zenpundit Review by Dr Omar Ali

^^

Tom Holland started off writing vampire novels but moved on to non-fiction and has since written an excellent history of the Persian invasion of Greece, several books about the Romans, one about Islam and one about the slow rise of Christian Europe that started around 1000 AD; in retrospect at least, all his non-fiction books have had a hint of Christian Western European apologetics (some of it is probably well deserved reaction to the excesses of contemporary wokeness) but this book makes it explicit. Dominion is well written and well researched and he does make a lot of effort to include the nasty bits of Christian history, but in the end it IS a work of Christian apologetics, albeit from a modern liberal angle. Tom Holland’s basic thesis is that almost the entire set of “humanist” values modern liberals take for granted (universal human equality and dignity, separation of church and state, care for the weaker sections of society, suspicion of power, privilege and wealth, condemnation of slavery, cruelty and oppression, valorization of the weak and downtrodden, etc) is purely Christian in origin. No other civilization or culture had these values (or at least, foregrounded them in quite the same way as Christianity). For example, while some thinkers have always been unhappy with slavery, the abolition of slavery was a Christian effort through and through. True, the slave owners had their own Biblical justification for slavery, but those who opposed them did so on the basis of their Christian beliefs, and they won the argument.

Holland also insists that the most viciously anti-Christian progressive thinkers of the post-enlightenment era also turn out be using Christian values to attack Christianity. When Marx cries out against the oppression of the proletariat or Lennon sings “all you need is love”, they are really being more Christian than most Christians. Since Nietszche thought something similar (that liberalism is “Christianity without Christ”), he gets a lot of positive play in this book, which is a bit ironic, since he also regarded Christianity as something of a disease.

As expected, the book is well written and stylish, sometimes with too much style; I am not picky about such things but some readers may tire of all his little reveals (a new character is discussed without being named for a few lines, giving readers the opportunity to guess who he or she is, then revealed; this is done in practically every chapter). He has done his research and as far as I could tell, there were no glaring errors of fact. But while he is scrupulous about his facts, he is not shy of cherry picking and framing to fit his thesis. Nero is a pagan monster who killed his own wife and mother; Constantine, the first Christian emperor, also viciously killed his wife and son, but that does not reflect badly on Christianity. Terrible and cruel punishments in pagan Rome are a sign of paganism’s shorcomings, but terrible and cruel punishments inflicted by inquisitors and priests (and described in horrifying detail in this book) are not Christian shorcomings (the thought is that eventually Christian Europe gave them up; why they were given up in a time of anti-clerical and even anti-Christian upheaval and not when the Church was at its mightiest, is assigned to Christian values taking 1800 years to make their mark, and then doing so surreptitiously). By the time the book gets to the modern world the thesis really begins to look like one of those Hindutvvadi posts about how everything was invented in India; no matter what any activists themselves may say, Tom Holland knows their beliefs and motivations are entirely Christian. This is probably partly true, but leaves open the question of where Christianity itself comes from. Unless one believes the Son of God thing, the explanation is likely to be that some mix of human nature and human history created Christianity, just at it created every other ideology. So why stop at Paul (or Christ if you prefer)? Everythying in this world seems to be derived from some combination of earlier things, why not Christianity? And why believe that the same results would not have arisen (somewhere, at some point) even if there had never been a Christ or a Paul? Maybe those impulses are also human universals, and can and do arise repeatedly, not just as an episode in the history of Jewish superstition? And of course there is always the possibility that some of this progress is not really progress at all, but a mistake. Especially with the “woke”, it is by no means universally agreed that they are a good thing, so crediting all of their values to Christ may not be a winning move for Christianity.

Anyway, I don’t find his thesis completely wrong; the tension between certain Christian values and various vicious aspects of Christian society is real and those values did lead some Christians to take up the cause of diverse oppressed groups, most spectacularly and successfully, against slavery. Economic explanations of why the British empire not only abolished slavery but expended diplomatic capital, real money and military might to stop the trade of slaves by others, are not sufficient, and are an insult to the memory of countless Quakers and other good Christians who made it their life’s work to fight the good fight and succeeded to the point that no modern society regards slavery as an acceptable institution anymore. But Holland insists that Christianity is the ONLY source of most of our modern liberal notions, which seems a bit of a strech. It is also not a unique claim. In fact, there are books written about how the Jews created modern rights, or Islam did, or for that matter, the Native Americans did; and of course Sufis take TomHollandism to another level, with a secret brotherhood using everyone from Abraham and Moses to Ghazali and Rumi to insert progressive ideas into human culture. But the most glaring omission in this book is the “Eastern Religions”; the entire book start and ends in the Middle East and Western Europe (Eastern Christianity gets no love either) and the ideas of India and China are dismissed practically without examination. Mahavir, Buddha, the authors of the Upanishads, the philosophers and thinkers of China, none find any mention in this book or get any credit for any human advance. On the other hand, the Christian West did have a disproportionate role in creating the modern world (for better and for worse), so he does have a case, but maybe not as strong a case as advertised.

