Bart D. Ehrman’s Personal Page
America’s foundations are under assault and being shaken. The question is, Do countries need solid foundations? If not, there is no problem. If so, then what would a good foundation look like? Does America have one already? What is it? If not, what would a good new foundation look like? Would we or anyone have any experience with it? Is America simply in a normal transition? Are these “either/or” or “and/both” questions/choices? Might there be something in between offering less violence?
This post is the first of three Q and D posts commenting primarily on three books: Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (2019), The Story of Christianity: A History of 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith (2009), and After God (2007). To abbreviate the titles, we refer to them as Dominion, The Story, and After God. We present Dominion here, and The Story and After God separately in the Parts II and III.
Especially over the last five years in our Praxis Circle reading, we’ve noticed a growing trend of entertaining and honest authors with worldviews very different from ours writing about the full 2,000-plus year history of Western Civilization. It seems everyone wants to reclaim or remake it. The common theme they increasingly share is a rediscovery that Classical Judeo-Christianity (CJC) is the foundation of the West’s society and culture, even its political economy. All educated Westerners and Christians need to learn to think about this long period as a continuous stream, and Praxis Circle is dedicated to offering assistance.
By the end of The House on a Rock – Part III, we hope to have begun an examination at a high level of the questions offered in the first paragraph above, as well as the beginning of a productive exchange between Christian and postmodern thinkers. This “conversation” needs to happen. It is already ongoing across the West because, well, it’s obvious that CJC is Western civilization’s foundation and that postmodernism is a primary force in nearly every corner now, “deconstructing” (i.e., chipping away) at Western foundations. The subject of foundations will focus much our attention for the rest of 2020 and 2021.
The Praxis Circle staff read each of the five books shown in the next picture below during the last year, including Dominion, The Story, and After God. We included The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013) and Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) in the pictured book pile because we refer to them in this three-part series. All books involve authors who believe the same point – that Christianity has been, is, and will continue to be on some basis the foundation of Western Civilization.
At least four of our twenty Praxis Circle Expert Contributors call themselves postmodern or claim postmodernism’s positive influence. We sought out these thought-leaders because of their expertise, but also because of our differences. They and the authors mentioned in this series prove that thought leaders are capable of being objective and engaging in reasonable discussion, with good listening.
In the video at top, Dr. Bart Ehrman (Go UNC Heels) makes the case for Christianity’s influence forcefully, though we are not including one of his books in this three-part series – saving some of them for later. However, in our opinion, all of his books directly or indirectly suggest this theme of Christian foundation. In fact, we doubt he would spend much time on any subject in his field unless it gave context to Western civilization’s Judeo-Christian foundation. Dr. Ehrman is a postmodernist writing about what happened in Western history’s past . . . “based on evidence.”
Also, like Dr. Ehrman, all authors presented in the picture below have a faith and/or politics (worldview) that is extremely different from ours, with the exception of Eric Metaxas, whose book is at the bottom of the pile. If you consider yourself a “traditional” Roman Catholic, Protestant, or fan of the West, the wide span of these author’s writings might occasionally take you out of your comfort zone. Nonetheless, we much appreciate their work and share overlapping points of view on many issues. Our straight-up opinion is that postmodernism has offered nothing new whatsoever that wasn’t there in ancient philosophy, but it has reminded us of many important themes.
Most important of all, however, we believe people of all worldviews can and must learn much from each other. Certainly, this is what we would like to promote from our own worldview’s point of view.
Here’s a brief description of each author. Our links take you to each man speaking because it’s so important to see and hear the human person. If you’re interested in their biographies, please search on your own:
Tom Holland is a British author who, like Dr. Ehrman, lost his faith (Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, 2019), though, obviously, again, he much appreciates the place of Christianity in the West; David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox Christian (converted from Anglicanism) and, as a declared Democratic Socialist, is very far from us politically, (The Story of Christianity: A History of 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith, 2009), and, somehow still more important to us, is a former University of Virginia (Go Hoos) professor; Mark Taylor is a Harvard-trained postmodern professor of religion and philosophy at Columbia University (After God, 2007). Interestingly, Dr. Taylor was a close friend of Jacques Derrida, now deceased.
While each author goes about Western Civ’s story in very different ways, they all recognize the importance of the West’s 2,000-year attempt at philosophical and theological synthesis centering on Christianity. Somehow, even the well-educated general public doesn’t understand this at all today. CJC (again, Classical Judeo-Christianity, a Praxis Circle term from what we know) is an extremely comprehensive, thoughtful, and powerful force, and every human being should be vitally concerned with what happens next with it in the West and across the globe. We are in changing times; likely at a new flashpoint.
