Coming to Headingley for the third day of the third Ashes Test match was as much an act of hope (if you are English, that is) as optimism. A clear determination to enjoy the game, regardless of the outcome – a heavy and embarrassing defeat for England a couple of days short of the five-day limit or a miracle – was what characterised historian Tom Holland‘s Twitterfeed all day yesterday.

This attitude is one that runs through his writings and is best exemplified in his new book Dominion, to be published in a week or two. I have been reading a proof copy.

Holland tackles a huge task: not to describe the theology of Western Christianity since year zero, but to describe with breathtaking clarity and zest how the development of theology (and the people shaped by theology – i.e. everyone) has shaped the way western people see the world, understand history, assume morality and regard the rule of law and human rights. The ambition is great and he pulls it off. Like his other books, in my experience, it is very hard to put down once started as the narrative drives the reader on for more.

Yet, it isn’t just the content of the book that thrills (not a word I use often). The writing never fails to add colour to the description of ideas and movements. One example regarding Gerrard Winstanley in 1649 (page 350):

His foes might dismiss Winstanley as a dreamer; but he was not the only one.The occupation of St George’s Hill was a declaration of hope: that others some day would join the Diggers, and the world would be as one.”

He got John Lennon into a line on a seventeenth century dissenter and it is perfect.

Tom Holland doesn’t need me to review or commend him, but he is unique in his ability to bring history alive, particularly in its sweep and not just its detail. It is the big narrative that occupies the direction of this book. His contention that Christianity has shaped much of what is assumed in western culture and might not survive when Christianity’s roots are severed from the tree (human rights did not descend from nowhere and should not be assumed to be universally held or eternally guaranteed) is one with which I have a huge sympathy (predictably?). However, setting out a narrative rationale in the way Tom Holland does it in Dominion offers a basis for arguing the point and a provocation for those who see history differently. He seems to be asking that prejudices against religion or theology be suspended and the mind opened to what history itself might suggest to us.

I hope and expect that this book will prove to be the opening bat on a fertile wicket and I look forward to the game, which, judging by the plethora of reviews already ahead of publication, should itself prove to be thoroughly stimulating.