But irrespective of what you think of his basic thesis, the book is still a great read. Tom Holland writes well, reads widely and has an eye for fascinating anecdotes that every reader can enjoy even if he or she does not agree with the underlying thesis. In fact, if you do NOT agree with this thesis you should especially read the book to see how well your preferred theory stands up against a well written Christian version. If he is wrong, why is he wrong? Trying to answer that question should be a fruitful exercise for anyone. Well worth reading.

QUOTES

“It is the audacity of it—the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe—that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilization to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”

“In a city famed for its wealth, Paul proclaimed that it was the ‘low and despised in the world, mere nothings, who ranked first. Among a people who had always celebrated the agon, the contest to be the best, he announced that God had chosen the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong. In a world that took for granted the hierarchy of human chattels and their owners, he insisted that the distinctions between slave and free, now that Christ himself had suffered the death of a slave, were of no more account than those between Greek and Jew.”

Break it Down Show with Zen Co-Hosting: Mazarr on Leap of Faith

Saturday, October 12th, 2019

[mark safranski / zen]

Friend of ZP, Pete Turner invited me to join him at his place The Break it Down Show to interview RAND scholar Michael J. Mazarr about his new book Leap of Faith Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy :

Mike Mazarr – Leap of Faith Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy

Mark Safranski joins Pete A Turner with author, think-tanker Dr Mike Mazarr.
Mike’s book is called, Leap of Faith Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy
Why is the invasion of Iraq viewed as a tragedy? Mike explains to us and draws conclusions to help us better understand by comparing and contrasting past conflicts to Iraq. Mark, brings his experience understanding presidential security council dynamics to push the show to even great depth and uniqueness.

Listen to the episode here.

Without giving way any spoilers, Mazarr has penned our time’s version of The Best and the Brightest. It’s a step by step reconstruction using the best evidence available and extensive interviews of principal figures or their aides and colleagues to explain how the Bush administration decided to go down the road to war in Iraq.  Like David Halberstam explaining the origins of Vietnam, Mazarr’s task was to explain how so experienced a national security team as the one that served George W. Bush could make so catastrophic a strategic error, the effects of which continue to unfold to this day.

See the source image

 

Cats as 16th century weapons, foxes as Old Testament precursors

Saturday, September 7th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — cat picture meets strategy, history meets scripture ]
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Here you go:

With thanks to @alabandine.

Did Escher know Fludd?

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — I was looking for Ramon Llull’s wheels of knowledge, and found Robert Fludd instead ]
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I am wondering whether MC Escher, whose Waterfall dates to 1961, knew of the work of Robert Fludd, and his water screw perpetual motion machine, which was invented in 1618, though the image below dates from 1660 — the year in which King Charles II was recognized and the and the tyrranous Interregnum under the vicious Oliver Cromwell finally laid to rest.

MC Escher, Waterfall:

Robert Fludd, Water Screw:

DoubleQuote!

The image of Fludd‘s water screw is accompanied by this note:

Robert Fludd’s 1618 “water screw” perpetual motion machine from a 1660 wood engraving. This device is widely credited as the first recorded attempt to describe such a device in order to produce useful work, that of driving millstones. Although the machine would not work, the idea was that water from the top tank turns a water wheel (bottom-left), which drives a complicated series of gears and shafts that ultimately rotate the Archimedes’ screw (bottom-center to top-right) to pump water to refill the tank. The rotary motion of the water wheel also drives two grinding wheels (bottom-right) and is shown as providing sufficient excess water to lubricate them.

Hmm, I wonder.

Mind-blowing golden images from Louis de Laval’s Book of Hours

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — whatever you may think of religion, the artwork in these images is stunning ]
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There’s this phrase in the Apostles Creed, the shortest and most basic of the three creeds which mainstream Christians accept: the communion of saints. The hymn known as the Te Deum is more explicit, while describing basically the same companionship:

The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge thee;

But this image of that company, from Louis de Laval‘s illuminated Book of Hours, ca 1480, is the first I’ve seen that suggests the membership of this communion is innumerable —

— wave on wave, saint upon saint, halo on halo into the distance — until they constitute a veritable sea of gold.

Nor that the company includes many females, also innumerable–

— some of whom must have caused a ferment in their own day, or at least in the creative imagination of a court artist, likely Jean Colombe, in the 1480s..

Nor had I seen until now that there were vacancies for saints as yet unknown, perhaps unborn, their halos vacant —

— unless perchance these are saints so deeply meditative that they have lost all face, as the Zennists might say, save the original face alone..

Glorious.


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