Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Bearing False Witness and How the West Won by Rodney Stark

Bearing False Witness Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History is pretty much what the subtitle says it is. The sections in this book (Sins of Anti-Semitism, The Suppressed Gospels, Crusading for Land, Loot, and Converts, and so on) often overlap substantially with sections of other books of his. However, it is nice to have all this related work in one place.

Rodney Stark is a sociology professor at Baylor (a Baptist university In the past he said he was agnostic and now considers himself an "independent Christian"), who has written a number of books on religion and sociology and history.

In any era, you can find a distribution of attitudes. It isn't hard to construct any narrative you please by selecting the appropriate examples from each succeeding era. Your reader isn't likely to know whether your examples are typical, or are pivotal characters. That's bad enough. What makes some of the narratives about the Catholic church still worse is the use of outright lies. Many of these are known to scholars, but still show up in textbooks. Stark savages them.

How the West Won The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

Stark has an amusing thesis that the Roman Empire was an unfortunate hiatus between the era of quarrelsome and competitive Greeks and the quarrelsome and competitive Western European tribes. I wasn't aware that the barbarian German tribes had industries and trade that reached almost as far as the Romans did. (The Romans did manage some interesting mass production, which he doesn't describe, though I wonder how much of those technologies were inherited from the Hellenist culture.)

(Spoiler alert: he thinks the West is by and large a good thing, and judges that Christianity and freedom and free enterprise are pillars in it.) He noticed that in major conflicts, typically the Western groups outfought the others. You could argue that that's banal--if they'd lost the big battles there wouldn't have been a West to write about, so of course they won. However, they tended to win the small ones too: their technology and tactics were generally better. Of course, other factors come into play--Spain fell to the Moors because of their internal problems: being quarrelsome doesn't always pay off. (I seem to recall reading that the Crusaders brought home superior castle technology--but Stark is correct that small numbers of Crusaders had outsized impact--they were better fighters.)

Spain didn't decline after the Age of Exploration, the Spanish Empire did--Spain never rose. (The Spanish Armada had to rely on non-Spanish sources for their ships, and even their cannon balls.) Queen Elizabeth is The Pirate Queen.

And so on. Fun reads, slightly polemical--but the polemics are generally justified.

One problem with a Kindle is that while you're reading one book, your Better Half cannot read the other.

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