Some of the most firmly held beliefs about the church’s history are wrong, according to acclaimed sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark. The things children learn throughout their school years and in college are simply distortions of the truth, claims his new book Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton Press, 2016). Though serious historians have long known the truth about these issues, popular history and media tend toward sensationalism and narratives that confirm their own worldviews. Here, I want to highlight just three of the most common myths we may have heard throughout our education, which Stark writes up in more detail.
1. The Dark Ages
Many historians no longer use the term Dark Ages to refer to the medieval era of Europe. Rather than being an era characterized by the suppression of reason and progress due to the church’s rise in power, the primary loss, if it may be called that, was Europe’s de-centralized political state. Though the literary accomplishments slowed down after the fall of the Roman empire, considerable progress was made in other areas such as technology, education, and morality. Chiefly, all ancient societies were slave societies, and the spread of the gospel and rise of the church disrupted this structure. The Dark Ages should be rejected as a myth created by intellectuals in the 18th century who supposed their own age was one of “Enlightenment” in contrast to supernaturalist eras before them. Peter Leithart writes about this here.
2. The Aggression of the Crusades
Rather than being a military effort to obtain more land, loot, and converts to Christianity, as is commonly believed, this phenomenon needs to be understood as a nuanced movement that was a reaction to militant Islamic expansion. To be sure, some of the crusades degenerated into immoral war crimes and attempts to secure penance was one of the motivating factors for crusading knights, but the general intent by its commissioning emperors and popes was to liberate the holy land from what they understood to be oppressive Turkish conquerors. Jonathan Riley Smith advises readers to rethink the crusades here.
3. The Spanish Inquisition
Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella are infamous for initiating the attempt to rid Spain of heretics in the late 15th century and 16th centuries. But rather than being the calculated torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of victims, as is sometimes claimed, Stark claims that the Inquisition was an attempt to secure relative justice and order during a time of deep social unrest. To be sure, the motives behind these procedures are lamentable, but recent historians place the total number of deaths spanning over two centuries at about 826 of the 44,674 cases, or 1.8% (p. 121).
The most tragic kind of violence and oppression is that which is done in the name of a God who has revealed himself in the life and death of a self-giving savior. To be sure, this kind of violence occurred during all of these contested eras, and the church should rightly lament this aspect of its history. The victims deserve at least that much. The disputed part is to what extent, and to what measure should these eras be reduced to these realities. Readers will have to engage with the evidence for themselves and come to their own conclusions. What we do know is that the church is called to be a community marked by holy love of God and neighbor, and to this end, he has given us the power of his Spirit.