Book review: Bearing False Witness

Bearing False Witness

Debunking Centuries of anti-Catholic history

Rodney Stark

Published by Templeton Press

“Mummy, I spent this afternoon trying not to listen to the teacher.”

“Why was that, Sweetie?”

“She said that we’d come to the point in our science topic [evolution] when we had to choose between believing the science and believing in God.”

I wish I’d made that up but I’m afraid our eldest and I had that conversation five years ago, here in Somerset.  I was amazed that anyone could think we believe that fossils are ‘put there by God to test our faith’ and wondered what other nonsense our children might be taught at school.  We set about teaching our eldest how her faith is compatible with science and hoped that would be the last time she would encounter such a misrepresentation.

However, if Bearing False Witness is anything to go by, there are many more widely-held misconceptions out there and Rodney Stark has taken it upon himself to set the historical record straight.  The very fact that this book exists at all is encouraging, not least of all because of Stark’s own position:  ‘I am not a Roman Catholic, and I did not write this book in defence of the Church.  I wrote it in defence of history’ (p.6).  Stark is best-selling author of The Rise of Christianity, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion and professor of the social sciences at Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist University.  His lack of Catholic credentials ensures his book is not dismissed as ‘a work of special pleading’ (p.231).

The book is simply structured around the exposition and refutation of ten statements which, in Stark’s experience, are ‘part of the common culture, widely accepted and frequently repeated’ (p.5).  Stark invites the reader to ‘consider whether you believe any of the following statements…’ (p.4) which include claims of anti-semitism; the Church’s suppression of ‘new Christian Gospels’ and of scientists; persecution of pagans; the ‘blood bath’ of the Spanish Inquisition and the Church’s support of slavery.  Even if you do not believe any of these myths from the beginning, Bearing False Witness can be a handy tool with which to counter these myths if you hear them from the mouths of others.

Stark draws clear distinctions between myth-peddling historians (or ‘distinguished bigots,’ p.4) and those whom he considers to be trustworthy.  These latter are easily recognised by accolades such as ’the revered historian…’ (p.21); the distinguished… (pp.63, 139, 174) or ‘the prolific…’ (p.139).  They are further highlighted through short biographies in each chapter.  Presumably Stark did this to bolster the authority of those whose views he is advocating but personally, I could do without knowing that, for example, ‘Gerald Strauss (1922 – 2006) was distinguished professor of history at the University of Indiana… a fine cellist [who] played in amateur string quartets’  (p.215).

I found Stark’s frequent reference to the opinion of so many other historians less convincing than he’d perhaps hoped.  I’m much happier to read primary sources as evidence (even though the choice of excerpts lies with the author), as I find this more convincing and usually more entertaining.

Stark makes brilliant use of primary sources, for example, when pointing out that ‘a major reason pilgrimages were so common was because the knights of Europe were both very violent and very religious’.  He first tells the anecdote of the most notorious pilgrim, Fulk III, count of Anjou, who accumulated as penances no less than four  pilgrimages to the Holy Land (no spoilers from me, but Stark concludes that maybe that was ‘far too few’ p.104).  He then contrasts Fulk III with the Burgundian Stephen I of Neublans, who justified his decision to travel thus: “Considering how many are my sins and the love, clemency and mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ, because when he was rich he became poor for our sake, I have determined to repay him in some measure for everything he has given me freely, although I am unworthy.  And so I have decided to go to Jerusalem, where God was seen as man and spoke with men and to adore the place where his feet trod” (104-5)  These examples bring the characters – and by extension, their history – to life.

In contrast, later in the same chapter, Stark tells us that  ‘even at the time they took place, Muslim chroniclers paid very little attention to the Crusades, regarding them as invasions by a primitive, unlearned, impoverished and un-Muslim people’ (p.113).  I would have loved to read a quotation from those Muslim chroniclers!   I might then have been able to argue this point with someone, saying ‘ah, but did you know that at the time of the Crusades, the Muslim chroniclers wrote…’ but alas, all I can do is say, ‘Rodney Stark wrote that Edward Peters wrote that…’

On the whole, Bearing False Witness is a valuable read if you, or someone you know has been lumbered with an anti-Catholic perspective of history.  Each myth is successfully and convincingly debunked.  As I drew to the end of the book, I found myself musing that if Templeton Press could produce a sister volume that deals with debunking present-day myths about the Catholic Church (false perceptions of the Church as homophobic or misogynistic, for example), the two volumes could together help ensure that accurate history will be taught to our children in the future.

