Now here’s a good 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?”
That we take for granted this enduring influence is the main point of Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, published by Basic Books.
Holland is an award-winning historian of the ancient world and regular contributor to the Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He observes that Romans saw worship of the crucified Jesus as scandalous, obscene, and grotesque. And yet this same Roman Empire would eventually come to worship Jesus as God. Holland writes:
The relationship of Christianity to the world that gave birth to it is, then, paradoxical. The faith is at once the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity, and the index of its utter transformation.
In our own day Holland finds pervasive Christian influence everywhere he looks in the West. The self-evident truths of the American Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal and endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are not remotely self-evident to a student of antiquity or other world religions. But that’s the genius of this Christian revolution, Holland argues. He writes, “The surest way to promote Christian teachings as universal was to portray them as deriving from anything other than Christianity.”
Holland joins me on Gospelbound to discuss why Christianity is the most difficult legacy of the ancient world to write about, and why this Christian revolution is the greatest story ever told.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: — Now, here’s a good 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? That we take for granted this enduring influence as the main point of Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, published by Basic Books. Holland is an award winning historian of the ancient world and regular contributor to the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He observes that Romans saw worship of the crucified Jesus as scandalous, obscene and grotesque and yet this same Roman Empire would eventually come to worship Jesus as God. Holland writes, “The relationship of Christianity to the world that gave birth to it is then paradoxical. The faith is at once the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity and the index of its utter transformation.”
Collin Hansen: In our own day, Holland finds pervasive Christian influence everywhere he looks in the West. The self evident truths of the American Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not remotely self evident to a student of antiquity or other world religions but that’s the genius of this Christian Revolution, Holland argues. He writes, “The surest way to promote Christian teachings as universal, was to portray them as deriving from anything other than Christianity.”
Collin Hansen: Holland joins me on Gospel Bound to discuss why Christianity is the most difficult legacy of the ancient world to write about and why this Christian Revolution is the greatest story ever told. Thank you Tom for joining me on Gospel Bound.
Tom Holland: Thanks, very much for having me.
Collin Hansen: Well, Tom, you say Christianity is the most enduring and influential legacy of the ancient world and yet also the most challenging for a historian to write about, so why did you?
Tom Holland: It’s often accepted or thought that people who are writing fiction will be drawing on their past or particularly perhaps on their childhood and the same can be true of nonfiction writers as well. And Dominion is a book that is peculiarly personal to me because it draws on the absolute wellsprings of my past, which perhaps I could just briefly sketch out. My, I was brought up in the Church of England. My mother’s a devout Christian. So I went to church. Unbelievably, considering how bad my voice is, I sang in the choir and I went to Sunday school. And I enjoyed reading the Bible but what I particularly enjoyed reading in the Bible was all the kind of bloody bits. So I enjoyed Pharaoh’s army being swept to their death by the Red Sea and I enjoyed accounts of tent pegs being hammered through people’s skulls, all that kind of stuff, plagues, all that kind of thing, which would probably suggest to your listeners that I was a horrible, blood thirsty little boy, and that would be kind of true. And the awful thing is, is that relative to my other interests, I actually found Christianity rather boring.
Tom Holland: So I remember in Sunday school that there was an illustrated Bible and on the very first page they have Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and there they were surrounded by animals, lions and parrots and snakes, of course. And there was also a brachiosaur and this puzzled me because if I enjoyed violent stories, the thing I was really obsessed by was dinosaurs, which were big and fierce and glamorous and extinct. And I knew that no human being had seen a brachiosaur. So I asked the Sunday school teacher and she didn’t even seem to know what the problem was really. And so it was my first kind of, the first kind of shadow that passed over my Christian faith, I suppose.
Tom Holland: But it really wasn’t that I was kind of having a Darwinian crisis of faith or anything like that. It was simply that I was kind of more stirred and excited by contemplating enormous prehistoric creatures, than I was what I was hearing in church. And in due course when my interest in dinosaurs kind of migrated seamlessly into an interest of that other apex predator from ancient times, the Roman Empire, I was completely on the side of the Romans. So if you’d asked me Jesus or Pontius Pilate I would totally have gone with Pontius Pilate. You had the eagles and the armor and the purple and everything. And so that’s why in due course, it wasn’t so much that I kind of spectacularly lost my faith in a reverse damaging conversion, it was just that it kind of faded before the blaze of my fascination with Rome and other ancient civilizations.
