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A Fresh Look at Christian History, from Down Under

Book cover via Amazon; Detail of Saint Paul Preaching in Athens, after Raphael, c. 1517-20, by Marcantonio Raimondi. (Amazon; Metropolitan Museum of Art/Open Access)
In Bullies and Saints, Australian scholar John Dickson practices self-criticism the right way.

John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Zondervan, 352 pp., $29.99)

In the Age of Woke, any criticism of our cherished institutions (national or otherwise) can provide fodder to those trying to burn them down. The reflex to circle the wagons, draw our line in the sand, and hunker down for the long haul is understandable as the “Christian consensus” crumbles with great rapidity in the West.

But constructive criticism is certainly better than mindless destruction, particularly when it comes from a friend. Australian scholar John Dickson, distinguished fellow at Ridley College Melbourne, is just such a critic. A devout Christian of the Anglican persuasion, with a doctorate in ancient history and a gift for engaging with skeptics, he is known for Is Jesus History? and other slender volumes (some 200 pages each) on the early church and the Bible. His latest book, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, is his most ambitious foray to date.

Can we say anything new about the best and worst of Christianity? After all, the 9/11 attacks and ensuing wars in the Middle East revived a generally dormant debate over the Crusades and the Inquisition, and that debate frequently spilled over into these pages, but even the New Atheists are receding into the shadows. Haven’t we done this already?

Dickson, indeed, finds quite a bit to say. Bullies and Saints is both a sweeping and an episodic history. He dismantles the myth of the Dark Ages and the exaggeration of the Inquisition as effortlessly as he reframes the alleged war between science and religion and the wars of religion (e.g., the Thirty Years’ War and, in Northern Ireland, the Troubles). Unlike many Western historians, he also reserves special attention for the Byzantine and Orthodox experience.

He explores the asset side of the Christian ledger. “I venture to say that a gifted senior student in the School of Tours in the year 800 could give a modern English-speaking university student a run for their money in terms of grammar and syntax, fluency in a second language, the rules of formal logic, rhetoric, poetry, and even observational astronomy,” he writes. We learn of Augustine of Hippo’s efforts to free slaves, Basil of Caesarea’s invention of the hospital, and the Apostle Paul’s aid program in Judea.

There are, obviously, items on the liabilities side of this ledger. Bullies and Saints is no exercise in whataboutism. Though in conservative circles the Crusades are often portrayed as a defensive war against an expansionist Islam, Dickson is less than impressed with this argument. Focusing on the massacre of the al-Aqsa mosque in 1099 (rather than on the exaggerated accounts of atrocities in Greater Jerusalem), he finds reason to apologize explicitly for the sins of his fathers. (Fans of the Rodney Stark, cited by Dickson in this book and others, may find his apology unnecessary.) Instances where imperial and priestly powers merged and joined forces draw particular scrutiny. Catholic devotees of canonized saints may have a few bones to pick with the text: Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, is described as the prototypical political priest, and Dickson tempers his generally favorable portrait of Augustine with disappointment over the way “just war” theory was used to justify holy war.

This is a rich book of careful and discerning scholarship. As an Anglican from Australia, Dickson offers a refreshing take on a subject that far too easily slides into the well-worn contours of contemporary political debate in the United States. His conclusion, ultimately, is optimistic: “Christ’s melody remains beautiful — dare I say unique. And when Christians perform it, they leave an indelible mark on the world.”

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