John Dickson


A Hell of A Life

(From Manger to Megastar)


I wandered through this book as I was marking it for a class book review assignment. A bit unfair – it’s very clearly targeting itself at non-Christian teens, not jaded Christian teachers, but here’s my reaction nonetheless. Less of my standard book review, turning some notes I took along the way (pretty much the topic sentences) into paragraphs. In summary it’s a clear tool, hardly perfect but at least an attempt that shows an awareness of the demographic.


Rather than challenge ideas of what is cool/good/admirable (as Jesus did), Dickson tries to re-present Jesus as cool by the standards of a 90s teenager. At times this is valid – the popular Ned Flanders image of Jesus is absurdly out of step with the often prickly in your face real deal. However I’ve got some reservations given how central this theme is. Dickson might say it’s just a hook, but fame, for example, should not be what wins someone over: you don’t decide on which faith is right by doing a head count – who cares how many hits Jesus pulls from google? Likewise to play up Jesus as Arnie action hero is a bit spurious: Jesus was the guy who told Peter to put the knives down. I found something I heard a KYLC speaker saying once helpful on this issue: “What people are converted by is what they’re converted to”. His point was that if your successful youth group is essentially about having wacky games and cute chicks, don’t be surprised if your disciples all disappear once you start getting into sacrifice and humility. My point is that if you’re trying to convert people by saying, “relax – Jesus is just what you wanted to be anyway, cool, sexy, strong, famous,” they’re not going to be there for the long haul. Dickson might reasonably respond by saying he’s not misrepresenting Christ – he’s right that there are some similarities. Moreover he could contend that these are just entry points – meeting people where they are (like Paul softening the Greeks up by linking his God to theirs) so you can lead them on to more. I suppose I wasn’t convinced: what I find most attractive – and consistent – about Jesus is that he challenges whatever audience he’s with. He might not say what they want to hear, but they know it’s true. He seems to be looking for the few with the courage to act on inspiring (if daunting) truth, and actively discouraging the many who don’t have ears to hear. This is not a popular style of evangelism and the opposite of the technique of this book. As long as I’m having a go at a Sydney Anglican for uncharacteristically playing to the crowd, in the interests of balance I’ll note down that I heard one of the worst examples of this unChristlike technique when Tim Costello was preaching at a BICM annual service I played at in the, um, late 90s. Picking his audience he essentially took a stack of cheap shots at John Howard. Not that I’m particularly pro-coalition, but it just struck me in stark contrast to Jesus’ response when he was asked about paying taxes to Rome: if Costello was talking to a bunch of zealots I don’t doubt that he’d have taken as many shots at Caesar.


Dickson very self-consciously tries to incorporate pop-culture, personal anecdotes, and ‘Aussie’ slang/vernacular (very Ray Martin, bloke, mate, aussie). Good on him for making the effort when so much Christian literature blithely and unnecessarily alienates their purported audience with the media disguising the message. Smart kids will immediately pick the tryhard nature of this – it’s not the way Dickson naturally talks (or if it is he’s been watching too much A Current Affair). But it is wise to try to make it familiar – so he studiously avoids loaded jargon terms – eg. Always ‘biographies’ instead of ‘gospels’ or ‘bible’ or ‘scripture’. He’s making the effort, and so be it if people like myself cringe in the process. Maybe he did sometimes too.


It’s in the style of a debate – intentionally wildly subjective: ‘Your mission: interpret every piece of evidence to show Jesus in the most favourable light possible according to the values of an unchurched Australian teenager’. Thus it does get a bit silly at times – you know that whatever happens it will cause the reaction, “Wow, doesn’t this just show how cool Jesus is!”. It’s like the apologetics that wherever biblical passages match the reaction is, “Isn’t it amazing that these passages are exactly the same. You can so trust the sources,” and where they don’t the response is, “Isn’t that so true of testimony? If all the witnesses statements are exactly the same it’s suspicious. But true statements have precisely the sort of variations that we see in the biblical accounts! (feign ‘gosh, gee willikers’ etc.)” Given his purpose, what else could he do, but it is disingenuous to act like the material lead to your conclusions when frequently you started with your conclusions and are pedalling madly to present the material in as favourable light as possible. As a disciple of Jesus, Dickson can hardly say, “Well, Jesus did a lot of great stuff, but he did stuff up now and then.” Is there room in a book like this to have any balance though, more than just, for example, that the Maji show how politically correct and multicultural Jesus was. Jesus is tricky on race – at times he’s the total visionary champion opposing racism, “My house is to be a house of prayer for all nations,” and nearly getting killed for reminding his home town about Elijah and Elisha’s preferential treatment of foreigners. But can you also admit, “I never did quite understand why Jesus told the Syrophoenician/Greek/Canaanite woman that she was a dog,” saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel"? I don’t suppose you can in a book like this. Btw, my notes have the words “Dead men don’t bleed analogy” as a prime example of this, but I don’t have the book any more and have no idea what this was supposed to remind me of.


There are really annoying spurious non-“Quotes” to start each section. Don’t need to explain this sentence do I? Or do I? If you’re quoting someone, tell me who it is. If you’re trying to give an air of authority to one of your own sentences by putting it in some inverted commas, it’s going to bug uptight folk like myself.


It’s very dated – unavoidable in consciously trying to be contemporary. Dickson would have been totally aware of this as he wrote it. Ideally it’d be an e-book that he could have as a template where every couple of years you put in some new names – ‘Pink’ for ‘Madonna’, who on earth is Bono etc., an added chapter on the Da Vinci code etc.


And there this poorly organised review peters out.


Read April, reviewed July 2006