Tom Holland: And in due course, when I came to write history as an adult and returned to the things that I had always been passionately interested in since childhood. I wrote about Rome and I wrote about other ancient civilizations as well but the experience of trying to live in the heads of these ancient peoples as an adult and to make them comprehensible, not just to my readers but to myself, imposed strains on me that had not been there as a child because I increasingly came to a realization that glamorous and fierce, though the Romans had been, they were astonishingly alien to my way of thinking. And I increasingly found them kind of frightening. And so I began to wonder, well, what explains this cultural, this moral, this ethical chasm? And a bit like when you have an itch on the back and you’re trying to kind of scratch it and then you find it and you start scratching it, so it was with me that I began to realize that pretty much everything that explained difference between the antiquity and the present day derived from Christianity.
Tom Holland: And I began to realize that more and more, that even the most basic level, the languages’ aspect, the words that I was pronouncing, these were shot through with Christian presumptions. And increasingly it came to me that when I look back at the pre-Christian world, there was a kind of a haze composed of a great multitude of dust particles. And these dust particles were Christian. And so, I’ve written Dominion to test that hypothesis, to test the hypothesis that in a way, if you like, to kind of extend that metaphor, there is a kind of a cloud of very, very fine dust particles that people in the West are constantly breathing in and being affected by and being influenced by even though they may not realize it. And these dust particles come from what I see as being the greatest cultural transformation in the history of humanity, which is the coming of Christianity.
Collin Hansen: You say, Tom, that it’s the fate of those who triumph to be taken for granted.
Tom Holland: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: But it does seem like we’re in a position not merely where Christianity is taken for granted, but actively in many corners at least, hated. Why is this the case when the West owes so much to this faith?
Tom Holland: Well, I think that Christianity, when it came drew on the great inheritance of Hebrew Scripture and the prophets of the Old Testament. And you think of Isaiah saying that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and you think of how the prophets speak of how, before the truth of the gods that they worshiped other gods will be revealed as merely idols made of stock or stone, and that, that superstitions have to be banished. And the Christians, early Christians are the heirs to this inheritance and so when they preach the gospel, they’re speaking in similar terms. And so it is over the course of the conversion of the Roman Empire. And then after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, when missionaries are going into the barbarian wilderness of Britain or Saxony or Hungary or whatever.
Tom Holland: This is the language that they’re speaking and the idea that people who walk in darkness have to be brought into light, becomes the great animating message of the medieval church. And it helps to inspire the construction of this astonishing, and effectively revolutionary civilization, that comes to exist in medieval Europe, which in turn, the very success of the medieval church breeds further demands for what in medieval arena we called reclamation, the desire to purify, to be born again, to baptize in the waters of purity, not just individual Christians, but the whole of Christendom, the whole of Christian society. And so it generates demands for a fresh spasm of reclamation, what we call, the Reformation.
Tom Holland: And the Protestant Reformers draw on this very ancient Biblical language just as the early Christians had done, but now their target is what they call the church of Rome, the popery. Popery is identified with idolatry, with superstition, with the darkness from which the Christian people have to be redeemed. And this language is fundamental to the various forms of Protestantism that emerge in the wake of the Reformation. What then happens in the 18th century with the enlightenment and the clue in the word as to what-
Collin Hansen: Yes.
Tom Holland: … this idea of enlightenment is coming from is that this primordial Christian language is appropriated by people who turn it not as the Protestant Reformers had done against the Roman Church, but against Christianity itself. And so you get the paradox time in the French Revolution of a seemingly profoundly anticlerical movement. It converts the great cathedral Notre Dame in the heart of Paris and reconsecrates it to a totally non Christian deity. But the impulse that lies behind the French Revolution, the idea that the first should be last and the last should be first, for instance, the idea that there’s a great apocalyptic day of judgment when sheep and the goats will be divided, all this is clearly derivative of Christianity.
