Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History

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If the Church is a force of good, then how do you explain the Crusades? The Inquisitions? Today we look at a book that addresses those questions head on.

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History” by John Dickson.

No Such Thing as an Honest Christian

The keyword is ‘honest’. Why can’t the subtitle just be “A Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History”? The word honest is there because there is a suspicion that a Christian, any Christian, is not able to be objective when it comes to the Church.

Pre-empting this thought, Dickson writes:

I imagine Christopher Hitchens would be deeply suspicious of the project of this book. I can hear him groaning: As if a Christian believer—even a mild-mannered Anglican one—would be willing to look into the darkness of Christian history and provide anything like a fair-minded account! As if a Christian “apologist” could admit that the “saints” can be as brazen “sinners” as anyone, and sometimes worse! I suppose only readers who finish this book will be able to judge if my imaginary Hitchens is correct. Any protestations I offer at this point are predictable and empty. I will simply admit that I have felt Hitchens’s presence—ghostlike—in my study as I write this book.

So why is John Dickson the right man to tell us the history of the Church? This is an excerpt from his online biography:

With a first-class honours degree in Theology from Moore Theological College and a PhD in ancient history from Macquarie University, John was a Fellow of Macquarie’s Department of Ancient History (2004-17), and now teaches ‘Historical Jesus to Written Gospels’ at the University of Sydney (Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies). During 2016-2021 John is a Visiting Academic in the Faculty of Classics at Oxford University, where he is researching Christianity and education in the ancient and early medieval worlds. In 2019 he was appointed the Distinguished Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Public Christianity at Ridley College in Melbourne.

He has the credentials. He has written over 18 books and 3 documentaries, so let’s look at “Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History”.

Honestly, A Bloody Atrocity

You know how in a flash forward works in a movie? The movie begins lets say with, the hero trying to disarm a bomb. The bomb explodes. Blood, limbs, shock and fear. How could this happen? He is the hero?! Then in the next scene, we see a peaceful garden and the words printed out “10 days ago” and the movie progresses from that time towards the bomb.

That is what happened in this book. Dickson starts with a flash forward, a bomb, the Crusades. He brings out that most damning black mark against the Church, then he rewinds time 1000 years ago and shows how the church progresses from that time towards that black mark and beyond.

What he does this in these first two chapters reveals his approach for the rest of the book. He doesn’t sugar coat the atrocities. He shows us how all of us, never mind Christians or non-Christians, any human would be aghast at what the church did. And to avoid being accused of giving a false representation, Dickson often quotes their own words.

Dickson writes on the time when he was filming a documentary on the Crusade in Jerusalem:

With gruesome glee and obvious exaggeration, Raymond of Aguilers, a leader of the First Crusade, wrote of this fateful day in the “ides of July”: Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. . . . It was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.

That sounds more like a journal entry from an ISIS member than a devout Christian. There is more but I skip to the moment when Dickson had a crisis of faith during filming. He writes:

Retelling these horrible details to camera as I stood in the sacred plaza outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque was the moment I sensed a loss of faith in the church. It was not simply that I had read the sources, rehearsed my lines, and now found myself standing in the hideous spot where it all happened. It was because directly in my line of sight as I delivered the lines, just a metre to the left of camera, was our Muslim guide and “minder” assigned to us to show us around the site and keep onlookers satisfied that we really did have permission to film in this spot. Her name was Azra, a Jerusalem Arab Muslim with perfect English. She watched me deliver my lines, over and over until I got them right (I am not a one-take wonder). By the time we got the take the director liked, I could see that Azra had a tear in her eye. I suddenly realised this is not just a gory piece of history. For Jerusalem Muslims—for many Muslims, actually—this event is a source of pain, shame, and even anger.

You want an honest look? You got an honest look. Dickson is a tender-hearted Christian who loves the church. He sees telling the truth of the church’s history as necessary for genuine Christians. Even to admit the church’s darkest sins. But he reminds us, it is not all dark, there is also inexpressible light.

bullies and saints john dickson

The Beautiful Tune

Dickson illustrates this point by an act of public humiliation. In the book he shares a video, which I went to watch, of him awkwardly handling a cello. It is even more cringe worthy when heard side-by-side with a concert cellist, Kenichi Mizushima.

Dickson hammers the point:

Disregarding Christianity on the basis of the poor performance of the church is a bit like dismissing Johann Sebastian Bach after hearing Dickson attempt the Cello Suites.

This Beautiful Tune, that is the Teaching of Jesus, is heard throughout the whole book, which implies it’s heard throughout the whole of Christian history. If you can hear it, you, whether Christian or sceptic, will be able to perceive the church in all its glory and shame. Not with rose-tinted glasses where the church does no wrong, nor with distorted lenses where the church does no right.

And to speak the truth of the Church in its shame is, Dickson argues, the Christian way, as Jesus taught it in the first century. He writes:

It was the Master of the church himself who said I should worry more about my own sins than the sins of others. The same Lord who called his followers to pursue love, peacemaking, purity, and all the rest also insisted, in the same sermon, that Christians should be quick to admit personal fault and slow to condemn the faults of others.

