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Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History

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Is the world better off without Christianity? Combining narrative with keen critique of contemporary debates, author and historian John Dickson gives an honest account of 2,000 years of Christian history that helps us understand what Christianity is and what it's meant to be. To say that the Christian Church has an "image problem" doesn't quite capture it. From the Crusades Is the world better off without Christianity? Combining narrative with keen critique of contemporary debates, author and historian John Dickson gives an honest account of 2,000 years of Christian history that helps us understand what Christianity is and what it's meant to be. To say that the Christian Church has an "image problem" doesn't quite capture it. From the Crusades and the Inquisition to the racism and abuse present in today's Church--both in Catholic and Protestant traditions--the institution that Christ established on earth has a lot to answer for. But the Church has also had moments throughout history when it has been in tune with Jesus' teachings--from the rise of charity to the invention of hospitals. For defenders of the faith, it's important to be able to recognize the good and bad in the church's history and be inspired to live aligned with Christ. For skeptics, this book is a thought-provoking introduction to the idea that Christianity is, despite all, an essential foundation of our civilization. Bullies and Saints will take you on a big-picture journey from the Sermon on the Mount to the modern church: Giving contextual accounts of infamous chapters of Christian history, such as the Crusades, and acknowledging their darkness. Outlining the great movements of the faith and defending its heroes and saints, some of whom are not commonly recognized. Examining the Church beside the teachings and life of Jesus and how it has succeeded in its mission to imitate Christ.  


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Is the world better off without Christianity? Combining narrative with keen critique of contemporary debates, author and historian John Dickson gives an honest account of 2,000 years of Christian history that helps us understand what Christianity is and what it's meant to be. To say that the Christian Church has an "image problem" doesn't quite capture it. From the Crusades Is the world better off without Christianity? Combining narrative with keen critique of contemporary debates, author and historian John Dickson gives an honest account of 2,000 years of Christian history that helps us understand what Christianity is and what it's meant to be. To say that the Christian Church has an "image problem" doesn't quite capture it. From the Crusades and the Inquisition to the racism and abuse present in today's Church--both in Catholic and Protestant traditions--the institution that Christ established on earth has a lot to answer for. But the Church has also had moments throughout history when it has been in tune with Jesus' teachings--from the rise of charity to the invention of hospitals. For defenders of the faith, it's important to be able to recognize the good and bad in the church's history and be inspired to live aligned with Christ. For skeptics, this book is a thought-provoking introduction to the idea that Christianity is, despite all, an essential foundation of our civilization. Bullies and Saints will take you on a big-picture journey from the Sermon on the Mount to the modern church: Giving contextual accounts of infamous chapters of Christian history, such as the Crusades, and acknowledging their darkness. Outlining the great movements of the faith and defending its heroes and saints, some of whom are not commonly recognized. Examining the Church beside the teachings and life of Jesus and how it has succeeded in its mission to imitate Christ.  