Tom Holland: And over the course of modernity the ambition of those who look back to the enlightenment is exactly what the ambition of Christian Reformers had been, to purge the world of superstition, to topple idols and to bring people into enlightenment. And that essentially is the kind of paradoxical state that the West finds itself in now, that its rejection of Christianity is founded on Christianity. And so the challenge I think for believing Christians, for those who subscribe to institutional forms of Christianity is that there are large numbers of people and growing numbers of people, beyond the limits of the formal churches who nevertheless subscribe to Christian doctrines, without realizing that, that’s what they’re subscribing to.
Collin Hansen: Not merely that they don’t realize that, but they actually think that Christianity is the thing that they must hate, the thing that they-
Tom Holland: Yes.
Collin Hansen: … must oppose because they’ve been completely cut off. Well, it seems as though Christian apologists continue to wait and to make some of the points that you’re making here as if people will wake up and realize, “Oh, okay. Well, now I know where it comes from. I guess I should appreciate that.” But I don’t know that right now, Tom, I see a lot of that. So, is there any situation you envision where, all of the sudden the sort of counsel of European leaders comes together who after not even mentioning Christianity in describing their own heritage, suddenly say, “Oh, we don’t really have a morality apart from Christianity. We don’t have a story apart from Christianity.” And suddenly things begin to shift.
Tom Holland: Well, I think specifically in Europe, but I think also in the United States, there are perhaps two things at play. So you’ve alluded to this document that was drawn up by the European Union, their rich past in which the European leaders were kind of describing their cultural heritage and they referred to it with Rome and they referred to the enlightenment a lot of them believe in something quite substantial…
Collin Hansen: Up to the middle.
Tom Holland: … out of the equation. And the reason that they had to do this, the reason that they could refer to Greece and Rome and they could refer to the enlightenment, but they couldn’t refer to Christianity is that they were casting European values as assumption of being universal. And Greece and Rome were sufficiently distant that, that’s fine. And the terms with the enlightenment is that their values are universal. The genius of the modern West in recent centuries has been that it has been able to export its profoundly Christian values, concepts like human rights, the notion of consent, all these things are deeply rooted in seedbed of Christian history and Christian theology. But it’s been able to export them to other regions of the world, the Islamic world, to India, to China, to Japan by casting them as universal.
Tom Holland: If they cast them and said, well, we are exporting these as Christian values, then they’d come to see more culturally contingent to people in India, or the people in wherever. If you say, well no, they’re universal, then you can export them. And now, in Europe when there are large numbers of people, not of Christian heritage, Muslims or Hindus or Jews or whoever, it’s fundamental to the claims that European elites make about the necessity for human rights, and the necessity for a secular state that they seem neutral. So if they’re saying actually they derived from Christianity, then you start to get back to the problems the Christians in the middle ages had with, well, how do you handle Muslims, Jews, Pagans or whatever? And we know where that leads. So that I think is part of the problem.
Tom Holland: The other issue, I think, is that in Europe as in America, we live in the shadow of the Nazis. And the Nazis had a key role to play in this because they were the first state, since the time of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, overtly to repudiate two fundamental Christian teachings. And those two fundamental Christian teachings are the idea firstly, that all human beings have a dignity, essentially by virtue of being created in the image of God. Now, there is no Jew or Greek. All are equal. And the other is the teaching embodied in the figure of Christ on the cross that the weak will overcome the strong. The victim will overcome the victimizer, the powerless will overcome the powerful, and by extension that those who are weak, who are poor, who are at the bottom of the pile have a kind of moral standing with God that might be greater than the very most powerful.
Tom Holland: The Nazis, of course, repudiated that. Of course, they think that absolutely, the differences between Jews and Greeks are fundamental and they absolutely think that the strong and the powerful should trample down the weak, and indeed should be euthanized. And in the wake of the second World War and the defeat of Nazism, the shock to the West, I think, was so profound that in a sense, there was no longer any need for institutional Christianity, whereas the figure of Jesus had always been the kind of moral lodestar for people in the West, even for those who were not believing Christians.
