John Dickson:  Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History,  h/b, Grand Rapids, Zondervan Reflective, 2021 

John Dickson

John Dickson is an outstanding Australian historian with over 20 books to his credit. He is a visiting academic at Oxford University teaching Classics; he teaches a course on the historical Jesus at the University of Sydney and is Distinguished Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Public Christianity at Ridley College.

Bullies and Saintsis a sobering read for committed Christians. Whilst a number of Dickson’s books have been of an apologetic nature aimed at persuading folk on the edge to check out the vast array of evidence for the Christian faith, this book is aimed at believing Christians who might get quite a shock when they read it. I know I did. 

Dickson throws a very powerful spotlight on the less attractive side of Christian history as well as giving credit to Christianity’s world changing impact on our world and on our lives. The reader is truly amazed by the extraordinary transformation of the pagan Roman Empire into a Christian nation in just three hundred or so years. Equally powerful and  moving are Dickson’s accounts of individual Christian leaders including Gregory of Nazianzus, Alcuin of York, Benedict of Nursia, Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi and the faithful witness of the Eastern Byzantine Church little known to many Western Christians.  They truly are “the saints” and it is good to learn of their faith, courage and determination to change the world for Christ. 

Equally overwhelming and indeed at times dispiriting are the “bullies”. Here, far too frequently, the Christian reader has to recoil in shame at the antics and horrific behaviour of Christian leaders at various times, whose intentions may well have been honourable but whose practices when you get down to detail were shameful and very unChristian!  The list is long and included the bullying of non-Christians in the Roman Empire once Christianity became the official religion of Rome; the hapless mess of the Crusading era including the appalling sacking of Constantinople and the massacre of helpless victims in the Jerusalem temple; the Christian warfare unleashed by Augustine’s doctrine of a just war including in later centuries the coercion and violence of Charlemagne; The Inquisition era (although the number of deaths involved is relatively small compared with earlier and later tragedies); Martin Luther’s vicious and destructive writing against the Jews; The wars of religion in the 1600’s involving appalling loss of life in Germany and Czechoslovakia; The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland; and in some ways the most horrific of all,  the damage done by Christian leaders in child abuse in the modern church, 

These chapters give one pause and are indeed dispiriting to read. Yes it can be argued that the thirty years war following the Reformation was largely political (France vs the might of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire; The Irish “troubles” brought about by political machinations rather than religious), yet to outsiders it all just looks like religion is the problem. One saving grace is the recognition in our own day by non-Christian historians like Terry Eagleton, Raymond Gaita and Tom Holland that our current Western world view of the intrinsic value of humanity and ethics would not have been possible without the Christian revolution.

Church History is not the most commonly read diet of the average Christian. Bullies and Saints will certainly change the way a Christian views the world since Christ’s teaching of repentance, love and faithfulness. It will give food for thought but also encouragement to everyone who gets 

behind a microphone to commend the Christian Gospel. 5 stars!

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned, p/b, London, Vintage Books, 2010 (1921)  

F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Damned and the Beautiful

This is certainly one of the saddest and most depressing books I have read in a long time. Scott Fitzgerald is a master story teller especially of the high life of the roaring twenties, in which he himself played a major part. 

In this novel Anthony Patch,  heir to a vast fortune, finishes University and finds himself unable to contemplate any particular form of work. “ it astonishes me…I don’t understand why people think that every young man ought to go down-town and work ten hours a day for the best twenty years of his life at dull, unimaginative work, certainly not altruistic work.”  [p.64]. As can be seen from this quotation, Anthony’s life of travel. parties, friendships, outings and socialising is pleasant enough and his generosity makes him many friends.

His life is magically enhanced by his attraction to the gorgeous Gloria Gilbert,  a young lady who was equally determined to use her beauty, dancing skills and dynamic personality to live her life to the full and die forever young.  Everything goes fine for a time but their hectic lifestyle is expensive and although Anthony lives in expectation of a wonderful fortune, his grandfather is a long living survivor and his allowance, reasonable enough, was no match for their outgoings. In addition Anthony gradually develops a serious alcohol addiction.

