It’s not exactly beach reading, but for those of a certain mind, Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness could prove a page turner. The subtitle — academics invariably include subtitles — makes plain that this is no potboiler: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. And true to academic form the book includes more than 20 pages of footnotes and citations. Stark, however, has written a wise and rollicking work of intellectual history that should be read by Catholics, non-Catholics, and, really, anyone who wants to comment on the Catholic Church’s proper place in some 2,000 years of history.
Stark is coordinator of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist University, and the author of several books: The Rise of Christianity; For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery; and One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism. In short, he’s a distinguished scholar with impeccable academic credentials, and he is working at the top of his game in Bearing False Witness. Of equal importance, he’s not a Roman Catholic. This is no polemic or tract. Stark’s overriding interest is the historical evidence and the most up-to-date scholarship, and he marshals that evidence and scholarship with a great and subdued power.
It also says something about Bearing False Witness that Stark does not spare himself scrutiny. Right from the start of the book, from the first chapter on “The Sins of Anti-Semitism,” he lets readers know when his past views were out sync with the historical record. He covers it all. In addition to the alleged anti-Semitism early on up to Pope Pius XII’s fabled complicity with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, he gives us chapters on the Crusaders and the Inquisition and the Dark Ages.
That is, the so-called Dark Ages, for Stark is at his best in showing how an era or age came by its name and how the vast historical evidence belies the easy — or intentionally hostile — handle. Enter the Dark Ages, which is said to have “fallen” over Europe following the fifth-century collapse of Rome and lasted to at least 1300, a benighted millennium hostile to progress and knowledge, thanks to orthodox Christendom. Even the most educated will be forgiven for accepting this view, which writers from Petrarch to Voltaire, Rousseau to Gibbon advanced for their own purposes. Yet, as Stark points out, “serious scholars” have known for decades that this organizing scheme for Western history is a “complete fraud” and, as Warren Hollister wrote, “an indestructible fossil of self-congratulatory Renaissance humanism.”
All this progress didn’t happen in spite of the Catholic Church or get started only in the fourth century or the 17th century. According to Stark, the rise of the West began late in the second century because of an “extraordinary faith in reason and progress” that originated in Christianity, which held that human reason could unlock God’s creation.
Bearing False Witness deserves a wide audience. It’s full of spunk and verve, wisdom and scholarship.
— Ann Corkery is a partner at the law firm of Stein Mitchell and a former U.S. public delegate to U.N. General Assembly and U.S. delegate to U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.