Tom Holland: After the second World War, the moral lodestar became Hitler because all people had to ask themselves in the West was, “What is your sense of right and wrong?” People look at Hitler and they decide whatever he believes in, we believe the opposite. Now, of course, this is in effect a distorted form of Christianity. What people find offensive in the Nazis, and we have to remember, the Nazis thought that they were right. They weren’t doing it because they thought they were the baddies. They were doing it because they thought what they were doing was right.
Collin Hansen: Yeah.
Tom Holland: But, when you regard it as evil because we’re so fundamentally Christian that the idea that you can divide people up into different races or that the strong should dominate the weak does seem morally offensive to most of us. And so in repudiating Nazism, saying what did the Nazis do? We’re going to do the opposite, we are kind of staying true to that Christian inheritance. I think that now, in America as in Europe, it’s pretty clear that the limits of that are starting to be reached because the technique that those who don’t regard themselves as Christian, but subscribe to the kind of, the values you might call liberal, progressive are clearly derived from Christianity.
Tom Holland: When they come up against people don’t agree with them, what recourse do they have to persuade them? They can say, “You are a Nazi. You are a racist.” But if people turn around and say, “I’m not whatever.” What recourse do you then have to persuade them? What Christians, what people in the West have been previously was this enormous legacy of writing, of teaching, of stories, of doctrines, of beliefs that together constitute the kind of multisense of Christianity. And when I say that, when I talk about the foundational myth, I don’t mean myth as in the sense that it’s wrong, I mean myth in the sense that Tolkien used it, the sense that this is some, this is a story so profound that it kind of transcends reality.
Tom Holland: And the foundational myth of Christianity is that, a slave tortured to death on a cross, and that’s be God. And if you can appeal to that then you can found your society on it. I suspect that over the next few decades, either we will repudiate, we will start to let slip the teachings that derive from that figure of Christ on the cross or we will start, atheists as much as Christians, we will start to recognize that this is where ideas that we want to think are universal, that we want to think are self evident but in fact they’re derived because they’re not universal and they’re not self evident.
Collin Hansen: Well, there’s a lot I could follow up on there, but I want push specifically on the element of the Nazis and the connection to the view of victim-hood as power, and especially then going back to one of the more significant breaks within the western tradition that you cite, which is Nietzsche, one of the people you see as clearly seeing through that these values are not universal. These values are owing specifically to Christianity and therefore, of course, we know that he hated it. But it seems today that the way to seize power is precisely by claiming victimhood. That seems itself like a kind of power grab that I’m not even sure Nietzsche could have envisioned, that could have been pulled off.
Tom Holland: I think Nietzsche’s absolutely-
Collin Hansen: Tell me about that then.
Tom Holland: Well, you see, the book is bookended by two people who recognized to a profound degree just how shocking the notion of the crucifixion and the resurrection is. The idea that there is power in this most defeated of figures, a slave nailed to a cross, and the first of course is Paul, who says that it’s a stumbling block to the Jews for obvious reasons and that it’s likely to seem madness to everyone else. And the reason it seems mad to the Romans is that the Romans, essentially it’s the powerful who have the power. That seems self-evident to them. The other person, as you say, is Nietzsche who at the end of the 19th century is just as alert as Paul was to how shocking this Christian notion, that the figure of Christ on the cross was.
Tom Holland: But unlike Paul, he’s not kind of moved by it. He’s appalled by it because Nietzsche is man raised in the classical tradition. He begins his life as a teacher of classical languages. And Nietzsche regrets the passing of the age of Achilles and Caesar. He sees the Christian teaching as the triumph of those who were sickly over those who are healthy and he regards the Christian doctrines of compassion to the poor and the weak as a kind of moral cancer that has corrupted the fabric of classical civilization. Nietzsche was an incredibly smart, intelligent, sophisticated philosopher and in fact, while I was… I read a huge number of Christian authors to write Dominion, but there was almost no writer who made me feel personally more question than Nietzsche because the blast force of his hatred for Christianity is in a way the profoundest, one of the profoundest tributes that anyone has ever paid it. You know, you read it and if you feel the shock of what he’s saying, it provides a test for how Christian your own assumptions are.
