Galileo was tortured by the Inquisition because his discoveries did not jibe with church teachings. Charles Darwin hesitated to publish his work because he feared a backlash from clergy. Missionaries systematically destroyed native cultures around the globe. Millions of witches were burned in the Middle Ages because the church didn't want women to have any power.
All of the above statements have three things in common. One, they are frequently repeated in popular and even scholarly writing. Two, they portray Christians in exceedingly unfavorable light. Three, they are all false.
In the new book Six Modern Myths About Christianity & Western Civilization (InterVarsity), Philip J. Sampson deconstructs such "modern stories of our place in the universe [which] cannot be regarded as history simply because they are recent texts." In addition to the four myths mentioned above, he tackles the notions that Genesis is an environmentalist's nightmare and that Christians loathe the human body.
Sampson traces each myth to its origins, often in the nineteenth century, then gives it the drubbing it deserves. Frequently even a cursory look at the historical facts uncovers fraud. For example, Sampson notes, Galileo was never tortured; he had servants during his imprisonment and died peacefully in his bed. Darwin was far more concerned about ridicule from his scientific colleagues than about opposition from Christians. Missionaries were usually the most vocal opponents of colonial injustices such as slavery, the liquor trade, and the abuse of native women. By the best recent estimates, fewer than 100,000 witches were executed in Europe and North America over 300 years of "witch-hunting," and the numbers were comparatively low in the countries (Italy and Spain) where the Inquisition was strongest.
Glaring factual errors are not, however, Sampson's real prey. He is most interested in exposing the ways in which modern myths, like ancient ones, are used to bolster the authority of ruling powers and discredit potential challengers. Enlightened science proclaims its supremacy over superstitious religion by proving that, when the two clashed in the past, the church always showed itself to be stupid, stubborn, and downright malicious. Pluralism gets a boost by portraying Christianity as the mortal enemy of cultural diversity. Environmentalists, feminists, Wiccans—anyone can shore up claims to legitimacy or even coveted victim status by taking pot shots at the church.
Not only do assaults on the church make Christians look bad and the attackers look good, Sampson argues, such assaults relieve secular powers of responsibility for society's ills. This agenda is particularly evident in the modern witch-hunting myth. Sampson writes, "The fact is that somewhere between 90 and 99 percent of the cruel deaths reported by the story of witch-hunting are fictional. Exaggeration on this scale requires explanation. What can have possessed so wide a range of authors to imagine the torture and execution of millions of women? No doubt there are many social and psychological factors involved here, but by inventing so many deaths and attributing them to the church, the modern mind evades its own responsibilities and gains an alibi for the unprecedented slaughter of the twentieth century."
Sampson does a good job of making serious material highly readable. He has done his research (each chapter has dozens of endnotes), but he doesn't hit readers over the head with it. He also remains quite balanced, considering that his topic is a myth-busting defense of Christianity. Where critics are right and Christians were wrong, Sampson is not afraid to admit it.
Sampson's approach will not, however, appeal to everyone. He overwhelmingly relies on secondary sources, which is appropriate where his point is how badly other writers have mangled the truth but discomfiting where he is attempting to set the record straight. The use of endnotes, rather than footnotes or in-text citation, compounds this problem, because the reader cannot immediately tell how authoritative Sampson's sources really are. Also, Sampson's cases against the myths are uneven—some appeal primarily to Scripture, some to historical facts, some to differences of interpretation. One wonders (a) whether the "winner" would be so clear if different aspects of each case were highlighted, and (b) which form of argumentation is closest to Sampson's expertise. The book's dust jacket declines to identify the author's specialty, noting merely that he holds a Ph.D. in "social sciences."
6 Modern Myths will raise some eyebrows (mine shot up at several points) and give lay people valuable resources for defending Christianity against its cultural despisers. Unfortunately, due to its popular focus, the book will probably do little to curtail the myths' circulation. Erasing each of these misconceptions from societal memory will probably require an all-out scholarly crusade. Perhaps Sampson will inspire some brave souls to take up the task.
Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian History, including a listing of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Six Modern Myths About Christianity & Western Civilization can be ordered from Amazon.com or other book retailers. InterVarsity Press offers more information about the book, including an excerpt.
Fundamentalist historical defenses from Christian HistoryIssue 55 include "Here We Stand | A fundamentalist historian answers the critics of fundamentalism" and "An Army of Conservative Women | Women played a surprisingly prominent role in early fundamentalism."
Questions about missionary motives and accomplishments are addressed in "Great White Father | After Livingstone opened Africa, Western missionaries moved in by the thousands. Did they hurt or help Africans?" from Christian HistoryIssue 56.
Christian History Corner examined Galileo's life more closely a couple of week's ago in "The Heavens Declare the Glory of God | Like Paul, Galileo believed that God made himself known through creation."
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
1,700 Years of Faith | Armenian Christians celebrate their heritage and look to their future. (Jan. 26, 2001)
This Is Your Life | Exploring the "well-worn sawdust trail" between fundamentalists and evangelicals. (Jan. 19, 2000)
The Heavens Declare the Glory of God | Like Paul, Galileo believed that God made himself known through creation. (Jan. 5, 2000)
Festive Flora | Deck the halls with boughs of pagan significance, falalalala, lalalala. (Dec. 22, 2000)
Peace on Earth? | Christmas Carols and the Civil War (Dec. 15, 2000)
Why December 25? | The month and day of Christ's birth have been hotly disputed for centuries. (Dec. 8, 2000)
The Book Everyone Should Buy | Or at least know about, anyway. (Dec. 1, 2000)
The Saga of St. Chad | A tale of political maneuvers and positioning. Sound familiar? (Nov. 22, 2000)
Accidental Radical | Jan Hus's ideas seem normal now, but in his age they were revolutionary enough to merit death. (November 17, 2000)
Top 10 Reasons to Read This Book | A list of Christian books that changed the century introduces authors and their impact on evangelicalism. (Nov. 10, 2000)
The Un-Denomination | The Southern Baptist Convention has been historically Un-Conventional. (Nov. 3, 2000)
Soul Crisis at the Conference on Faith and History | Academics gather asking questions like, "What does 'Christian history' actually mean?" (Oct. 27, 2000)
Case of the Missing Relic | A piece of Jesus' cross is stolen from a Toronto cathedral—or is it? (Oct. 20, 2000)
The Politicians' Patron | Is Thomas More a saintly model? (Oct. 13, 2000)
General Revelations | Reconsidering Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. (Oct. 6, 2000)
Olympia Revisited | Christianity and the Olympic Games were once competitors, but at other times have been on the same team. (Sept. 29, 2000)