LIfe gets more complicated when Anthony is drafted into the US army towards the end of the first world war. Although the war ended before he had to fight the American economy was going down the tube at the same time and Anthony and Gloria had to cut their cloth. The result is a continuing and depressing downward spiral. There are some humorous events but the direction is all downhill. There is a very funny unexpected ending which caps off a story which I suspect was true of a number of wealthy young men during the high life of the twenties.  Fitzgerald was part of this world and the truth to life is searing in places. This story, though sad, is hard to put down. Fitzgerald, though disregarded in his own time, is now regarded as one of the finest American novelists of all time. If you read this book you will, I think, agree…it is a story not easily forgotten. 

5 stars

Peter Adam: Written For Us: Receiving God’s Words in the Bible, p/b, Nottingham, IVP, 2008  

Revd Dr Peter Adam

The Revd Dr Peter Adam, former Principal of Ridley College Melbourne, Vicar emeritus of St Jude’s Carlton,  and world renowned for his speaking and writing gifts has written a significant book about what the Bible teaches about itself.   Although this book was first published in 2008 it is still in print and available at Koorong and online.   In summary this book is about receiving God’s words, written for his people, by his Spirit, about his Son. Peter takes each of these phrases in turn and develops his understanding of their meaning in a way which is easy to understand, helpful and indeed provocative. Although the book tends to be aimed at Christian leaders I think the average church attender would be very encouraged by reading it. 

Some of the key ideas Peter develops are outlined below:

  • The Church has greater value than the Bible, for the Bible is the means to achieve an end, and the end or purpose is the creation of God’s church. The Church is composed of God’s people, who are made in God’s image…and are being transformed into the image of the Lord Jesus. (page 46)
  • Canonising does not confer authority on the text. It acknowledges authority already present.  (p47 quoting Kenneth Craig: The Lively Credentials of God.)
  • It is important to recognise the variety of styles of authority in Scripture. (eg direct command, entreaty, parable, encouragement, stories of the past, appeals not to demean ourselves, warnings, promises)….It is important to take notice of this variety, otherwise we can tend to read  one style of authority (‘Do this because God told you to do it’) into every part of the Bible, and so misrepresent God. We might also tend to adopt this one style of authority ourselves, which would mar God’s image in us.  (p.48)
  • We can trust the authority of the Bible because of the example and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. For Christ authenticated the Bible as he taught about the Old Testament, referred to his own teaching and promised the ministry of the Holy Spirit of truth and ministry of his own apostles and their associates. (p.52)
  • God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit…. and our personal response to God and our response to Scripture is a response to the Holy Spirit. (p54)
  • Exegesis of the Bible is an act of sustained humility (Eugene Peterson, p. 57)
  • The Bible is the product of the divine Spirit, but it is not itself divine. It effectively conveys divine truth, but it is not God.  (p.59)
  • We were created to believe God, and if we do not believe God, we will believe other words and serve other gods. (p.70)
  • Unless one is to betray the future, one must ensure that the past abides (p.107)
  • Greater responsibility brings greater judgment. (p.127)
  • Be alert and not over confident; we can fall as easily when we think we are safe (p134)
  • Pastoral intelligence requires Biblical understanding, theological awareness, a loving understanding of people, and a good perception of how different people hear, change, and are motivated. (p.148)
  • So much damage is done when we focus in our teaching on secondary issues, and neglect to teach the content of the faith. (p.148)
  • The idea that we can be non-aligned in matters of religion is ridiculous. There is no neutral ground. (p222)

These quotations are just a taste of the riches of this thoughtful book. I warmly commend it.

 5 stars


I attended Melbourne University between the years 1967-169 studying for an Arts Degree and living for two years at Ridley College and one year in a Canning St Carlton flat with two friends. I say “studying” because although I faithfully attended lectures, pracs and tutorials my actual “studying” was somewhat casual and intermittent and in at least one subject I regularly received the message at the end of the year “passed but advised not to continue”. My real passions were working with the Melbourne University Evangelical Union as it was then called (now the Christian Union), and also playing in a folk music group called The Saints and Sinners. 