 

This piece originally appeared in Faith Magazine

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Beginning again

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While I mourn the passing of Woolworths, I certainly do not miss the feeling of catching sight of their ‘Back to School‘ sign while in the middle of my summer holidays.  Which child wants to be reminded of school before it’s absolutely necessary?  But then, when it does come, with new shoes, bulky uniform and (if you’re lucky) a new pencil case, beginning a new school year is exciting.

Even if children are not moving schools, they move up a year with new teachers, new classrooms and new exercise books.  I remember flicking straight to the back of new maths text books to see what kind of difficult-looking calculations we’d be able to do by the time we reached the end.  I remember the feeling of starting a new exercise book (or ‘jotter’, as we called them), trying to use best hand-writing and resolving to keep it that way.

Of course as time passed and my jotter filled up, I’d inevitably mess up in some way, but there was no way I’d be getting a new one until that one was completely finished.  I remember our teachers looking through books that we claimed were complete, only to be shown several spaces – a few lines here, maybe a half-page there – to fill in before she would relent and hand over a new jotter.  I even remember the techniques of leaving larger spaces between words; leaving more lines blank between pieces of work, all out of the desire to begin again in a new jotter.

Perhaps it’s partly because of this experience that we do not trust that God is always happy for us to make a fresh beginning.  When we make a mess of things – when we fall into sin – the temptation is to think that we’re stuck with it and we can’t make a fresh start.  And yet God is not interested in keeping us stuck in our old jotters after we’ve mucked up.  Even if we come to him with a jotter that’s just a bit grubby with a few mistakes but we we’re sorry for those sins, God is happy to forgive us and let us move on.  He has an inexhaustible supply of forgiveness, which he is always delighted to bestow on those who seek it with a contrite heart.

And unlike the school’s resource cupboard, at the confessional near you, you’ll always be able to walk away with a new jotter.

Just one thing…

Ss Peter and PaulButler’s final remarks regarding Ss Peter and Paul are: ‘Impulsive, generous Peter and moody, introverted Paul make an odd pair; but their work was complementary, which is why the Church has remembered them together through the centuries.’  

Their differences in personality and background make it hard to imagine how the two would have got on if they’d worked in close proximity.  I’m not sure for example, that had they worked together as fishermen, theirs would have been the most harmonious boat on the sea.  As it happened, they had the whole of the Mediterranean world to move around and barely ever met.

But they did meet.  For the Office of Readings today, we have a chunk from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where Paul sets out in black and white what occurred when he and Barnabas met with Peter, James and John in Jerusalem.  Paul is at pains to point out that ‘These leaders had nothing to add to the Good News as I preach it.  On the contrary, they recognised that I had been commissioned to preach the Good News to the uncircumcised just as Peter had been commissioned to preach it to the circumcised.’    They all shook hand’s a sign of partnership and it seems all the business is conducted.  I imagine all are thinking, ‘Gosh, that went well.  They are jolly good chaps.  The Church is in safe hands indeed…’ and then, as Paul and Barnabas turn to go, Peter calls out,

‘Just one thing, Paul, that we really must insist on…’

Imagine Paul and Barnabas freezing on the threshold – what could it be?  Not circumcision, as that’s all cleared up and everything else has been covered, surely?

‘Remember to help the poor.’

An awful lot of ink has been used to comment on this meeting of Peter and Paul (with even more spilt over the next chapter…) but it’s telling that after what some call ‘the first Council’, the statement that is left ringing in the air is not some intricacy of theology but a most practical point of Christianity: Remember to help the poor (Gal 2:10).

A Birthday Psalm

Our psalm for today, the Birthday of St John the Baptist, is excerpts from Psalm 138 (139) (vv1-3; 13-15).  It is always interesting to ask oneself why particular psalms have been chosen for a particular day and it seems that our answer today lies in verses 13 and 14:

13   For it was you who created my being,

  knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14   I thank you for the wonder of my being,

  for the wonders of all your creation.

Birthdays can give good opportunities to reflect on our lives.  It is fitting, of course, to spend some time on our birthday thanking not only our parents but also our Divine Creator, and to give thanks for all that we are and for all the Divine gifts we have received throughout our lives.

UnbornBabyLG-300x158I do love this psalm, especially that phrase, ‘knit me together in my mother’s womb’.  The image of God knitting makes me think of God concentrating on making me ‘just so’; giving the incomplete me His whole attention, as He works to make me just as He intended.  It reminds me that I am ‘wonderfully made’; an apt reminder on birthdays where there is no longer room on the cake for the candles!

