“Christendom,” says Mark Sayers, “is like Hamlet’s ghost; it may be dead, but it still acts in the play.”
That line could form a summary of the book I’m reading during this time of global tumult: Dominion, by the British historian Tom Holland.
The subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.” And the work represents a shift from Holland’s early scholarship. Having written histories of Julius Caesar (Rubicon) and the Persian empire (Persian Fire), Holland once claimed a fairly negative view of Christianity.
He remains an atheist.
But he eventually arrived at an unsettling conclusion: The values he held most deeply were the product of a faith he could not hold. To quote Sayers again, the secular project is itself an attempt to have the Kingdom (values, or at least some of them) without the King.
Dominion is Holland’s long attempt to trace how that happened.
The dust jacket tells the thesis:
Christianity is the principal reason why, today, we think it nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering; why we assume every human life to be of equal value.
From Babylon to the Beatles, Moses to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.
GHOSTS ON VENTILATORS
Meanwhile, down in Texas…
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stuck his cowboy boots in his mouth last week when he seemed to suggest that America should value the economy over the potential death-toll on the elderly by COVID-19.
“Let’s get back to work,” Patrick proclaimed, “let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”
After a media firestorm, Patrick sought to “clarify” his comments by adding the “at some point” qualifier–a move that is about as bold and specific as suggesting that “at some point” we should restock our national supply of toilet paper.
It’s easy to make political hay of such soundbites. I’ll let others do that.
My goal is merely to relate Patrick’s original faux pas, and the related ones of many others, to Holland’s Dominion.
Holland’s claim is that we now call callous and barbaric viewpoints are actually the more common ones in world history: a lack of concern for the weak, the sick, the poor, the old, and those with disabilities.
The very need for the Lt. Governor to “clarify” his comment signals something strange in world history.
Holland writes this of the ancient Greeks and Romans:
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 had ceased to be Christian [in terms of ethics].
Of course, Holland is focusing on only one set of Christian values—an error that is common amongst both liberals and conservatives. Yet the atheist historian and the Lt. Governor bring us to a final, unsettling question:
What if the ghost of Christendom is getting “sick”—not just in the secular cities of New York, London, and Los Angeles, but in the Bible belt as well?
“Christendom” is not the same as “Christianity.” The former has more to do with cultural power and privilege. The latter is about worship, service, and mission.
Still, the former is not unimportant–and especially for the way our culture treats the least of these (the elderly, the poor, the unborn).
This is what it sounds like when Hamlet’s aging ghost begins to cough.
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- Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018)
- The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan Academic, 2019)
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