IN THIS POST: This book review of Bullies and Saints by John Dickson pulls quotes from the book to look at key points. Bullies and Saints examines the good, bad, and ugly of Christian Church history as best it can in about 300 pages.
I was looking for a book that examined the good and bad of Christian history. I was vaguely familiar with events and people that defined Christianity, but I wanted a better sense of context. Bullies and Saints caught my attention because that is what author John Dickson sets out to do. And, he accomplishes this with a humility I rarely see in Christian writing (I wrote about what I look for in Christian non-fiction, here). For a topic and endeavor such as this, humility is key.
Bullies and Saints Book Review: An Overview
Dickson charts Church history from the first century to modern times in twenty-five accessible chapters. His focus is looking at, as the title suggests, the bullies and saints of the Christian faith. That is, who and how has Christianity been used to manipulate, abuse, or coerce people and/or events of history; and, who and how has Christianity sacrificed, created, and nurtured people and/or the events of history for good.
Boy, was he working with a lot of content! Dickson’s ability to pare down the information to a readable format and with enough context to link the information between branches of Christianity and centuries of time is commendable.
There were several themes that emerged from his study and writing. Rather than break down chapter-by-chapter what was good, bad, or indifferent about the content, I’m going to attempt this book review of Bullies and Saints by using a few quotes from the book that stuck out as representative of some big ideas. Hopefully, they’ll convince you to read it.
Book Review by Quotes
“The truth of the matter, as with so many things, is mixed, likely to disturb believer and sceptic alike.”
Though this sentence was in a chapter about social capital toward the end of the book – how much good do Christians actually do – it sums up the gist of the book. It is not surprising that Christians will be uncomfortable with some of the ugly and painful facts in our church’s history; some of the numbers may also be unsettling to skeptics. Thankfully, Dickson does not devolve into an apologetic approach; rather, he moves back and forth between critique and commendation for moments in Christian history.
In particular, his effort to examine the nuance and complexity of events resonated throughout his descriptions of low points in Church history. My background in conflict studies at the very least taught me that conflict is rarely a black-and-white case of this-vs-that – particularly conflicts that are longstanding (with or without religion involved).
In acknowledging the mixed-up nature of life, Dickson frames events within their period and compares their activity to other situations. He leans in when it is clear Christianity was a considerable influence, and he pushes back on the idea that “it’s all because of religion” when there is room for that argument. Readers have a lot to think about as each chapter interacts with and builds on the others.
“I am not suggesting that because atheists are responsible for more bloodshed than Christians the church somehow comes out looking okay! Such a mathematical argument would be perverse. In some ways, Christian cruelty is morally worse than atheist cruelty, precisely because it betrays Christian convictions.”
This was the bug in my ear throughout my reading. For every balance Dickson could make, I still knew that Christian atrocity is so much more appalling (to me and others) because it is so incredibly contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. In the words of another Christian author, Brennan Manning, it is “…what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
None of the bullies are okay. Full stop.
There were times when Dickson got close to sounding as though he was trying to make it less awful than it was, but he seemed to recognize those moments. In many cases he would intentionally add a line to remind readers that just because the total number of people killed during the three centuries of the Inquisition is 3x less than the number of people killed during the nine months of the French Reign of Terror does not justify any of the deaths. He includes that comparison to demonstrate that religion is not the necessary component for violence to progress.
We still need to wrestle with the history. For one reason, as the next quote points out, we will very soon be the history.
“When the link between “normal pornography” and human trafficking is fully exposed, will future generations castigate us for making light of porn for the last three decades? When new systems are developed to eradicate poverty, will our descendants pour scorn on us for expecting to live like kings and queens—literally better than most kings and queens of history—while hundreds of millions starved?”
In this final quote, of the very last paragraph of the book, Dickson reiterates why humility is ever-necessary in viewing bullies and saints of history – Christian or otherwise. We live at a time when we are quick to judge history and others, but not quick to consider our complicity in evil. That should not hinder us from pursuing repentance and justice; it should guide us to do so in severest humility (there’s that word again!). Our church today is not immune; generations to come will deal with the “logs in our eyes.”
May we have humility to repent of our sins and courage to confront the bullies. From that quote we can also remember that there are those in the Church who advocate against these injustices and work to root them out. May these witnesses inspire us and may we support them.
There will be readers who think Dickson went too far and readers who think he did not go far enough. I would expect that for any book on this topic. I’ve stated in this book review of Bullies and Saints my reasons for appreciating his approach. I’ve taken away good information to consider and integrate into my thinking about church history.
I was disappointed not to see more global reflection. It is a Euro-centric and Western-looking collection of grievances in Bullies and Saints. I understand that an author must make a decision at some point (covering over 2,000 years of history in under 300 pages is impossible). Dickson rightly picks events and periods that are visible and influential. Still, the Church exists around the world – both for good and bad. Considering that Christianity is now largely centered in the Global South, this seems like a noticeable omission.
Maybe a Bullies and Saints, Book 2 is merited. Sad to say it would still not be exclusively saints.
Bullies & Saints Book Review: Conclusion
One of the biggest takeaways is how typical this is of Christian living today. We still live at a time when Christianity is doing much good in the world. However, horrible realities of abuse and hurt and terror inflicted in the name of Jesus still besiege it.
I’ll let others argue whether this reinforces or undermines the idea that history repeats itself. It does seem to support the Biblical observation in Ecclesiastes that “there is nothing new under the sun.”
We can point our fingers at the past with all the confidence of hindsight. But, it would serve believers and skeptics better to consider where we behave like bullies and like saints today. Dickson’s ending line resonates loud and clear: “Bullies are common. Saints are not.”
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