God’s attention to detail is a theme in the rest of the psalm too: ‘O Lord, you search me and you know me, you know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar.  You mark when I walk or lie down, all my ways lie open to you.  Before ever a word is on my tongue you know it, O Lord through and through… 

Thoughts of God’s omniscience overwhelm the Psalmist: ‘Too wonderful for me, this knowledge, too high, beyond my reach’ and he considers running: ‘O where can I go from your spirit?‘ but realises, of course, that any attempt is futile: ‘If I climb to the heavens, you are there...’

What to do, then?  Run anyway?  Put fingers in ears and proclaim, ‘La, la, la, I can’t hear you’?

Happily, the Psalmist gives good example:

23   O search me, God, and know my heart.

O test me and know my thoughts.

24   See that I follow not the wrong path

and lead me in the path of life eternal.  

God knows us better than we know ourselves and, loving us, He wants what is best for us.  What better can we do but pray that our wills be united with His?  Usually, saints’ feasts are held on the day of their death: their ‘birthday’ into heaven.  In praying with the Psalmist here, we are declaring our intention to walk in God’s paths, that we might follow those saints in that path and be born into life eternal.

St John the Baptist, pray for us!

Wasting time with God

Astronomical clock faceI do love it when we have a ‘Mission Impossible’ Saturday: we all need to be at different places at different times and it looks like it can’t be done, but through some creative thinking, scrupulous planning and maybe a picnic lunch in an odd place, I think of a way to get everyone to and from where they want to be (and still get all the school uniform laundered).  Like Hannibal from The A-Team, I puff on my cigar* and say, ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’

This is all well and good as a mother of five organising a busy Saturday but I need to be careful that this uber-efficiency doesn’t spill over into my prayer life.  Putting aside just enough time to say Morning Prayer between emptying the dishwasher and waking up the children might be ‘efficient’ and better than nothing but if there’s not much more to my prayer life then I am poor indeed.

As the One who loved me first and loves me best, God loves nothing better than for me to come to Him; to spend time with Him… even to ‘waste’ time with Him.  And that’s true for you as well as for me.

Maybe your local church is open during the day, so if you’re looking for an opportunity to ‘waste time with God’ without distractions, then maybe you could put some time aside at some point during the day and pop in there.  It could be that there are other churches open near where you work or on your route home that could provide a little space for you to spend time with your Maker.

So let’s allow ourselves to ‘waste time’ with God, whether that’s at home or in one of our many open churches, remembering that God, who loves us more than we can ever imagine, will never be outdone in generosity.

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*No, no I don’t.

 

Be a Cheerful Giver

As we enter into Lent, no doubt full of good intentions, we remember St Paul’s advice to the Corinthians:

‘Each one should give what he has decided in his own mind…’ (2 Cor 9:7).

We are determined, therefore, to stick to our plans and see our resolutions through. So far, so good but it is crucial that we remember also the second part of this Biblical verse:

…not grudgingly or because he is made to, for God loves a cheerful giver’.

IMG_2255When we consider ‘giving’ in a Lenten context, we might think of our almsgiving primarily, or our planned works of mercy. However, probably most of our daily actions are done for someone other than ourselves. No matter how small, how routine, how apparently unknown our deeds are, we should do them cheerfully. Regardless of whether or not our deeds are acknowledged, expected or appreciated, we should do them cheerfully. If our 9-5 deeds are done for sullen-faced clients or colleagues, no matter! We can work cheerfully. This small change might be even more difficult than giving up chocolate but will probably have a more significant impact on those with whom we live and work… and there’s plenty of opportunity to practise!

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For more on cheerful giving, see:

Rejoice

Come and See

God loves a Cheerful Giver

Ever hopeful Anna

PresentationAnna is the last character to feature in the Gospel of the Presentation of Our Lord at the Temple and is even cut off in the abbreviated version of the Gospel. Here are her verses:

There was a prophetess also, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came by just at that moment and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.

The age of eighty-four is a good innings now but must have been so much more remarkable then. Assuming she’d married at the (then) normal age, she would have been fairly young when widowed and lived in that state for for most of her life. Her experiences had not hardened her heart, though. She must have had great trust in God and certainly lived with a lively Hope within her.

How did she manage to keep the flame of Hope ablaze through all those years? Presumably through maintaining a solid prayer life. I do hold a certain admiration for those who evidently have a great faith and deep prayer life but who do not have Sacramental Grace – it must be so much harder! And yet here is Anna, who in 84 years never stepped away from her solid relationship with her Lord, but lived in constant, deep trust and joyful hope, awaiting the coming of the Saviour.

We, who live in anno Domini nostri Jesu, have so much more to be joyful about; we have even more reason to trust and to hope. Let us learn from Anna and resolve each day to praise God and to speak of the Child.

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For more on the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) see here

For more on Anna, see here.

