Remember after 9/11, when Billy Graham's people decided the word "crusade" was too inflammatory? I don't remember the more benign term used for a time after that, but the thinking was, "crusade" might be offensive to Muslims.
That kind of thinking emboldens radical Islam. The imagery of the Crusades – in which large numbers of people in the Middle East swam in their own blood during the gruesome confrontations over Jerusalem – is often used by Muslims, who excel in propaganda. By the way – and this isn't meant as an afterthought – the Jews might have some unpleasant memories of the Crusades, as well.
Rodney Stark, though, in "God's Battalions," makes an argument he should be applauded for: The Crusaders were not expansionist and bullying; rather they were a reaction to Muslim hostilities. The idea that the Crusades were launched in reaction to Muslim aggressiveness is a story too long suppressed, and finally, we have a concise record of what really happened.
This is an engaging book, well-researched and expertly written. Stark represents the best of what happens when a gifted historian combines superb writing skill. One wonders if this book could be the basis of a documentary.
It is perhaps a surprise that what some would consider a conservative view is being published by HarperOne, but then again, all publishers realize today that with the economy the way it is, cash is a powerful lure; a strong book – which "God's Battalions" I is – can be comforting and profitable.
Politically correct history courses tell us that almost a thousand years ago, the Muslim world was a tolerant, advanced civilization in the Arabian desert. Think David Lean and Peter O'Toole as history professors.
Stark, though, paints a different picture, and the social scientist from Baylor makes a compelling case that is was the age-old aggressiveness of the Ishmaelites that brought Christian warriors to Jerusalem.
Stark begins by quite vividly painting a picture of Pope Urban II's speech in 1095, in a French meadow, in which he read from a desperate letter sent by the emperor of Byzantium, who was rightly concerned about the war-like Seljuk Turks – an army within 100 miles of Constantinople. Among other things, the torturing of Christians was becoming a battle tactic of the Muslims. I think this would sound familiar, right now, to Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem.
From there, Stark presents an engrossing tale of the myths and facts of the Crusades. For example, he says clearly that despite what some other historians have said, the Crusader armies were not made up of "the dregs of society" due to terrible economic conditions. Actually, says Stark, there was a period of economic growth in Europe during this time, and not only nobility funded the military excursions, but so did commoners.
Stark also addresses, in skillful fashion, the nuance of this sweeping story. Describing the brutality of a small contingent of Crusaders – "German knights" – who were bent on murdering Jews they found along the way, the bishop of Speyer sheltered that town's Jews (all but 12, who failed to heed warnings and were butchered), illustrating that down through history, while Christendom has a stained record with the Jews, many Christians have come to the aid of the Jews.
It is the encounters that the Crusaders had with Muslims hordes, however, that are most epic (a side-note for the immature reader: Several of the leaders of the Crusades had names that sounded like something straight out of Saturday Night Live: Walter the Penniless, Emicho of Leisingen and so forth).
Recounting an engagement near Tiberias between Crusader forces and the infamous Saladin, Stark adds rich texture to "God's Battalions":
"Then, as the sun rose and with the wind at their backs, Saladin's forces set fire to large collections of brush, and the smoke made it difficult for the Christians to keep track of their units," Stark writes. Carnage then ensued, and, "All of the Templars and Hospitallers taken captive were beheaded; the other captives were enslaved."
Stark does such a good job of fleshing out historical detail, it's difficult to name a favorite portion of the book. However, he shows us that truly, history repeats itself endlessly. In Chapter 10 ("Crusaders Against Egypt"), he shows the reader how critical this ancient land was to stability in the Middle East – just as we are learning in painful ways today.
"God's Battalions" is a wonderful historical record, and readers and historians alike should read it with the gusto it deserves, for the lessons contained in it are instructive for our time. Congratulations to Rodney Stark for harnessing history in such spectacular fashion.
Jim Fletcher has worked in the book publishing industry for 15 years, and is now director of the apologetics group Prophecy Matters. His new book, "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" has just been released by Strang’s Christian Life imprint.