John Dickson is a former professional singer-songwriter now working as an author, speaker, historian and media presenter. He has held a variety of teaching and research positions before moving to Wheaton College. He was the founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity and has published over 20 books of which two have become television documentaries and the third released in Australian cinemas in June 2018.
In the lead up to his talk at the 2023 Amplify Conference at Wheaton College being held October 17th & 18th, Andrew MacDonald, associate director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Institute, caught up with Dickson to discuss how he helped champion public Christianity in Australia, the goal of his Undeceptions podcast, and what we can learn from the early church about reaching our culture today.
You’ve published incredibly well-received, peer-reviewed scholarship, but you also place a big emphasis upon integrating this high-level scholarship with popular apologetics and reaching this generation. Tell us your story about how you got to this spot between these two spheres.
I suppose it grows out of the fact that I grew up in a nation, Australia, that has been called the first post-Christian society on earth. We Christians are a minority in Australia, unlike here. So, living out your faith and speaking about your faith to people who are generally skeptical has just been second nature. Friends and I were frustrated with the lack of public Christianity in Australia. Churches [were] doing great things, but there wasn’t much public Christianity in the media and so on.
So, we founded the Centre for Public Christianity, and it became very clear, very early on, that having genuine secular academic qualifications was assumed as a starting point for being taken seriously in the public media. For us, it was a happy coincidence that we were scholars who hadn’t studied what you Americans call apologetics. We had studied our own disciplines: one was a culture expert, one a modern history expert, I had a Ph.D. in ancient history.
From the beginning we didn’t think of what we were doing as apologetics in the normal sense. We just wanted to be genuine scholars of a discipline who tried to translate good scholarship into popular vernacular. We always talked about being a Ph.D. in a pair of jeans, and that’s how we operated. That meant that we had to write and appear on TV and radio as thoughtfully as we could, not with cheap knockdown arguments for the faith, but a genuine intellectual engagement on issues of concern.
I had a foot in the academic world in state universities in Australia—at Macquarie University and Sydney University and also had the Center for Public Christianity and also was a pastor in a local church. So it just was second nature for me and for my colleagues to bring the best scholarship to the general public to point them to Christ. Wheaton (College) is the first time I’ve worked in a Christian university.
This has been a big shift for you, not only moving into a Christian university, but moving to the United States. So you’ve moved from a post-Christian society to a society that is becoming post-Christian. What have been some of the biggest cultural shifts for you and apologetic shifts or ministry shifts for you as you’ve made this transition as an outsider?
Well, I still haven’t been here a year, so I feel it would be impolite to pontificate about this great and diverse, weird and wonderful nation of the United States. But a couple of things have struck me. One is you’re probably less than 10 years behind Australia in that secularization process in terms of data points. I think it’s [in the] mid-60s percent of Americans identify as Christian in some way. And that’s down from high-70s 10 years before that. So I expect, just on current trends, that within 10 years people claiming some kind of identification with Christianity will be in the 40s. But actually, because Americans always do things faster and bigger and better than anyone else, I suspect it’s going to take you five or six years.
The winds of change in this country are very strong, and people are leaving the church in droves. Those who said they were Christian because there was still some social value in saying they’re Christian are rapidly falling off the cliff because there’s a perceived integrity problem in the church in America. That’s probably even greater than it is in Australia because of bad behavior of pastors and Christian ministries of various kinds. There is almost no social credibility with saying you’re a Christian anymore.
Now, that’s a radical change, and that means all of those who were nominal Christians are just going to fall off in the surveys. What you’re going to be left with is probably a minority of Christians in this country in pretty short order. Working out how to be a faithful minority instead of the big brother of culture is the real challenge of speaking to a post-Christian culture.
What are some of the opportunities that come with a post-Christian world that we should be emboldened by and encouraged by that you have found throughout your ministry?