30 review for Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tim O'Neill

    As an atheist, I'm probably not in the target audience for this book. Essentially this is a work of Christian apologetics, though thankfully doesn't have the lumbering, low-brow glibness of much of that genre, like the works of Josh McDowell, or the cloying smug assurance of William Lane Craig. Dickson's book is rather more reminiscent of David Bentley Hart's works, which - even though I disagree with their conclusions - I can usually admire for the eloquence and careful thought behind their arg As an atheist, I'm probably not in the target audience for this book. Essentially this is a work of Christian apologetics, though thankfully doesn't have the lumbering, low-brow glibness of much of that genre, like the works of Josh McDowell, or the cloying smug assurance of William Lane Craig. Dickson's book is rather more reminiscent of David Bentley Hart's works, which - even though I disagree with their conclusions - I can usually admire for the eloquence and careful thought behind their arguments. Dickson presents a position reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton's quip that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Though Dickson's version is slightly more kindly - he argues that most of his fellow believers have at least been trying. Early in the book he describes how he hired a cello, took a two hour lesson in how to play it and then, a few days later, attempted to play Bach's Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major in a Sydney concert hall. Predictably, the result was pretty bad; particularly in contrast to the subsequent rendition of the same piece by a leading concert cellist. The point was not that a professional is better at playing the cello than a total beginner, but rather that we should judge the beauty of Bach's piece by the professional's version of it, not the earnest attempt by an amateur. The argument Dickson is illustrating here is that Christianity is like Bach's Prelude, and the history of Christian practice is like Dickson's attempt at it. Of course this is not a new argument - for centuries apologists have been noting the the church is a human institution and so its many historical failings are the result of something perfect being implemented by imperfect beings. Badly argued, this line of reasoning has the tone of a brisk excuse. The strength of Dickson's book is the honesty with which he faces up to the failings that punctuate Christian history and the way he doesn't flinch from admitting that, in many cases, Christians have been and often still are what he calls "bullies". There is a parallel genre of counter-apologetics written by anti-theistic unbelievers like Christopher Hitchens, which catalogues various religious atrocities in a roll-call of horrors and then argues that "therefore religion poisons everything" and so should be rejected. As an atheist who is also a history writer, these works irritate me partly because the argument is unnuanced, but mainly because the writers, Hitchens included, are terrible at history. Pseudo historical myths, outdated clichés, cherry-picked examples, context-free analysis and oversimplified generalisations are all rolled together with valid evidence to produce a clumsy pastiche that, as history, is largely gibberish. But it has polemical weight and popular persuasive power. So the "Crusades, Inquisitions and Wars of Religion" argument gets rehashed endlessly by ideological atheists. Dickson is careful to avoid a mirror-image of this kind of blunt-edged argument. He is far more careful a historian than the New Atheist polemicists; though that would not be difficult. And while he does what the anti-theist activists never do - notes the "saints" and the good things Christians have done and given to the world - he doesn't pretend this makes the work of the "bullies" and the bad things in Christian history somehow less horrible. He doesn't downplay or avoid clear cases of Christians behaving badly. So he, correctly, presents the Crusades as what they definitely were - primarily religious wars - and so avoids the dodge that they were "really" mostly about trade, geopolitics, or proto-colonialism. He also avoids the other way apologists have approached this (for them) rather awkward subject, such as Rodney Stark's truly awful God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (2009), which actually tries to justify the Crusades as a good thing via some Bush Era politics and a total mangling of medieval history. As a modern Christian, Dickson faces up the fact that the Crusades simply can't be reconciled with the received teachings of Jesus. Dickson is also careful in how he corrects modern misconceptions about several of the standard examples used in the "Crusades, Inquisitions and Wars of Religion" argument. He shows that the traditional view of various wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century as "the Wars of Religion" has been largely rejected by modern historians and these are now seen as primarily Europe-wide jockeying by newly powerful nation states where religion was not the primary motivating factor. Similarly, the lurid popular conception of "the Inquisition" is almost entirely myth, and largely one with roots in Protestant sectarian propaganda. But he is also deft in not downplaying the genuinely awful truth to be found in some of these myths. The Spanish Inquisition was not as unfair, unrestrained or anywhere near as murderous as the legends make out, but it still burned people alive for their beliefs, even if in vastly fewer numbers than most imagine. As an atheist who finds most atheist (or rather anti-theist) handling of history generally woeful, Dickson is to be admired for his accuracy, care, fairness and honesty - things we simply don't find in the examples of Hitchens and Dawkins or their myriad YouTube imitators and disciples. As a historical pedant, a few examples where I would argue he gets things slightly wrong did stand out for me. The Crusaders' aim was to re-occupy the "holy places" in Palestine, not to "expel .... the majority Muslim population" (p. 2). Expulsion was never their intention and, once the Crusader states were established, Christian and Muslim neighbours in those territories actually got on surprisingly well. Dickson gives the context of the demolition of the great temple of Serapis in Alexandria in AD 391, detailing the killing of Christians by pagan fanatics that led to the stand off around the temple - something the anti-Christian polemicist Catherine Nixey in her recent and terrible book The Darkening Age (2017) did not bother to mention. But the reference to this temple housing "a library" (p. 118) when it was destroyed ignores the fact that none of the five accounts we have of this event make any mention of a library and good evidence indicates that the library that had formerly been there was a thing of the past by this stage. A version of this event in Gibbon's Decline and Fall is the source of the myth that "Christians destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria", so it's a pity this myth is given some minor and passing support here. Similarly, the idea that Justinian shut down Plato's ancient philosophical Academy in AD 529, ending 900 years of unbroken Greek philosophical legacy is another mainstay of anti-Christian polemic. Dickson seems to reinforce this idea (p. 204), even though the actual Platonic Academy had ended in the sack of Athens by Sulla back in 86 BC and the school closed by Justinian's edict was a small mystical Neoplatonic salon established much later. But these are mostly quibbles. On the whole, Dickson is careful, accurate, fair and judicious. It's refreshing that he makes no bones about Christianity's many historical failings and confronts them with honesty and genuine compassion. It's also welcome that he can correct myths about these atrocities and hypocrisies without downplaying their meaning. And it's useful that he can hold up the many examples of the good his faith has done without being stridently apologetic while doing so. How well his theological argument about the reported teachings of Jesus as a cello piece imperfectly played and often badly mangled I'll leave to those concerned with theology. As someone who tries to be an unbeliever who is fair and honest about history, unlike Hitchens et. al. , I simply find it refreshing to read a believer who is trying to do the same. This makes Bullies and Saints a worthy and thoughtful book for any reader, Christian or otherwise.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Leonie

    I found this look at the history of the Christian church fascinating. I listened to this book, which was read by the author, John Dickson. He didn't draw back from acknowledging the failings and disasters, and sometimes downright hideousness of some of Christian history. But it was always within the historical context. I appreciated this. I'm a practicing Christian, so I often grapple with public displays of things contrary to the spirit of the story of Jesus, enacted by some Christians in the p I found this look at the history of the Christian church fascinating. I listened to this book, which was read by the author, John Dickson. He didn't draw back from acknowledging the failings and disasters, and sometimes downright hideousness of some of Christian history. But it was always within the historical context. I appreciated this. I'm a practicing Christian, so I often grapple with public displays of things contrary to the spirit of the story of Jesus, enacted by some Christians in the public eye. What I found most encouraging, given the context, was the analogy of 'the beautiful tune.' The tune of the actual message of Jesus, that his people frequently butcher by their actions and their words. Time and again, the author pointed out that even in the worst, and most hideous actions, there were still people of God, working to reform from within. One of the hardest portions to listen to was the frank discussion of the institutionalised sexual abuse in Australia, and the role that the wider church has played in this. For anyone who is a survivor, there is a trigger warning on this section. I hope the author considers addressing the role of US 'evangelicalism' in the context of history making events over the last few years, because I'd be keen to hear what he has to say. This book, for me, is an important read. I hope that many Christians and non-Christians alike read it. It offers context. It reminds us that glossing over stuff is wrong and inappropriate. But it also reminds me of the beautiful tune, which tells us all that the church should be.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Isabelle reads a book a day because she has no friends

    “Bullies are common, saints are not.” Well this was refreshing! (In a horrible way.) Some Christians act so holier-than-thou and will turn a blind eye to the subject matter of this book—but our history is far from perfect and it is nice to see this acknowledged in such a humble manner. I learned a lot about history of multiple religions: the good, the bad, the ugly. I still ended up feeling hopeful (I’m really glad there was time dedicated to the saints here, too.) Amazing narration by the author “Bullies are common, saints are not.” Well this was refreshing! (In a horrible way.) Some Christians act so holier-than-thou and will turn a blind eye to the subject matter of this book—but our history is far from perfect and it is nice to see this acknowledged in such a humble manner. I learned a lot about history of multiple religions: the good, the bad, the ugly. I still ended up feeling hopeful (I’m really glad there was time dedicated to the saints here, too.) Amazing narration by the author and a solid biblical perspective were huge bonuses. Overall this was a great read that I would highly recommend.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Religion is a polarising subject and I don't get into discussions (usually) on its merits or otherwise. I have my beliefs and I've seen no reason to change them. I was looking for a book that gives an unbiased opinion on whether the world would be a better place TODAY without religion...ALL religions. This book isn't it; it asks that question of Christianity, but from a historical perspective. Sigh! I have witnessed first hand, some of the evils of Christianity, but also a lot of the good bits, a Religion is a polarising subject and I don't get into discussions (usually) on its merits or otherwise. I have my beliefs and I've seen no reason to change them. I was looking for a book that gives an unbiased opinion on whether the world would be a better place TODAY without religion...ALL religions. This book isn't it; it asks that question of Christianity, but from a historical perspective. Sigh! I have witnessed first hand, some of the evils of Christianity, but also a lot of the good bits, and there are a lot. As a history lesson, Dickson's work is impeccable. The research is admirable, and so are the conclusions. I concluded that: I'm glad I wasn't alive during any of The Crusades. Such a shameful period. In the end, I wholeheartedly agree with the author's wonderful analogy: The bible's (Jesus') message of love and forgiveness is like a beautiful song. The song is still beautiful, but the singers haven't always been very good, in fact, sometimes they're not even singing the same song. There's still hope that we'll learn to sing it better. Bullies are common. Saints are not