Tom Holland: The sophistication and richness of Nietzsche’s philosophy gets distorted horribly by the Nazis, but there is a kind of trace that go there. If we look at Hitler himself, Hitler also is a great admirer of the Greeks and the Romans. He marks the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’s birth by going three times to Rome, to see a celebratory exhibition that’s held by Mussolini. And Hitler’s take on the Greeks and the Romans is that they are of Nordic stock and this explains the glory of the Parthenon, and of Virgil. What then goes wrong? Well, what goes wrong is that a Jew in the form of Paul turns up with his cancerous teachings of compassion and cosmopolitanism and it’s this that leads to the collapse of Greek and Roman civilization.
Tom Holland: And Hitler personally sees himself as committed to constructing an order that will kind of reproduce the glories of Greece and Rome and resurrect what he sees as a great Germanic civilization and it will last for 1000 years. But it’s only going to last for 1000 years, Hitler thinks, if he can ensure that no second Paul comes along to propagate his noxious doctrines. And so this brings us to, I mean the whole history of Christianity is basically a history of paradox. Almost everything about it is paradox. But perhaps the darkest, cruelest paradox of all is that Hitler targets the Jews for genocide because among other reasons, he blames them for Christianity. And considering that the Holocaust is drawing on profoundly negative stereotypes about the Jews that derived from Christian history, you can see how dark a paradox that is.
Collin Hansen: So dark that it’s not one that Christianity has recovered from.
Tom Holland: I think that the Holocaust was a kind of terrible wound to well, let’s call it Christian civilization, yeah.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Let’s talk about some of the positive elements even into the 20th century post World War II that you identify. And one of the things you do is help to take a narrative or a sort of story and you puncture the mythology behind it and which, I mean sort of the manipulation of the story. You do that in the middle ages, Reformation period, Galileo, I mean you do a lot of that within there, but then you jump into-
Tom Holland: Well, they are common myths.
Collin Hansen: Make sure… actual self serving lies.
Tom Holland: Well, the thing that I found, writing the book and the responses to it, is that everyone has a myth and myths are not necessarily false, but they certainly can be. And enthusiastically in life it’s easier for, I don’t know what we, I mean we don’t have a kind of word for, let’s call it the third Reformation. They believe they’re missed as much as anyone and figures like Galileo are absolutely, the things, the idea that Galileo was kind of tortured by the inquisition because he was upholding science, oh, pretty much every word in that sentence is a myth and not true.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Well, such a good example of how now, that story is shared as a way of undermining Christianity as being anti science. But you point out that, that original myth developed as an anti Roman polemic by a Protestant-
Tom Holland: Yeah, just Catholic, yeah.
Collin Hansen: … yeah, an anti Roman Catholic perspective from Protestants in there. And the book is just infused with a lot of these, but I wanted to talk about John Calvin, specifically. I’ve traveled to Geneva a number of times and I’ve sensed that the city may not fully appreciate Calvin’s role in shaping modern views of human rights and liberty, not exactly how Calvin is remembered. I think their preferred favorite son is Rousseau. Explain a little bit about Calvin’s role in this Christian Revolution and an example that you cite in there is the end of Apartheid in South Africa. And usually, I hear Calvin cited in defense of the Apartheid Regime, which I don’t think is fair, but you point out that of course, that he’s a good example of how Apartheid was ultimately defeated.
Tom Holland: There’s an incredibly powerful sense of the beauty of God’s creation and of God’s love for humanity and for all of humanity. And one of the things I found incredibly striking about Calvin’s Geneva, is his assumption that refuge should be offered to anyone who needs it. So famously, Calvin becomes, Geneva becomes a refuge for Protestant exiles from England under the reign of Mary, but also a Jew who’s seeking refuge is also offered that. And this reflects a kind of idea, that there is no Jew or Greek, very important to Calvin. And so that’s why when in South Africa, the Apartheid Regime draws on a theology that claims that there are different races and that different races are drawn to God’s teachings at different rates. This couldn’t really be a profounder distortion of what Calvin had actually taught.
