For John and Buff Dickson, it took a four-day visit in spring to the leafy Wheaton College campus outside Chicago to overcome months of resistance for them to leave their lives in Sydney and move to America.
The prestigious evangelical college had approached John last October asking him to apply for a new chair of biblical evangelism and public Christianity being financed by an individual donor.
The role sounded like a perfect fit for a historian with the heart of an evangelist, and a co-founder of the Centre for Public Christianity in 2007. But John and Buff were happy with their lives in Sydney. John – author of 20 books, ancient history nerd, university lecturer and podcaster – had no plans to move to America. Buff had her work as a chaplain in dementia services with HammondCare. And on the personal front, they each have an elderly mother whose welfare weighs on their minds 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 should take this position,” John tells Eternity while on the road between meetings as he organises the move to Chicago in October.
“I had no intention of moving to America. I’m so happy doing what I’m doing in Australia, but ultimately, they convinced us. They flew us over to Wheaton in May, and we had four days in Wheaton to show us everything, to sit us down with all the different faculty committees, the provost, the people who would be my colleagues and do four days of interviewing and asking questions. And it was really there that Buff and I began to think, ‘Oh my goodness, maybe we should do this.’”
“It was hard to resist the impression that God has guided my path.”
Eventually, John and Buff came to a mutual decision, convinced that the Wheaton role will bring together all the many different things John has been doing for the past 20 or so years.
“And it was hard to resist the impression that God has guided my path – given me the experiences and qualifications in order to fill this new role. They want someone who will teach courses in public Christianity, evangelism, and the history of Christianity, mainly to pastors who are doing their postgraduate work. And they want someone who will also spend a significant amount of time writing, researching, podcasting, engaging the media, publicly preaching. And they’re all the things I do.”
In announcing John as its inaugural Jean Kvamme Distinguished Professor of Biblical Evangelism and Distinguished Scholar in Public Christianity, Wheaton said the role was intended to “create a bridge between the academic study of Scripture and communication of the gospel”.
“The interesting thing is I’m an evangelist or public advocate for the Christian faith who has a PhD in New Testament history, and so I just happen to have that background of being a New Testament nerd, and someone who is desperate for the secularising world to know the gospel,” John comments.
“And that idea that is at the core of the chair to make public Christianity and evangelism biblically rooted in an academic approach to Scripture, not simply pragmatic, not simply sociology and cultural studies – all of which are fine and important – but rooted in the teaching of Scripture and early Christianity and even into the medieval world, which has been my great passion for years.”
John believes that Christians in a post-Christian society have much to learn from how the church went about evangelising a pre-Christian society.
“I mean, there are differences, but we’ve got a lot to learn about what did they do when they had no power, right? What did the Christians do when all they had was persuasion, prayer, service, and suffering – how did they win the world? And, in our world today, we are reverting to having less structural power, less cultural sway, less legislative wins. How do we nonetheless persuade a sceptical world of the gospel? So that’s the kind of question I hope to bring to the position. Also being able to do all the fun things that I’ve been doing – you know, podcasting, writing books. And myself preaching.”
“What did the Christians do when all they had was persuasion, prayer, service, and suffering?”
With his latest book, Bullies and Saints, shortlisted for the Sparklit Australian Christian Book of the Year Award, I ask John about the controversy in some quarters about its honest appraisal of the evil as well as the good that the church has done.
“Well, I didn’t set out to do it, but it is by nature going to be controversial on both sides of the equation, because on the one hand, I’m super honest about the bullies of church history, and those who are fans of the church may feel I’m letting the team down. I’m also adamant that Christianity has given the secular West most of the things it loves – humility, charity, universal schooling and so on. And those who hate the church are angry that I would make such an argument,” he says.
“But I think the negative reactions are partly a function of how polarised our world is, so it’s very easy to fall into ‘I hate everything the church has done’ or ‘I defend everything the church has done.’ And the truth of history is much more mixed.
“The interesting thing is it’s been reviewed really nicely by atheists. There was a History for Atheists review that was very complimentary, and there have been some nice Christian reviews – Catholic World magazine wrote very glowingly – but there have been some by very conservative Christians who have read it politically, who feared that I was some lefty progressive who wanted to criticise the church based on progressive values – which is almost the opposite of what I think I’m doing.
“I’m saying progressive values came from Christianity and have then been perverted.”
“In the book, I’m saying progressive values came from Christianity and have then been perverted. I’m judging the church by the rule of Jesus, not by the rule of [commentator and author] Jane Caro. Someone like Jane Caro – a vocal critic against Christianity here in Australia – will accuse the church of not being up with equality and love and humility and she thinks what she’s doing is criticising the church on the basis of her secular progressive values. The thing is when I join in that criticism of the church, my conservative Christian friends are fooled by Jane Caro’s argument and they think I’m criticising the church based on secular progressive values.
“But they fall into the same trap that Jane Caro has because the truth is we’re judging the church on the basis of the teaching of Jesus to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who mistreat you, return insult with blessing, the greatest should be the least, even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. My goodness, these are not secular progressive values. These are core to the gospel that we believe that God gave himself for a hateful world. And that is the ethic of the church to give itself for a hateful world.”
“The truth is we’re judging the church on the basis of the teaching of Jesus 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 believes, because he can’t be pigeonholed as Democrat or 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 aficionado, it is purely coincidental, he insists, that being based in Chicago will mean he is just three hours away from watching a home game by his beloved Green Bay Packers – a professional American football team in the NFL based in Wisconsin.
John and Buff’s daughter Josie, 16, is coming with them to Chicago – and is fully on board with the move. However, son Josh and elder daughter Sophie will remain in Sydney.
While leaving Sydney will be a wrench – as well as a logistical headache given the immense library being shipped to America – there are strategic advantages to the move for his podcast, Undeceptions.
“We have arranged that we can come back to Australia two to three times a year, so we will be keeping our connections here. I have a staff team of four – soon to become five – in Sydney and I’m keeping all of them for Undeceptions. So it’s important that I’m back reasonably regularly to convince them I’m still committed. But in some ways, being in America is going to be better for the podcast because I’m hours away from any number of interview guests – all around America, of course. But even the UK and Europe are eight hours away instead of 24 hours away.
“For example, in January this year, I flew to Scandinavia to interview five Vikings scholars just to produce two episodes of Vikings and that was a lot of work but now I’ll just be eight hours away from such things.”
While he will no longer teach at Ridley College in Melbourne, he will remain its Distinguished Fellow in Public Christianity, a position he has held since 2019, and for which he flew to Melbourne weekly.
He will also have to cut back on his guided educational trips to Israel with Selah. “I was planning to ramp those up and do two or three a year, but I’ll probably have to cut them back to once a year, just so I can fulfill my obligations to Wheaton and really give it a good crack,” he says.