  5. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    For me Bullies and Saints was a disappointment. Although I agree the historical information provided is for the most part good reading the constant apologizing for the Church vs. the individuals who carried out these acts was, well quite frankly an embarrassment for someone who calls themselves a Christian. I couldn't figure out who this book was written for - the secular individual interested in the history of the earthly church and some of its members? Or is it written for the Christian to lea For me Bullies and Saints was a disappointment. Although I agree the historical information provided is for the most part good reading the constant apologizing for the Church vs. the individuals who carried out these acts was, well quite frankly an embarrassment for someone who calls themselves a Christian. I couldn't figure out who this book was written for - the secular individual interested in the history of the earthly church and some of its members? Or is it written for the Christian to learn of those same activities. In my mind John Dickson fails on both attempts by trying to write to both. A few other items to question - the author states the Samaritans and Jews were enemies. In reality sort of.... The Samaritans were Israelites who were left behind during the periods of captivity. These left behind Israelis inter married with the Canaanites and other local peoples. The Samaritans revered the Torah and had their own religious traditions. They called themselves a part of the people of God, but those Israelis returning from exile no longer recognized them as part of the tribes. The author states Hypatia of Alexandria taught only a secular version of philosophy, i.e. didn't teach Neoplatonism. In reality one can't really separate the two. In the period of Late Antiquity the study of philosophy included the study of metaphysics which was steeped heavily in theories of how the heavens related to those of the earth. In and of itself it was most definitely a religion, just different than the monotheistic God worshiped by both Jews and Christians. In my opinion a book looking for a direction... There are many other books that discuss the subjects covered here that have a clear objective in mind. Better to find one of those to read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kristi Mast

    A good walk through the highs and lows of Church History. It was a good refresher following my studies at Sattler, but also highlighted some fine characters that I was unfamiliar with.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Philip Hunt

    Did you know that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman? I do now, because I have read John Dickson’s terrific book. Indeed, in a few hundred pages I feel like he’s fleshed out two thousand years of history that was mostly opaque. A perfect book to get the broad sweep of church history written in an accessible chatty style. Well done, John.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    3.5/5 but worth the round up I'll immediately air out my greatest frustration with this book - I was under the impression it didn't have a specifically apologetic agenda. Titling the work "an honest look at the good and evil of Christianity" may have been just a tad misleading. Once I got over that, it was actually quite good and the author, for the most part, seemed fair in his assessments. Dickson's running theme is that organized religion (i.e. the Church), not Christianity, is to blame for the 3.5/5 but worth the round up I'll immediately air out my greatest frustration with this book - I was under the impression it didn't have a specifically apologetic agenda. Titling the work "an honest look at the good and evil of Christianity" may have been just a tad misleading. Once I got over that, it was actually quite good and the author, for the most part, seemed fair in his assessments. Dickson's running theme is that organized religion (i.e. the Church), not Christianity, is to blame for the long history of violence and abuse associated with the Faith. In other words, disregarding Christianity on the poor actions of the church is a bit like disregarding Bach because your five year old sounds like shit trying to play his Cello Suites. Christ wrote a great melody...we just haven't played it so well. The early church (prior to 400 CE), Dickinson argues, did the best job at turning Christ's moral logic into moral history. The principles of "love your enemy" and "Imago Dei" were forefront, leading to the creation of the worlds first public hospitals and the largest emphasis on charity the world has ever seen. The history that followed, unfortunately, strayed more from the melody. From the Crusades to the Inquisitions to the 30 Years War to the modern Sex Abuse Scandal...constantly there was a log in the eye of the church. While any abuse in the name of Christ is too much, Dickinson constantly reiterates, the evil of the church is no different than that of the "secular world". Here he references the specifically non-religious French Terror, Soviet Union, Great Leap Forward, and Khmer Rouge. This isn't to say Christianity isn't at fault, simply that the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being and through every human era. Ultimately, the problem with hateful Christians is not their Christianity, but their departure from it. As a Church, we need to notice the log in our own eye as we get back to the heart of Christ's teaching. And that necessarily involves speaking ill of the past. Violence and abuse has been a universal part of the human story. The demand to love ones enemies has not. Bullies are common. Saints are not. Hopefully anyone who reads this, specifically myself, realizes the Church has a lot of work to do and refocuses on Christ's beautiful melody.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Michael Miller

