Rethinking Christianity and the Crusades

One of the main reasons people reject Christianity often has little to do with its theological or philosophical claims, but with what they see as the effects of those claims in the world. Whether these effects are encountered firsthand or cited from church history, the harmful actions of Christians are perceived as a serious indictment of Christianity. Of course, it is wrong to dismiss an idea on the basis of a discussion of its social consequences (an idea should first be assessed on whether it conforms to reality – was Jesus who He claimed to be? Does Christianity accurately portray the human condition? Are the NT manuscripts historically accurate?) but even when that is granted, a discussion of Christianity’s actions in history is not irrelevant or unimportant.

The latest book by Rodney Stark, God’s Battalion’s: The Case for the Crusades, is a important entry into that conversation. A sociologist of religion and professor at Baylor University, Stark tackles the topic of the Crusades and offers a counternarrative to the version of history that is often wielded by popular books such as God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The End of Faith. Stark’s book is a continuation of his ongoing examination of the relationship between Christianity and Western civilization. His previous titles (including For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome) have offered a stinging critique of the notion that religion inhibited human learning and progress until an enlightened reason at last rescued the West from the superstitious clutches of the church. In fact, Stark has argued that the success of the West and the development of science, economics, and political freedom were encouraged, not stifled, by Christian ideas. In his 2005 book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Stark forcefully writes:

Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos. A world where most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth — a world truly living in “dark ages.” (p. 233)

The thing is – Stark not only makes radical statements, but is able to support them with hard evidence and impressive scholarship. Before joining Baylor University in 2004, he taught at the University of Washington for 32 years and is the Founding Editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Neither is Stark the only voice charting the positive impact of Christianity. He is joined by other historians and sociologists including A. C. Crombie, Edward Grant, Alvin J. Schmidt, Jonathan Hill, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, Thomas Goldstein and Stanley Jaki.Battalions

In God’s Battalions, Stark takes on the view that the Crusades were the opening round of European colonialism, conducted for land and converts by Christians who victimized the more civilised Muslims. He instead contends that the campaigns were neither colonialist, nor unprovoked, but a military response to Muslim aggression. If his past success at skewing old academic biases that have became foundational myths in contemporary thought and education are an indication, this new book should be worth reading. As Christians, we can often end up having to spend more time apologizing for other Christians than engaging in apologetics for Christ. And while there certainly are evils in Christendom’s past that Christians should be the first to acknowledge and the last to excuse, Stark’s book is a powerful call for Christians to first reflect on what it is that they are called to apologise for, and not be so eager to judge those in circumstances of unique and difficult crises.

Here is what the Publishers Weekly has to say:

It always seems counterintuitive to moderns that warfare and religion can be consistent. Ideally, followers of the prince of peace are to avoid the sword and shield. Clearly, this has not always been the case. Frequently in the crosshairs of critics are the Christian wars against Muslims known as the Crusades, commonly viewed as the birth of European imperialism and the forced spread of Christianity. But what if we’ve had it all wrong? What if the Crusades were a justifiable response to a strong and determined foe? Stark, a prominent sociologist and author of 27 books on history and religion, has penned a compelling argument that these bloody encounters had less to do with spreading Christianity than with responding to an ever more dangerous enemy – the emerging Islamic empire. There is much to be learned here. Filled with fascinating historical glimpses of monks and Templars, priests and pilgrims, kings and contemplatives, Stark pulls it all together and challenges us to reconsider our view of the Crusades.

Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, HarperOne (2009), 288 pages. Available now.