10 Review: Rodney Stark, God's Battalions

A. Prof. Mark Hutchinson

Dean, Academic Advancement

Alphacrucis College

Rodney Stark, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, New York: HarperOne, 2009, $39.99, pp. 248+bib+index.

There is a species of religious literature common on the bookshelves of chain stores around the world which is commonly called ‘revisionist’. In his recent book God’s Battalions, Rodney Stark (Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, Texas) takes direct aim at the inhabitants of this best selling world, in particular the handwringing literature of people such as Karen Armstrong. It is probably a misnomer to use the word ‘revisionist’ of such literature. Good revisionist literature deliberately engages with opinions from the past within the same body of literature in order to challenge and to stretch the scholarship in the field. The problem with authors like Armstrong, as Stark deliberately sets out to demonstrate by summarising what he considers the quality literature about the Crusades, is that they are not really interested in scholarship at all. Rather, they are part of a broader alliance of opinion makers who share the opinion that Christianity was perhaps an unfortunate mistake, and that the contemporary world would be a better place without it.

A very current example was the decision by ABC Television’s Compass program to air, in the same week the Richard Dawkins was evangelising for atheism in Australia, Howard Jacobson’s personal view of the origins of Christianity in Judaism. Naturally, the program ended up in talking about the Holocaust. The Shoah becomes the hermeneutical interpretation point for 2000 years of Christianity. While, Jacobson kindly proposes, the Holocaust was not a Christian event/process, he concludes that Christian history predisposed the outcomes, and that Christians connived in the process. The enormity of the statement is readily made apparent by imagining a Christian scholar attempting the obverse. The observation that the persecutions of the Christians under the Roman Empire were not ‘a Jewish thing’ but were the result of the Jews ‘conniving’ towards the outcome through their denial of connection to the Jewish origins of Christianity (so rendering them religio illicita), and their political actions resulting in the military suppressions in AD70 and AD132-5, would never find a publisher. Just as one has to ask the question as to why Jacobson has a market on ABC TV, one has to ask why the accounts of Armstrong et. al. have such appeal to the Borders-buyers of the world.

What Stark contributes to the debate in this book is the well-illustrated and unwavering conclusion that authors such as Armstrong and Jacobson are not revisionists so much as ‘anachronists’. Their accounts of the actions of Christians (self-described) through the ages rely upon fixing a hermeneutical interpretation point in the present, against which they first select and then judge everything else. Stark points out what is taught by most balanced historians—that the rise of ‘Christendom’ (particularly in its feudal, militaristic form) was a direct result not only of the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire under Constantine, but of the ‘hammer and anvil’ effect of nearly a thousand years of attempting to sustain the Helleno-Roman synthesis against mass people movements (particularly Germanic and Turkic) from the north, east and south. In other words, if the Crusades were barbaric ‘holy wars’ (a conclusion which he forcefully rejects), they were so because Islamic militarism provoked the response both in terms of general culture formation (defensive feudalism, Poitiers, Charles Martel and the riconquista) and in the proximate causes of the Crusades (oppression of pilgrims and dhimmi peoples, sacking of Santiago de Compostela and destruction of the Holy Sepulchre, the threat to Constantinople etc.) His consistent theme reflects the very proper historical dictum that people should be understood in the context of their times. Ignoring this, authors such as Armstrong will inevitably ‘play down’ Islamic enormities (such as the annihilation of Antioch in 1268), and expand upon Frankish barbarism in order to create a platform for contemporary secular ecumenism.