    John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints has been on my “to read” list for months, so I am glad for the opportunity to read it. The subtitle promises the book is “an honest look at the good and evil of Christian history.” Such honesty is vital for apologists to commit to (we will be rightly called on it if we aren’t). Dickson has, for the most part, dealt honestly, as promised. Writing such a book is always fraught with peril. Many Christians do not want to hear bad news. Just as many Americans loathe John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints has been on my “to read” list for months, so I am glad for the opportunity to read it. The subtitle promises the book is “an honest look at the good and evil of Christian history.” Such honesty is vital for apologists to commit to (we will be rightly called on it if we aren’t). Dickson has, for the most part, dealt honestly, as promised. Writing such a book is always fraught with peril. Many Christians do not want to hear bad news. Just as many Americans loathe to hear any mention of past wrongdoing by the country because it might tarnish the mythic image of the nation, Dickson acknowledges that people ask him why he’s “letting the team down by airing the church’s dirty laundry in public?” The fact of the matter is that, as apologists, we are going to be questioned about these things, so we must know about them – in great detail – to be ready to respond meaningfully and honestly. Facts are sacred things; they should not be sacrificed on the altar of generalities (as much as we cherish those generalities). Dickson sets up the purpose and need for the book in the Prelude. Many people today believe we would all be better off without religion. It poisons everything, they say. He points out the irony that 20 years ago, Christians were mocked as too moralistic or goody two-shoes. Now, they are mocked as immoral and hateful. That’s a big switch, perhaps mostly due to the evangelistic zeal of certain atheist authors that has penetrated the Zeitgeist and formed a generation. He also points out, rightly, that it is tempting to just disown the bad stuff, claiming those who perpetrated evil were not Christians (or, if you’re Protestant, they were Catholics). That sort of special pleading (if they did something wrong it doesn’t count against us, but if they did something good it does count in our favor – we cannot lose) just doesn’t work. (More on that below). He starts, curiously, with the crusades. Since that is an event usually brought up first by critics, I guess it’s not a bad place to jump in. Chapter 5 looks are the persecuted church of the early years and they way Christians responded to persecution. This provides a great contrast to the church after the end of persecution and the possession of power. This wide-ranging historical review covers Constantine, Julian the Apostate, Ambrose, the Cappadocian fathers, Hypatia, Augustine, Charlamagne, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis, the Dark Ages, the Reformation, the Inquisition, and more. Of course, any review this broad will of necessity be cursory, but Dickson manages to pack a lot of detail and keep it interesting. It was also quite enjoyable to introduced to a few minor but intriguing characters form church history (like Alcuin of York). I plan to read more about them. By the very nature of such a book, Dickson has to be selective. He could be accused of ignoring difficult cases or emphasizing the good too much. Overall, his selections of people and events were even handed and not skewed to make Christianity look good in the end. He presented Christianity warts and all. His historical review is well-documented. It is peppered with very helpful and appropriate quotations from those he examines. Hearing their own words from the writings helps to get a better grasp of the situation. Dickson does a very good job of refusing to go with the quick and easy explanation for events, refusing to offer simplistic explanations for complex historical happenings. Chapter 3, The Beautiful Tune, was, to me, the most important, setting forth what Jesus actually taught and expected. This helped frame the discussion well. I just wish he had started with book with this frame. He is less persuasive, to me, when he addresses those who claim to be Christians but don’t act like the people Jesus describes. In response, he says, “Disregarding Christianity on the basis of the poor performance of the church is a bit like dismissing Johann Sebastian Bach after hearing” a poor performance by an amateur cellist. We must, “distinguish between the composition and the performance.” The comparison is a bit helpful, but in Christianity we have a composition that claims to alter (enhance) performance, so this analogy is not entirely persuasive. Also, while we could understand why an amateur cellist may not do justice to a great composition in his performance, many of the Christian leaders he writes about were not amateurs at all. They were leaders advanced in the faith but playing the tune very badly. Why is that? I wish he had discussed this a bit more.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Kuhn

    Dickson evaluates the melodies of church history by putting them up against the beautiful tune composed by Jesus (summarized in the Sermon on the Mount). This analysis often reveals many "bullies" who failed (or more accurately, refused) to play the tune correctly and "saints" who, imperfectly, sought to return to Christ's original tune. But more often than not this analysis reveals a church that is simultaneously "bully" and "saint". This work is historically accurate and pastorally sensitive. Dickson evaluates the melodies of church history by putting them up against the beautiful tune composed by Jesus (summarized in the Sermon on the Mount). This analysis often reveals many "bullies" who failed (or more accurately, refused) to play the tune correctly and "saints" who, imperfectly, sought to return to Christ's original tune. But more often than not this analysis reveals a church that is simultaneously "bully" and "saint". This work is historically accurate and pastorally sensitive. Would recommend this to anyone, Christian or otherwise, who wants to get a sense of the good and bad of church history. P.s. listen to the audiobook. The author has a killer Australian accent

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jake Preston

    Dickson writes with exceptional balance and sympathy for those hesitant to follow Christ. I learned a great deal about Christians’ involvement in gross atrocities and also their leadership in philanthropy through establishing hospitals, schools, and charities. The author’s image of playing in tune with the teachings of our Master is an apt description of Church history throughout the centuries. My one quibble with the book is how there is not an entire chapter devoted to American “Christians’” emb Dickson writes with exceptional balance and sympathy for those hesitant to follow Christ. I learned a great deal about Christians’ involvement in gross atrocities and also their leadership in philanthropy through establishing hospitals, schools, and charities. The author’s image of playing in tune with the teachings of our Master is an apt description of Church history throughout the centuries. My one quibble with the book is how there is not an entire chapter devoted to American “Christians’” embrace and defense of race-based chattel slavery. To me, this failing is perhaps the greatest in history, yet it is only mentioned in passing. Overall, I’ve learned again and again that Christendom is entirely different than true, Jesus of Nazareth-following Christianity. Let’s not embrace empire at the expense of the cross.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Razey

    I really enjoyed learning about such an extended history of Christians and our successes and downfalls right from the early church until now. I think it's a challenge to tie both into one book with making it seem as though we have bad BUT here is is our good, however, I think this tension throughout is what made the book particularly fascinating. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy thinking about Christian philosophy or those with an interest in history. I really enjoyed learning about such an extended history of Christians and our successes and downfalls right from the early church until now. I think it's a challenge to tie both into one book with making it seem as though we have bad BUT here is is our good, however, I think this tension throughout is what made the book particularly fascinating. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy thinking about Christian philosophy or those with an interest in history.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Peter Saunders

