Bearing False Witness by Rodney Stark

imageSubtitled Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, Stark’s latest work takes ten commonly held critical views concerning the Roman Catholic Church and obliterates them from the face of the planet using sound argument, scholarly citation and statistical analysis.

This book uses plain English and I very much appreciate this approach. The fact is that Stark is not making a rhetorical case for Catholicism (indeed, he is not even a Catholic) but he is offering a robustly constructed historical argument in precise though often confrontational language. This makes the book easy to read, understandable, and accessible. This approach is also unfashionable. The academic world tends to look down on writings that are constructed using plain English. I am convinced that this is because of the wide-ranging influence of fraudalent obscurantists like Jacques Derrida whose postmodern idiom has become a smokescreen for a generation of social scientists whose rhetorical flourishes exist simple for the purpose of obscuring the fact that their arguments are baseless, empty or (most of the time) non-existent. How refreshing therefore to read a book written by a top academic who wants to communicate clearly and forcefully to a wide audience with actual arguments that are backed up by logic and evidence rather than fashionable and elitist posturing.

Stark takes aim at ten commonly held beliefs regarding the supposed backwardness and immorality of the Roman Catholic Church and sets the historical record straight. Two of these chapters stood out for me. Chapter 9, Holy Authoritarianism, takes aim at the myth that the Catholic Church has historically supported dictators and opposed democratic and free forms of society. In a moving series of pages, Stark recounts the horrendous persecution and martyrdom that the Catholic clergy and monastic communities suffered during the French Revolution, the Russian Communist Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. During the latter, for example, the Church was accused of siding with Franco and Hitler against the left-wing Republican revolutionaries. What is often forgetten about the Church’s stance is that it was provoked by the murderous anti-clericalism of the revolutionaries. This desire to rid the state of religion and the subsequent torture and murder of priests, monks and nuns was almost exactly the same in France and Russia during their revolutionary periods:

In 1936, the struggle between the Republican radicals and the conservatives (who controlled the Spanish army) came to a crisis, touching off an anti-Catholic massacre. Scholars now agree that beginning slightly prior to Franco’s intervention in Spain and lasting several months, Republicans murdered 13 bishops, 4,172 diocesan priests and seminarians, 2,364 monks and friars, and 283 nuns – a total of 6,832. And, as in Russia, the deaths often involved bizarre brutality. Some “were hanged, drowned, suffocated, burned to death, or buried alive. On many occasions, victims were tortured…which could include forcing the victims to strip naked, beating, cutting, skinning and mutilation. In the cases of mutilation, there was a morbid fixation on genitalia….Finally, irrespective of the type of death they had suffered, the corpses fo clerics were likely to be dragged through the streets, exposed in public places or desecrated in many ways”. (p.205) (Quotation from de la Cueva, 1998, 368.)

One of the interesting things about Stark’s book is that he rarely speculates on why exactly these anti-Catholic beliefs proliferate and persist to the extent that they do. This is probably because Stark is presenting a factual case which he doesn’t want to obscure through speculation. But, in this case, it seems to me that the willingness to believe that the Roman Catholic Church is an instrument of totalitarian oppression is part of a general myopia especially amongst young hipsters in the West who consider it cool to promote left-wing political viewpoints. Their ignorance of the literally hundreds of millions of people who were murdered under left-wing governments in the twentieth century and their belief that the Nazis and their supporters (including the Catholic Church) were the sole criminals of this period excuses the need to think more seriously about the consequences of the political viewpoints they are promoting.