It was when playing with this group that I was introduced to Ann Richter who before too long became my girl friend and at the end of my fourth year (Dip.Ed.), my wife. In our courting days Ann was working full time at Radio Station 3KZ as a copy writer and later publicity manager and so my time at University in those halcyon days was even less centred on the University itself. My first major was English and while I don’t recall much of what I read two writers stood out. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin remains my favourite novel of all time but a much less well known poet, American Theodore Roethke wrote many lines which chimed in with my then infatuation with Ann and have remained with me through the fifty one years of our marriage and I hope many more to come. Lines such as from the poem The Waking:

All lovers live by longing, and endure:

Summon a vision and declare it pure.

Herewith a poem by Roethke that means a lot to me still.

1 Words for the Wind 

Love, love, a lily’s my care,

She’s sweeter than a tree

Loving, I use the air

Most lovingly: I breathe;

Mad in the wind I wear

Myself as I should be

My brother the vine is glad.

Are flower and seed the same?

What do the great dead say?

Sweet Phoebe, she’s my theme:

She sways whenever I sway.

‘O love me while I am,

You green thing in my way!’

I cried, and birds came down

And made my song their own.

Motion can keep me still:

She kissed me out of thought

As a lovely substance will:

She wandered; I did not:

I stayed, and light fell

Across her pulsing throat;

I stared, and a garden stone

Slowly became the moon.

The shallow stream runs slack;

The wind creaks slowly by;

Out of a nestling’s beak

Comes a tremulous cry

I cannot answer back;

A shape from deep in the eye,—

That woman I saw in a stone, —

Keeps pace when I walk alone.

11 The sun declares the earth;

The stones leap in the stream;

On a wide plain, beyond

The far stretch of a dream,

A field breaks like the sea;

The wind’s white with her name,

And I walk with the wind.

The dove’s my will today.

She sways, half in the sun:

Rose, easy on a stem,

One with the sighting vine,

One to be merry with,

And pleased to meet the moon.

She likes wherever I am.

Passion’s enough to give

Shape to a random joy:

I cry delight: I know

The root, the core of cry:

Swan-heart, arbutus calm,

She moves when time is shy:

Love has a thing to do.

The loam gleams like a wet coal;

The green, the springing green

Makes an intenser day

Under the rising moon;

I smile, no mineral man;

I bear, but not alone,

The burden of this joy.

111 Under a southern wind,

The birds and fishes move

North, in a single stream:

The sharp stars swing around:

I get a step beyond

The wind, and there I am;

I’m odd and full of love.

Wisdom, where is it found?

Those who embrace, believe,

Whatever was, still is,

Says a song tied to a tree.

Below, on the ferny ground,

In rivery air, at ease,

I walk with my true love.

What time’s my heart? I care.

I cherish what I have

Had of the temporal:

I am no longer young

But the winds and waters are;

What falls away will fall:

All things bring me to love.

1V The breath of a long root,

The shy perimeter

Of the unfolding rose,

The green, the altered leaf,

The oyster’s sweeping foot,

And the incipient star,—

Are part of what she is.

She wakes the ends of life.

Being myself, I sing

The soul’s immediate joy.

Light, light, where’s my repose?

A wind writhes round a tree.

A thing is done: a thing

Body and Spirit know

When I do what she does:

Creaturely creature, she!—

I kiss her moving mouth,

Her swart hilarious skin;

She breaks my breath in half;

She frolics like a beast;

And I dance round and round,

A fond and foolish man,

And see and suffer myself

In another being, at last.

  Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963)

Educated at the University of Michigan and Harvard; started of with law but found his strength and interest in poetry. Won a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Much of his plant imagery comes from his father’s substantial greenhouses where he grew up. Struggled with and overcame a  mental disorder.  Married Beatrice O’Connell later in life. She organised the publication of his last set of poems.

Theodore Roethke

Peter Ackroyd: The Fall of Troy, p/b, London, Vintage Books, 2007  

Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is arguably the most prolific writer currently writing in English. HIs remarkable writing career includes many novels, six major biographies, and four major works of non-fiction based on the city of London. The Fall of Troy is a fictional novel loosely based on the German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890). 

Schleimann was a complex and driven man who made a fortune in America with various schemes many of which were of a dubious nature. In later life he obtained American citizenship also in a dubious manner and divorced his wife, marrying the younger Sophia. At the same time  Schleimann developed a passion for archaeology and he focussed  on the site of Hissarlik in modern Turkey on land owned by the family of another amateur archaelogist Frank Calvert who suggested he try there. 

