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Blog / The Bullies and Saints of the Christian Church: An Interview with John Dickson

The Bullies and Saints of the Christian Church: An Interview with John Dickson

John DicksonIs Christianity a pernicious force in the world? Would we be better off without it? Even a cursory look at the history of Christians reveals severe transgressions: violence, bigotry, genocide, war, inquisition, oppression, imperialism, racism, corruption, greed, power, abuse. Jesus gave the world a beautiful melody—of love, grace, charity, humility, non-violence, equality, human dignity—to which some people who claim to be his followers have been tone-deaf.

Bible Gateway interviewed John Dickson (@johnpauldickson) about his book, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Zondervan, 2021).

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What prompted you to write this book?

Dr. John Dickson: The book is partly self-therapy! Anyone who’s read the sources of church history will find themselves trying to puzzle-through how the followers of the crucified Lord could have got things so wrong, so often. Then again, the book is partly a response to the skeptic who imagines that the church has only—or mostly—done evil in the world. The truth is, much of what our secular world loves most, whether charity or human rights, comes directly from Christian reflection over the centuries and ultimately from Jesus himself. Doubters need to know this. But they need to read it in an account of history that does not whitewash the terrible things Christians have also done.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, A Guide for Jesus Skeptics: An Interview with John Dickson]

What were the Crusades and why did you begin your book writing about them?

Dr. John Dickson: I started the book with the Crusades, partly because they’re the cliché of everything that’s wrong with church history, and partly because they occur at roughly the midway point of the last 2000 years of church history. They’re a good point from which to wind back and ask: How did Christians end up here, and what happened next? The Crusades are an immensely complex historical phenomenon. And they’re too easily co-opted for the modern culture wars. Historical analysis of the Crusades suggest they were partly an expression of medieval politics, a way for Pope Urban II to galvanize Christendom under his leadership, and they were partly a noble attempt to redirect the violence of European knights and commoners toward a more just cause, assisting eastern Christianity—the Byzantine Empire—to resist Islamic aggression. The other thing to note is that the Crusades were also a monumental failure, remembered by Muslim societies, until very recently, as proof of the supremacy of Islamic armies against Christian empires. The notion of the crusading West as the great “bully” of the world is a modern fiction.

How does your book expose the “log in the eye of the church”?

Dr. John Dickson: A basic premise of Bullies and Saints—and my answer to Christians who reckon we should not “air our dirty laundry” in public—is that Christians should be the first to admit their moral failure. I drew on the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7, specifically, to point out that our Lord demanded that his disciples view their own sin as a log or plank in their eye, whereas the sin of others should appear as a speck. In almost every century are examples of individual Christian leaders or whole Christian communities acting in a way that’s contrary to the demands of the gospel. And then, almost invariably, a Christian reformer would rise up, point out the sin, and lead God’s people to a moment of renewal. In some ways, my book is trying to honor the memory of those prophets and reformers. Christian history might not be a consistent story of love and integrity, but it’s certainly a story of self-criticism and self-correction.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, A Guide for Bible Skeptics: An Interview with John Dickson]

How did the Bible’s lack of broad accessibility in the Dark Ages contribute to the church running roughshod on people?

Dr. John Dickson: I have a mixed view about the so-called Dark Ages. On the one hand, the destruction of order that followed the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire in the west did lead to a time of chaos in Europe. It took centuries for order to be re-established, and this happened partly through the Merovingian kingdoms and then through the Carolingian kingdoms. Great strides forward were also made right in the middle of this supposedly “dark” period. In the late 700s, there was a renaissance of culture and learning, led by Alcuin of York, a church leader and the greatest intellect of the period. He established schools throughout Europe which were informed by a “wisdom theology,” that is, a desire to see the genius of God in all things, from grammar to rhetoric, from arithmetic to astronomy, and ultimately to the knowledge of God in Scripture. The amazing thing is, girls were very often included in Alcuin’s educational programs. And talented poor children were also elevated into positions of great influence. If the letters of Alcuin are anything to go by, there was a profound desire to help people think biblically about all of life.

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Why shouldn’t Christianity be disregarded on the basis of the poor performance of Christians?

Dr. John Dickson: If the story of Christian history were simply one of hypocrisy, violence, and the misuse of power, we might well dismiss Christianity itself as empty. That’s how a lot of skeptics think. But the story is more complex. Many Christians did follow the way of Christ and gave the West our first charities, public hospitals, schools for all, as well as the notions of human rights and equality. The important question is not: Did Christians participate in the propensity to violence found everywhere in world history? The answer to that is obvious. The more revealing question is: What was the unique contribution of Christians through history? No one can argue that the unique contribution of Christians was war or torture or the like. These things were everywhere in Greece and Rome, long before the Christians came along. No, the truly unique contribution of Christianity is, as I say, hospitals, schools, an ethic of love based on a vision of God’s love. These things were not part of Greece and Rome. They were the gifts of Christ to our world. This is why I say in the book that disregarding Christianity on the basis of the poor performance of Christians is like rejecting Johan Sebastian Bach after hearing a poor performance of one of his cello suites. We must distinguish between the composition and the performance.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Challenge for Skeptics: Read 100 Pages of the Bible]

You write that Christians in the first three centuries were “good losers.” Why is this important to consider?

