Traditional book reviews normally say how wonderful the book is, especially if you know the author. They also tend to be short. These reviews, of which this is the last, are somewhat different. They attempt to be a critical review assessing both the good and bad of Saints and Bullies. As I said in the first two, this book is an excellent history book, well written and extremely stimulating. It’s a keeper. I have already personally recommended it to several people.
In the first review we looked at the history.
In the second we looked at the theology and found that it is more of a mixed bag – at times confused and confusing.
In this third and final part we now turn to the subject of culture and society.
But before we do that let’s clear up a couple of misunderstandings. I have been accused of being ‘petty and misleading’ or ’scratching around for something negative to say to his audience’. But that is neither fair to me nor the readers of AP. I have no idea who the readers of AP are – and I certainly wouldn’t second guess as to what pleases or doesn’t please them. I accept that I may be wrong and I don’t mind being corrected. I just don’t have either the emotional or political savvy to try and second guess what people will read in between the lines. For me there are no in-between lines. That may be a weakness!
John Dickson is a fine writer, an excellent communicator (his Undeceptions is a model of how to do a Christian podcast) and a superb historian. My concern is with the Kingdom of Jesus and the desire to share the good news with an increasingly secular and hostile world. John Dickson shares that. In fact, he says that this is a book ‘designed for the mainstream secular market;’. It is ‘a book for people who don’t believe’. Here is where I have to utter an apology. I had said that Tom Holland had it wrong – that Saints and Bullies was not an apologetic work, but a history book. I was wrong. John says that it is an apologetic work. Certainly an apologetic work of history – but nonetheless an apologetic work – designed to appeal to, commend and communicate the Gospel to today’s secular culture. So let’s assess it in that light. Bear in mind that I suspect the vast majority of those who read this apologetic work (like most apologetic works, including mine) will be Christians. I won’t comment on its effectiveness in that regard, other than I think it will be more useful to discerning Christians than it is for non-Christians.
John states that he feels ‘a deep sympathy, affinity even, for anyone who thinks Christianity has done more harm than good.’ I don’t. In order to argue for such a position you have to define Christianity in a way that Christ doesn’t, have a rosy view of humanity without Christ, and blame it for everything from the massacre at the Al Aqsa mosque to Adolf Hitler. A world without Christianity would be Hell on earth. The notion that religion poisons everything is a Dawkins/Hitchens distorted view of history. John gives too much succour to the secular narrative idea that religion poisons everything – but what if everything is already poisoned? Yes – human religions have done a great deal of harm – but Christianity has done way more good than harm. It is the vaccine, not the disease. We should not hand people hammers with which to beat us. Self-flagellation is supposed to have gone out of fashion with the medieval church!
“Sceptical readers may bristle at the suggestion that such grand declarations of the secular West were influenced by the Bible. The church’s record on human rights makes this particularly hard to swallow” (p. 30). Why? Where do human rights come from? On what basis can any secular society make any kind of judgement – if there are no absolute morals? That is after all what modern secularists teach. On the one hand they say everything is relative, on the other hand they are tempted when in power to act as though their relative beliefs are absolute. Instead of judging the church through the lens of our culture, we need to judge our culture through the lens of the Bible. Today’s culture falls far short of the righteousness, holiness, justice and love of God.
“In the contemporary world there is no practical difference between the Christian estimation of humanity and the secular humanist estimation – the two ideas are historically related” (p.33). Yet there is a massive practical difference. The secular humanist leaves out the spiritual and makes morality relative. Humanity, made in the image of God, without God, is not fully human. The irony about secular humanism is that, unlike Christian humanism, it is anti-human.
For example, John says that talk of casting out a child at birth is shocking to modern readers – but is it? Apart from fellow Aussie Peter Singer who advocates such a policy – the fact is we live in a secular humanist society which regards the killing of children in the womb as a basic human right! This together with euthanasia shows that our secular humanist culture is a culture of death – as much as any Greco/Roman/Pagan culture. In contrast Christianity is a culture of life – for all humans. You do not get much more black and white than death and life!
“It is true that secular standards today often make Christians look bad. Jesus Christ makes them look especially bad“ (p.36). This concedes way too much to secularists. I don’t think secular standards make us look bad. Of course, in comparison with a holy God, all of us, even the most righteous, are dead in sins and trespasses. We all need to be born again. And I think that Jesus Christ clothes us in his beautiful garments of righteousness and makes us look good! May the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us!
