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It’s refreshing to read a new book by an accomplished historian whose reputation is regarded by many in the academic world change his mind about something as significant as the impact that Christianity has had on the building of Western Civilization. The following is from Marvin Olasky. Olasky, a former Communist and now the Editor-in-Chief of World Magazine, had this to say about Tom Holland’s new book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (The American edition :
Until this year, the first 20 pages of Witness by Whittaker Chambers (Random House, 1952) comprised the most brilliant preface or foreword I’d ever read. Chambers, who had crossed over from Communism to Christianity, explained that Communism is “man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” And gods play to win, as Chambers goes on to show during the next 788 pages, which are good but not as good as the beginning.
The first 17 pages of historian Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic, 2019) knock the start of Witness out of first place. Those pages beautifully tell the amazing story of how a culture that had esteemed only big winners began to care about (in worldly terms) big losers. If the familiar Gospels no longer move you to wonder and perhaps tears, read that preface.
Dr. Gary North wrote the following to me about Chambers’s Preface:
Whittaker Chambers’ introduction was powerful. It was also one of the most wrongheaded pieces of literature ever written. He said he felt that he was joining the losing side when he became a Christian. He was a Pietist, amillennial, and a retreatist of the first order who was consistent with what he said he believed. He retreated to a farm and stopped writing.
Olasky knows something about reevaluating history and his chosen ideology. “In 1976 he earned his Ph.D. in American Culture at the University of Michigan. He became an atheist in adolescence and a Marxist in college, ultimately joining the Communist Party USA in 1972. He married and divorced during this period and by his own admission broke every one of the ten commandments except the one against murder. He left the Communist Party late in 1973 and in 1976 became a Christian after reading the New Testament and a number of Christian authors.”
Tom Holland doesn’t seem to be as radical as Olasky was, but after decades of historical study, he changed his mind about the impact that Christianity has had on our world. Holland grew up in a Christian environment but became disillusioned with much of what was being taught by Christians about Christianity was offering. His questions about Christianity went unanswered by those who should have always been ready to make a defense to everyone who asked them to “give an account for the hope that is in [them], yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).
The following is taken from the final pages of Dominion’s Preface:
Yet over the course of the past two decades, my perspective has changed. When I came to write my first works of history, I chose as my themes the two periods that had always most stirred and moved me as a child: the Persian invasions of Greece in the last decades of the Roman Republic. Years that I spent writing these twin studies of the classical world, living intimately in the company of Leonidas and of Julius Caesar, of the hoplites who had died at Thermopylae and of the Legionnaires who had crossed the Rubicon, only confirmed me in my fascination: for Sparta and Rome, even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, retained their glamour as apex predators. They continue to stock my imaginings as they had always done: like a great white shark, like a tiger, like a tyrannosaurs. Yet giant carnivores, however wondrous, are by their nature terrifying. The more years I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, so the more alien I increasingly found it. The values of Leonida, whose people had practiced a particularly murderous form of eugenics and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognized as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who is reported to have killed a million Gauls, and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value. Why did I find this disturbing? Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I ceased to be a Christian.
For Millennium and more, the civilization into which I had been born was christendom. Assumptions that I had that I had grown up with — about how society should properly be organized, and the principles that it should uphold — were not bread of classical antiquity, still less of human nature, but very distinctly of that civilization’s Christian past. So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilization that it has come to be hidden from view it is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted.
The ambition of Dominion is to trace the course of what one Christian, writing in the 3rd century AD, termed the ‘flood-tide of Christ’; how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dull to just how scandalous it originally was. This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain — for good and ill — thoroughly Christian.
It is — to coin a phrase— the greatest story ever told.
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