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This is a revolutionary book. It asks us to overturn our thinking about our twenty-first century world almost completely. This is apt, for this is also a book about a revolution – a revolution which has been so successful that we have not only adopted its core revolutionary principles as our own but retrospectively imposed them on every other era and culture and called them universal.
Tom Holland’s expertise in ancient history enables him colourfully to set the scene of a world profoundly alien to ours: where human beings have no intrinsic value and life is not just “nasty, brutish, and short” but is celebrated as such. Into this blood-soaked world, where the norms that we think of as universal are very clearly absent, come our two heroes. The first is obvious: Christ. The second was St Paul. It is Christ, the Son of the Living God, suffering and dying on one of the most appalling instruments of torture ever devised by man, who transformed the way in which human beings saw God and each other; and it was Paul who realised the enormity of this event and crystallised it with his catchphrase, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free, nor male nor female; but all are one in Christ Jesus.”
Holland takes us on a canter through Western Christian history and shows how the Christ Event overturned almost all of the understandings of the world, the divine, and humanity. Although a canter, you don’t feel you are being taken along too quickly. Each period or theme is a well-constructed gobbet, featuring an illustrative character, and exploring the underlying philosophies and events which he or she illustrates. We see Christianity at its best – but also at its worst – and, over two thousand years, are shown the recurring patterns of thought and debate, out of which has come all that which we, in the twenty-first century West, value most: the knowledge that every human being has value because he or she is in the image and likeness of God; that laws apply to the poor as well as the rich; that the preserve of the sacred and the secular are not coterminous. He shows how the underlying theories of the Copernican Revolution were essentially (in the real meaning of the word) Christian, and overturned the Western (Aristotelian) and Eastern (Confucian) understandings of the Cosmos.
He takes us through the atheist revolutions (of France, Communist Russia, and Nazi Germany) and argues that they fitted into a pattern of Christian thought (universalist, utopian) and, as seen by the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche, that when you remove God from the equation you lose what comes with the God of the Cross: that you can preach human rights all you like, but if humans have no intrinsic worth, it becomes acceptable (and desirable) to remove those who get in the way of your utopian project, sometimes in industrial numbers.
He compares these revolutions to the Christian Empires and their sorry stories of evil and abuse. The difference, he posits, is that despite the evil often being committed in the name of the Crucified God, by placing that cross next to the silver mines of Mexico or the slave plantations of the West Indies, they wrought their own destruction. The dialectic which has run right through Christian history almost guaranteed a Bartolomé de las Casas or a William Wilberforce would rise up in outrage brandishing that same cross. This counterreaction is, suggests Holland, a feature unique to Christianity and one which we cannot presume is found – or desired – in any other school of thought.
This is not a history. Although most of it is in the form and substance of a history book, it is, in fact, a commentary on our current age, and a controversial one at that. The question that runs through every chapter, and is asked explicitly at the end is this: most of what we value as twenty-first century Westerners has Christianity as its bedrock; can it survive removing that bedrock?
And if our answer is “no”, what are we going to do about it?