    This is a lucid, comprehensive and disarmingly honest review of 20 centuries of Christian history, which filled in many gaps for me. Dickson does not duck such issues as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and child abuse in the modern church but deals with them honestly and openly. Overall, he effectively argues against the modern view that the Enlightenment and secular humanism have rescued the world from centuries of Christian oppression and the book is full of wonderful stories of how Chri This is a lucid, comprehensive and disarmingly honest review of 20 centuries of Christian history, which filled in many gaps for me. Dickson does not duck such issues as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and child abuse in the modern church but deals with them honestly and openly. Overall, he effectively argues against the modern view that the Enlightenment and secular humanism have rescued the world from centuries of Christian oppression and the book is full of wonderful stories of how Christianity has shaped everything that is good in the modern world including medicine, education, law, charity and democracy. I found his account of the Dark ages (they never existed) and the section on the man he calls ‘the greatest European you've never heard of’ (Alcuin of York) particularly interesting. This is a wonderful piece of writing which I'm sure I’ll go back to again and again.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Horace

    The author, John Dickson, has a PhD in Ancient History. In this book his goal is to present the good, the bad and the ugly in church history. The book is easily accessible and well researched. He doesn’t try to give a comprehensive history but rather focuses on the best and worst moments in the history of the church. He has no interest in excusing away the ugliness in this history. In fact, as a Christian, he frequently apologizes for what his people have done in the name of Christ. I love his a The author, John Dickson, has a PhD in Ancient History. In this book his goal is to present the good, the bad and the ugly in church history. The book is easily accessible and well researched. He doesn’t try to give a comprehensive history but rather focuses on the best and worst moments in the history of the church. He has no interest in excusing away the ugliness in this history. In fact, as a Christian, he frequently apologizes for what his people have done in the name of Christ. I love his approach- he just wants to be as honest as possible. As such, he’s able to point the reader again and again back to Jesus as the real history to be reckoned with. I think this would be a good book to share with someone who is considering the Christian faith but struggles with the ugliness in our history.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Adam Shields

    Summary: An overview of the tension between the church's good and bad behavior throughout church history.  I do not think I would have picked up Bullies and Saints if I had not heard the Seminary Dropout podcast interview. Part of the ongoing discussion of those discussing the future of evangelicalism right now is the right way to use and approach history. I think that history is only helpful if it is something that we learn from in the negative sense. In other words, because there is a tende Summary: An overview of the tension between the church's good and bad behavior throughout church history.  I do not think I would have picked up Bullies and Saints if I had not heard the Seminary Dropout podcast interview. Part of the ongoing discussion of those discussing the future of evangelicalism right now is the right way to use and approach history. I think that history is only helpful if it is something that we learn from in the negative sense. In other words, because there is a tendency to look at your tradition with rose-colored glasses, our bias should primarily focus on the adverse history. That isn't to say we only look at negative history. Still, we need to prioritize negative history because stories are often told of only the good and because directly addressing the negative is how we address the log in our eye before the speck in others' eyes. The podcast interview suggested that John Dickson was attempting to get the balance right. Bullies and Saints is a brief overview of Christian history (2000 years in just under 300 pages cannot be too thorough.) In the 25 short chapters (mostly 8 to 12 pages each), Dickson looks at areas of Christian harm or Christian good. Neither is glossed over. The modern concepts of human rights have been largely based on the cultural understanding of the individual's dignity that has at least some root in the Imago Dei. At the same time, as the church became more tightly involved with the state, there have been increased opportunities for the church to abuse its power. Some of that use of power was to restrain the state, pressure the state into supporting charitable causes, or encourage justice for all. But some of that power was to pressure people into becoming Christians, to change the Christian bias against war to a 'just war' theory, or to adopt a 'muscular Christian' understanding of leadership. I appreciate that Dickson addressed slavery, the closing of pagan temples, a lot about war and violence (really the majority of the book), and the current child and sexual abuse issues in a relatively short time. However, I would have liked him to address imperialism and how the church has empowered Manifest Destiny and the Doctrines of Discovery. That is a significant hole in the book. But this is a 300-page book, and I am sure there are others holes that different people would find more important. No book can cover it all. From my study of history, I know that no matter how bad you think what you know has been, there are examples of history that you do not know that are worse. But as Dickson notes, there is also often more good than what you may know. And as Dickson notes, that good and evil were often in the same person. Few within Christian history are solely villains. And there were several figures that I was completely unaware of, such as Alcuin of York, although many of the people discussed in this overview are more commonly known. I think the summary, and call of the book, is best done in this quote that is about a quote from Albert Einstein: Albert Einstein put this well when he was asked in 1915 for his opinion of the Great War. He wrote three pages of subtle critique of nationalism, and then ended with the words: “Yet, why so many words, when I can say it all in a single sentence, and indeed in a sentence that is most apt for me as a Jew: Honour your master, Jesus Christ, not only with words and songs but, rather, foremost through your deeds.” The antidote to hateful, nationalistic, violent Christianity, Einstein proposed, is Christianity in practice.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Izzy Markle

    An honest and constructive survey of church history. In every age of the church there have been bullies, those who sought to abuse power, manipulate people, and use faith as a means of personal gain; but alongside them have been saints, those who hum the melody of Christ through love, truth, and self sacrifice. One of the interesting elements of this book was that as it looked through each century of the church, the sharp extremes were filed down. The darkest times often had more light than the An honest and constructive survey of church history. In every age of the church there have been bullies, those who sought to abuse power, manipulate people, and use faith as a means of personal gain; but alongside them have been saints, those who hum the melody of Christ through love, truth, and self sacrifice. One of the interesting elements of this book was that as it looked through each century of the church, the sharp extremes were filed down. The darkest times often had more light than the world wants to admit, and the “best” times of the church struggled more than the church cares to admit. The affect this had on me was to challenge both pride and fear in relation to living as the church today. There have always been bullies and saints claiming God side by side, and what we do with Christ and his call to carry the melody of his gospel will determine which we are.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Goldsmith

    This wonderful, rambling book takes a look through Christian history, with an honest assessment of when and how Christians (and the Church as a whole) have been guilty of some pretty horrific things, as well as looking at the gargantuan benefits the church has been to society as a whole. Dickson does a good job of tackling uncomfortable subjects head-on, making no excuses for bad behaviour, whilst also seeking to understand actions within the bigger context of society at the time as well as the r This wonderful, rambling book takes a look through Christian history, with an honest assessment of when and how Christians (and the Church as a whole) have been guilty of some pretty horrific things, as well as looking at the gargantuan benefits the church has been to society as a whole. Dickson does a good job of tackling uncomfortable subjects head-on, making no excuses for bad behaviour, whilst also seeking to understand actions within the bigger context of society at the time as well as the real history, as opposed to the received understanding of historical stories. This book is incredibly readable and insightful. Useful for anyone who wants to have a clearer and deeper understanding of the broad strokes of Christianity over the last two millenia.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Talia

