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Have been looking forward to this book for a long time as I pre-ordered it. I'm only a few pages in... and am very impressed so far!! Written in a simple and engaging manner. I'm still in the preface which begins with a discussion of the crucifixion of Jesus (which I wasn't expecting!). Lots of interesting background historical information about this event. I plan to coming back and keep updating my review as I progress through the book.
This is an interesting read, with lots of fascinating and out of the way information. It is also very readable. I was, however, left with real misgivings about it. There were two aspects to this.
First, in those areas where I have more specialized knowledge, the author’s treatment seemed to me poor, and it led me to wonder what he might have done in other areas of his discussion with which I was less familiar. For example, his discussion of ideas about human rights by the UN treated it as if it was simply continuous with older Christian ideas about natural law. This is really not the case: the story is a lot more complex. Second, Marx’s ideas were presented by stressing the parallels in his work with religious ideas. This is an idea that has been much discussed; but it is superficial as a reading of Marx and, in the end, not really helpful in understanding the character of Marx’s work.
Second, my real worry – and why I think that the book is, in the end, rather silly - was that the author tends to treat almost everything that has come up during the course of Western intellectual history as ‘Christian’. The problems with this are that, on the one side, for an idea to have content, it has to rule out other things; but for Holland to call something ‘Christian’ becomes almost without content just because what he includes is so promiscuous. On the other, it means that when, say, early Quakers objected to slavery, this is taken as Christian – despite the fact that it is not clear what is specifically ‘Christian’ about it. The doctrinal basis of it would hardly pass any test of Christian orthodoxy. While those who avowed Christianity up to that point (including, indeed, what we know of Jesus’s own attitudes) did not seem to see there as being anything incompatible between Christianity and slavery as an institution, at all.
I think that Holland is probably correct that there is a sense in which secular Western people have been influenced by specifically Christian ideas in ways that they are not aware of. This was certainly my experience, when I discussed a range of issues, over many hours, with a Muslim historical sociologist of religion. But these issues, it seems to me, have to be discovered by way of the exploration of differences with others with different backgrounds, rather than by way of proceeding as Holland does.
All told, this is a worthwhile read for those who like serious, long but readable books. But it is something to be treated with considerable caution.
In a nutshell - Christianity is so deeply embedded in the West/Western mind, that most of us have ceased to be able to see how fundamental are the moral foundations it provides to everything we take for granted.
What's so interesting about Holland is that he lost his faith when younger but, through his work on late Antiquity, has come to see just what an extraordinary revolution in human thought Christianity actually heralded. He has seen how fundamentally it changed social, moral and political order. And how the modern West is utterly complacent about it - at worst, even hostile.
This thesis is entirely compelling and the evidence abundant. Slightly dry at points but overall fascinating, hugely varied (from Classical Antiquity and the strangeness - to modern eyes - of the ancient world) and wholly compelling.
Strongly recommended - I have distributed copies to various friends already.
During the 2007 UK Parliamentary debate on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade it was pointed out that not a single bishop of the Church of England had supported abolition. Indeed, many of them retained slaves right until 1833, when owning slaves was also made illegal. The Bishop of Exeter was remunerated to the sum of thirteen thousand pounds (a huge sum for those days) for the 665 slaves he owned. (See the appendix to William Hague’s biography of Wilberforce). Although Holland does not mention this particular fact, he is certainly evenhanded in pointing out the many barbaric aspects of Christian history in a book which is replete with his signature vignettes. However, although I enjoyed this book (as I have his previous ones), for me it is somewhat spoiled by a rather unconvincing thesis which he continues to flog throughout. I am sure that if Holland or any of us were to travel back in time to a far more Christian Europe of several centuries ago (for example, the half way point of Christianity, say around the year 1000), we would find the moral and ethical framework utterly alien and deeply shocking. And this would have remained the case for many of the following centuries. The fact that we would find it less alien and shocking than, say, Mexico in 1100, or the present day Islamic State, somewhat misses the point. I realize that Holland’s thesis is that our present ethical World view (at least in so- called “Western” developed democracies) is essentially built on Christianity, and to some extent he must have a point, but he massively overdoes it. Perhaps our World view (including, for example, that slavery is in all cases wrong) would not have come about without Christianity. On the other hand this view point might have developed centuries earlier. It is impossible to say. What is clear is that it is unthinkable without the Enlightenment, and that there are much better explanations for why we now overwhelmingly believe slavery and torture are absolute wrongs (unlike the “good” Christian bishops of early nineteenth century England) and, increasingly, that minorities should not be subject to hatred and discrimination. These explanations are set out eloquently in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, backed with a truly impressive stack of evidence, both statistical and otherwise.
