Attacks on “Sunday school Jesus” miss the mark: historian
By Paul Gray
Easter weekend will mark a double launch of new products in the media marketplace, with television’s The Christ Files and the Sydney-based Centre for Public Christianity making their debuts.
A key figure behind both is author and historian John Dickson. An academic in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Dr Dickson is a Christian who wants to promote better knowledge of “historical Christianity.”
While Dr Dickson does not see himself as an expert in theology, he believes that better knowledge of the historical record about Jesus, the Church and scripture does not contradict faith in Christ.
His approach will be demonstrated on Good Friday in a sixty-minute documentary on the Seven network around Australia, The Christ Files.
The program aims to show how we can know hard facts about the historical Jesus.
Dr Dickson says his program takes a different approach from what he calls the “nouveau atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
“Some of the nouveau atheists have even gone so far as to question whether Jesus existed at all,” he says. “The sad thing about them is that they have not read mainstream scholarship.”
Dr Dickson says that recent atheist authors have created a “Sunday school Jesus” and dedicated their “large brains” to demolishing this figure.
The Christ Files documentary grew out of a book of the same name. Dr Dickson said it was not created as an answer to the works of Dawkins and Hitchens, though interest in their work “has put God back on the agenda.”
He said his original intention was to write a biography of Jesus, but the first chapter of this turned out to be 25,000 words – a book in itself.
The first chapter was an examination of the question of how we can know what we do know about the historical Jesus.
Dickson says he thinks the Seven network were interested in his work because it is “neither Christian propaganda, nor salacious.”
The Christ Files uses innovative methods to bring out some of the key questions behind the historical process, such as the use of sports events to illustrate how scholars view the historical record.
For example, Dickson argues that the admitted bias of a reporter does not mean that the facts they report are wrong. He illustrates this point by filming in a London pub where rival soccer fans from the Arsenal and Tottenham clubs discuss what happened during a match between their teams, which they’ve just watched.
The fans are obviously biased in their interpretations of what happened on the pitch, particularly when it comes to refereeing decisions. But the basic facts of the match – a 3.1 win to Arsenal – are not misreported by either side.
The point shown by this foray into sports culture is that professional historians – unlike popular authors — do not discount what’s reported in the Christian gospels simply because the writers of the gospels were Christian.
The screening of The Christ Files coincides with the launch of the Centre for Public Christianity, a non-denominational institute designed to educate the secular public about “historical Christianity.”
Dr Dickson and Dr Greg Clarke are co-directors of the Centre. Dr Clarke, also from Macquarie University, is an English literature expert who has written widely on authors such as Patrick White.
Dr Dickson says the Centre aims to increase understanding of the Christian faith using “the best of scholarship and the best of media.”
The project is a dream he and Dr Clarke have shared for 12 years. It does not copy any model of public institute anywhere in the world.
Dr Dickson defines the Christian faith as the faith embodied in the Nicene Creed. “You could call it Nicene Christianity, but we call it historic Christianity,” he says.
While The Christ Files program is not an initiative of the new Centre, it’s “exactly the sort of thing” the Centre hopes to do. The Centre’s website will use vodcasting – video on demand broadcasting, over the web – as one method of promoting knowledge about Christianity.
Dr Dickson says he’ll be traveling to Israel in September to film a full-length life of Jesus. Having done a “how we know” about Jesus program, he now aims to do a “what we know” program.”
The Christ Files screen on Good Friday at 12 noon on Seven. The Centre for Public Christianity goes live online on Easter weekend at www.publicchristianity.org