There are so many things to say to this. One is I would be more confident in the American church in responding to this situation than I would be in the Australian church for the simple reason that there is a critical mass of genuine Christians in this country. [Even] if you just strip away all of the cultural Christians—all of those who are falling away for various reasons—you still have millions and millions of genuine Christians. It might only be 20%, but 20% of 330 million is a lot of humans. And if those humans realize that they are minorities, start to pivot and posture toward the culture—relying therefore on persuasion and using the resources that exist in the American church and the great tradition that’s here—I actually have very high confidence. I think a real hindrance to evangelism in America is thinking that you’re like the prophet to a disobedient Israel. It’s far more now about speaking as the apostle Paul at the Areopagus, not Jeremiah to Israel.
That produces a very different kind of posture toward the world, where you don’t hide what you believe and you are still perfectly open as Paul was in Act 17, but there’s a gentleness, there’s an engagement with culture, there’s a complete reliance on persuasion instead of moral authority. I mean, Jeremiah could say to his audience, You should know better. You signed up to the covenant with God, right? And it sort of made sense. They got that Jeremiah had moral authority. You can’t do that in Athens. So Paul argues the case, and then puts up with scorn. I think that’s a beautiful thing in that Acts passage where Paul does his best to persuade, and it says in the end, some scoffed and thought he was stupid. Some said, we’ll hear you again on this matter, and others believed.
I think that’s a pretty good model for what we should expect. Speak to the culture like you’re in Athens, not in Jerusalem, and expect to be scoffed at and smile sweetly back, and expect some to give us another hearing, and others to believe. But being relaxed is the key. It’s easier when you have a disarming Australian accent, I’ll grant you that.
Talk to me a little bit about the Undeceptions podcast and your philosophy behind embracing the podcast as a tool to reach the skeptic.
Well, we live in an era where lots of people are listening to podcasts—it’s the new radio—so it just made sense to be part of that. We’ve attempted to produce a podcast with the highest possible production values. It’s a very, very costly and human-labor-intensive podcast, but a high-production podcast that is for the doubter as much as the believer. And there aren’t that many Christian podcasts like that. Every single episode we’ve made, you could give to your skeptical friend, and they wouldn’t find any insider baseball talk (I’ve learned to use that expression while I’ve been here: insider baseball.). So the person who’s not a Christian would listen to our episode—it might be an episode on the Crusades or the Inquisitions or Constantine or Big Bang Theory or multiverse, but it’s always drawing on the best of scholarship with experts around the world. [We] frame it in a way that skeptics can see the sense of Christianity.
There’s a sort of private motto that we have that our goal really is to leave the audience thinking, Wow, Christians aren’t as dumb or mean as we thought. If you can leave doubters thinking [that], you leave them open to investigating the Christian faith. Because, currently, a lot of people think Christianity is dumb and especially mean. So we’ve got to work out ways of talking about, you know, transgender. We did an episode on transgender, abortion, same-sex relationships, all the hot-button issues. We’ve got to find a way of talking about it like we’re in the Areopagus, not Jeremiah speaking to the covenant people.
We have to remind ourselves today that the early church somehow converted a significant portion of the Roman Empire in 250 years without any armies, without any legislative power or senatorial influence, or even much money. The story of the growth of Christianity up to the year 312 when Constantine declares himself a Christian is, in everyone’s estimation, remarkable. So I like to look, and have done for all my academic life, at what the Christians did.
Now, I don’t think we can have a human explanation of how they grew. I do think it was in the end miraculous. The Lord added to their number. But we can look at certain things that they did, which the Lord used, that are striking and different from the way we assume things. This is one of the great benefits of studying history. It allows us to think of our own context in a different light. Listening to the past as well as the present is more democratic. If you’re only listening to your blip—evangelicals of the last 50 years—then you’re not conducting a very wide poll at all. But if you widen your poll to include Christians from the second, third and fourth centuries and listen to their wisdom about reaching a pre-Christian pagan culture, I reckon there’s plenty of lessons for our post-Christian pagan culture. They had worked out that all we’ve really got in our bag of tools is persuasion, prayer, service and suffering, and they embraced them all heartily, cheerfully. And in the end, they had a massive influence.