Lastly, before getting started with Dominion’s Introduction (also serving as an introduction to The Rock Series), we want to highlight that we are not offering full book reviews. We are only trying to provide general descriptions, so you can decide whether to look more closely. We can only guarantee that if you like this kind of material, you will find any of these books interesting and entertaining. Critical to all collectors out there, they will also make your bookshelves proud.
Of course, there are many other fairly recent books also offering great takes on Western Civilization. We are making a list starting from our own library and will be suggesting other books in the future. Most important, we welcome any book ideas you might have.
An Introduction to Dominion
The picture at the very top shows the stone fortress or “house” that protected Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. For centuries, invaders knew they couldn’t take the great city by sea, and the fortress protected any approach by land. It’s design is incredible, and the walls in the picture still stand. Constantinople’s fortress proved impregnable for 900 years. Rome’s first Christian emperor, Emperor Constantine, established the city as the Roman Empire’s new Eastern capital in 324 AD. The Eastern Empire lasted over 1,000 years until 1453 AD, long outdating the original Western Empire to which all European and Mediterranean roads led.
Not to be forgotten or denied, around 800 AD, Western Europeans under Charlemagne established the idea of another Western empire to replace the old Roman one, eventually, the Holy Roman Empire. That empire also lasted over 1,000 years until 1806. Both of these 1,000-year empires were based squarely on Christianity.
As Dominion shows, Christianity is still foundational to Western civilization and influencing much of the rest of the world. We noted the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24-27) in a recent post where he describes a house built on a rock (page down this linked post to see the quote). One thousand is an important number of years in the Bible, with Revelations (Revelations 20: 4-6) mentioning the Second Coming and Christ’s thousand-year rule.
Needless to say, for good or even ill, a thousand years+ has institutional relevance to civilization, certainly as inspiration. Somehow, humans don’t like putting much effort into their work and lives unless they believe it will make a difference with some degree of lasting effect. Can you blame us?
Unlike the Byzantine, Holy Roman, or even British “empires,” the United States has existed only 244 years. Still a young adult by any comparison, America is already commonly referred to as the most powerful country in the world, the leader of the free world and thus the world, the long-sought-after City on a Hill (Matthew 5:14). Perhaps only Alexander the Great went so far so fast. (Poor guy, he burned out at age 33, right after conquering the known world.)
And yet, sad to say, many today are openly questioning how long America can last. The West was looking very good after the Fall of the Soviet Union, but, increasingly, as traders on Wall Street would say, given the state of current civil unrest, the growth of large, unmanageable, and often counter-productive government, and the lack of a shared national vision among citizens, “many patriots should short American’s 1,000-year stock.”
It’s said once a democracy learns to pay itself from the State’s treasury, the fall is near. Yes, America has been through much worse times, but they also said that in Rome, Constantinople, and wherever the Holy Roman Emperor’s headquarters happened to be. We will never stop quoting one of our favorite book titles, “This Time It’s Different?”
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (2019, 542 pages)
- By Tom Holland
The best way to introduce Dominion is to offer David Bentley Hart’s quote from its back cover:
“At a moment when popular debates over ‘Faith’ and ‘reason’ have become fashionable, Tom Holland brilliantly reminds us that the most essential values claimed by all sides arise from a long and complex cultural history of Christina moral imagination – one we would do well to remember.”
Dominion describes the grand sweep of Western Civilization in three phases – Antiquity (479 BC – 632 AD), Christendom (754 AD – 1620 AD), and Modernitas (1649 AD – 2015 AD/today) – in storied, chapter bites centering on 21 key historical events & places averaging 125 years apart. He peppers each account with skillfully arrayed background and fun facts drawing from his expertise in ancient and medieval history. The time gaps narrow significantly between events as the narrative approaches today. Holland brings to life how each of these event/places are central to the theme of Christian revolution: why Christianity was and remains a revolution, another theme all three authors in our series share.
His historical account begins in 479 AD when Xerxes, the king of the largest empire the world had ever seen, who believed himself a god embodying truth itself, built a pontoon bridge connecting Asia and Europe. This wonder-of-the-world bridge over the Hellespont was just south of Constantinople and its fortress, constructed several hundred years later. The story places the West’s first events at the border of Europe and Asia, and the question becomes which force of nature will win out – order or chaos.
Who’s Zoomin’ Who? is usually Mr. Holland’s operative question throughout his special book. His consistent answer? Both.