    A really good popular work on the topic.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Solveig

    An engaging and challenging look at church history. I was inspired and challenged by those who lived their life following Jesus's teaching, wonderful lives of generosity and service. Reading about the evils of church history was sobering and challenging too. I really enjoyed the history element, understanding church history in the context of world history. An engaging and challenging look at church history. I was inspired and challenged by those who lived their life following Jesus's teaching, wonderful lives of generosity and service. Reading about the evils of church history was sobering and challenging too. I really enjoyed the history element, understanding church history in the context of world history.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Update: As I’ve thought about this book since reading it, I’ve appreciated it more and more. Although I didn’t find its approach all that compelling, the balance it brought of asking hard questions while still seeing strengths along with weaknesses is so needed. ……………… “For every Cyril of Alexandria (the bishop when Hypatia was murdered) there was a Basil of Caesarea (who established the first hospital). For every Christian warlord hacking his way through pagan Europe there was a humble preacher Update: As I’ve thought about this book since reading it, I’ve appreciated it more and more. Although I didn’t find its approach all that compelling, the balance it brought of asking hard questions while still seeing strengths along with weaknesses is so needed. ……………… “For every Cyril of Alexandria (the bishop when Hypatia was murdered) there was a Basil of Caesarea (who established the first hospital). For every Christian warlord hacking his way through pagan Europe there was a humble preacher standing in his way preferring to die than to kill” (p. 136). This book is excellent as a popular-level introduction to a broad sweep of church history. It does an especially good job of focusing in on and introducing a fascinating cast of individual people. I have a mixed feelings about the “bullies and saints” approach—the repeated idea that the history of Christianity has lots of good and bad representatives of the faith. That idea is evidently true. But it isn’t that interesting. And it felt just slightly ingenuous since Dickson does have an apologetic agenda of pointing to Christianity’s “beautiful tune” despite the many Christians who have misrepresented Christ’s teaching by their lives. I think I would have liked the book more if he had just made this argument directly.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Toni

    This book is a fantastic objective look at the impact, both positive and negative, of Christianity on the world. The author tackles subjects that give Christianity a bad name like the inquisition, the crusades, child abuse in the Catholic Church, sectarian violence etc. Yet, he demonstrates that these negative impacts often occur simultaneously with vast advancements in human rights, child rights, hospitals, education, etc. Brought about through obedience to Christ's teachings. I am very glad I r This book is a fantastic objective look at the impact, both positive and negative, of Christianity on the world. The author tackles subjects that give Christianity a bad name like the inquisition, the crusades, child abuse in the Catholic Church, sectarian violence etc. Yet, he demonstrates that these negative impacts often occur simultaneously with vast advancements in human rights, child rights, hospitals, education, etc. Brought about through obedience to Christ's teachings. I am very glad I read this book. Highly recommend for any Christian to have a proper understanding and attitude towards things that have been done "for Christ" but not according to his will.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Holly Jamieson

    I’m ashamed to say that prior to this read, I knew very little about Christian history, or actually any history in general. But now I do - and it’s certainly enlightening. Dickson’s brilliant publication delves into the years following the death of Jesus, particularly looking at the extreme impacts of Christianity, both positive and negative. Dickson acknowledged his obvious Christian bias but is careful to bring only the facts of the matter, sourcing both Christian and secular opinion. His style I’m ashamed to say that prior to this read, I knew very little about Christian history, or actually any history in general. But now I do - and it’s certainly enlightening. Dickson’s brilliant publication delves into the years following the death of Jesus, particularly looking at the extreme impacts of Christianity, both positive and negative. Dickson acknowledged his obvious Christian bias but is careful to bring only the facts of the matter, sourcing both Christian and secular opinion. His style is conversational and a comfortable read. What I appreciate most is that Dickson doesn’t downplay the atrocities of events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, horrible religiously motivated conflict. But he is factual in correcting misunderstandings, whilst still emphasising genuine compassion.“In some ways, Christian cruelty is morally worse than atheist cruelty, precisely because it betrays Christian convictions” So does religion poison everything? As proposed by Einstein, “the antidote to hateful, nationalistic, violent Christianity, is Christianity in practise”