Secondly, Stark’s chapter on science lays out very clearly the falsity of the belief that modern science appeared out of nowhere around the seventeenth century thanks to martyrs and heroes like Galileo and other proto-secularists. Many people are aware of the almost total falsity of the story of Galileo’s supposed persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church, but perhaps fewer are aware of the overstated place of Nicolaus Copernicus and his ostensible “Copernican Revolution”. The fact is that Copernicus contributed nothing to cosmology apart from the one piece of speculation that the sun was the centre of the solar system, and this he tried (and failed) to prove by speculating that the orbit of the surrounding planets were circular and not elliptic (as Kepler realised a century later). This realisation was simply the next logical step in a series of scientific discoveries that had been going on in Church-founded universities for literally hundreds of years. Stark summarises:

Of course, even with Kepler’s additions, there still was no explanation of why the solar system functioned as it did, or of why, for example, bodies remained in their orbits rather than flying off into space. The achievement of such an explanation awaited Isaac Newton (1642-1727). But over several prior centuries, many essential pieces of such a theory had been assembled: that the universe was a vaccum; that no pushers were needed because once in motion, the heavenly bodies would continue in motion; that the earth turned; that the sun was the center of the solar system; that the orbits were elliptical. (p. 151)

Again, why does the belief persist that the Church opposes “science”? I honestly have no idea but, once again, it takes a certain amount of willful ignorance on the part of Dawkins and others to be unaware of the fact that, rather than being an enemy of modern science, the Catholic Church practically invented it. And there was certainly no break in its development between the so-called Dark Ages and the arrogated Renaissance-Enlightenment periods.

A quick summary of some of the other chapters:

Sins of Anti-Semitism – Although anti-Semitism has been rife throughout history, the Catholic Church has never officially sanctioned it and, throughout the period of the Crusades, openly opposed anti-Semitic mobs in the form of its bishops who protected and sheltered many thousands of Jews in the Rhineland area to their own peril.

The Suppressed Gospels – The Catholic Church didn’t supress the other “lost” Gospels. Rather, these books are centuries older than the canonical Gospels, fraudelent in their authorial claims and Gnostic in theological outlook – often in extremely mysogynistic terms.

Monsters of the Inquisition – Contrary to the ubiquitous belief that the Spanish Inquisition was a murderous outburst of sadistic violence against heretics, it was actually moderate and civilised compared to other penitential systems in mainland Europe. From 1480-1700, for example, an average of ten people per year were sentenced to death under the Inquisition – a low number and ‘a small fraction of  the many thousands of Lutherans, Lollards and Catholics…that Henry VIII is credited with having boiled, burned, beheaded or hanged’. From 1530-1630, the English averaged 750 hangings per year, many of them for minor thefts.

Blessed be Slavery – Rather than sanctioning and promoting slavery for most its history, the Catholic Church abolished slavery a thousand years before the birth of William Wilberforce, and then opposed its resurrection in the Americas. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, for example, clearly outlaws the practice, a prohibition that is indicative of the Church’s general historical stance towards it.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Snuff for Secularists

Having not read the book and watched the first four episodes of the television adaptation, here are some quick thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale is clearly deeply anti-Christian. As so many historians have claimed Christians ruined the past – the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the early modern period and so on – now science fiction writers are predicting that Christians will ruin the future. So it’s nothing new in a sense.

In another sense, however, it is quite new. Most of the dystopian fiction that I’m aware of – 1984, Brave New World, latterly The Hunger Games, the fiction of Ray Bradbury etc. – see the world as a highly secularised, desacralised reality in which the state has made itself the ultimate object of transcendence. This makes perfect sense, and this is always what happens when totalitarian or dictatorial regimes come about: they abolish religion. Why? Because religion has the dangerous feature of commanding a loyalty to something greater than earthly power. (This, incidentally, is why monarchies are such a good idea.) 1984, for instance, (surely the greatest dystopian novel ever written by quite some distance) creates a picture of a society so utterly restrictive in its compelling immanence that the human persons caught within its ambit are crushed by the oppressive atmosphere into comformity at the very deepest emotional and psychological level.

The Handmaid’s Tale by contrast (and this might change, I don’t know) provides no account of how the society depicted could go from a highly secularised, liberal Western democracy to a mad, dictatorial, fundamentalist, religiously-fanatical totalitarian state, nor does it give an account of why the powers that be would want their state to be ordered in such a way. Would highly educated and powerful Westerners all across America suddenly begin to buy into interpretations of Christianity which cause them to throw away all their secular, liberal values and start to enslave and systematically  rape fertile women using only the most absurdly crass and literalistic interpretations of the Bible imaginable? Could the secularising trend of the last four centuries be overturned in a matter of days? Of course not.

