For John and Buff Dickson, it took a four-day spring visit to the leafy Wheaton College campus outside of Chicago to overcome months of resistance to leaving their lives in Sydney and moving to America.
The prestigious evangelical college had approached John last October to ask him to apply for a new chair in Bible evangelism and public Christianity funded by an individual donor.
The role seemed a perfect fit for a historian with an evangelical heart and co-founder of the Center for Public Christianity in 2007. But John and Buff were content with their life in Sydney. John – author of 20 books, ancient history buff, college professor and podcaster – had no intention of moving to America. Buff worked as a Chaplain in Dementia Services with HammondCare. And on a personal level, they each have an elderly mother whose well-being is close to their hearts and three children they didn’t want to leave behind.
“You know, it took us maybe six to seven months to finally be persuaded that we had to take this position,” John said. Eternity on the road between meetings as he arranges the move to Chicago in October.
“I had no intention of moving to America. I’m so happy to do what I’m doing in Australia, but eventually they convinced us. They flew us to Wheaton in May, and we had four days to Wheaton to show us everything, to sit down with all the different faculty committees, the provost, people who would be my colleagues and do four days of interviews and Q&A’s And that’s really where Buff and I started thinking, “Oh my God, maybe we should do this.”
“It was hard to resist the feeling that God guided my path.”
Eventually, John and Buff came to a mutual decision, confident that Wheaton’s role will bring together all the many different things John has done over the past 20 years.
“And it was hard to resist the feeling that God guided my path – gave me the experiences and qualifications to fulfill this new role. They want someone who will teach classes on public Christianity, evangelism, and the history of Christianity, primarily to pastors doing their graduate work. And they want someone who will also spend a lot of time writing, researching, podcasting, engaging the media, preaching publicly. And those are all the things that I do.
Announcing John as his first Jean Kvamme Emeritus Professor of Bible Evangelism and Emeritus Scholar in Public Christianity, Wheaton said the role was intended to “build a bridge between the academic study of the scriptures and the communication of the gospel.”
“What’s interesting is that I’m an evangelist or public defender of the Christian faith who has a doctorate in New Testament history, and so I happen to have this background of being a nerd of the New Testament, and someone who desperately seeks the secularizing world to know the gospel,” comments John.
“And this idea that is at the heart of the pulpit of publicizing biblically rooted Christianity and evangelism in an academic approach to Scripture, not just pragmatics, not just sociology and cultural studies – all of which are beautiful and important. – but rooted in the teaching of Scripture and early Christianity and even in the medieval world, which has been my great passion for years.
John believes Christians in a post-Christian society have much to learn from how the church evangelized a pre-Christian society.
“I mean, there are differences, but we have a lot to learn about what they did when they had no power, right? What did Christians do when they had only persuasion, prayer, service and suffering – how did they win the world? And, in our world today, we revert to having less structural power, less cultural influence, less legislative victories. How can we nevertheless persuade a skeptical world of the gospel? So that’s the kind of question I hope to bring to the post. Also being able to do all the fun things that I’ve done – you know, podcasting, writing books. And myself preaching.
“What did Christians do when all they had was persuasion, prayer, service, and suffering?
With his latest book, Bullies and SaintsShortlisted for the Sparklit Australian Christian Book of the Year Award, I ask John about the controversy in some quarters over his honest assessment of the harm as well as the good the church has done.
“Well, I had no intention of doing it, but it’s inherently going to be controversial on both sides of the equation, because on the one hand, I’m being very honest about the bullies in the story. of the church and those who church fans may feel like I’m letting the team down I’m also adamant that Christianity has given the secular West most of the things that he loves – humility, charity, universal education, etc. And those who hate the church are angry that I make such an argument,” he says.
“But I think backlash is partly a function of the polarization of our world, so it’s very easy to fall into ‘I hate everything the church has done’ or ‘I defend everything the church has done. do.’ And the truth of the story is much more mixed.
“What is interesting is that it has been very well commented on by atheists. There was a history review for atheists which was very complimentary, and there were some good Christian reviews – catholic world magazine wrote very glowingly – but there were some very conservative Christians who read it politically, who were concerned that I was a left-wing progressive who wanted to criticize the church based on progressive values - which is almost the opposite of what I think I’m doing.
“I say progressive values came from Christianity and then were perverted.”
“In the book, I say that progressive values came from Christianity and then were perverted. I judge the church by the rule of Jesus, not by the rule of [commentator and author] Jeanne Carol. Someone like Jane Caro – a vocal critic of Christianity here in Australia – will accuse the church of not respecting equality, love and humility and she thinks what she is doing is criticizing the church on the basis of its progressive secular values. The thing is, when I join in this criticism of the church, my conservative Christian friends are duped by Jane Caro’s argument and they think I am criticizing the church based on secular progressive values.
“But they fall into the same trap as Jane Caro because the truth is that we judge the church based on Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who mistreat you, repay insult with blessing, the greater must be the lesser, even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. My God, these are not secular progressive values. These are at the heart of the gospel that we believe God has set himself up for a hateful world. And it’s the ethic of the church to come out for a hateful world.
“The truth is that we judge the church based on Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
Being an Australian in the politically charged American Christian scene will be an advantage, he thinks, because he cannot be pigeonholed as a Democrat or a Republican. And he firmly believes that anyone who wants to advance the gospel in the world must not be politically aligned.
As an American football fan, it’s pure coincidence, he insists, that being based in Chicago means he’s only three hours away from watching a home game of his well-being. loved Green Bay Packers – a professional NFL football team based in Wisconsin. .
John and Buff’s daughter Josie, 16, is coming with them to Chicago — and is all for the move. However, his son Josh and eldest daughter Sophie will remain in Sydney.
While leaving Sydney will be key – as well as a logistical headache given the huge library being shipped to America – there are strategic advantages to moving for his podcast, Disappointments.
“We plan to return to Australia two to three times a year, so we will maintain our relationship here. I have a team of four – soon to be five – in Sydney and I keep them all for Undeceptions. It is therefore important that I come back fairly regularly to convince them that I am still engaged. But in some ways, being in America is going to be better for the podcast because I’m hours away from a number of interview guests — all over America, of course. But even the UK and Europe are eight hours away instead of 24 hours.
“For example, in January of this year I flew to Scandinavia to interview five Viking scholars just to produce two episodes of Vikings and it was a lot of work, but now I’ll only be eight hours away from those things.”
If he will no longer teach at Ridley College in Melbourne, he will remain his Distinguished Fellow in Public Christianity, a position he has held since 2019 and for which he flew to Melbourne every week.
He will also have to reduce his guided educational trips to Israel with Selah. “I was planning to increase them and do two or three a year, but I’ll probably have to reduce them to once a year, just to be able to fulfill my obligations to Wheaton and really give him a good chance,” he said. he declares. said.