Tom Holland: A Christian hero?
Marketing Tom Holland’s ‘Dominion’ as a Christian product would be a kiss of death in the UK, but it works across the pond
Since its release in 2019, historian Tom Holland’s ambitious book Dominion has been making waves on both sides of the Atlantic. But it wasn’t until the other day, listening to his recent Spiked podcast with Andrew Doyle, that I realized it has a different subtitle depending on which side you’re shopping from. In the UK, it’s “The Making of the Western Mind.” In the US, it’s “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.”
As Tom and Andrew discuss, this contrast speaks volumes about the market gap across the pond when it comes to selling product with a “religious” flavour. Witness, too, the starkly different cover designs: the US cover is filled, simply and cleanly, by Dali’s cross. The UK paperback cover is an elaborate movie-poster collage of history’s heroes, villains and anti-heroes (Caesar! Hitler! MLK Jr.! The Beatles!) standing about/looming over historic buildings. Notably absent: Jesus.
Tom’s American editor might positively have hoped his book would get mistaken for a Christian product
Tom reveals the inside baseball behind these choices, explaining his British editor’s concern that the UK packaging does not doom the book to the apologetics section of the shops. By contrast, apologetics is a veritable cottage industry in the states, as I can attest, having occasionally been branded with the dread word “apologist” myself (evangelical apologist yet—how dare they, I’m a high-Church Baptist!). Hereabouts, entire publishing houses dedicated to Christian books do brisk business every year, to say nothing of “Christian film” and “Christian music”. Indeed, Tom’s American editor might positively have hoped it would get mistaken for a Christian product. But in his own country, it would be the kiss of death.
Tom readily agreed to all the commensurate packaging adjustments. Like any author, he didn’t want his book shunted off to languish and die on the shelves. But this wasn’t merely a mercenary fear. He had something to say, and he wanted as many people as possible to hear it, especially those who would avoid the “apologetics” section like the plague.
That “something” was nothing less than “a genealogy of modernity,” as James Orr phrased it in his review. The book re-tells our own history through the lens of the faith that cradled it, whether Secular Humanists UK like it or not. (Shockingly, they do not.) But it doesn’t begin with the birth of Christ. It prepares the ground by first shocking the reader with the brutality of pre-Christian pagan culture. These were societies where human life was cheap, might made right, and crucifixion made for leisurely Friday afternoon spectator sport. The gods of this world simply didn’t give a toss. Yet it was into such a world that, so Christians preached and so they proclaimed, Christ came down from heaven to get nailed on it like some schlemiel. As Tom sums up in the podcast with Doyle, “Hey, scummy slave, he died for you!”
There’s a reason why they call this the greatest story ever told, and Holland spins it out with a novelistic skill and sensitivity that won rave reviews from Christian and sceptical readers alike. At the same time, he brought certain religious outsider’s presuppositions to the work that no doubt had many itching for a chance to sit him down and sort him out. But this is only to be expected given what the book is, and what it is not. (One thinks of the low-brow sceptic’s complaint that there aren’t “more non-Christian affirmations of the resurrection” in the first-century literature. A moment’s thought should reveal the definitional absurdity. Nevertheless, it persists, zombie-like.)
Christians love their high-profile converts, and nerdy Christians especially love their high-profile intellectual converts
Yet, despite Holland’s personal scepticism, he has given hints that he increasingly finds himself coming to the gospel stories as something less than a complete outsider. He may not be ready to make a full confession of small “o” orthodox faith, but as he admitted in conversation with evangelist Glen Scrivener, he cannot deny that he is compelled to “surrender to the story,” whatever this means exactly. This raises an intriguing question: If, as a secular historian, Holland were to undergo a public shift towards a confessional Christian faith, what would become of that hard-earned market appeal? Would his UK publisher’s worst nightmare come true? Would his future writing on Christianity be forever doomed to the apologetics ghetto? It’s one thing for an academic like N. T. Wright, whose heavy tomes have never been marketed with a general audience in mind. But for gifted popular writers like Holland, the dilemma is real.
Of course, Tom would have the consolation of a warm welcome from a Christian readership. Christians do love their high-profile converts, and nerdy Christians especially love their high-profile intellectual converts. There’s no doubt they would eagerly court Holland as a writer and speaker were he to “come out”. The same would go for Jordan Peterson, who thus far has been famously elusive when pressed to give a “yes/no” answer on the question of Jesus’ resurrection. Likewise for Douglas Murray, who self-styles as a “Christian atheist” and with whom I enjoyed my own friendly dialogue on the Christian-atheist conversations show Unbelievable?. For any such Christian-friendly public intellectual to walk the proverbial aisle would be an Event.
I say all that not to make fun of Christians. We’re really a sincere lot, on the whole. We get excited about welcoming newcomers to the fold for the quite genuine reason that we think all this stuff is actually true and actually saves souls. But if we are honest, like everyone else we also have the simple human desire for our most deeply held beliefs to be affirmed by impressive-sounding people (bonus points from us Americans if they’ve got a British accent).
This desire can also manifest in subtler, more painful ways. In a scholarly context, I’ve sometimes seen it manifest in the rush by certain evangelicals to meet the liberal mainstream halfway, clearly desirous to be part of “the club,” yet also wanting to retain their conservative Christian constituency. And no wonder. It takes no small measure of chutzpah to say, “To hell with all that.”
But there’s the rub: the religious voices with the most chutzpah often carry the stigma of also being the most fundamentalist. And so, to the religious outsider, the mistaken assumption has formed and crystallized that fundamentalism is a pre-condition for taking a bold forward position in the public square on the truth claims of the Christian faith. If one mounts a forceful argument for, say, the holistic reliability of the four canonical gospels (or Acts), one is automatically suspected of special pleading. How could it be otherwise, the reasoning goes, if so many intelligent sceptical academics have remained so secure in their scepticism for so long?
This Christian apologist thanks Tom for articulating the Christian gospel about as winningly as it can be
The answer would require a book unto itself, several rather—one for the history, one for the epistemology, and one for the psychology. As Holland himself would readily agree, he is hardly the first thinking man to wrestle with this conundrum, though he may perhaps not be aware that the great Victorian crisis of faith was matched by a no less great crisis of doubt (look no further than Timothy Larsen’s definitive work of that name on this little-told history). Suffice it to say, I well understand and respect the conundrum. And I respect the man who refrains from assuming a confessional identity he could not wear without twisting the plain meaning of words, like “Christian”. In such cases, I echo C. S. Lewis: “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reason tells him the weight of the evidence is against it. This is not where faith comes in…[F]aith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”
And yet, I would submit that the state in which Tom now finds himself is of necessity impermanent. It remains true, to quote the nineteenth-century Catholic writer Matthew Power, that “if man is a rational animal, we cannot get out of Rationalism any more than we can get out of our skin.” The mind must needs be integrated. The accepted value of those things we hold most dear must needs be brought into alignment with a theory of their cause. The question is, what will we choose to doubt? Perhaps, pace Lewis again, it is time for the modern man to try doubting something else.
Meanwhile, this Christian apologist thanks Tom for articulating the Christian gospel about as winningly as it can be articulated, whether or not he did it for the winning of souls. I can only underline it and turn it back to Tom and Andrew themselves: “Hey you. He died for you.”
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