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John Dickson on Accurately Appraising Religious History

Christians have to acknowledge just how serious is the complaint today that the church acted despicably throughout its history. This is not just a Roman Catholic problem, with their Crusades and Inquisitions. Protestants have their own dark history. Martin Luther, the German founder of Protestantism, wrote the most awful things about European Jews in his 1543 tract “The Jews and Their Lies”. John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition and one of my favourite theologians, was brutal in his treatment of heretics like Michael Servetus, whom he had executed in 1553. The case is serious. But there is also something wrong with most modern versions of the complaint. First, retellings of the evils of Christianity frequently involve gross exaggerations in popular discussion. This is the product of an unnoticed propaganda. … [E]very new era retells the past in a way that elevates its own position as the great deliverer, the bringer of special freedoms; and that necessarily requires exaggerating, even lying, about the horrors of the past. We do this on a small scale when we talk about the moralism of the 1950s or the prudishness of Victorian England. It happened on a macro scale in the 18th-19th centuries … when Enlightenment leaders popularised the expression ‘Dark Ages’. Here was an attempt to describe the era of Christendom as an era of oppression, ignorance and violence, as opposed to the era of freedom and peace brought about by secular reason. No serious historian today could go along with this story. … I … ask readers to contemplate an important insight. Experts aside, most of us have picked up our knowledge of the Crusades, the Inquisitions and other horrors of Christendom from sources other than respectable academic literature. Is it not possible that we have simply accepted mere propaganda as fact?


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