Rozann Carter reviews Rodney Stark's historical exposé on the Crusades, God's Battalions, taking a closer look at the idea of faith-filled fervor.
A few days ago, one of Father Barron’s cultural commentaries made the CNN.com “Belief Blog
.” As is the case with many of Father’s commentaries, whether on YouTube or anywhere else in the secular media, his words stirred up a deluge of negative rebuttal. As I was sitting at my desk reading through the blog on Tuesday afternoon, the onslaught of verbal attacks in the “comments” section of this media outlet was utterly overwhelming to me, as they were usually in the form of outlandish personal attacks rather than sound philosophical objections. Rather than reading what Father Barron actually said, many of the web critics instead questioned his fervor and intention. Comment after vile comment, I began to feel it imperative to personally make sure that the article was not misconstrued, that his intention was not twisted to prove a personal agenda, that the nature of his objective was properly appreciated. Not yet knowing how to go about it, I still felt it deeply necessary to attempt to reason out what seemed irrational, to set straight the misrepresentations, to defend the intention so as to realign the reaction.
Rodney Stark, the award winning author of The Rise of Christianity; Cities of God; and For the Glory of God, recently published another book called God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades in which he does just that. Stark debunks the commonly held and often emotionally-charged misconceptions about the Church’s intentions in embarking on the 7 major Crusades in the years from 1095 to 1291. The strength of Stark’s approach lies in the fact that he is not attempting to justify the Crusades by analyzing their moral rectitude according to the standards of our modern approach. Rather, he is setting straight the often ill-conceived attempt to convey the crusaders and the Church of that time as a mere money hungry, power driven institution using a cross on their armor to justify the needless bloodshed of innocent victims of a sort of holy imperialism. To be sure, historical critique is always necessary for a well-informed notion of the present. The purpose of the study of history is often to avoid learning the same painful lesson twice. Stark does not deny this necessity. The Crusades deserve a critical eye, and he gives them one. But, he does so with the intention of understanding the world in which these holy battles emerged and with the knowledge of the harmful effects of the popular misrepresentation of the Crusades on the perception of Christianity (and its enemies) today.
Throughout the book, Stark provides evidence to support his eventual conclusion: “The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions.”
To support these claims, Stark goes into great detail about the connection between pious sensibilities and penitential warfare.
He speaks of the incomprehensibility of our modern notion of pacifism in the mind even the most devout knight of this time period.
He goes into great depth on the culture of “pilgrimages” and into the reality of the Islamic torture and persecution of the Christian communities under their control. And, he lays out detail upon grueling detail of the self-sacrificial nature of crusaders who embark upon these wartime pilgrimages, often giving up their lives in the course of the cross-continental journey after having mortgaged their property simply to pay for supplies. He does not assume that every soldier had holy intentions, nor does he claim that the goal remained unilaterally pure as the years of battle surged on. However, Stark examines the crusaders on their own terms, deflating the attempt by modern historians to apply their current sensibilities and often biased perspectives in examining this historical period. He provides the facts to challenge our shallowly accepted response to the Crusades, which also challenges the view of the Crusades as strictly a dark, abominable period in the Church’s history. When these perceptions are re-assessed, we can begin to appreciate the deeper beauty that can be channeled and reproduced: the great fervor for the faith as exhibited by these “holy warriors.”
Attempts at the sort of defense mentioned above, including Mr. Stark’s and my own, teeter upon the fine line between volatility and proper indignation because they find the root of their fervor in a deeper reality: Truth, itself. The blatant, often hateful, and utterly misunderstood and misinformed assault on that which one holds to be true, good, and beautiful stirs the heart to action in a variety of ways—some good, and some not-so-good. The Crusaders, as Stark points out, were undeniably motivated by this assault. So is Father Barron. And down the line, so were Rodney Stark and myself. History has proven, time and again, that this fervor must be carefully coached and very prudently expressed, even within the necessity for an appropriately rich, robust, and powerful manifestation. Fervor for the truth is a gift, yet it must be accompanied by prayer and wisdom in order to manifest its value. The realigned intentionality of the crusaders presented by Rodney Stark relates very deeply to our own intentionality in defending that which we hold most dear by means of a more contemporary battlefield whose accoutrements look more like keyboards and computer screens, blog posts and books. As is the day-to-day struggle with our fallen world, we must prayerfully allow our actions to express the truth of our intentions, and let this faith-filled fervor be a true reflection of the commanding member of God’s Battalions, Jesus.
Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 248.
Rozann Carter is a Production Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.