John talks about medieval church lawyers insisting that the poor had genuine rights – and that much of that church law would be described today as ‘Leftist’ (p.193). As a ‘Leftist’ I too have come across that. But we need to be careful about misrepresenting those we disagree with politically. Wouldn’t the Right also say that the poor had rights? The disagreement occurs when we discuss how they are best served and applied. We need to be careful about reading back into history contemporary notions of right and left. Especially when in today’s world it is the wealthy and powerful elites who claim to be progressive and the poor who tend to be more socially conservative.
“There is no necessary link between atheism and immorality, but it is equally true that atheism rationally permits a Stalin in a way that is not true of religion” (p.280). The trouble with this is that religion can, and often has done, produce religious tyrants who are as bad as Stalin. And there is a necessary link between atheism and immorality, at least according to the Bible. Which is not to make the simplistic mistake of assuming that all atheists live up to their creed – thankfully they don’t. Common grace often intervenes. But atheism is the basis of immorality . The fool has said in his heart there is no God (Ps 14:1). “Fool’ in this sense means ‘the foolishly immoral’.
There are other issues which I struggle with – but this review is already long enough- so we will leave the most important of them for a future date.
Summary – Good History, Mixed Apology
Does Saints and Bullies work as an apologetic work? Yes and No. It gives a powerful apologetic for the good that the Church does. And admitting the faults makes it all the more appealing – in much the same way as self-deprecation can be an attractive personality character trait. The problem is that it is much more difficult to be self-deprecating about an organisation that is the largest, longest and most successful organisation in human history!
But where Saints and Bullies does not work for non-Christians is in its view of modern secular society. Don’t get me wrong. The secularists who read this may well be delighted because it reads as though today’s secular culture is the standard by which we must judge everything. There is a methodology which says that if we present Christianity in a way that is attractive to our contemporary culture then people will want to become Christians. But telling people they are not sick is not going to encourage them to see the doctor.
This may not be John’s intention – but if I was a secularist I would say: “Thanks for the book. It kind of confirmed what I knew. Modern progressive society is the most advanced in human history, and whilst it may be true that the Church helped us get here, in our infancy – that’s fine. We don’t need you anymore. We are all grown up.” The attempt to argue that Christianity is just as nice as modern-day secular humanism fails as an apologetic, because there is no need for Christianity any more. Today we all believe in the ethic of love and peace and social justice. Why does a modern culture need Jesus? Saints and Bullies not only does not provide the answer; it doesn’t even ask the question.
If the unbeliever believes that “In time – at about the halfway point between Jesus and today – Europe would be conquered for Christ, partly through ‘soft power’ and partly through ‘thuggery’” (p.171), then why even bother with such a Christ? I don’t accept that Europe was conquered for Christ – certainly not by those worldly methods.
In a response to my review John writes: “David protests, “The church in the first three centuries was as full of sin as the church in the next seventeen!” Well, at one level, that’s true, but not in relation to power and violence—the specific focus of my critique.” But that’s the problem. John is assessing the history of the church through the power dynamic criteria of contemporary culture, and that’s too narrow and shallow.
In a review of Stephen McAlpine’s “Being the Bad Guys” John writes: “In short, McAlpine is probably overly negative about where post-Christian society is at, or at least he accidentally exaggerates in order to make his point.” Given that John states that Steve’s book is ‘73% correct’ that’s a strong claim. I know Steve and never in a million years would he accidentally exaggerate – he does everything deliberately and thoughtfully. His analysis may be wrong (I don’t think it is) but it is not exaggerated. I would suggest that Dickson is the better historian, and McAlpine the better cultural analyst.
When I look at today’s post-Christian society John writes like a Christian progressive advocate of nudge theory; the idea that we just have to show the good people in our society that we are good too, and they will then let us have a seat at the table. There we can be an even better influence. We can nudge them towards the Gospel. Whereas Steve is more the New Testament prophet, calling both society and church to repentance. That isn’t necessarily popular and may make you one of the bad guys – but it is the way that the early church turned the world upside down.
Society is far worse than we think it is, and the Gospel is far more powerful than we think it is. And the Bride of Christ is beautiful, not ugly! SDG
David Robertson is a Scottish Presbyterian minister who came to Australia in 2019 to work with City Bible Forum – as well as continuing to help with CBF he now directs the ASK project with ENC for Sydney Anglicans – helping churches with evangelism. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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