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.

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