The scary thing about 1984 and others is their prescience. The fact that they are a warning to society about what could happen if certain things are taken too far (the whole point of science fiction en generale really): government surveillance, for example, or the right to free speech and thought. That is why 1984 remains so pertinent to this day: its prophetic edge. The Handmaid’s Tale, however, though very well acted and produced on the whole (barring the bizarre soundtrack choices), is ludicrous to the point of farse. And in the absence of a credible scenario, the immense suffering of its protagists simply becomes a kind of anti-Christian torture porn, snuff for secularists.

The Bible and Alternatives to Inerrancy

Inerrancy is the view that the Bible contains no errors of any sort – factual, moral, theological, historical, scientific – and so on. This belief stems from the idea that the very words of the Bible are inspired by God. Therefore, to attribute an error to the Bible is to attribute an error to God. As Ravi Zacharias puts it in this pithy Tweet:

This way of putting the argument is, in my opinion, unhelpful pastorally because it raises the stakes of the conversation to a question of whether or not one is, in denying inerrancy, rebelling against God. It can be a way of scaring people into accepting inerrancy even if they have not been given a convincing reason for its truth or if they have noticed one of the many apparent theological tensions, factual errors or discrepancies in the Bible. They must deny their own observations because they don’t want to question God.

The reason I am writing this post now is because I want to say something positive before I develop some reasons for not believing in inerrancy. Suffice to say that I strongly doubt that inerrancy is true. But I don’t want it to be understood that I am denying the Bible its authority. (In fact, I absolutely believe that it is the inerrantist fundamentalist who denies the Bible’s authority by not paying attention to what it says.) The fact is that there are different and vastly superior ways of thinking about the inspiration of the Bible than the inerrant/fundamentalist suggestion. In this post I will outline three.

Firstly though, let’s think about this word ‘inspiration’. My claim in this post is that the Bible can be thought of as ‘inspired’ without needing to attribute the doctrine of inerrancy to it. By this word ‘inspired’, all I mean is that there is some very important connection between God and the Bible: God inspired (or inspires) the Bible. The key question, however, is how did he inspire the Bible? Or, what kind of Bible did he inspire? The inerrantist view is that God inspired the Bible by getting the Biblical writers to write down the exact words that he wanted to be written. This is why the inerrantist cannot believe that there are errors in the Bible because to believe so would be to attribute errors to God. This view is more-or-less identical to the mainstream Islamic view of the inspiration of the Koran. Indeed many Muslims claim that the main proof of the truth of Islam is the miracle of the Koran. This is because there is no way that a single, illiterate human being, using his own resources, could have written such a book. It is not uncommon to hear Christians who hold to the doctrine of inerrancy making similar apologetic arguments using the Bible. The problem is that this makes the truth of Christianity dependent upon whether or not the Bible is right in every minute detail. And when people find that it is not, they often abandon the faith entirely. (Just a quick side note here, one of my main criticisms of fundamentalism in general is that it shifts the object of Christianity away from Christ and to the Bible, making the Bible the central focus. I am certain that I used to have an idolatrous view of Scripture in which I equated Scripture with Christ himself. In other words, I used to think that a certain book was an object as worthy of worship and adoration as the second person of the Trinity. This was a serious mistake.)

But, is there another way to think about the inspiration of Scripture? The answer is: yes. In fact, there are several. This post is simply an introduction to some of them and by no means exhaustive.

Other Ways to Think About Inspiration

James Barr outlines at least four alternative ways to think about inspiration in Escaping from Fundamentalism.

