Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, John Dickson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021. Softcover, 328 pages.
The young atheist sat across from me in our church’s consistory room. One of his friends attended our church and organized for us to meet. The atheist had a list of objections to Christianity and belief in God. Among them: “Religion is behind every war.” I was incredulous. I asked him, “What about the Second World War?” He insisted Adolf Hitler was a Christian motivated by the Bible. If I’d had John Dickson’s book back then, I’d have given him a copy.
Dickson is a distinguished Australian historian. He’s not only an academic, but also an ordained Anglican minister. He’s written many books and currently hosts Australia’s no. 1 religion podcast.
He describes this book “as an exercise in noticing the ‘log’ in the eye of the church” (p.43). It’s certainly that, but it’s much more. Dickson is honest about the failings of Christians and the Christian Church, but he also puts it all into the proper perspective. Moreover, he also debunks many of the popular myths that have developed around the history of Christianity.
Bullies and Saints doesn’t waste any time getting into one of the most often mentioned examples of “Christian” misbehaviour: the Crusades. Dickson agrees with President Barack Obama’s evaluation that, in the Crusades, “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” (p.22). However, he also points out how the Crusades didn’t end by secular critiques, but by those within the Church. His chapters on other events like the “Wars of Religion” and the Troubles in Northern Ireland are equally insightful.
I must register one disagreement with Dickson. He argues that the Dark Ages probably never existed. Chapter 19 deals with this at length. Dickson maintains that the term ‘Dark Ages’ was prejudicially invented by Renaissance humanists and then popularized by Enlightenment philosophers and Protestant theologians. He dismisses the legitimacy of its usage by the last category: “The idea of the church gone astray into darkness was an exact parallel to the humanist notion that culture and learning had fallen into darkness in the same period” (p.216). It’s fair to point out that deep intellectual engagement had never really disappeared in said period. I have no problem with that. However, an argument could be made that the medieval period was dark with respect to the true biblical gospel. There were few preaching it and few believing it. Not only that, but the light of the Word of God was dim by virtue of the Church keeping it in Latin and out of the hands of believers. One needs to be honest about that too.
I highly recommend Bullies and Saints to anyone facing challenges about the alleged damage Christians have done in history. High school history teachers and those studying history in university will find it especially useful. It’s an engrossing read that’ll equip you to answer skeptical unbelievers learning their history from TikTok videos. And what about Hitler being a Christian? I’ll let Dickson answer that preposterous claim: “The occasional attempt to suggest that Adolf Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews was motivated by some form of Christianity faces the impossible task of accounting for Nazism’s well-documented hatred of orthodox Christianity” (p.279).
[This review first appeared in Clarion 71.21, October 14, 2022]