C. S. Lewis said he believed in Christianity because by it, he saw everything. If you’re a fan of Lewis, does your “everything” include how Christianity introduced a new breed of hero?
We all have our heroes. They include pop stars, athletes, business leaders, writers, musicians, film stars, political leaders, talking heads, so-called “influencers,” military leaders, and so on. Heroes are people we esteem. We often seek to emulate them.
In his 2019 book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Tom Holland cites a military leader, Martin of Tours, as representing “a new and disconcerting breed of hero: a Christian one.” This is high praise from an atheist. And in 2016, Holland softened his atheism a bit. In an article for the New Statesman titled “Why I Was Wrong About Christianity,” Holland wrote that most everything we take for granted in the western world is, in fact, rooted in the Christian church, and, more often than not, in Catholicism.
In Dominion, Holland tells this story as biography. He tells story after story of how the Christian faith is all around us, but tells it through the lives of Christians, including a man named Martin who was born in Hungary in A.D. 316. Martin was Catholic, becoming a battle-hardened captain in the Roman army. But when it came time for him to receive the emperor’s monetary payment, Martin refused it, demanding his release from the army altogether and giving up everything to become a monk.
Everything. Holland writes how the monachoi—the ‘monks’ of that day—did not “sacrifice everything, They kept their land. Peasants still worked the fields for them.” For monks, having been bred to greatness and luxury, this “was undoubtedly a sacrifice. Seen in a certain light, it might almost be heroic.” Martin, on the other hand, gave up everything, representing what Holland calls “a new and disconcerting breed of hero: a Christian one.”
It sure is disconcerting. According to this definition, I’m no hero. Martin was, going on to become the third bishop of Tours and one of the most familiar and recognizable Christian saints in France. His followers said he would literally lay his head on a rock to sleep.
What’s disconcerting is this shouldn’t be news. No one can be Jesus’ disciple who does not give up everything. Jesus said so himself: Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.
I can claim to have given up everything, but my lifestyle says something different. Yes, I’ve made a few sacrifices in life, but I often seek to enjoy a life of financial security and comfort. Perhaps this places me in Holland’s “almost heroic” league, but it’s a far cry from the new and disconcerting breed of “Christian” hero that Martin of Tours introduced.
I guess what I’m saying is that, while we all have our heroes, people we esteem, it’s not apparent (at least to me) that most of us Christians have “Christian” heroes who have given up everything. We might applaud those who have given up everything, might even support them financially, but we sure don’t seek to emulate them. Followers of Martin did.
I knew very little about Martin of Tours before reading Dominion. My sense is most of us know very little about Christian heroes today. They might in fact turn out to be those missionaries who have gone and lived in some of deepest, darkest places on planet Earth, really and truly giving up everything. They might be part of the pantheon of believers of whom the world was not worthy, as the writer of Hebrews put it.
I close with a comment, along with describing where I’m headed in the next few weeks.
Comment: I find it fascinating that an atheist like Holland, while no apologist for the Roman Catholic Church, has considerable respect for certain aspects of it. He recounts the complex role that Catholicism played in the formation of modern Western culture. He describes it as “paradoxical” because the Christian church—Catholic and Protestant—has often done spectacularly good things while, at other times, been disastrously idolatrous. Holland recounts many of the good things, while sparing readers none of the gory details.
Where we’re headed: Over the next few weeks, I’m going to highlight some of the biographies in Dominion, noting how these Christians remade the world in which we live. You might find their legacies to be rather new (at least to you) and perhaps even a little disconcerting (to all of us). You might even find yourself a Christian hero.
 Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, (Basic Books, 2019), 146.