Tom Holland: And when the anti Apartheid movement, of course, have a figurehead in Mandela and the other people who end up on Robben Island, who are the leaders of the armed struggle. But there is also a struggle against Apartheid that takes place in seminaries and lecture rooms because ultimately the underpinning of the Apartheid Regime is theological. If the people who support Apartheid can be brought to recognize that the theological justification for it does not exist, indeed, within the eyes of God it’s positively evil. Then that will essentially not starting out of the entire regime because without self belief you don’t have a regime. And that’s why Mandela himself, completely recognizes this and someone like African Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu also recognizes this.
Tom Holland: And they reach out to Calvinists in the Apartheid Regime and gradually the kind of, the buttresses and the dikes that have sustained Apartheid come to be washed away. And the reason that this has an incredibly significant role to play in the way that Apartheid ultimately comes to be ended without bloodshed, it leads to a kind of civic transfer from white supremacy to majority black rule, is that both sides, because they’re steeped in Christian theology, because they are familiar with the Christian story, they know the script that they have to speak. They know that the Apartheid Regime, that Botha and his ministers have to acknowledge their sins and have to repent their sins.
Tom Holland: And likewise, Tutu and Mandela know that confronted by this they have offer forgiveness. And so it is a great Christian drama of a kind that would have been completely familiar to kings and bishops in the middle ages where very similar dramas were played out. And I think that without that shared Christian heritage, that shared Christian language, the ending of Apartheid in South Africa would have been very much bloodier.
Collin Hansen: I’m calling you from Birmingham, Alabama so the story could be similar where we are that it simply is shocking. It should shock us that there was not a second civil war, I mean given how bad things were even 100 years after the American Civil War at the height of Jim Crow’s segregation, it’s shocking that, that didn’t happen. And of course, it’s another huge stain on sort of the Christian legacy, here in Birmingham, Alabama and yet at the same time, of course, I would describe it as perhaps the most effective movement for social change from a Christian perspective in the 20th century, was King’s movement here in Birmingham.
Tom Holland: Yeah, completely. Completely, and I think that in a way it was an expression of what Protestantism in America had been consistently been doing, which was people would summon Americans to wake. Great awakenings. A series of great awakenings. And in that sense, what happens in the ’50s in America, is another great awakening. And Martin Luther King is speaking as a Baptist preacher and he is summoning white Americans to a recognition that if there is no Jew or Greek then there is no black or white. And he does it in the name of love and love is at the heart of Martin Luther King’s message because it was the heart of Christ’s message. And King says, that Jesus was an extremist for love and that’s how he cast himself.
Tom Holland: And it’s that language of love that enables, again a slight, I suppose yes, I mean a slightly as in South Africa, it, you love your enemy. You love the person who persecutes you and if the person who persecutes you can understand the theological underpinnings of what they’re doing then you can reach out in love as well. And essentially, that’s what happens over the ’50s and the ’60s. But ironically, I think the very success of the civil rights movement sets America on the course of the kind of culture wars that seem to be embroiling at the moment because the success of the civil rights movement, this articulation of the idea that those who have been oppressed, those who have been down trodden have a call on those who are in power inspires other movements, which can less obviously draw on the Christian inheritance. And one of them is feminism-
Collin Hansen: Right.
Tom Holland: … some see it as a challenge for a certain understanding of what the proper relationship between men and women should be. And the other one, of course, is gay rights.
Collin Hansen: Right.
Tom Holland: It’s important to emphasize that the idea of homosexuality is a very recent one. The idea of homosexuality, the idea that people have a kind of instinct towards same sex act, both men and women. This is an idea that has only existed for about 150 years. And when people talk about homosexuality in the Bible, you might as well talk about Julius Caesar conquering France. It’s kind of right, but it’s also very badly wrong because there is no concept of homosexuality in the Bible. There’s no concept of homosexuality in it at all. And the concept of homosexuality, it’s a word originally coined in Germany in the 1860s. It kind of spiked throughout the European languages over the course of the second half of the 19th century.
