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Book Review: Bullies and Saints: An honest look at the good and evil of Christian history

Friday, 20 August 2021  | Ian Hore-Lacy




Bullies and Saints: An honest look at the good and evil of Christian history

By John Dickson

(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021)

 

This is a very thoughtful and scholarly review of world history from a very frank Christian perspective. It is more plausible and informative than any other account I have seen. And for someone who failed their diploma of theology in church history in his twenties, it’s hard to put down!

There is an obvious parallel with the book and video from the Centre for Public Christianity: For The Love of God – how the church is better and worse than you ever imagined, which Dickson had a major hand in. He recounts in the first chapter how he was appalled and ashamed to film the account of the Crusaders’ massacre of thousands at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for that project – ‘one of the greatest atrocities in religious history. … Any triumphalist feelings I harboured about the historic church died that day’. This book makes no excuses for the low points in the church’s history, when it was the bully, in complete contrast to its Lord.

The steady build-up of Christian influence past Constantine to Ambrose’s time in the late 4th century is most clearly seen in the establishment of hospitals, then education. Dickson documents the maintenance of these values through the Middle Ages which were thus by no means Dark Ages. Then their manifestation in Europe from the 1400s.

The author occasionally reminds us of ‘Christ’s most distinctive melody lines’, which do keep recurring over two millennia despite the bully episodes. ‘Jesus wrote a beautiful composition. Christians have not performed it consistently well. Sometimes they have been badly out of tune.’ But the church has mostly kept the score in sight, and the composer should be judged by the composition rather than the church’s patchy performance.

The crusades are presented as a profound evil that blemishes Christian history. ‘They stand as a symbol of the violent Dark ages and of the church’s all-too-human capacity for dogma, hatred and violence toward enemies.’ But the larger and longer picture is much better. From the Middle Ages onwards, Dickson’s narrative describes how the political and religious accounts of history interrelate, and documents how modern historians have a clearer view of the political and territorial factors driving the 16th and 17th century European wars. Fresh light is shed on the Spanish Inquisition without excusing its excesses.

The ‘religion causes war’ trope is examined thoroughly and found wanting despite the crusades. Both the 30-year war from 1618 and Irish Troubles had other drivers, and the performances of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot provide contrast.

In the latter chapters the profound evil of clerical child abuse overshadows much of the good heritage but then there is assessment of the positives of Christian values in society, largely based on the writings of atheists or at least unbelievers. We are reminded of how much we should be thankful for. In his review of the book, atheist historian Tim O’Neill commends Dickson ‘for his accuracy, care, fairness and honesty’, writing that this is ‘a worthy and thoughtful book for any reader, Christian or otherwise’.

At the same time, the clear Christian basis of the values that have underpinned Western civilisation, and that are now seen simply as secular values, is well documented through many centuries. ‘It is clear that “love of enemies” and “the image of God” drove much of what was unique in the history of Christianity, as even the most begrudging historians and philosophers will acknowledge.’

Dickson draws our attention to the major contrast between extrinsic and intrinsic religiousness, as noted by several quoted authors - the former being judgmental and often prejudiced, the latter being rooted in church community. This latter shows up in altruism, generosity and social support as well as building social capital more broadly. This is most clearly seen in the Western notion of intrinsic human value.

This book provides a timely and very readable reminder of the Christian legacy over two millennia and how it is increasingly at odds with several contemporary trends that fracture society rather than affirming intrinsic human value according to a ‘moral logic’ arising from the gospels. Accordingly, it provides incentive to affirm the ‘melody lines’ of Christian values in social and political life today, as well as reminding us that the church is not immune from evil. As the closing paragraph of Bullies and Saints reminds us,

Violence has been a universal part of the human story. The demand to love one’s enemies has not. Division has been a norm. Inherent human dignity has not. Armies, greed, and the politics of power have been constants in history. Hospitals, schools, and charity for all have not. Bullies are common. Saints are not.

 

Ian Hore-Lacy is a founding Zadok board member (1978-98), author of Responsible Dominion: A Christian Approach to Sustainable Development and now Senior Advisor for the World Nuclear Association. He is co-author of Down to Earth Discipleship, a pastoral ‘book’ on the web at www.downtoearthdiscipleship.com.


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