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What’s New: God’s Battalions

image of book coverRodney Stark has given one of his latest books, God’s Battalions (HarperOne, 2009), a truly inflammatory subtitle: The Case for the Crusades.

It’s probably no coincidence that that subtitle has a distinctly Lee Strobel-esque ring to it; within the first few pages of the introduction it becomes clear that God’s Battalions is clearly an apologetic, rather than apology, for the Church’s medieval expeditionary holy wars. But since when is being pro-Crusades an acceptable position?

In the one course on medieval history I took in college, the Crusades were treated by our well-educated lecturer as some of the bloodiest chapters of the Middle Ages. Wars waged ruthlessly against people of a foreign faith, and with the blessing and support of popes and other Christian leaders — is there anything more¬† hateful or hypocritical than that? In fact, there were not-so-distant echoes in the historical accounts we were assigned to read of truly abominable things like ethnic cleansing, imperialism, and even jihad. This is not an uncommon treatment of the Crusades in our day.

So I for one immediately fell prey to the shock factor of God’s Battalions. But, then again, I only knew half the story.

Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, is known for his brilliance as a sociologist and historian, writing a steady stream of important — and often controversial — books, including the much-discussed volume The Rise of Christianity. He proves no less an able guide and adroit historian in¬†this book.

Stark acknowledges the prevailing modern perspective on the Crusades, during which “an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.” But he quickly turns it on its head, arguing instead that “the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places.”

And this argument he sustains for nearly 250 pages, along the way teaching readers about the ins and outs of the Crusaders and their kingdoms and regularly seizing the opportunity to debunk what he considers the great myths of the Crusades themselves and of the people — Christians and Muslims alike — who were involved in them.

Whether or not you agree with Stark’s version of the history (and you’ll just have to borrow a print copy or e-book from Rolfing to find out), God’s Battalions is a worthwhile and engaging book, written on a popular level yet a rewarding read even for those who already know something about the subject. The Crusades remain a much-contested chapter in world history, and while Stark’s book probably won’t settle the contest altogether, it does promise to radically reframe the conversation.