For any screenwriter or producer from TV, cinema or the newborn streaming universe, telling the “greatest story of all time” is a feat to be pursued with care. In increasingly intricate multiverses, large companies bet on consecrated heroes, for whom the fight of good against evil is revamped once again. It is not today that men and women are interested in her, after all. Stories about supernatural individuals who survived mortal challenges to save the universe populate man’s imagination since before his first traces, constituting the raw material of a phenomenon exclusive to the species: religion.
Sprouted in the heart of an inhospitable region, one of these stories had an unusual “plot twist”. It was not uncommon for children of gods to be subjected to terrifying experiences so that they would then take possession of their divinity. It was the first time, however, that the figure in question, worshiped as the son of the God of Israel himself, had moved away from the familiar stereotype: he had lived like a wretch and been humiliated, tortured and killed like a delinquent, before being resurrected to life. eternal. The rest… Well. The rest is the history of the West.
“How could a cult inspired by the execution of a shady criminal in a long-vanished empire exert such a transformative and lasting influence on the world?” It was this question that the award-winning British historian Tom Holland turned to in his bestseller “Dominion: Christianity and the creation of the western mentality”, which has just arrived in a Portuguese version, after garnering effusive praise from intellectuals on the left and right in Europe and the United States.
Often confused on Twitter with his fellow countryman who brings Spider-Man to life, Holland combines erudition, didacticism and elegance in the description of how the most convinced of progressives owes – and a lot – to the Christianity that so many aim to “deconstruct”. His own saga as an atheist researcher who realizes that he is still immersed in Christian waters is narrated in the introduction to the work, available to subscribers of Gazeta do Povo (download the text here). Read his interview below:
As you noticed for the first time that, even being an atheist historian, you were imbued with values not only associated with Christian religion, but from a whole worldview inherited from Christianity?
Everyone knows that those who write fiction usually deal with subjects that go back to their own childhood and youth, and I think the same goes for non-fiction. I became a historian because I wanted to convey to readers some of the excitement I felt as a child when I contemplated the world of the Ancient Mediterranean – Greece and especially Rome. I loved this universe. I liked the Greek gods a lot more and was completely on Pontius Pilate’s team rather than Jesus’ team, you know? Jesus was the bearded loser type, and Pilate wore a toga, had soldiers, was powerful.
But while I was writing about Julius Caesar, or the Spartans, I needed to get inside their heads . I had to bring them to life for readers. As a researcher, I wanted to make people really understand the way they saw the world and feel some empathy. At the same time, it was a disturbing experience, because as I progressed through this project, I realized more and more clearly how terrifying and ruthless they were.
And while super predators are always fascinating – no no wonder people are obsessed with them – you don’t want one of these in your house. So I began to realize how disturbing ancient Greece and Rome were, and I began to wonder why. Why, after all, is the world I live in so different? I began to notice that, essentially, everything is due to what this great revolution – the rise of Christianity – represents.
This became even clearer to me after writing two of my books. One was about the beginning of the second millennium in Latin Europe . Although the Catholic Church is predominantly seen as a rigid and conservative institution, I understood that the way the papacy was established in Europe, and therefore in the West, was truly revolutionary. It sharpened in me the sense that Christianity is inherently subversive. I came to see it as a big meeting of tectonic plates on which big cities are built, you know? Like the city of San Francisco and the San Andreas fault. Any movement on these plates can bring everything down.
In addition, I wrote another book on the rise of Islam. It was a very controversial book because I deeply questioned what Muslims think about Mohammed and the Quran, and as you know, people are very sensitive about that. And I remember once, while I was giving a talk, there was a Muslim in the audience who said, “Why did you do that? You would never question your own beliefs like that.” I thought it was a fair question, not least because I was already questioning the origins of my own beliefs which were basically secular and progressive. I wrote “Domain” because I began to suspect that if I really asked myself where my most cherished values and principles came from, they would take me long before the Enlightenment.
His book arrived in Brazil with the title “Dominion: Christianity and the creation of the western mentality”. In the American version, the subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World”. After all, is Christianity revolutionary or is it a force that is conservative, that guarantees stability and continuity?
I think it is both. There is a central and revolutionary point in Christianity: it believes that a single moment in history functions as a kind of axis of time itself. Christ’s life, death and resurrection make up a moment in history that explains all that was before and all that will come after. On the other hand, it is clear that the desire for things to go back to the way they were is an absolutely primary instinct in the history of Christianity, as is the idea that you need to be born again, that your sin needs to be redeemed.
If, as happened in Europe in the 11th century on a level that has not been reproduced anywhere else in the world, the idea spreads that all society needs to be cleansed, purified and reborn, we have the recipe for a revolution. And, as you know, the revolutionary radicals of one age become the conservatives of another. The rebels who built the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century become the hierarchy that Luther and the Protestant reformers want to overthrow in the 16th century. So the Catholic and Protestant churches become the “repository of superstitions” that Enlightenment icons criticize in the 18th century.
Part of the paradox of the history of Christianity is the fact that, because Christianity is so hegemonic—more people practice Christianity than any other kind of worldview—when it comes under criticism, it usually comes from Christian reasons, even if the critics don’t realize it. When they say that “the last must become first”, they are obviously referring to the words of Christ.
It is spoken all the time in the “decline of Western Civilization”. You close your book by saying that Christianity remains Christianity. Based on your view of Christianity, do you believe that the idea of a Western civilization is an idealization of the past, or is there something in it that is, in fact, dying, and that needs to be saved?
The term “Christendom” appears precisely in the 11th century, with the aim of describing the mentality of the Christian people. So of course it has a Western connotation, and I think in the West this Christian culture remains as alive and vibrant as it ever was. The upheavals that are happening at this moment in the United States and in the countries influenced by it seem to me a new spasm of that revolutionary moment of the sixteenth century: a reform absolutely grounded in our Christian heritage. Simultaneously, Christianity is spreading with incredible speed in Africa, East Asia and even in Brazil, through Pentecostal evangelicals.
I would even say that there are two great revolutionary forces in the religious sphere in the 21st century: one is radical Islam, which is quite evident, and the other is Pentecostalism that grows under the surface and is also convulsive. So I continue to believe that it is impossible to understand the West without understanding Christianity. However, it is clear that there are aspects of what we call the “decadence of the West” that have more to do with the decline of its economic, military and cultural power.
Doesn’t this stem, on some level, from the decay of Christianity?
In fact, I would say that this battle should serve to show the people how Christian the assumptions of the West are. Look: one of the great assets of Western power is to disguise Christian assumptions – which are culturally very specific – as universal. Universal human rights enshrined by the UN are an obvious example of this. We all accept that these rights simply exist, they are for everyone. Notice that now that the West is in retreat, they don’t seem so obvious: just look at China or any other part of the world that doesn’t accept Western ideas.
Another example is the secularism, which is an absolutely Christian invention. When the British say they “made India a secular republic”, or when Marshal Kemal Ataturk overthrew the Ottoman Empire and declared that “Turkey is now a secular republic”, they are assuming that the idea of a secular state is something universal. , simple, that today we understand that it is not. So, as Western power retreats, we see Narendra Modi in India, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Notice how the very understanding of “secular” is specifically Christian. Therefore, as Western power retreats, understanding of the secular will also come under pressure.