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 all makes for a snappy and instructive read, because the professor actually writes in English, not academic jargon. He never minces words. He’ll tell you what’s historical hogwash and why, and who promoted anti-Catholic history — and who is promoting it today.
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.”
The Romans may have called the conquering Goths “barbarians,” but their chieftain (Alaric) had been a Roman commander, and many of the soldiers had served in the Roman army. It’s also the case that the “barbarian North” had been under the rule of Rome. While intellectuals have not been able to appreciate the technological, commercial, and moral progress that took place in the small communities of medieval Europe, that doesn’t mean the advances did not take place. On the contrary, revolutions in agriculture, weaponry, nonhuman power (water and wind power), transportation, manufacturing, education (the first universities in Paris and Bologna), and morals (the fall of slavery) occurred. Scholars have concluded that the flowering of science that followed during the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century was “an evolution, not a revolution.” As Stark writes: “Just as Copernicus simply took the next implicit step in the cosmology of his day, so too the flowering of science in that era was the culmination of the gradual progress that had been made over previous centuries.”
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.