A Much Longer View of Church History
A Review of
Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History
Hardback: Zondervan, 2021
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Reviewed by Peter Stevens
What kind of impact has the church had on the world? Depending on who you ask, this question can lead in a variety of directions. When we highlight the good the church has done then we certainly feel good about how Christians have influenced society. What about harm that has been done by those claiming to be followers of Jesus? Do the crusades and inquisitions wipe out the work done by godly people or are these events outliers uncharacteristic of the church? John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints explores these questions.
Dickson, a professor, historian, and scholar, begins Bullies and Saints with a discussion on whether or not the world would be better off without religion. In 2008, he participated in a debate with several others where this was the topic of debate. At the end, the audience was polled and agreed that the world would be better off without religion especially considering the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity throughout history. In the following chapter, Dickson shares his own experience with losing confidence in the church because of his study of the crusades. The Crusades, in many ways, have become the main aggression that is brought up when discussing the dark history of the church. As recently as the 2015 prayer breakfast, President Obama made reference to the crusades as a way of acknowledging that violence is not unique to any one religion. These stories set the tone and theme for the rest of the book. Would the world be better off without the church? Has the church done more harm than good? Dickson argues that even though violence has been done in the name of Jesus, the world has in fact benefited greatly from the church.
The journey begins with the first few centuries of the church. Chapters three through five explore church history up to the time of Constantine. The central thought of these chapters is to establish the main ethic of the early church and paint a picture of what the church should look like. Dickson argues, “Jesus wrote a beautiful composition. Christians have not performed it consistently well. Sometimes they have been badly out of tune. Occasionally they have performed something entirely different.” (24) Dickson argues that the character of the early church was more closely aligned to the way of Christ than any other era. While there were certainly exceptions to the rule, the early church was fighting to make itself known in the world by being like Jesus and not by trying to gain power or wealth.
After Constantine, the church changed. Instead of needing to prove themselves and stand against culture, Christians were welcomed into the empire and given equal status among other religions. They were no longer, what Dickson calls, the “Good Losers.” This new status made it safer to be a Christian, but also laid the foundation for the church to move towards power and away from its humble roots. From this point, the layout of the book moves in a fairly predictable pattern. Dickson moves through history highlighting the highs and lows of Christianity using specific figures or events as examples of how the church either acted in the way of Christ or in opposition to the way of Jesus. Dickson explores each era of the church all the way up through modern times ending with a discussion of the child abuse scandals, the goodness of ordinary Christians working in the world, and how there is also a great deal of violence in history that was not brought about by any religion.
Overall, Bullies and Saints offers a helpful overview of history balancing the good and the bad points of church history. In many situations, even the “bad” characters have some redeeming characteristics. The strength of this book lies in its exploration of early church and medieval church history. Many people often have negative views of the time of Constantine and/or the Middle Ages. Dickson is not only able to shine a light on the negatives that most of us know, but he explores the good that came out of these eras. On top of that, the chapters are brief. Where some history books are overly academic, Dickson strikes a helpful balance of excellent research while still writing at a popular level that is accessible for a wider audience.
The major weakness of the book is found as he approaches modern day. Out of 25 chapters, 10 of them explore the time from the life of Christ into the early 5th century. Obviously every book is limited in its scope, but Bullies and Saints is light on the discussion of modern Christianity and tends toward generalities instead of exploring noteworthy Christian leaders who have impacted the world for better or worse. One major topic missing from the discussion is modern day slavery and the subsequent racism. Although Dickson is Australian and the U.S. Civil Rights movement is not necessarily a part of his cultural history, it is surprising that there is basically no discussion of this movement given that there are many notable Christian leaders who stood for and against the abolition of slavery in the modern era.
In spite of being light on modern history, Bullies and Saints certainly does accomplish the goal of highlighting the good and bad in the roots of Western Christianity. Anyone who has concerns about the violent history of Christianity should read this book. I found it extremely helpful in gaining a better understanding of the darker parts of church history and being able to see that maybe those eras are not nearly as bad as we are led to believe. Recently a wave of books has come out exploring the role of faith in American history, including books such as Jesus and John Wayne and The Color of Compromise. Bullies and Saints is certainly worthy of being read alongside these books. Dickson helps us to see a much longer view of church history and highlights the many ways that the church has benefitted the world. In the end, we see that the world is in fact better off with Christianity in it.
Peter Stevens is a barista in Maryland. When he’s not making coffee, he’s hanging out with his family, reading, and occasionally writing about books and formation at peterstevensblog.wordpress.com.