In entering such debates, of course, the danger is that one will adopt the techniques of the enemy. It would have strengthened Stark’s account if he had adopted Fletcher’s observation that Christendom was formed not only against Islamic ‘barbarism’, but also against Nordic and Mongol ‘barbarisms’. Perhaps because he was attempting to sketch rather more starkly the advances of European civilisation against its Arabophile detractors, he fails to make much of the Norman/ Viking narrative, which is pressing upon the north and western flanks of emerging European civilisation at the same time as the Islamic forces are conquering the Middle East and North Africa. One wonders whether he does himself a disservice at this point—countering one ‘straw man’ with another it is an effective debating technique, but not necessarily a contribution to scholarship. This tendency is to be found throughout the book—the tendency to make apologetic points, of overstating in the other direction, in the hope that it all balances out in the end. If an author attacks another on the basis that the latter has adopted an ‘ends justifies the means’ approach, and yet adopts the same approach, there is a danger that the book will convince only those who were predisposed to agree in the first place.

The reason Stark takes this tack is apparent. He understands that the issue is not so much about the literature, as about the market. Baylor University sits in the middle of the Evangelical attempt to reclaim its place in scholarship, and to counter ‘anachronist’ secularism. It is precisely because he buys into the public debate – which is not about the history, but about the place of Christianity in the globalised public square—that his book is published by a commercial publisher, rather than the traditional evangelical options. In North America, religious debates are public property in the way that they are not in other societies. Perhaps this is the reason that some enthusiastic publishing wonk included the following statement on the inside jacket:

In God's Battalions, award-winning author Rodney Stark takes on the long held view that the Crusades were the first round of European colonialism, conducted for land, Luke, and converts by barbarian Christians who victimised the cultivated Moslems. To the contrary, Stark argues that the Crusades were the first military response to unwarranted Muslim terrorist aggression.

The inclusion of the word ‘terrorist’ does no credit to the sophistication of Stark's approach, and is a bald attempt to tie the book into debates which it specifically tries to avoid. It does however demonstrate the commercial imperative behind the market-positioning of the book by the publisher. As Samuel Johnson noted, 'Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.' In this case, we have a book which is about religious wars, which are swept up into the ongoing culture wars which surround the sporadic outbreak of hot wars in the contemporary Middle East. The combatants are safely ensconced in their market shares, supported by the literate but credulous on both sides. In such a context, truth barely stands a chance.

The fine detail necessarily suffers—for his part, Stark readily conflates the categories of ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’, a lack of nuance which particularly affects the discussions about the cultural qualities of the protagonists. Moreover, as a sociologist he is not attuned to the effects of time— and in this narrative, stretching from 600 AD through to 1300 AD, there is a tendency to emphasise the advances of Europeans, but to dismiss (perhaps largely due to the lack of English-language sources) cultural, political and technological developments in the Islamic world. But then, he readily admits that he is not a historian of the period, and that he is more interested in casting a critical eye over the quality literature and in providing a popular account which strips away some of the cant imposed by contemporary debates.

That said, like most of the lengthy re-examination of Christian history which Stark has produced over the past several decades, the reader is presented with a bracing and unique perspective. Stark scores most significantly when taking on the misrepresentations and misunderstandings passed on through the literature. Unlike Howard Jacobson, he understands the historical nature of Christianity, and is prepared to allow for error. At times, the reader finds themselves cheering him on, for finally being prepared to state ‘the bleeding obvious’: that much contemporary history is still informed by the Enlightenment project; that people of religious faith really are motivated by the spiritual aspects of their cosmologies, which are not simply the result of underlying material forces; that cultures are dynamic and events emerge out of the complexities of social and cultural interaction rather than because of some Shakespearean tragic flaw or lingering evil at the core of a particular culture; and that most historical events occur because of rational historical reasons, rather than because of the intrinsic value of one element over the other. Such observations hold as well for Muslim actors as they do for Christian historical agents. It would be a shame if Stark’s steady eye for the obvious were to be swamped in claims for one side or another. As a whole, Stark's book is an example of the worthy craft of the revisionist. He is a gadfly, calling the popularisers back to the facts. Avoiding transmutation into the very opinionated populism which it opposes is a delicate balancing act, an act which on the whole Stark performs well, if not invariably.

Dr. Mark Hutchinson

University of Western Sydney