by Richard Saunders-Hindley.
The most recent book by the historian Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, has received wide critical acclaim.[i] With characteristic elegance and thoroughness, Holland argues that all Western cultural assumptions and values are entirely rooted in the social revolutionary claims of Christianity. Part of his purpose is to demonstrate the shocking and strange nature of the claim that a crucified criminal is somehow the world’s true lord, arguing that this remains essential to Christianity:
‘Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.’[ii]
Holland writes with the passion of an evangelist as much as an advocate, sitting throughout on the cusp of secular historian and zealous apologist. Interestingly he is not (yet) a confessing Christian himself, although he has admitted in various interviews that he wishes he were. One of the main things that holds him back is the lack of confidence of Christians and the church in the strangeness of the gospel message. His critique is scathing:
‘I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft‑left liberal, because everyone is giving that. If I want that, I’ll get it from a Liberal Democrat councillor. If you’re a Christian, you think that the entire fabric of the cosmos was ruptured by this strange singularity when someone who is a god and a man sets everything on its head… and if you don’t believe that, it seems to me that you’re not really a confessional Christian… If it’s to be preached as something true, the strangeness of it… has to be fundamental to it. I don’t want to hear what bishops think about Brexit. I know what they think about Brexit and it’s not particularly interesting. But if they’ve got views on original sin, I’d be very interested to hear that.’[iii]
This is a major challenge to the Western church and its mission. Some will think that Holland’s charge is unproven; but the fact that he, as a seeker, perceives this as the fundamental problem with the church’s proclamation of the gospel must surely lead the church to re‑examine itself. In the New Testament, the strangeness of proclaiming the cruciform gospel is front and centre. There was no question about the shocking absurdity of proclaiming a crucified man as lord: ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1.23-24, NIV).
If the church is to meet Holland’s challenge, it must reconnect itself to the shocking and strange nature of what it proclaims. Christians must also be prepared for the fact that doing so will bring Agrippa’s accusation to Paul on themselves: ‘You are out of your mind!’ (Acts 26.24)
Part of the reason why Christians shy away from telling others about the strangeness of the gospel is because they don’t discuss it among themselves. The only way to address that is to start talking about it: unashamed talk of the criminal execution and astonishing resurrection of Jesus must be reintroduced at the heart of Christian discourse and worship; strange phenomena like angels and demons must be openly discussed; the place of miracles, the hope of bodily resurrection and the mystery of prayer must be clearly taught and lived out. Importantly this must become a common currency among all Christians, transcending ecclesial subcultures.
From an evangelistic point of view, then, the question Christians must ask of themselves is not whether they believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord of heaven and earth, but whether they are prepared to be fools for Christ, ready to be open about the strangeness of their message, and willing to take the consequences of sneering ridicule and scepticism, personal attacks, discrimination and possibly worse. If Tom Holland is right, if they are thus ready and willing, then there will be those who will listen.
[i] Tom Holland, 2019, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (London: Little, Brown). The U.S. edition is subtitled How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.
[ii] Holland, Dominion, 524-5.
[iii] ‘Tom Holland to Christians: Preach The Weird Stuff!’, Speak Life interview 25/10/19, accessed September 2020.