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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