‘Today’

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As we journey through this year with St Luke, whenever we hear Jesus say ‘today’*, we know that there’s something extra important afoot.

Take today’s Gospel, for example (Lk 4:14-22):

Jesus, with the power of the Spirit in him, returned to Galilee; and his reputation spread throughout the countryside. He taught in their synagogues and everyone praised him.  He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day as he usually did. He stood up to read and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written:

The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,

for he has anointed me.

He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,

to proclaim liberty to captives

and to the blind new sight,

to set the downtrodden free,

to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.

He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak to them, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.’ And he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips.

The passage is from Isaiah (61:1-2) and ‘the Lord’s year of favour’ is the Jubilee year**.  Jesus was – right there in Nazareth – proclaiming a Jubilee year!  Since this is the first public act of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel, we need to understand how important this is for Jesus’ ministry.  Albert Vanhoye writes that, ‘In Nazareth Jesus defines his mission as messianic, saying it is the fulfilment of a prophecy which announced the preaching of a jubilee year. The whole of Jesus’ ministry therefore must be understood in this prospective.’

For those listening, however, this was a hard message to accept.  Indeed, they soon ‘hustled him out of town’!  The people of Nazareth had seen and heard something amazing but had not dared let their hearts believe.  Consider what might have happened had they dared to believe!  The Saviour was there in front of them; the King of Kings proclaiming, if you like, an eternal Jubilee… and yet they shut their hearts.

What about us?  The first ‘today’ of St Luke’s Gospel is spoken by the angels to the shepherds: ‘Today in the town of David a saviour has been born toy; he is Christ the Lord.‘  Particularly in this Christmas season, we are aware that the Saviour has come into the world and we know that He is continually present.  Jesus speaks to us today.  Do we hear him?  Do we dare to believe our ears?

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*Luke 2:11; 4:21; 12:28; 13:32 & 33; 19:5 & 9; 22:34 & 61; 23:43 as well as several times in Acts

** If you haven’t already done so, it might be an idea, in the light of this Jubilee year, to read up on the background to Jubilees in the Old Testament.  See, for a start, Leviticus 25.  Bear in mind that this is what all the fuss over the Babylonian exile was about and you’ll begin to see how important this concept of Jubilee was to the Jewish people… and here was a Nazarite proclaiming a Jubilee!

Mary’s song

Mary_Kataphigi_detail (2)Today’s Gospel is Mary’s Song – the Magnificat.  What strikes me about it today is Mary’s description of Israel as ‘his servant‘:

He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy
– according to the promise he made to our ancestors –
of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ (Lk 1:55)

Quite often it seems to me that Israel doesn’t behave like the Servant of Yahweh but more like a headstrong prince or a petulant toddler.  Israel sometimes appears to be looking always for their own advantage, rather than simply the next opportunity to serve.  Why is this?  Perhaps it’s because Yahweh is so generous, forgiving and merciful that Israel forgets the proper dynamics of the covenant and – to some extent – perspective turns on its head.  Time and again, we read of Israel forgetting the good things the Lord has done and instead complaining of their lot and directing, almost, the Lord’s next move.

Israel’s not alone.  When we pray, we ought to be mindful first of who God is and then of who we are.  We come to worship the Lord our God, and yet so often, we come to prayer for what we might get out of it.  The tables appear to be turned: ‘just wait a moment, Lord, till I find time to fit you in’… ‘Lord, I want you to do this for me’…

When we come to Mass this Christmas, we come to worship the Christ-child, to offer Him our whole selves.  Let us pray that we might be mindful of the worship due to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and have the grace to pay him homage on bended knee.

Mercy

IMG_0135On the eve of the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy, just a little thought about the generosity of our Merciful Father…

‘How many times must I forgive my brother?’ asks St Peter (Mt 18:21). For Peter, even though he’d worked out that Jesus’ way was one of forgiveness, he still thought that it was something to be measured out. Jesus, of course, makes known to Peter what he has learned from the Father: not seven times but seventy times seven.

God, the Father of Mercies, delights in showing mercy to those who seek it.

However we, for some reason, act like we don’t know this. Do we think that God’s mercy to us is rationed? Do we think he gets bored of being merciful? Or annoyed with us seeking his mercy yet again? Perhaps we don’t want to ‘pester’ him? Or do we think that we’re so insignificant that our sins are insignificant also? Or worse, that we are too terrible even to ask for his mercy?

Perhaps this is the 101 of God’s Mercy but if so, it’s a good place to start:

God never tires in showing mercy. God, remember, wants us – you and me – to share in his divine life. Let us pray that we never tire of seeking our share in Divine mercy.