I have never watched “Mythbusters”, the iconoclastic Discovery Channel show which tests the veracity of popular urban legends — but I felt like I was in the midst of a Christian history version of the show as I read Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity. The book expands the scope of his earlier volume on the rise of the Christian church, to include the Crusades, the supposed “Dark Ages” and Christian history up the the modern era. Relying on numerous studies from learned historians and sociologists, Stark not only surveys the growth of the Christian church, but also manages to bust many popularly believed myths along the way.
A sample of the many eye-opening passages in the book is this one regarding Columbus and the “flat earth”:
“Amazingly enough, there is no hint about Columbus having to prove that the earth is round in any contemporary accounts … the story was entirely unknown until more than 300 years later when it suddenly appeared in a biography of Columbus published in 1828. The author? Washington Irving (1783-1859), best known for his fiction: in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow he introduced the Headless Horseman. Although the tale about Columbus and the flat earth is equally fictional, Irving presented it as fact. Almost at once the story was eagerly embraced by historians who were so certain of the wickedness and stupidity of the medieval church that they felt no need to seek any additional confirmation, although some of them must have realized that the story had appeared out of nowhere. Anyway, that’s how the tradition that Columbus proved the world was round got into all the textbooks.” (p. 274)
Perhaps you have fallen for some of these other popular “myths” regarding Christian history?
THE GOSPELS WERE NOT WRITTEN DOWN UNTIL YEARS AFTER THEY HAD BEEN PASSED ON THROUGH ORAL TRADITION
“Furthermore, the claim that the Gospel writers depended mainly on oral traditions now seems unlikely … Saul Lieberman (1898-1983) pointed out that it was the ‘general rabbinic practice’ in those days for disciples to write down the teachings of their masters … Why wouldn’t the Christians have done so too?” (p. 57)
THE CRUSADES WERE AN UNPROVOKED ATTACK BY CHRISTIANS ON PEACEFUL MUSLIMS
“A great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance — that, in contrast with Christian brutality against Jews and heretics, Islam showed remarkable tolerance for conquered people … the truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different … peoples often were ‘free to choose’ conversion as an alternative to death or enslavement.” (p. 207)
“It is the accepted myth that during the Crusades an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam. These claims have been utterly refuted by a group of distinguished contemporary historians … The Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations, by many centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West, and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims …” (p. 216)
LEARNING SUFFERED UNDER THE REIGN OF THE CHURCH IN THE ‘DARK AGES’
“… there never were any Dark Ages” (p. 239) Stark follows this assertion with in-depth examples of how the church actually cultivated the academy, and how science grew from the tenets of Christianity, not in spite them.
Iconoclastic is the word that comes to mind to describe The Triumph of Christianity. Stark destroys many common myths regarding Christian history which have stood as idols in the temple of “common knowledge” for generations in some cases. But his book is far from mere gainsaying; it is heavily footnoted with references from modern historians and sociologists.
And although Stark is a professor at Baylor, he is no “Bible thumper” either. In fact, many evangelical Christians will undoubtedly not find him conservative enough for their taste in his views on the authority of scripture and in some of his conclusions. For example, he writes a section against the modern understanding of the inerrancy of scripture that many conservative Christians will disagree with. But that is almost a strength, in a sense, as Stark presents a rational, historical case for his conclusions, based on the best information available from the academy. As is the case with their belief in Jesus, Christians will want to base their faith on the scriptures, not on historical and other academic evidence. But as with their faith in Christ, it is good to know that one can hold these beliefs without checking his mind at the door. There is good objective evidence for it as well, which Stark makes abundantly clear in his book.
Agree with every assertion and conclusion in the book? No. Compelling read and occasionally jaw-dropping iconoclasm? Yes and yes! I’d definitely recommend that you explore Rodney Stark’s “Mythbusters” — er, I mean The Triumph of Christianity!