Tom Holland: It’s promoted by a devoutly Catholic Austro-German psychologist called Krafft-Ebing. And in Krafft-Ebing’s formulation of homosexuality, he’s pairing the sin of sodomy, which again and sodomy is only a word that gets coined in the 10th century. I mean, it’s incredibly late. The idea that in Sodom, the reasons Sodom was destroyed was sodomy. Again, it’s earliest, it’s as late as 600, and it very, very gradual evolution of a concept. But he said, the sin of sodomy, but it’s also the Christian virtue of lifelong monogamy is not. And so he pairs in this work, he yokes them together, homosexuality a sin and a virtue. And I think that, that explains a great deal of the difficulties that Christians have in deciding what their reaction should be about homosexuality. Are they establishing it as a sin, or are they interpreting it as a virtue?
Tom Holland: What happens in the ’60s is that this talk of love encourages feminists and encourages the gay rights movement to draw on exactly the same assumptions that Martin Luther King had been able to draw on, that those who were down trodden should be able to appeal to those who are in a position of power. But it forced a kind of splintering in what we call the cultural Christian bedrock of America and it’s essentially forced those who are doctrinally Christian, those who go to church, those who believe that the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And it set them against those who are culturally beholden to Christianity, who are drawing on Christian assumptions who are making appeals to people in the certainty that the great inheritance of Christianity will ensure that their protests and their appeals are heard.
Tom Holland: But now, in 2020 the problem is, is that neither side recognizes the kinship. But actually, I think there’s a profound kinship and all the debate be it abortion, be it over gay marriage, be it trans rights, all of these, it’s not a question of Christians fighting progressives, so much as different factions within the vast body of Christian culture arguing over points of theology.
Collin Hansen: Right, well and a lot of pitting Paul against Jesus and in blaming Paul for a lot of these things in ways that I mean even go back to like you were saying, there World War II. Well the problem is where everything goes wrong, is with Paul, if we just got back to this concept of love, then everything would be fine, in that case. I mean, I think you just cited a number of examples of why this book is so interesting, why this book is so provocative. The examples especially, of how secularism itself, is a form of, derives from Christianity, how homosexuality itself is a conversation that can only happen within a Christian environment, about how these culture wars are not Christians versus unbelievers, but they are different kinds of Christians.
Collin Hansen: I’ll throw out a concept to you that makes a lot of sense in American context. I don’t know how it translates elsewhere but we talk sometimes about the evangelical mainline divide, the liberal conservative divide, and there’s almost a sense in which both sides have won. The conservatives have won the church. They still have the people in the churches, but the liberals have won the culture. Those Christian values are now seen as universal and not Christian any more. Their churches have emptied, but in part because they’re victorious. I mean, their values have been adopted in-
Tom Holland: I actually agree with that, except of course, that the culture war is pretty evenly balanced, it seems to me, looking from the outside. I mean, really within the churches, yes the evangelical clergy has won. But yeah, and so I think that’s absolutely true. And I think part of what makes it confusing is that whereas obviously for people in churches, they’re entirely aware of where their ideas and their values and their assumptions come from. Those outside the churches who nevertheless, are profoundly shaped and influenced by Christianity. It’s not just that they don’t recognize it, they actively repudiate often, Christianity. It’s kind of weird Oedipal quality.
Collin Hansen: No, I think that’s an accurate description. Well, I feel, Tom, that I mean, given the treatment you gave this book, a long book but one that moves very quickly. I can’t fathom the depths of learning that were required to be able to do that. I want to know who your Sunday school teachers were growing up, because they obviously taught you a thing or two, just of really ingraining these things. I mean, these are things that could not be known by somebody with any kind of surface level understanding of things, but must be coming at a deep level. And I just wanted to read one quick thing.
Collin Hansen: And I love just how you describe Christianity, this Christian Revolution, I should say, as the greatest story ever told. And there’s a beautiful passage in here in particular. I just want to make sure people hear from it. You write this, “Christ, by making himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a slave had plumbed the depths to which only the lowest, the poorest, the most persecuted and abused of mortals were confined. If Paul could not leave the sheer wonder of this alone, if he risked everything to proclaim it to strangers, likely to find it disgusting or lunatic or both, then that was because he had been brought by his vision of the risen Jesus to gaze directly into what it meant for him and for the world.” Well, Tom, thank you for writing Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, and thanks for joining me on Gospel Bound.
Tom Holland: Thanks, ever so much for having me.