Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at Christian History

Want a good way to build up your faith? Read church history. Want a good way to create doubts and depression? Read church history.

Our only hope is in God. Great men are great sinners. Great movements contain fissures and cracks and fault lines that threaten to topple the whole edifice. Good documents can lead to bad applications. The best of motives can turn events upside down and inside out. The only hope is in God.

God works through history. But our salvation is not provable or stabilized by history. There are enough lovely events, selfless people, and acts of grace to fill volumes, but under the same banner, touting the same doctrines, and proclaiming the same Christ, one can find filth, dung, and vileness.

The application is simple: Imitate the good and eschew the bad. How can you know which is which?

Read Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History by John Dickson. This book is published by Zondervan and is available both in hardback format and in a digital format.

Bullies and Saints is a history written for the non-academic reader. This would not be the main book to pick for a college or seminary course. For such as that, one would want to consult works such as Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity or some of the older works, such as that of Williston Walker. Also, this book is not comprehensive. It is episodic.

Instead of being a comprehensive history of the Church, this book is written as an enjoyable stroll through the story of the Faith. Of course, being that the book is highlighting some of the colossal failures of Christianity, some of the ‘enjoyment’ is not pleasant. See my opening paragraphs.

Most of the cast of characters and events are those we would expect. High on the list of dark days for the Faith are those people and events related to the Crusades. Somewhat out of chronological order, the Crusades were where this book begins the story. I must confess that these opening chapters of the book were less than satisfying. I know that there was much done from the calling through the execution of the Crusades that was a travesty of Christian theology and practice. Even if viewed as political actions, the Crusades were failures. And on a military scale, in spite of some victories, these wars of Christians against Muslims were not great successes for the European powers.

My disappointment was in Dickson’s failure to reference or make use of Rodney Stark’s revisionist studies of the Crusades. And Stark is not alone. One thing that these more recent studies have affirmed is that Christians were not just bullies in terms of treatment of Muslims, but were the bullied. There were plenty of efforts of Muslim forces over the centuries to expand their empires and beliefs beyond the modern day Middle East and into mainland Europe. “They did it too” does not justify atrocities, but the conflicts between Islamic nations and Christendom (past and present) have been a long-term and recurring feature of history.

The early years of Christianity provide some of the most thrilling portions of the story. In short, in historical accounts, martyrdom is beautiful. The zeal, the willingness to die, and the efforts to defend apologetically the Faith provide some of the best chapters of the Christian story. This lends aid to the idea that the Faith is best when it is the minority position that lacks the power or even the tolerance of the State.

The Christianization of the Roman Empire, beginning with Constantine and going on through later Emperors, is often viewed negatively–for good reasons. Christendom is a difficult story to work through. Too often the modern age, with its secular, nihilistic biases, condemn every breath that any Christian ever took. But there were always bullies and saints, and sometimes the saints were able to do what they did because the bullies bullied their opponents.

One of the best portions of this book is the chapter that deals with the Inquisition. Again, there is no whitewashing of the Inquisition, but that term is bandied about as though every tenth person in Europe was stretched out on a rack by the Church Gestapo. The numbers and extent of the Inquisition have been greatly exaggerated and overblown. This is not weird history being touted as the views you never heard from your teachers. If Dickson did one thing right, it was digging through the best scholarship around.

Speaking of Dickson’s own scholarship and use of sources, I ordered possibly as many as five books based on his references and use of them in this book. There are five to ten more that I would like to order. There are quite a few that, thankfully, I already own. These are mainly secondary sources. I say that because hundreds of footnotes are referencing primary source materials.

I applauded and even gave standing ovations to portions of Bullies and Saints. At other times, I withheld judgment (usually with a frown), while I shook my head in disagreement over some portions. That is fine. That is good. That is what reading history is all about.

From acts of charity and mission works to misuses of doctrine and power, there are numerous events in this book that can be lifted and applied to current situations. I don’t think history supplies “the answer” to how we should deal with a secular state, declining morals, persecution of the Faith, and Christians in politics. I think history gives perspectives, and I think the more perspectives one has, the better the judgments that we can make.

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