  23. 4 out of 5

    Al Bità

    As a once very devout Roman Catholic and a now unapologetic atheist, I am quite aware of the arguments used by various authors in either defending or attacking one another in relation both to the Christian ideals (as opposed to worldly realities) and to the historical events in which Christianity in general finds itself enmeshed, whether it likes it or not. Consequently I do like to keep abreast on these matters, to see if anything new has been revealed, and/or whether any progress has been made As a once very devout Roman Catholic and a now unapologetic atheist, I am quite aware of the arguments used by various authors in either defending or attacking one another in relation both to the Christian ideals (as opposed to worldly realities) and to the historical events in which Christianity in general finds itself enmeshed, whether it likes it or not. Consequently I do like to keep abreast on these matters, to see if anything new has been revealed, and/or whether any progress has been made, one way or the other. The subtitle of this book by Dickson sounded promising: “An honest look at the good and evil of Christian history”. This intrigued me enough to purchase the book, especially since each of the words “honest”, “good”, “evil” and “Christian history” are problematic, precisely because they each have a number of meanings, all relativistic, and each of which can be worn as a cloak or veneer for each other. The question is whether Dickson’s work would shed new light on this matter or not. Published in 2021 Dickson’s approach to this subject is very much a modern take, and at least the most basic modern acceptances that indeed Christianity has done a number of things it should be ashamed of; and admitting this is at least a first step in being honest. The author cossets all of these within what he calls the beautiful melody of Jesus that all mankind is created in the image of God (this from the Hebraic writings (Cf. also Genesis 5:1–2 “… In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam …” — thus God is both male and female, and the word ‘Adam’ does not mean ‘male’ but means ‘mankind’)), and therefore we should treat each other equally with respect and love, and that we should all love not only one another, but also one’s neighbours, and even more than that, that we should love even our enemies, blessing those who curse us, doing good to those who hate us, and praying for those who persecute us (Matthew 6:14; Luke 6:27–31) — a position unique to Christianity (the only other reference to something like this I could find was in the writings of the Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu (c.470–c.391 BCE) and his call for Universal Love instead of war). Dickson’s basic claim is that Jesus’ beautiful melody of charity, humility and human dignity is central and crucial to Christianity, regardless of what individuals might say or do, and that Christians should cling to those ideals if they truly wish to be called Christian. What’s not to like about that? And having a strong belief in this approach will no doubt bring comfort to and consolation for many Christians. And yet, right throughout the book the author is beset by a litany of “sins” which need to be confronted and/or addressed; and his approach to this is pretty much of a mixed bag. He often spends time mitigating specific events by referencing, for example, mollifying political and social conditions at the time, and where that does not quite exonerate, he suggests that the perpetrators of those actions were not being truly “Christian”. In a sense the history of Christianity over the last two millennia is identical with the history of Europe; and that is a rather big bugbear. Political, social and religious history are thoroughly intertwined; and that goes for the “achievements” as well as the “disasters”. One cannot really differentiate between the secular and the religious. In evaluating the “Christian” aspect, Dickson is prone to softening its “responsibilities” by suggesting that the Christian part in “transgressions” was merely some form of “bullying” on its part. This in itself creates another problem: it could be argued that Christianity’s attitude towards what it called “pagan” ideas, and/or alternative theories in interpretations, called “heresies”, was merely asserting itself and clarifying it own ideas about itself; but this is only partially true. Once Constantine chose Christianity as the only religion for the Roman Empire, and all pagan and heretical ideas were condemned as abominations, then the physical and practical application of these ideas — their “consequences” — seemed to allow individual Christians to indulge their revenges, assassinations, tortures, punishments, etc. on anyone they individually or the many manifestations of “orthodox” interpretations, felt deserved it, even if in many instances the Church itself washed itself clean of any actual association with the most egregious and revolting events. I think even Dickson would call this abrogation of responsibilities as typically hypocritical. There is also a sense in Dickson’s discourse that there is only one form of Christianity, when in fact there are multiple versions. Europe may very well be Christian, but there is no consensus as to what exactly that Christianity means. Further, from the 15th-c CE, when European expansion spread out over the world, so did its many forms of Christianity. This, of course, was intended to bring the blessings and material achievements of superior civilised European society, and the spiritual salvation Christianity promised its adherents, and it did. But it also brought with it slavery, destruction, racism, murder, death and diseases in various forms, and European/Christian judicial punishments (both secular and religious) everywhere, including cultural destruction, and patronising condescension towards those it considered inferior. “Bullying” is the least offensive term one could apply here. There are far too many instances of violent aggressive behaviour, not only towards its enemies, but also in its abrasive and ruthless antagonism towards its own fellow Christians, to deal with adequately here, but where honesty has been claimed, then these dark recesses should not be kept hidden, but revealed. Thus it is unfortunate when the author still represents feeling hurt and sadness when alternative interpretations of historical events shines some light on otherwise shameful and often horrific events. From this perspective Dickson’s efforts are but small steps, baby steps, on the road to honesty. Despite this, I do believe that Dickson’s reminder of the “beautiful melody” is worth hearing: Love is the answer. Love yourself (you are not born sinful; your body is not despicable or abhorrent; sex and sexuality are normal and human); love your neighbour (and that includes all other people, races, thoughts, opinions; and their ideas are not primitive or “pagan”, nor necessarily better or worse than your own; listen to then and teach them your children, both social and educational, and share that learning); and, of course, love your enemies (and forgive them their “faults” always; get rid of prisons and punishments of any kind; welcome refugees fleeing danger; embrace the multiculturalism which, as histories (both factual and “justifiable”) show us, has always been a feature of the interaction and advancement of humanity. None of this is an easy task, and all humanity must acknowledge that often we will make mistakes. True honesty should and does celebrate all the wonderful advantages and achievements of humanity anywhere and everywhere, but we must also acknowledge and confront the often grievous and even horrific actions and beliefs we have committed in our ignorance and misunderstandings, and the consequences that have accompanied them through the ages. We must never try to hide any of these aspects from ourselves.

  24. 4 out of 5

    David Holford

    We live in an age when it is very cool to point out the evil in others, and that includes Christians. In fact, Christian bashing is almost an art form in Western World that I live in. I have found less antagonism toward Christians amongst my Muslim and Hindu acquaintances than amongst some of my secular atheist friends. In this book, John Dickson takes a look at what has created this negativity in the Western World - the evils perpetrated by Christians down through the ages. It is an attempt at We live in an age when it is very cool to point out the evil in others, and that includes Christians. In fact, Christian bashing is almost an art form in Western World that I live in. I have found less antagonism toward Christians amongst my Muslim and Hindu acquaintances than amongst some of my secular atheist friends. In this book, John Dickson takes a look at what has created this negativity in the Western World - the evils perpetrated by Christians down through the ages. It is an attempt at honesty in a world where people seem to decide what they believe about Christianity - or any other worldview - first, and then collect evidence to support their view. Christians tend to write about the good fruit of Christianity and conveniently leave out the failures, the shame of Christian actions down through the ages. Humanists do the same to support their own worldview. Witness the recent acclaimed release of a book entitled "Humankind, A Hopeful History" by Rutger Bregman. Dickson's book bucks this trend; he is a Christian writer who sets out to honestly map the evils of Christian history. He admits his own sadness and shame at many events down through the ages, from The Crusades and The Inquisition, to support of slavery amongst some Christians in the past and child sexual abuse within the Church. To adopt such an approach is, of course, not inconsistent with the Christian worldview, a worldview which has as one of its foundational premises that humanity is sinful. Dickson speaks of the Christian message as a beautiful melody which has been often played poorly by its proponents. He differentiates between religion, as a human construct, and the revolutionary message of Jesus, and points out the contrast between what Jesus taught, and what has been done in his name. He points out a recurrent theme in Christian history in which believers have seen the evils done in Jesus' name and called Christians back to the pure message of Jesus. "There has always been a self reforming spirit within Christianity," he writes. "It goes back to Jesus's own warnings against religious hypocrisy, and his call for self assessment (take the log out of your own eye)." (p.237) It is painful to read a book which reminds of the wrongs that we Christians (I am one of them!) have committed over the last few millennia. It is painful to be confronted with our own failures. Yet such honesty is important, and I would encourage Christians to read this book. Ultimately it is a hopeful book, not hopeless. It acknowledges a problem that we would rather ignore, but it does not go the next step to reject Christianity because of the problem. In fact, Dickson explains that this problem of human failure really points to the validity of the Christian worldview, rather than being an indictment. "I am saying that the real problem is neither religion nor irreligion; the problem is the human heart in possession of a misdirected passion - a passion for power, land, rights, honour, wealth or (yes) religion." (p.280) But he does acknowledge that "Christian cruelty is morally worse than atheist cruelty [of which there is no shortage of examples] precisely because it betrays Christian convictions." Though it is a painful subject, this is an easy and compelling book to read. It covers the broad sweep of Christian history in an easily digestible form, and is quite enlightening for those of us whose knowledge of history is fairly sketchy. I would therefore recommend it as an important book to read for any Christian who wants to engage meaningfully and honestly with the constant criticisms that are directed at the Christian movement these days. And for those who have already made up their minds that all Christians are hypocrites and Christianity should therefore be relegated to the scrap heap, this book might help to provide a more balanced view.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Caleb Evans

