I confess that it’s been a while since I had an actual summer reading list and endeavored to not only get through a few books but also share my thoughts with my subscribers.
Let the fun begin again!
I’m starting with a book, Bullies and Saints by John Dickson, that was recommended to me by a friend because it combines two of my favorite subjects, faith and history. I’ll share up front that I so thoroughly enjoyed it that I attempted to schedule an interview with Mr. Dickson for my Wayfarer Podcast. I’m sorry to say that I was unsuccessful. I would have enjoyed the conversation.
In the post Christian era in which we find ourselves, I have observed that the narratives and views of those outside of the faith can be filled with a cocktail of ignorance and antipathy that leads to both honest misunderstandings and malicious myths about the actual historical record when it comes to both the good and the bad that Christianity has brought to our world. In Bullies and Saints, Australian historian John Dickson does a masterful job of honestly exploring both the good and evil through his bifocal lens as scholar and follower of Christ.
Don’t let the scholar lens intimidate you. Bullies and Saints is an easy read for the average person, and Dickson does not get bogged down in the historical minutiae or academic vocabulary. He moves at a steady pace through his overview of Christian history. That said, he does not shy away from the difficult subjects that critics of religion and Christianity are typically quick to bring up: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Troubles of Ireland, and the religious motivations for war, conquest, and colonization. He also does not shy away from the hot-button issues of racism, anti-semitism, slavery, and the sexual abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church that have rocked the world in the past few decades.
Dickson does not get defensive or make excuses in his reporting of the institutional church’s many failings over the years. In fact, I found him to be quite transparent about his own failings, as well as those of the church, personally exemplifying the honest transparency he strives to achieve in examination of the institution. He does, however, attempt to put certain historic facts into needed context. Particularly those I have so often found to have been used out of context by critics. For example, he makes a case that the number of victims of the religiously motivated Inquisition pales in comparison to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, which had far more secular and humanistic motivations and three times the number of victims in a much shorter period of time.
Some of the more enjoyable tidbits I found in Dickson’s book were the many positive things that the Christian understanding of Imago Dei and the Judeo-Christian belief system have given to the world. Some things we typically take for granted such as a weekend. It was the Christian emperor Constantine who first gave everyone a day off in honor of God’s command for a Sabbath. Charity, abolition, education, and social justice all have their roots in the Jesus Movement of the first three centuries.
In my chapter-a-day posts over the years, I have often made a distinction between the teachings of Jesus and the Jesus Movement He inspired and the human institution of “the Church” that emerged when the Jesus Movement morphed into the Holy Roman Empire. Bullies and Saints does a beautiful job of describing and solidifying this distinction with the historical record.
I highly recommend Bullies and Saints. It’s also a great audiobook read by the author in his enjoyable Australian accent in a wonderfully conversational style.