As a Christian who loves the Church, this book is simply the writer applying the lessons of Christ in his work as a historian and apologist.

There is one more first century teaching: he titles the chapter, “Good Losers”. While some today see the church as a bully, it was clear in the first century that the church was the one being bullied. Early Christians were willing to suffer, to lay down their lives, for their faith. That beautiful tune has not disappeared today. He writes:

In December 2018, for example, one hundred Christians from the underground house church movement in Chengdu, China, were arrested and detained. Most were released shortly afterwards. The leader of the group, Wang Yi, was secretly tried at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court and sentenced to nine years detention, the longest sentence given to a house church pastor in a decade (I have personally met others detained for just a year or two).

In a letter smuggled out to the west shortly after his detainment, Pastor Yi describes his philosophy. “The gospel demands that disobedience of faith must be nonviolent,” he writes. “The mystery of the gospel lies in actively suffering, even being willing to endure unrighteous punishment, as a substitute for physical resistance. Peaceful disobedience is the result of love and forgiveness. The cross means being willing to suffer when one does not have to suffer. For Christ had limitless ability to fight back, yet he endured all of the humility and hurt. The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him.”

In this Good Losers chapter, with this Persecuted Church in China example, Dickson shows how the Beautiful Tune in the first century is very much alive today. Which begs the question, how does the crucified “love your enemies” Jesus Christ lead to torture-and-murder Crusades?

And we get an answer in this trek through history.

No Sketches on Martin Luther Here

The first two chapters presents the most damning event in Christian history. The next three chapters presents the beautiful teaching of Jesus. And these first five chapters, as I have briefly introduced, sets the scene for the remaining twenty, there are 25 chapters in all in this 347-page book.

The remaining chapters range from the 300s during the time of Emperor Constantine all the way to today with the sex abuses in the modern church. Roughly, the chapters are concentrated on the 300s (6 chapters), 1100s (5 chapters) and modern (5 chapters). I say roughly because some chapters overlap.

A careful listener will wonder how many chapters does he spend on the Reformation? Well… he speaks of the 1500s only as a background to the Wars of Religions in the 1600s. Meaning, he spends very little time in the Reformation. Gasp! How could a man with a first-class honours degree in Theology do that to the Reformation?

Well, he does care for reformation, just not Reformation with a big R. It’s reformation with a small r. One of the central thesis of this book is that the church has an auto-correct mechanism by way of the Beautiful Tune. Just when you think the church is hopeless, it reforms and corrects itself, multiple times over the ages.

Because it’s not a theological history, he doesn’t spend time on Martin Luther or John Calvin or any other theologian. You’ll have to look elsewhere for that.

Also, looking at the title, “Bullies and Saints”, you might mistaken this book as a book of short sketches of famous peoples or events. You know books with titles like “50 Christians that every Christians should know”. Nothing wrong with those books, I have plenty of those books on my shelf, I find them helpful but this is not one of them.

Even though its title is “Bullies and Saints”, this book is not a patchwork of mini-stories. Instead, the later chapters build on the earlier ones.

For example, Dickson shows us one man, the revered St Augustine, and how his brief writings on Just Wars in the fifth century later influenced a theology of Holy Wars leading up to the Crusades and even today.

Understanding the reasons and circumstances doesn’t make any murder less horrific but it does offer lessons.

And I suggest that one lesson that history offers here is that us Christians need to be careful in our theology because small, very small, deviations can lead to unintended and horrific consequences some generations later. Will the church learn from history? Or will future historians trace future horrors to bad decisions we make today? And I can think of some of them right now.

Christian Light in Slavery

However it’s not all a horror show. In this review, I’ve not spent any time on the charity, hospitals and schools, the good that the church has done. Dickson does a terrific work, not so much as balancing the scales, but to say good is good, evil is evil. And there is a tremendous amount of good that we continue to experience today because of the church, some directly, many indirectly. But maybe it’s because of my belligerent atheist past, in a book like this, I tend to gaze into the horrors of the church.

Before I was a believer, I was a know-it-all, I knew the church’s sins and would rub my Christian friends face in it.

As an atheist, it was easy for me to point out the American South’s slavery as evidence for Christianity’s ‘inherent’ hypocrisy. In those days, I could milk that cow for all its worth.

Then God decided I was to be a Christian. I soon discovered the life of William Wilberforce. Now, if you are a Christian, you should know this name. Because this name (among many others) will help you answer the difficult question of Christians and slavery. For example, slavery was abolished in the British Empire in the 1800s because of Christians like William Wilberforce.

In this book, Dickson shows me further insights. Did you know that the Christian argument against slavery was articulated as early as the fourth century. Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop in Cappadocia, born in 330AD wrote:

Whenever a human being is for sale, therefore, nothing less than the owner of the earth is led into the sale-room.

That was written 1500 years, 1500 years!, before the abolition of slavery. And Dickson makes a very powerful point:

It is a mistake to imagine that the push to end slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a secular project as opposed to a religious one. There was religion on both sides, to be sure. The difference is: the arguments against slavery were almost entirely religious or quasi-religious, whereas the arguments for slavery were economic, scientific, and pragmatic, as well as religious.