    The author manages to make 2,000 years of church history fit into 250 pages without becoming too dense or overwhelming, which warrants some praise. He highlights the remarkable fact that across every era of church history (including our own), we find both bullies and saints--those who flex their religious muscles to commit shameful acts, and those who admirably perform the "beautiful tune" that Jesus taught to His followers. Sometimes, this paradox can even be seen in the same person (e.g. Marti The author manages to make 2,000 years of church history fit into 250 pages without becoming too dense or overwhelming, which warrants some praise. He highlights the remarkable fact that across every era of church history (including our own), we find both bullies and saints--those who flex their religious muscles to commit shameful acts, and those who admirably perform the "beautiful tune" that Jesus taught to His followers. Sometimes, this paradox can even be seen in the same person (e.g. Martin Luther's reforming work in the church mixed with his deplorable anti-Jewish writings). In the end, the author makes what I consider to be a valid claim based on the evidence he has provided: while the church has participated in much of what is lamentable in human history, it has not been a unique contributor to evil--in fact, the exact opposite is true. As a non-historian, I don't know if there are any significant church historical events missing from the book, but it definitely felt like "an honest look" as the title suggests. The author does not pull any punches when it comes to the atrocities committed by the church. I greatly appreciated this because when I learned about church history from Abeka, there was little to nothing negative mentioned! Either we skipped over events and people that would make Christianity look bad or we downplayed/excused them. The author specifically rejects this practice of cherry picking history to make ourselves look better as "ignoring the log in our own eye," and I wholeheartedly agree. Also, this book also included a number of historical church "heroes" that I had never heard of and enjoyed learning about for the first time.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tim Fritson

    This was fantastic. If it were possible to give a book more than 5⭐️s, I would. Now, the necessary caveats. • This sits right at a cross-section of things I love: church, theology, history, and sociology. • Not everyone is interested in those things and this might find it mind-numbingly boring. • You do not need to be Christian to find it interesting. In fact, non-Christians may find it easier to read than Christians. • Christians who read it will have to be willing to do so in an open and non-defen This was fantastic. If it were possible to give a book more than 5⭐️s, I would. Now, the necessary caveats. • This sits right at a cross-section of things I love: church, theology, history, and sociology. • Not everyone is interested in those things and this might find it mind-numbingly boring. • You do not need to be Christian to find it interesting. In fact, non-Christians may find it easier to read than Christians. • Christians who read it will have to be willing to do so in an open and non-defensive posture. Those things being said, an honest look at the ills of Christianity throughout history was fascinating, particularly in the middle of our current American cultural moment surrounding the Church. Dickson’s final words ring true: “ Violence had been a universal part of the human story. The demand to love one’s enemies has not. Division has been a norm. Inherent human dignity has not. Armies, greed, and the politics of power have been constants in history. Hospitals, schools, and charity for all have not. Bullies are common. Saints are not.”

  27. 4 out of 5

    Theunis Snyman

    The author tries to defend Christianity against many accusations from unbelievers. He gives a very good overview of the history of the church. The best time for the church was the first three centuries when the church was persecuted. But things changed when the church became the state religion. The author seems to think that the way the church helped the needy and the poor excuses the church from the bad things done. The author ignores some facts: First. Christians are allways both sinners and sa The author tries to defend Christianity against many accusations from unbelievers. He gives a very good overview of the history of the church. The best time for the church was the first three centuries when the church was persecuted. But things changed when the church became the state religion. The author seems to think that the way the church helped the needy and the poor excuses the church from the bad things done. The author ignores some facts: First. Christians are allways both sinners and saints. Second. Some of the people who did good things were really bad in their theology. Third. Many of the so-called Christians who did bad things were not really Christians at all, but unbelievers who got a foothold in the church and then did some very bad things. Four. Many false teachings made their way into the church. It seems to me that the best thing for the church to do is not to defend itself, but to become more and more holy and to become more like Christ. This is the only way to silence the critics.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lukas Widann

    It’s a great and fun book! Clear reading recommendation. He is honest about his views und open to reconsider his perspective about history when ist needed. It’s a well researched overview about good and na parts in churchhistory. Ist worth readable for people with or without knowledge in history.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Brad Champine

    A difficult read as a Christian. But an important one. Just as important as understanding the context behind parts of Christian history that are exaggerated or outright lied about is acknowledging and wrestling with the parts that are even worse when viewed in the light that they were committed in Christs name. This book was eye opening on both counts

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mark Wessner

    A well researched, thoughtful, and candid look at the "good" and "bad" of Christians and the Church throughout history. I learned much. A well researched, thoughtful, and candid look at the "good" and "bad" of Christians and the Church throughout history. I learned much.

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