After Xerxes’ defeat by the peripheral, lowly, uncivilized Greeks (The Battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea), a squadron of Athenian ships captured the Hellespont’s Persian governor, nailed him to a wooden plank as if crucified, and then stoned his son before his eyes, as he died. As such, Asian “truth” encountered love of bravery, freedom, and power that became famous during the Greek, Alexandrian, and Rome empires. These guys from nowhere who somehow thought everybody else were barbarians, including Xerxes, were good at winning. They expected those with power to use it. This was the assumption until Christianity came along, changing the issue not from “whether or not,” but to “how.”
We are still developing new answers.
Dominion’s second chapter or event/place is Jerusalem in 63 BC, when Roman General Pompey captured the city, bringing another backwater, the old Promised Land with its Judaism, into the heart of the Empire. We know that by this time the pagan Greeks, Romans, and friends had perfected the ability to dominate, enslave, and crucify. They knew exactly how to wield power and to rule effectively – meaning how to maintain power and dominance – from the highest level.
In Mr. Holland’s progressive story, with Christ and Paul soon to follow and in today’s full hindsight, one enjoys while reading the overwhelming irony, again, of who was really capturing whom. Pompey had just unintentionally ensnared Athens and Rome with Jerusalem, and the same hot winds of synthesis continue across the world today, no end in sight. Mr. Holland is two-for-two by the end of the second chapter, and he maintains his batting average throughout. A lesson: The heart’s mind is far more powerful than phalanx and legions.
Dominion then describes how Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, was consolidated under the Roman Catholic Church, extended its reach and faltered during the Middle Ages and Crusades, experienced the Reformation, and then produced a secularized and globalized modernity with a story nowhere near finished; in other words, there is certainly no “End of History” in sight. (We should note that two of our Praxis Circle Contributors, Rodney Stark and Bart Ehrman (above), are recognized authorities on the growth of Christianity between Jesus and Constantine. Two of their books even have the same title: The Triumph of Christianity. While their stories of Christian growth have important differences, they actually match up reasonably well.)
Dominion’s readers enter each new event/place wondering what will happen next, and Western history develops a purposeful rhythm. Mr. Holland shines at each revealed turn, and he concludes with the themes of Love on Abbey Road (1967) and Woke (Europe with respect to the non-Western world) in Germany, involving Angela Merkel and Mid-Eastern immigrants on Rostock’s doorstep (2015).
By the end, Dominion becomes more of a personal essay with increasing degrees of presentism, placing more emphasis on John Lennon’s Imagine than it deserves. We remember the song and times well, but some degree of presentism is probably unavoidable for any work covering so much territory. Besides, after over 500 pages of engaging writing, Holland earns the right to tell us what he thinks. We appreciate his honesty, objectivity, and insights.
In the last pages, Mr. Holland says his godmother, Deborah Gillingham (Aunty Deb), inspired the book. She was a committed member of the Church of England and a constant presence during his childhood. She bought him his first Bible and provided him daily with a model of a committed Christian. He says he realized through her that he’s part of the same Christian story. He states that he tried to be as objective as possible in writing the book, by implication in honor of Aunty Deb, and we think he succeeded and should be congratulated.
That’s not to say in the end that we weren’t sad to learn he’s lost his faith. We don’t want to offend our European friends, but many Americans observe this result to be, in particular, somewhat of a European disease. Here in Virginia, we do not feel this same European cultural climate of rank secularism. Our contact with Europe over the years tells us that atheism is just as cultural in Europe now as soccer, not so much based on generally-accepted truth that the rest of the world will surely get, but, well, based on European culture.
Whether in Europe or America, such a loss seems even more tragic just as much of the world outside the West is experiencing an Awakening (it’s happening here, too) and just as academics are declaring the secularization thesis dead. (See our Praxis Circle Expert Contributor, Dr. Jay Ford, on this one.) Man is religious by nature and seeks to connect with the supernatural, a real force today in human lives. Whether the supernatural is true or whether it helps make our world better are different issues, never to be settled, perhaps.
But it’s our belief that humankind cannot and does not persist in lies for long when faced with truth.
To keep Dominion’s long story as tight and coherent as possible, Mr. Holland left out the Christian story of the Americas and other continents. (Dr. Hart’s book offers this, presented in Part II next time.) Of course, North America’s story is quite different than Europe’s, as are the stories of the other geographies. Yes, Christianity has gotten a lot bigger than the European story, which isn’t over. The trend is good, even extraordinarily exciting. We can continue working together with our fellow human beings to make the world a better place.
Dominion’s last words quote 1 Corinthians 1:27:
“‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ This is the myth that we in the West still persist in clinging to. Christendom, in that sense, remains Christendom still.” (page 542)
Yes, we agree and could only add: It’s not weakness alone that shames the strong, but also humanity’s most powerful foundation: the Truth.
Walls topple over, but Truth endures forever.