1) The Incarnation

The incarnation is the moment when the Word became flesh, when the second person of the Trinity became the God-man Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the hypostatic union says that Christ was not one thing – God or man – nor was he two things – God and man – but that he was both at the same time – fully God and fully man. If we think about the Bible in this way it may be helpful. Barr writes:

(This analogy) would suggest that scripture could be at one and the same time a completely human product, having all the weakness, the variability, the contingency, the historically-relatedness of the human, and yet at the same time be the Word of God, through which the eternal God communicates with us, and we with him. Inspiration might then be thought of as the link, the bond, that holds the being of scripture as word of God and its being as word of man together in one.

2) The Effect of Scripture
The concept of inspiration is traditionally attached to the power of the Holy Spirit as it inspired the writers of Scripture, but could it be thought of differently? This view sees the concept of inspiration as the work of the Holy Spirit as it inspires those who read the Scripture now. Scripture on this view takes on a dynamic edge that implies that the Holy Spirit may speak powerfully through it at any point. On this view:

The Bible is the Word of God as and when the divine Spirit breathes through it…It is attached not so much to the origin of scripture, to the time when the words were first formed or written down, but to its effectiveness in a spiritual sense.

This view makes a lot of sense of the experience of reading Scripture, both communally and individually. Is it not true that there are certain times when the Bible seems to be more inspired? Certain times when a passage of Scripture comes alive and speaks something very deeply to the heart? This doesn’t happen all the time, but it does some of the time. Could it be the case that when we experience such a thing we are experiencing the reality of the inspiration of Scripture? A good example would be St. Augustine’s conversion, preceding which he was led by the Spirit of God to pick up and read a certain passage from the book of Romans. Upon reading quite a simple verse of St. Paul’s moral teaching, all of Augustine’s struggles and doubts dissolved and he was wholeheartedly converted.

3) The Inspirational Teacher

This is similar to the view above and it sees the inspiration of the Bible as analogous to an inspirational teacher. The teacher inspires his students, but that inspiration will vary depending on the temperament of the individual, whether he was listening and how hard, his prior knowledge, willingness, abilities and so on. This type of inspiration may only occur from time to time when reading the Bible, but its effects continue throughout the life of the believer as he thinks back to those times of inspired revelation.

4) Justification by Faith

This is another analogy that tries to take seriously the weaknesses and flaws of the biblical writers. There are not many people who think that the apostles were perfect individuals. Indeed, look at St. Peter’s betrayal of Christ and his cowardice before the Jews for which he was rebuked by St. Paul (Gal. 2.12). All the writers of the Bible were partially sinful and limited people just like the rest of humanity, and the things that they wrote indicate their limitations: they didn’t know everything about the world and sometimes made minor historical errors or had different particular viewpoints on certain matters of faith and doctrine and so on. Even given these things, the Holy Spirit still uses the Bible to contain or to transmit ‘the substance of the divine communication through which man is brought to be at peace with God’. This is like justification by faith: even though we are sinful individuals who deserve judgment for our sin, God justifies us by our faith in Christ. On this analogy God “justifies” the Bible by using something which is flawed in order to communicate the message that he wants humanity to hear.

In all of these different models, the main problem that Barr and others are trying to take seriously is the limitations of the humanity of the biblical writers. He writes:

The fundamentalist idea of inspiration seems to imply that all the weakness, human error and even sinfulness that attached itself to the biblical writers as persons, and as they are to be seen in the Bible itself, is suddenly and miraculously turned off when they assume their capacity as writers of the biblical books – surely a very strained and artificial idea.

These alternative views of inerrancy provide ways of thinking about inspiration without the need to believe that the biblical writers became perfect for as long as they were writing the scripture or the need to believe that they became automatons who mindlessly wrote down the exact words of God as though they were in a trance. Rather, the writers were still sinful and some of the things they wrote were factually wrong, contradictory, inadequate pictures of God and so on, and yet God still uses the Bible to communicate himself to mankind and to inspire it to faith and holiness. It seems to me that to abandon inerrancy is not to abandon faith in God but to entrust oneself more fully to God as one becomes aware of one’s need for the continuing presence, guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.