Book Review: ‘Simply Christianity’ by John Dickson
After reading Reza Aslan’s controversial Zealot, which aims to separate the “Biblical Jesus” from the “historical Jesus”, I thought I would balance things out a little bit by reading Aussie John Dickson’s Simply Christianity, which is basically an annotated version of the Gospel of Luke.
The subtitle of Simply Christianity is Beyond Religion, which explains the rationale behind the book. In essence, Dickson says that a lot of people purposely avoid looking into Christianity because there are so many versions on offer, but to do so is missing the point of Christianity. The aim of the book, therefore, is to go beyond the dogma of religion, to peel back all the stuff that make people wary of religion, so that you can get to the core of what Christianity is all about.
To do so, Dickson chooses to present the Gospel of Luke in its entirety — minus the bits that are in contention among scholars — because it’s famous for Jesus’s relationship with “non-religious” people and is therefore easier to relate for his readers. Even though the author of Luke had not personally met Jesus he is believed to have interviewed people who had, but more importantly, he appears to be placing an emphasis on the “reliability” of his work, which was written for an individual by the name of Theophilus.
Each section of Luke’s Gospel is accompanied by Dickson’s personal notes and explanations to help clarify and emphasize the salient points of that particular section. It’s a lot easier that just reading Luke’s Gospel in isolation, that’s for sure. And at the end of the book there is about another 40 pages of “additional information” about the so-called “myths” on the reliability of the Gospels, the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’s coming, and counterarguments against claims that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead.
These notes at the back are not the core of the book, so the arguments are obviously quite brief and simplified. In the “myths” section, for example, Dickson tackles things like the myth of language translation, the myth of copying errors, lies and bias. He writes each of these off, one by one, with seemingly convincing arguments, but fails to consider the broader picture, such as the possibility that while certain passages in the Gospels were not originally intended to be outright lies, they may have been subsequently moulded and manipulated to suit a particular early Christian agenda.
There were also some factual discrepancies that leaped out at me. For instance in Zealot, Aslan says none of the Gospel writers knew Jesus in person, though Dickson says in Simply Christianity that the Gospels of Matthew and John appear to have been written by eyewitnesses who travelled and worked with Jesus for three years. How is it possible that both scholars are so confident in their version of events?
That said, the most compelling arguments for Christianity remain, being: Jesus most probably did have the power to heal the sick; and people who swore that Jesus rose from the dead refused to recant their testimonies despite torture and death. As Dickson said, it’s one thing to die for a belief, it’s another to die for something you know to be a lie. Of course, being able to heal and rise from the dead only prove Jesus is an amazing dude and not necessarily that he is exactly who the Bible says he is. By the way, why is the resurrection considered such a big deal when Jesus had already been bringing other dead people back to life? Isn’t raising other people from the dead just as impressive, if not more so, as raising yourself back from the dead?
Prior to this book, Dickson had written three previous books about Christianity that were bestsellers in Australia and the UK, so I thought there must be something about his writing that readers can relate to. He’s a good writer who employs solid analytic skills in trying to help readers make sense of the Bible, and importantly, he has a sense of humour about religion and often makes interesting analogies using modern culture and pop culture. It makes for an easy yet informative read, though at times his tone borders on patronizing, giving rise to a sneaking suspicion that he thinks most of his readers are not very bright or can’t think for themselves.
As with books of this kind, the arguments in Simply Christianity are obviously skewed in one direction, though the same can of course be said for books at the other end of the spectrum. If I hadn’t read some of the so-called “anti-Christian” books such as Zealot, I would think Dickson paints a pretty convincing case. But since I have, it becomes much easier to doubt some of the things he says. Further, I felt he had a tendency to gloss over, oversimplify or generalize certain aspects of the debate. For instance, in trying to bolster the believability of the Gospels, Dickson says that the Gospels of Mark and Luke were based on eyewitness information of people close to Jesus and are therefore analogous to us (the reader) interviewing him to write an essay about his wife. Actually, it’s not quite the same. For starters, we don’t know exactly who wrote the Gospels and even the earliest available versions are copies that may have already been manipulated from the originals. And secondly, his wife doesn’t claim to be the direct offspring of God.
Interestingly, Dickson confidently states near the start of the book that the best way to weigh the issues relating to the trustworthiness of the Gospels is just to read them. Well, I did and I have to admit it raised at least as many doubts as it quashed. Frankly, many parts of Luke’s Gospel, supposedly one of the more level headed ones, reads like a fairytale, with angels appearing in the sky and talking to people and Satan himself literally speaking to Jesus (whom by the way fasted in the desert for 40 days). And as for stories like Satan testing Jesus with the three temptations or claims that Judas betrayed Jesus because he was possessed by Satan — are these supposed to be eyewitness accounts? How could anyone believe this is an eyewitness account, let alone a reliable one?
Of course, none of this in any way negates the existence of God or the core belief of Christianity in that Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead, but it does suggest to me that anyone who claims the Bible is infallible and that it is the literal word of God probably hasn’t read it carefully enough. Indeed, most reasonable Christians will take these stories as parables where the literal truth is unimportant compared to the message it is trying to convey.
To conclude: Simply Christianity is a fairly fascinating and occasionally eye-opening read, though I have my doubts about its the ability to convert sceptics into believers. That said, the book could provide the catalyst for people who are sceptical about Christianity to research more about it. Whether they find themselves more convinced or less convinced as a result of that research is a whole other can of worms.
PS: At least I can say now that I’ve read a whole book of the Bible, and I actually understand it.