Dr. John Dickson: For me, this is one of the most intriguing lessons of early church history. Skeptics like Friedrich Nietzsche reckoned that the earliest Christians developed their ethic of humility and compassion because they themselves were the powerless underclass who naturally adopted a “slave mentality.” They were mild-mannered in defeat, he thought, because they were so often the losers. But genuine acquaintance with the primary sources makes clear the opposite is true. So much of the early Christians’ willingness to be gracious in the face of their opponents’ cruelty derives from their conviction that they had already won the victory. Christ had been raised from the dead and had ascended in glory to the right hand of God. This meant their Lord was the true Lord, and it was only a matter of time before the world would concede that victory. In other words, the Christians had a winners-mentality. And this is what enabled them to face mistreatment with grace and good cheer. They had already won, so they could afford to be good losers.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Freedom is What We’re Made For: A Surprising Look at God’s Law]

Much of the book describes bullies of the church. Who were a few saints we should emulate?

Dr. John Dickson: It’s difficult to know where to begin. You’re right that there are many bullies in church history, just as there are many bullies in every society of human history. They’re a dime-a-dozen. But it’s the heroes of the faith, the “saints” if you like, who stand out as truly astonishing. Here I would place Basil of Caesarea and Fabiola of Rome, who in the 4th century set up the first public hospitals in history. I would mention Bishop Eligius, who was one of the richest men in Europe but who used his fortune in the AD 600s to purchase and free slaves wherever he could find them, regardless of their race or religion, and he taught his disciples, like Queen Balthild, to do the same. In the next century I would have to point to Alcuin of York, who gave us our tradition of liberal arts for all. Honorable mentions would also go to a wonderful missionary-bishop named Boniface, to Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Odo of Cluny, and the list goes on, and on.

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In writing this book, what have you concluded is the reason that a faith that began with Christ saying, “love one another,” turned into a faith that viewed violence as an acceptable practice?

Dr. John Dickson: The story of the development of Christian violence is complicated. I spend more than 20,000 words on this in the book! The beginning of the story is an insight of Augustine in the early 5th century. He argued that, since the apostle Paul in Romans 13 gave state authorities the duty to “bear the sword” to enact God’s justice in the world, it made sense, Augustine said, that Christian state authorities had the sad duty to fight for justice with the weapons of war. It would be wrong to blame Augustine for the much later Crusades and other examples of Christian violence, but his theological rationale for “just war” did open a door to justified violence that had previously been mostly shut.

The other major factor is the early medieval church’s eagerness to please and convert the warrior elites of Europe. There’s striking evidence from the period that Christians sought to portray Jesus and the apostles as benevolent and just warlords. This was clearly an effort to win over the warlords of Gaul and Saxony, but it also involved a compromise of the gospel itself. In seeking to convert the world, Christians were themselves converted to the warrior culture of their host society. It makes me wonder about the ways in which contemporary Christianity might have accommodated itself to its host culture.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, 5 Books on Why Reading the Bible is Important]

What do you want this book to accomplish?

Dr. John Dickson: First, I want my book to stand as an honest account of the achievements and failings of Christians through history. I think a fair history like that will then serve other important aims. On the one hand, it might cause Christians to search their hearts for the ways we ourselves have departed from the gospel in our effort to accommodate culture. On the other hand, I hope a history like this will cause skeptics to give up the facile claim that Christianity has only done damage through history and perhaps invite them to listen closely to the beautiful tune Jesus gave our world, the gospel of God’s love for all, even for sinners, displayed in the cross of Christ.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Dr. John Dickson: My favorite Bible passage is the Gospel of Luke in its entirety. This is partly because it’s so rich with historical style and content, and partly because it brings out more than any other Gospel the theme of Jesus as the “friend of sinners.” But if you press me to offer just one passage or chapter of the Bible, I am going to choose Romans 12. Its logic is wonderful: all of the grace of God described in the first part of Romans comes to expression in this chapter in a call for Christians to pursue a life of love and service. It’s the beautiful tune of Jesus in miniature.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

Dr. John Dickson: Bible Gateway is a great gift to the world. Few things are more important than making God’s Word available to the masses. Nothing else really matches what you guys are doing! I myself use Bible Gateway several times a week.

Bullies and Saints is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: John Dickson, PhD, is an historian and author of more than 20 books, including A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments, and A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus. He is the host of Australia’s number-one religion podcast, Undeceptions, exploring aspects of life, faith, history, culture, or ethics that are either much misunderstood or mostly forgotten, and he is the Distinguished Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Public Christianity at Ridley College. He lives in Sydney with his wife and children.

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Filed under Books, Church History, Discipleship, History, Interviews