Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I am always on the look-out for a new author to enjoy. I think I have found another one.

A couple of months ago I was on the 'undercard' at a preaching conference where John Dickson was 'the main event' (I am not a boxing fan, but you get the idea). An Aussie based in Sydney, John has the hint of the 'renaissance man' about him. Primarily a historian (and here he reminds me just a bit of Rodney Stark), Dickson is also a musician, a writer, a scholar, a media guy ... and a preacher.

Humilitas is a book about humility. Humility is the sweetest grace of all, the common denominator in the people God chooses to use. 'Humility enhances the ordinary and makes the great even greater' (29). While it is difficult for someone as able as this to write a book on this topic, Dickson gets away with it due to large dollops of Aussie self-deprecation.

While he writes as a Christian, the book is not overtly pitched at a Christian audience. Dickson is adept at living life in the media and the public square and it comes through in his writing. It is an easy read, not the least because it is full of great stories (Joe Louis, 26-27; Muhammad Ali, 56-57; Edmund Hillary, 70-71; Daniel & Janet Matthews, 73-77; Bill Gates, 125-127 - in a little story about the humility of Gates compared with the arrogance of Jobs ... and Dickson is a Mac-user!; etc)

There is much that could be said but let me zero in on three sections which impacted me.

The historian comes through in a chapter on the place of humility in the ancient Greek world, followed straight away by a chapter on Jesus: 'how a Jew from Nazareth redefined greatness' (99-112). Dickson argues that the life and teaching of Jesus instigated 'a humility revolution ... (in that) honour has been redefined, greatness recast' (109). This changed the world.
Put another way, while we certainly don't need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of (Jesus') crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform long after it stopped being Christian (112).
Then there is his discussion of Aristotle's understanding of the art of persuasion, with his alignment of logos, pathos, and ethos (the intellectual, emotional and ethical dimensions of a person). He tells the story of creating a TV series in which he had to interview different people, including the scholars Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham (140-147). He relates their impact on him in this way:
The effect of meeting Hengel and Bauckham was completely unexpected. Months later as I was working on an academic project, I reached over to the bookshelf to consult Hengel on some contentious detail and I found myself strangely persuaded by his viewpoint. Yes, this was largely because of the cogency of the argument (the logos), but if I'm honest, it had also to do with my experience of the man (146).
It is an honest and telling statement. In my own life I'd summon John Stott and DA Carson, whose humility I have experienced first-hand and yes, their ethos does bias me towards accepting their logos and pathos. It doesn't blind me - but it does bias me. Maybe the reverse principle works as well. I am less likely to be persuaded by any logos or pathos coming from a Tiger Woods or a Lance Armstrong simply because there has an arrogance inhabiting their ethos which has so shocked and disappointed the world.

I am sitting here in the land of Lincoln (Illinois), one day removed from being in the battle-ground state of Ohio. Politics here is so deeply polarised, and a BBC-like attempt at media objectivity is but a faded dream. Back home in NZ the debate over same-sex marriage has been hot. In the places where I work, the relationship between Muslims and Christians is never far away. How do you live in this kind of world? Well, one thing is for sure. The brand of tolerance which is trumpeted (see the discussion here) is over-rated and when followed to its logical conclusion, almost nonsensical. It is a fool's gold. 'It is like an inexperienced counsellor telling a troubled married couple to ignore their differences and focus on their similarities' (166). Using the great GK Chesterton quote ('What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition ... (and) settled upon on the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be'), Dickson urges us to 'move beyond mere tolerance to true humility' (170). The answer is not to have softer convictions, as so many in the Western world choose to do. Nah! That is never going to work. 'Humility applied to convictions does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and  friendship' (167).

I'd love to have a crack at a course on leadership some day. This book will stroll into the reading list. It is pitched at an appropriate level and readily sparks discussion on the decisive issue of character.

nice chatting



shannonrichmond said...

Hi Paul, I heard John Dickson speak (via DVD) at the Global Leadership summit last year and i too was impressed by his ability to speak into the issue of humility from not just a christian perspective but one that crossed into the "secular" realm. So much so that this book sits on my shelf as well.
There is so much in your post this time around that i am not sure where to start.
i am tempted to wade into your comments about media impartiality, or maybe American politics and its relationship to faith (are they the same thing?)Then there is the redefining of 'marriage' in our homeland. Wow I could be here awhile, so I'll just leave it with a couple of words...great post Paul!

Tony PLEWS said...

Agreed! Great post, Paul. I think I'd like to erad this book.

Andy Shudall said...

Excellent reflection on an amazing book. I read it this year in preparing for TSCF midyear and a session I lead on power. I found his work really very helpful in framing my material.

I particularly found the definition of humility as holding power for the good of others as an acute challenge and critique.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts - appreciated, as always.