Book reviews

‘Bullies and Saints: an honest look at the good and evil of Christian history’ by John Dickson [review]

This book begins with a chapter titled The Day I Lost Faith in the Church.

The chapter focusses on the events of 15th July 1099, when Christian Crusaders mercilessly slaughtered thousands of Muslim men, women and children sheltering in a sacred precinct in Jerusalem.

The next day the victorious Crusaders held a celebratory worship service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Defining example

It is a defining example of problematic reality of Church history:

‘The real legacy of the Crusades is the way 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.’

And yet, it was also the faith and action of people such as Francis of Assisi and others who helped bring the Crusades to an end. As Dickson says:

‘It was not any secular critique of church violence that brought down the Crusades…they were undermined from within.’

Undermining belief

For many people, historic atrocities such as this undermine their belief in Christ and (especially) the Church. And this tendency continues up the current day with hypocrisies and scandals having a big impact on how people view the contemporary Church – and its message.

John Dickson is both an accomplished academic historian and a committed Christian. He believes we must be unflinchingly honest about the reality of the church’s past – both the positive and negative.

Therefore, this book is more than just ‘interesting history’. Rather, it gives us a critical (in both meanings of the word) way of understanding the mixed legacy of the Church.

A beautiful melody

The author uses a helpful musical metaphor: Jesus composed a beautiful melody that the church has performed with very mixed results. Many bullies have mangled, corrupted and abused the tune. But also many saints have played it with inspiring integrity.

Dickson puts in context the radical impact of Christian beliefs in the ancient world, such as the inherent worth of all people and the centrality of love. These beliefs had a seismic impact on society and led to a new view of humanity. They drove the creation of the first charities, healthcare and also systems of justice and accountability for the powerful.

Good, bad and ugly

Chapter by chapter, Dickson walks us through the good, the bad and the truly ugly of church history.  From oppressed minority in its first 300 years to its role at centre of imperial power. As Dickson concisely sums it up:

‘The once good losers would sometimes become very bad winners.’

With accessible and fascinating chapters, Dickson challenges the simplistic narratives which surround around figures like Constantine, Charlamagne and Luther and shows the nuance and complexity of the church’s relationship with wealth, politics and military power.

On Luther’s virulent anti-semitism he writes:

‘How someone so captivated by a sense of God’s love in Jesus Christ – Luther’s central teaching – could so blatantly advocate bigotry toward other human beings is, I suppose, the puzzle at the heart of this book.’

Exaggerated claims

Dickson also gives balance to some of the exaggerated claims against Christian religion. In contrast to the view (popularised in books such as Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code) that the church suppressed ‘secular’ knowledge, he shows how it was the scholarly monks and monasteries which actually preserved the classical wisdom of Rome and Greece.

Whilst not denying their horror, he argues that the scale of atrocities in the Spanish inquisition have been exaggerated in popular understanding. This is especially stark in comparison to how the mass murders of the secular ‘enlightened’ French Revolution are viewed:

‘In just nine months, the newly enlightened revolutionaries executed three times as many people as the Spanish Inquisition had killed in over three centuries.’

Safeguarding

Dickson offers a contemporary application of the message of the book in his chapter on safeguarding. He shows how abuse of the vulnerable perpetuated by those who claim to be following Jesus undermine the church’s message like nothing else:

‘No atheist or anticlericalist, no Voltaire or Ingersoll or Twain could have invented a story so perfectly calculated to discredit the message of the Gospel.’

As I have sadly seen in recent months, too often the contemporary church remains stubbornly and wilfully dishonest and incompetent about how it deals with safeguarding matters.

Best form of history

This is simply a brilliant book: accessible, fascinating and relevant. It is the best form of history: illuminating the past to help us make sense of the present. I also found it inspiring:

‘Christ’s melody remains beautiful – dare I say unique. And when Christians perform it, they leave an indelible mark on the world.’

I highly recommend Bullies and Saints to anyone concerned with how the church today can play music in tune with Jesus’ melody of grace and truth.

Buy: Bullies and Saints: an honest look at the good and evil of Christian history’

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