Interview with historian Tom Holland
The corpse of God lies in a cave but still cast a long shadow on us. In his book "Dominion" historian Tom Holland visits the cave to investigate. How christian is our culture? And is God rising again?
This is a transcript of the interview I made with Tom Holland in the podcast on Tuesday. Since the interview is conducted in English I decided to keep the whole post in the same language. (The transcript has been slightly edited.)
Welcome, Tom Holland, to Rak höger!
- Thank you very much for having me.
It's a great pleasure to have your on because I'm a great admirer. I know you're writing a new book. I've tried to get your on but you've been a professional writer writing your book, not really having time to do a Swedish podcast, and so I’m very thankful that you have time for me today. As I said before we started recording, I’m a very avid listener to your podcast “The rest is history”.
- I’m very honored. Thank you.
So I will probably tie a few of my questions into your podcast. One question is why don't you use “The rest is history” more as a tagline? Like it's right there. Why don't you end every episode with “And the rest is history”.
- I don’t really like the title, to be honest. It wasn’t my choice. My original choice – and this is what nobody involved in the podcast ever lets me forget – was “Pod Past”, which I thought was a brilliant title.
You were over overruled then.
- I was overruled. I don't have any particular stake with “The rest is history” because I don't actually think it makes great sense.
- Because history is always changing. So you can’t really say “and the rest is history”. History can be rewritten, history can be forgotten and can be reinterpreted.
It's usually when you tell a historical story, often dramatized. And instead of saying “and they lived happily ever after” like in a fairytale, you add “and the rest is history”.
- You’re right. Probably we should use it more, I'll try to do it just for you.
What an honor! But then we “The rest is politics”, which is another podcast. Not yours though.
- Yeah, that doesn't make sense because that's not a phrase in English at all!
No, and as a non-english speaker it makes even less sense. I started Googling because I thought I had missed an expression.
They’re just riding on your success.
- Yes, that’s very much how we like to see it.
The last book you wrote was Dominion and it's a very fascinating book. Basically, what you show in your book is that Christianity upended the world as people knew it in the ancient world. And also, in researching Christianity it changed your perspective. I think it was in that in a recent podcast or live show you had about Christianity, that you said that when you read the Bible as a child you identified more with Pontius Pilate than with Jesus.
- Yes I did.
Are you still on team Pilate or what made you switch?
- Haha, no. So I loved the Bible as a child, but I loved anything that was about the ancient world then. child. So I loved the Bible in the way that I loved reading about the Greek myths or stories of early Rome or King Arthur or anything like that. And the awful truth is that I admired the ancient empires rather in the way that as an even younger boy I had admired my dinosaurs. They were big, fierce and glamorous and safely extinct. But I kind of adored them. It wasn’t just Pontius Pilate. It was the Pharaoh of Egypt, the king of Babylon, king of Assyria, king of Persia. I loved them all. I just found them kind of more glamorous, really.
- I always slightly resented Christianity for coming along and spoiling all that. I had an almost synesthetic sense of the ancient world, the ancient Greece, ancient Rome, it had always been blue skies, lovely marble pillars everywhere, people in togas having parties – loads of fun!
- And then a load of dreary, old Christians turn up, and it immediately starts raining and it's miserable. Basically, I got that from the 18th century, from the enlightenment. It was a kind of distorted echo of that, and as a child, that's what I picked up. And I never really questioned it, it was just kind of background furniture really, it wasn't that I was writing about it or thinking about it particularly, but I recognize that as an explanation for why I was more interested say, in Caesar than I was in Jesus. Why I was more on the side of Pilate than I was of the man standing before him.
- Initially I wanted to be a novelist, but then I just kind of realized that actually what I was always interested in was history, that was the wellspring of my inspiration, and it was partly because it went back to my childhood. It was the things that I loved as a child and maybe you just have to write about, you know, it's the Wellsprings of your childhood that determine who you become as an adult perhaps. So I wrote about Rome, I wrote about Greece, I wrote about Persia.
These books of yours are great as well, I have to say. You wrote Rubicon in 2003 and then in 2005, Persian Fire.
- Yeah, so I was coming from having written them as a novelist but I want it in so far as it was possible, bearing in mind, the paucity of the sources and the inevitable limitations of those. I wanted to try and get inside the mindset of all the ancient peoples that I was writing about. So that people would see the world through Roman or Spartan or Persian or Athenian eyes. And I found doing that quite a strain because doing that, it brought home to me how alien they were, how frightening they were.
- I just became increasingly conscious of that, and therefore interested in how and why it was that the Romans weren't remotely our ancestors. We may think that, there may be in certain ways obvious parallels, but these parallels are not direct. I began to identify Christianity as the kind of the process of change that explains why I was the way I was, why the society they lived in with the way it was and why that society was so fundamentally different, the classical world that had existed before Christianity. It was a slow burning interest because it took me time to adjust to the possibility that this might be what I thought about.
- But the third book of history I wrote, called Millennium in English, was about the 11th century, which I think is the great turning point. So in all kinds of ways, history doesn't change with the flicking of a light switch, even after the conversion of Constantine, the world doesn't immediately become Christian in the way that it does in the Middle Ages. I identified the 11th centuries as the period where I think things really do change, and where the world that we inhabit today gets its first great iteration because essentially, we live in a revolutionary society. What happens in the 11th century is the first great experience of revolution, and after that, we in the Latin West are set on the course that we've never really left. The Reformation, the enlightenment, the French revolution, what we’re going through at the moment, these are all iterations of what happened in the 11th century. And the 11th century of course in turn is inconceivable without the initial primal, Christian revolution.
So what happened in the 11th century, apart from the Vikings becoming Christian?
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