Unconventional wisdom on the Reformation

Professor Stark is determined to be ‘the skunk at the picnic’

Reformation Myths
by Rodney Stark, SPCK, £9.99

It’s looming ever closer. October 31, 2017 will mark exactly 500 years since Martin Luther is said to have nailed those theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The air of commemoration and celebration will only grow stronger, whatever recalcitrant Catholics may say.

Nevertheless, Professor Rodney Stark – not a Catholic, raised Lutheran, a former agnostic and now, as far as I can tell, a non-aligned believer – is determined to be “the skunk at the picnic”. This isn’t really surprising. His past work displays a seemingly insatiable appetite for defending the historical record of the Catholic Church. The English-speaking world, he believes, “remains in the grip of bitter anti-Catholicism”, a prejudice which in turn “acts to certify Protestant virtues”.

Stark begins his latest survey by calling into question the validity of the terms we’ve come to rely on. It’s wrong to talk about the Reformation in the singular, he argues. There were, in fact, several reformations, which, aside from their common rejection of papal authority, were all quite at odds with one another. And “Protestant” is a category he judges now to include “so much variation on such important matters as to be essentially meaningless, except when used very narrowly”.

At this point, however, the professor of social sciences at Baylor University is merely clearing his throat. The driving purpose of Reformation Myths is not really to mess with conventional terminology. Instead, the book sets out to show that a great number of the achievements attributed to the rise of Protestantism are entirely mythical and some of its actual consequences quite miserable.

So Stark ends up going eight rounds with the received wisdom, which, by the end, is on its knees and clinging to the ropes. He begins by taking on the myth of full pews and pious kings – absent on both sides of the original divide, he contends. There is an echo of Mrs Merton’s famous question in his undermining of the religious motivations of the early Protestant princes: “So, Gustavus, what first attracted you to a revolution that meant you could seize millions of kroner worth of Church property?”

Stark also racks up evidence of unprecedented levels of enforced religious observance in the newly Protestant states, which makes one question again the knee-jerk tendency among commentators and politicians to reach for the word “medieval” whenever they wish to damn ISIS, the Taliban and similar.

Other targets include the idea that Protestant nations meant limited monarchies (with good use made of the writings on government of Augustine and Aquinas); Luther’s “vicious anti-Semitism” (which, Professor Stark believes, played a “significant role in legitimating the Holocaust”); and Protestantism’s baleful influence on the rise of nationalism, where Stark becomes almost elegiac in his view of the cosmopolitan Christendom that was lost.

Indeed, the book has, at times, the feel of a greatest hits compilation. Monastic capitalism, the illusory Protestant work ethic and the Catholic Church as a barrier against anti-Jewish violence are all familiar Starkian themes making fresh appearances here. His assault on the purported triumph of secularism remains intriguing, if difficult to swallow whole.

Sometimes Professor Stark takes a gloriously uncomplicated approach to his task. To tackle the myth of the Protestant scientific revolution, he pulls together a table of star scientists from a 140-year period and nine European countries. There are loads of Catholics, plenty of priests, and no overall denominational imbalance.

The pace is frenetic, though – too much so at times. For instance, the journey from the break-up of Christendom to the casualty figures of World War Two is wrapped up in a mere 11 pages.

Equally, Professor Stark does not appear to be at all prone to doubt, with his every word sounding like the final word. He actually exclaims “And that’s that!” at one point. This can be off-putting. Are matters always so clear-cut? There is, for instance, an intriguing school of thought, not mentioned here, about how the rise of Western capitalism can be tied to early adoption of the Church’s ban on cousin marriages. If true, this connection would not undermine any of Stark’s arguments, but it is a hint nevertheless that there may be much more that we need to understand. And it would be interesting to hear Eamon Duffy’s take on his fellow professor’s disparaging account of pre-Reformation popular piety.

It’s worth noting that Rodney Stark believes that the Reformation(s), on the whole, did more good than harm. This extends to the Catholic Church itself, which is “far more effective and successful” when forced to confront Protestant competition. The Church’s “stunning reawakening” in Latin America, he argues, is down to putting aside the politics of Liberation Theology and providing a properly religious response to the rapid growth of intense Protestant faith.

Perhaps Professor Stark has not quite finished shaking this particular tree yet.