In a way, the most important person (other than the founder of the Christian religion) in this book is the author's Aunty Deb. She it was who (as his godmother) passed on Christian attitudes to him. His thesis is that our entire culture - including that of those who think they are emancipated from it - is dominated by the values of Christianity. To argue it, he tells many familiar stories in an unfamiliar way - more specifically, from the point of view of people to whom they were new. So, for example, we learn what life was like for the Galatians before Saint Paul came along. This approach makes it clear what a complete upheaval the religion brought.
The book is beautifully and significantly structured. He shows us what happened through particular people and makes masterly connections between the epochs. For example, his citation of the New Testament in the early chapters is concise, but there are many more as the implications of its teaching unfold during the centuries. People are often remembered many centuries after they lived as their attitudes emerge again in another form. A biographer of an ancient Rabbi is in the chapter about the Second World War; the Rabbi himself much earlier in the book.
This is a very easy book to read. The writing has great rhetorical power. I have reviewed the print edition which I have read in its entirety. I have also heard some of the audio version. About this I would say that the main reader does not have the emotional intelligence of the author as he reads the introduction. But the writing always has manifold intelligence.
The idea behind this book, that we in the West are greatly influenced by Christian beliefs whether we think we are or not, seemed an interesting one and so I read it. My main criticism would be that the central idea was not really explored in any depth until the last part of the book. Leading up to that we have a fairly familiar and straight forward narrative history of Christianity but without many links being made to the present. I found myself wondering if it might not have been better to have taken a thematic approach based on aspects of modern life and explored how each had been shaped by the Christian past.
Initially I thought this was quite good. Early Christianity as history is not something I know much about, and this part is interesting enough. However, the Enlightenment and The French Revolution I do know about and his writing on this is terrible. Either everything has its roots in a Christian past or/and his understanding his clearly very limited. By approaching through the perspective of a Christian inheritance he doesn't see anything else and fails to attempt to explain the complexity of these subjects. These failings call in to question his writing on earlier periods. To be generous it would be nice to think that the earlier chapters are his period (and going by his earlier works-they are) and the latter something outwith his competency. But still, it does rather undermine the whole book for me. A note on the writing style. It may be thought he writes with a flourish but perhaps it's often just florid, sometimes confusing, vague, and sometimes truly awful, trite, cliched phrases. For example, referring to virtue and the French Revolution he writes "virtue was its own reward" - give us a break! He's not being clever. Virtue in the French Revolution is actually a subject of serious scholarship in recent years - and it actually annoys me that he can use such a meaningless, cliched sentence in such an important subject. Schoolboy stuff.
Tom Holland sets out to show how the thought and ethics of the Western world have been shaped by Christianity.
He begins by informing his readers just how dramatic a departure Christianity was from the religions that preceded it. The gods revered by ancient religions deserved worship just because of their very power, their sometimes cruelty and their total dominance over mere humankind. The Christian God, on the other hand, not only humbled himself by becoming human but willingly submitted himself to a cruel and humiliating execution reserved for the lowest of criminals. The worship of a God who revealed himself as a suffering broken human was a truly radical departure in how humanity conceived of its relationship with the divine. Going forward the relationship would be a profoundly personal one. God was no longer external to man, instead he could be found inscribed on the human heart.
Further insights developed from such a new understanding of man's relationship with God. Whereas ancient religions set boundaries between their followers and those on the outside, the Christian message was to be for all humanity. In St Paul's words "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In order to be meaningful therefore Christianity had to be a universal and inclusive religion. All souls everywhere were equal in the eyes of God.
This understanding necessarily sets individual religious and ethical claims above those of rulers and states. As a result Holland argues that Enlightenment beliefs in the universal rights of man were actually deeply rooted in the history of Christian thought. Indeed up to the current day, radical campaigners who would never see themselves as Christians, can not avoid using the language of Christianity to argue for what is right and to defend the rights of people who are oppressed. Whilst Holland does not deny that institutionally and individually Christians have committed many wrongs, indeed evils, over the centuries, he nevertheless concludes that, from the century of Christ's death to today, it is the Christian understanding of human nature which has inescapably shaped our Western understanding of right and wrong,
This immensely detailed book consists of twenty one chapters arranged in three sections moving from the ancient world to modern times. Each chapter is an essay in its own right, introducing the reader to a fascinating cast of characters, including the Persian Emperor Darius, St Paul, saints and popes, the Marquis de Sade, Tolkein and Nelson Mandela. This is a highly stimulating, immensely detailed, well referenced book which deserves to be read by readers of all faiths and none.
I had wanted to.give this book four stars, but it ended up with three because of the barely comprehensible (to me) takes in its last chapter on (eg) Angela Merkel's opening of the borders of Germany, the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, and because of its (perfunctory) assessment of the relationship between Nazism and Christianity. But, a fascinating read.