What I just shared is an assertion that can be verified. In that time, was there another argument against slavery? And this question is still relevant today as people condemn the Church for its slavery past yet too many are ignorant of the Church for freeing the slaves. Just like a DNA test would exonerate a wrongly accused man and release him from 20 years of prison, so history can right a wrong.

Revisionist or Honest Truth Telling?

In this way, I’m asserting that Dickson is an honest man. Or at least a historian that has written an honest account. And I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Other historians have endorsed him.

It is not surprising for a book like this to have strong endorsements from Christian writers and thinkers like: Collin Hansen, Rebecca McLaughlin and John C. Lennox. If you are a sceptic you would dismiss all Christians as living in the same echo chamber.

The book is all the more credible when we have endorsements from esteemed historians. Teresa Morgan, Professor of Graeco-Roman History, University of Oxford endorses the book:

“This is that rare thing—a book that speaks equally to Christians and sceptics. Combining gripping historical narrative with a keen critique of contemporary debates, Dickson makes one of the most honest, challenging, and compelling cases for Christianity you will ever read.”

I’ll read another endorsement from Tom Holland, a British Historian, a non-Christian, who writes:

“Bullies and Saints is a commendably honest work that goes beyond simple apologetics: one that is all the more subtle in its effect for being often very apologetic.”

While the book is of interest to all Christians interested in our past, Dickson is clearly inviting the sceptic, which is no surprise if you know his history. Dickson arranges debates between Christians and non-Christians. That debate is how he introduced himself in this book.

Dickson writes books with titles like “The Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments” to directly address sceptics. He founded The Centre for Public Christianity, “a not-for-profit media company that offers a Christian perspective on contemporary life.” He is the host of a podcast, Undeceptions, one of the top Christian podcast in Australia, which has this tagline: “Advocating for the Christian faith in a sceptical world.”

All this explains why and how the book was written. And leads to my one tiny criticism or question.

Saying the Church is Good is Only the Beginning

Collin Hansen, editorial director of The Gospel Coalition, endorses this book:

I don’t often hear people question these days whether or not Christianity is true. I hear them ask whether or not it’s good. And that’s the challenge John Dickson accepts in Bullies and Saints.

I’m not suggesting that Dickson write a different book to answer a different question, “Is Christianity true or not”. I’m not questioning whether Christians should give a good answer to whether Christianity is good or not, we should.

Looking at the big picture, I am asking or wondering whether giving a definitive answer to that question will be sufficient?

You see, there was a time, and since we are reading a book of history, there were many times, when society believed that Christianity is good. It was a given. But knowing that Christianity was good, that the church was good, did not do much in terms of a spiritual transformation. For a long time, society was a majority of people who were nominally Christians, individuals who profess a faith in name only.

This book introduces us to another category, individuals who are ethically Christians. We have the historian Tom Holland and social capital researcher Andrew Leigh who are not Christians but are happy to credit Christianity for their moral code. People who are happy to go to church because they notice their children behave better after a sermon. How far should we celebrate this? Because nominally or ethically Christians are not Christians.

Don’t get me wrong. Dickson has explicitly written on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. He states it four times in this book. And he has defined the central moral logic of Christianity as: God’s love for us must animate our love for all. So there is the gospel message.

I suppose my concern is that this book is so good at making its case that the church is good that some readers might think this is the best way, the only way, to make the case for Christianity. And some, through no fault of John Dickson, might fail to see that ultimately it is God and only God who is good.

Setting The Book Within a Christian’s Timeline

This book is not the end. It answers the question of whether Christianity is good or not. But we need the provocation or the offensive question of whether Christianity is true or not. If true, what does that mean for you, Christian? For you, the unbeliever?

This book expresses a Christian honesty and compassion that would attract or soften a Jerusalem Arab Muslim but it lacks the sharp edge that would lead to a Christian conviction. For that, you will need a follow up book or better yet a deeper conversation. Is Christianity true or not?

I can’t find any fault in this book, so I thought to frame the book within the bigger picture. It’s a delightful read. For Christians, a sobering and hopeful look at our history. For sceptics, a beginning I hope for spiritual conversations. The conversation cannot just end with the conclusion that the church is good. It must go beyond it, and see the source of the beautiful tune.

This is a Reading and Readers review of “Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History” by John Dickson.

If you like this review, then get it while it’s still on a discount. As of the 31st October, it’s on a 86% discount in Amazon. Bullies and Saints is priced at USD3.99 from a list price of USD28.99. I don’t know how long this discount will be so get it while you can.

And if you like discounts, then you should, like me, visit Challies.com regularly. The Challies Kindle Deals has saved or cost me a lot of money, depending on how you see it.

And if you like free books and would like to know more, be sure to listen to the next episode of Reading and Readers, where I will review the Faithlife Free Book of the Month for November. What is it? I don’t know. Every month I wait eagerly in anticipation. Until next time, keep reading.

Book List

Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Church History by John Dickson. Amazon. Faithlife.