Introduction: John Dickson’s latest book is subtitled “An honest look at the good and evil of Christian history”. It has deservedly already received much praise. (It’s a small point but I don’t see the necessity of five pages of commendations. Tom Holland would have been enough!).
John is an excellent historian and writer. He doesn’t write dull books and this is no exception. It is packed full of stimulating information, analysis and challenges. Some of the chapters are brilliant – for example chapter 6 on ‘Constantine and Religious Liberty’ is alone worth the price of the book. It gives answers and a balance to the somewhat simplistic notion that Constantine’s conversion was the corruption of Christianity.
And it’s not the only such chapter. There is much to learn and ponder from Bullies and Saints. I had intended to write just a normal review but the book was so stimulating that by the time I finished, it was over 4,000 words – and that was the edited version! Even for the long-suffering readers of AP that is probably too much. So instead I will use the opportunity to discuss three of the main themes in the book which have direct application for us today and to do it as a three part series of articles. Let’s start with the obvious.
“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ” ― Michael Crichton
This is a book about history (not, as Tom Holland suggests, apologetics!). As such it is outstanding. Reading some of the various stories in the history of the church makes one want to know more. John has the knack of providing interesting details without losing sight of the bigger picture. For example, “Constantine’s gift of 50 bibles (each worth the equivalent of 30 years’ salary) was a benefaction of lasting significance” (p.73). Other examples are the fascinating story of Hypatia – and the lovely story of Augustine’s parishioners storming a slave ship in Hippo (p.131). I love the fact that John is politically incorrect enough to use AD, not BCE.
His use of quotes is appropriate and helpful. “Freedom and full liberty has been granted in accordance with the peace of our times, to exercise free choice in worshipping as each one has seen fit. This has been done by us so that nothing may seem to be taken away from anyone’s honour or from any religion whatsoever,” states Constantine’s Edict of Milan (p.62).
“There is no need for violence and brutality: worship cannot be forced; It is something to be achieved by talk rather than blows, so that there is free will in it…” – Lactantius (p.64).
“Whenever a human being is for sale, therefore, nothing less than the owner of the earth is led into the sale room” – Gregory of Nyssa (p.106).
“Our brethren, for the most part, were careless over themselves and with exceeding love and filial kindness clung to one another, visiting the sick without regard to the danger, diligently ministering to them, tending to them in Christ. Being infected with the disease from others, they drew upon themselves the sickness of their neighbours, willingly taking over their pains. In this manner the best, at any rate, of our brethren departed this life, including certain presbyters and deacons, and some of the laity” – Dionysius
I was intrigued by John’s own disclaimer on this: “As our world passes through its own pandemic – I am writing in late 2020 – I certainly do not endorse Dionysius’s rejection of social distancing measures, which to my mind, are an essential aspect of care” (p.83). There is an inevitable danger for all of us to read the past through the lens of the present. Dionysius and others would have been well aware of the need for social distancing – and I suspect they would not have taken unnecessary risks. But the need to minister to those who were dying overtook their personal sense of risk. I admire that. I’m not sure I would have the courage to hug a leper! And I’m not sure that there would be many pastors today who would be prepared to catch covid in order to help those with covid.
The positive and negative lessons from the church are clearly set out. There is an old Monty Python sketch “What did the Romans ever do for us?” If one wanted to answer the question “What have the Christians ever done for us?” one could draw up a substantial list of things from Bullies and Saints. For example, they gave us the weekend – and holidays! “Constantine mandated a weekly day off for everyone. Summer AD 321. It must have been a great summer for those who had never known a regular day off. We owe the western notion of a weekend to Moses and Constantine” (p.74).
History teaches us that the more things change the more they stay the same. Julian the Apostate reflects the attitude of some modern politicians. “He flushed Christians out of his imperial court, rescinded the tax exemptions of Constantine, banned Christian academics from teaching and published tracts ridiculing them” (p.88). “On 17th June 362 he decreed that all ‘masters of studies’ – the equivalent of school teachers and university lecturers – had to be approved directly by him” (p. 90). He also set up a welfare system to rival that of the Christians. We are returning to this today.
It may be hyperbole but I agree with his description of the church deacon, Alcuin of York, as ‘the greatest European you have never heard of’. Even better is that John devotes a considerable amount of space to the story of the Church in the East – Constantinople – a story of which many Protestants and Catholics today are sadly unaware. “Timothy Miller, professor of history at Salisbury university in Maryland, has written the history of Byzantine hospitals from the time of Basil in the 4th century to the year 1204. It is a remarkable story of charity, professionalism and expansion” (p.202). Basil of Caesarea oversaw the creation of history’s first dedicated welfare centre and public hospital in AD 368-372 (p.108). When some countries like the UK make their health care system their religion maybe they need to remember where it all came from.
But I do have some questions. In my view John paints far too rosy a picture of the church in the first three centuries. “Sometimes the darkest and brightest moments of church history happen at the same time. This probably does not apply to the first three centuries, which seemed to me like one long harmonious performance of Christ’s original melody.” It’s as though the church for the first centuries consisted largely of saints, with the odd bully, whereas after that it was more evenly matched, or perhaps even with a preponderance of bullies. The New Testament does not portray the church as playing one long harmonious melody!
Is it right to describe Charlemagne’s war as a ‘holy jihad’? Was Charlemagne, who was not exactly noted for his piety or adherence to the Bible, really out to spread ‘Christianity’ or just increase his kingdom?
John accepts that Justinian’s expulsion of pagan professors was not an attack on classical learning, but is it fair to describe it as ‘religious bigotry’ (p.205)? Is love for the truth bigoted? If Moore College refused to let a pagan teach, would that be bigotry?
There has been a somewhat simplistic description of the medieval period as The Dark Ages, but in an overcorrection, John seems to suggest that, whilst not everything was sweetness and light, this is a total falsehood based on Enlightenment and Protestant prejudice. “The true Church,” said Martin Luther’, “was hidden from men’s sight” (p.215). John calls this ‘historical slander’. “In taking aim at the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, Protestants not only contributed to a falsehood, they shot themselves in the foot” (p.217). I respectively disagree and would not be so quick to dismiss Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as just propaganda. Luther’s analysis was substantively correct. The reason there needed to be a Reformation of the Church was because the Church had largely gone dark. There was a need for a spiritual enlightenment.
On the other hand the chapter on the Inquisition and the witch trials is more revealing and balanced. He cites Malcolm Gaisgell of the University of East Anglia: “it is clear that the witch-craze was essentially a secular legal phenomenon” (p.225). And he points out that the Inquisition executed 18 people a year across 350 years. The French Revolution in nine months executed three times as many people. As John carefully points out, you have to be careful with that argument, but it is nonetheless true that whereas Christianity gone wrong has slain its thousands, atheism has slain its millions!
There are some historical details that are inaccurate: for example, the statement on p.2 that the Crusaders aim was to expel the Muslims, or the repetition of the myth that Christians destroyed the great library of Alexandria – but such mistakes are few and far between. John is an honest, accurate and fair historian. Saints and Bullies is brilliant history.
Next week we will look at some of the theology of the book. But I leave with the advice given to Augustine – Tolle Lege – take and read!
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