Although Schliemann’s methods were disastrous by modern standards (using large scale engineering equipment and heavy machinery, ruining many levels and artifacts), Schliemann did in fact uncover many layers of an ancient city in Hissarlik , Turkey, which most scholars today do regard as containing the ancient city of Troy. Schleimann also uncovered an extremely valuable cache of ancient and beautiful jewellery but his hopes of finding the Troy of Homer were dashed by later analysis of the Hissarlik site.  New analysis of its  written materials and a reassessment of  other finds used by Schliemann along with further research on the site led  eventually to a date closer to c. 3000-2000 BC, a much earlier and more primitive society than the time of Homer’s epic in C8th-C7th BC

Peter Ackroyd’s novel uses many of the above elements of Schleimann’s life to tell his fictional story of Heinrich Obermann, an amateur archaelogist, linguist and historian, who like Schliemann was an obsessive. Ackroyd’s Heinrich Obermann could converse in at least eight languages, as could Schleimann and Herr Obermann also was married to a Sophia. From these likenesses onwards the story takes the reader on a far more sinister and unsettling journey. Mysterious  events occur which quickly immerse the reader in a drama impossible to put down.  Ackroyd’s ability to build suspense and the fear of something threatening is outstanding. I have to say the novel builds to a point where it is quite impossible to put down!  Ackroyd is a master story teller and this is one of his best.  5 stars 

Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire, Ed, E. Martin Browne, p/b Ringwood, Penguin,  1962 (1947)  

Tennessee Williams

C20th playwright Tennessee Williams was one of America’s most successful writers for the stage with many of his plays becoming equally successful movies. Most of his plays revolve file:///.file/id=6571367.8621200842 around the themes of anger, envy and violence,  attributes which, on his own admission he had been guilty of himself in life.  He rejects the idea that file:///.file/id=6571367.8621200842 his works are about hate and argues that writing about human selfishness and uncontrolled violence, usually to do with alcohol, can highlight the tragedy of meaningless and hurtful human relationships. His own father, a travelling salesman, was an alcolholic and violent towards his son.

This play is based around two sisters. Stella who is living with Stanley Kowalski and about to have a child, and her sister the beautiful Blanche Du Bois, a failed school teacher who has lived on the wild side but whose good looks are fading and who has lost the family home and needs shelter.  Stella and Stanley live in a poor and lazy area of New Orleans in a tiny two bedroom one bathroom apartment of a larger boarding house. Stella’s husband Stanley is large, noisy, dominant and alcohol addicted and very angry that Blanche has lost the family’s inheritance.  

Blanche forms a relationship with Stanley’s friend Mitch but lies about her past to do so. Stanley does some digging and uncovers Blanche’s doubtful history. The stage is set for a violent conflagration after Stella goes to hospital to have her baby and Stanley and Blanche are left alone in the house. 

Williams has produced a powerful and disturbing play wired with electricity with the future of the relationships left to the imagination.  5 stars. 

Brian S. Rosner: Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, [New Studies in Biblical Theology Series], p/b, Downers Grove, Inter Varsity Press, 2013  

Brian Rosner

Brian Rosner is the current Principal of Ridley College Melbourne and has contributed widely to the theological scene in Australia, Britain and the United States. Paul and the Law asks the key question What is the relationship of the Biblical Law of Moses to the Christian understanding of faith in Christ?  He bases his response on the work of Paul as the major contributor to the apostolic witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not to diminish the writer of Hebrews of the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude but simply to limit the size of an already substantial work.

In a nutshell, Rosner argues that Christians are not subject to the Jewish law in the sense of being obedient to every command in the Pentateuch, because the Messiah, Jesus has come to fulfil the law and the prophets. While this is true the law and the commandments of God remain central to Paul’s theology. In Rosner’s analysis, some of the laws are repudiated, for example circumcision; some of the laws are replaced because we walk no longer in the law of the Mosaic letter but in the law of faith and the law of the Spirit; and some of the laws are reappropriated as prophecy and wisdom for example the moral teaching of the Mosaic law.

These three themes are analysed with an extended and clear analysis of the key texts. In addition Rosner interacts with the conclusions of other scholars both ancient and modern. In addition Rosner makes use of a vast array  of Biblical and extra Biblical material including material from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus and many other relevant sources.