on October 26, 2011
I'm a big fan of Rodney Stark because his works are both scholarly and readable, as well as being well-argued, well-researched, and positively revelatory. His new book, "The Triumph of Christianity," is similar to his earlier work, "The Rise of Christianity." However he not only extends the time of his discussion to cover all of church history but has also incorporated what he calls "new perspectives" on some old questions.
I highly recommend "The Triumph of Christianity" for the following reasons. First, Stark presents a lot of intriguing and important information that is hard to find anywhere else. Second, his work is very well-researched and based on this solid research he provides provocative insights into Christianity that are bound to deepen one's understanding. Third, Stark packs an amazing amount of information into one book. Fourth, while being academically sound his writing is also very readable.
Stark's startling insights often overturn a lot of mischievous nonsense about Christianity and common misperceptions. He does it with amazing clarity and authority, and what he says matches up with all I've observed about human behavior and what I've read about sociology. The book would be well worth its price for only a fraction of the revelations Stark communicates. I just finished the Kindle version but am thinking about also ordering a hard copy so I can properly mark it up as I like to do with an important work.
In Part 1, Stark presents a succinct and useful summary of other religions at time of Christ, as well as why Oriental religions (besides Judaism) appealed to the Roman world and paved the way for Christianity. These reasons include emotion, joy, music, the importance of congregations, a religious identity that competed with and could be more important than political or familial identity, and the fact that it offered more opportunities for women. Much of this is information you don't usually see in books on early Christian background, which usually focus on Roman politics or Jewish religion.
Chapter 2 shows the diversity of 1st century Judaism and also contains a wealth of information. I especially like the way Stark applies his model of the religious economy from previous works to the Jewish religious situation of the 1st century.
In Part 2, Chapter 3, I like the way that Stark emphasizes that Christ was a rabbi or teacher (stated many times in the Gospels) over the idea that he was a carpenter (mentioned once in a passage that may actually mean something else). "The Triumph of Christianity" is stuffed with such intriguing and helpful new ways of seeing Christianity. In this chapter, Stark also rehearses an incredibly important theme from some of his other works: the idea that "people tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion."
While Stark had already convinced me in some of his earlier works, it will be astonishing news to some that Christianity appealed especially in the beginning to those of privilege (see Chapter 5). Chapter 6 is also a chapter of revelation as Stark argues persuasively that Christianity created a better (including longer and healthier) life for people, even here on earth. The idea that Christianity exalted women (and also marriage and children) more than other religions or philosophies of the ancient world (Chapter 7) may be old news to some, but it's a crucial idea that needs to be repeated. Stark's Chapter 9 on assessing Christian growth is also a re-statement of his earlier works, but it's a fascinating explanation of how and why Christianity grew so rapidly in the early centuries.
In Part 3 Stark switches gears somewhat as Christianity became established. Stark finds both good and bad in Constantine, which is generally a fair assessment. He explains that while Constantine's conversion ended persecution it also encouraged intolerance toward dissent within the church and greatly reduced the piety and dedication of the clergy. I have a slight disagreement with Stark here: a more positive and more detailed assessment of Constantine is given by Peter Leithart in "Defending Constantine." Stark presents an interesting and informative flow of Christian history as he describes the triumph of Christianity over paganism, which was not the result of Christian persecution but which was also not as complete as usually assumed. He continues with a discussion of Christianity's engagement and retreat from Islam and then re-orients the Crusades in a more positive light, as he does at greater length in "God's Battalions."
In Part 4 Stark rebukes the received wisdom that the rise of Christianity ushered in many centuries of ignorance subsequent to the fall of Rome. In fact, the so-called "Dark Ages" never existed. Lest the reader think Stark is simply slanting everything to make Christianity look nearly perfect, he's also quick to point out that medieval Christians weren't nearly as pious as we imagine they were. Perhaps most importantly, Stark correctly establishes the fact that far from impeding the rise of science, the West was the birthplace of science because of Christianity.
In Part 5 Stark argues that the new religious movements that arose in Europe prior to the fifteenth century are identified as heresies because they failed, while Luther's "heresy" is called the Reformation because it survived. While this is one area where I have to disagree with Stark, he does provide some good information for why the Reformation succeeded. Perhaps the most startling revelation in the book to me is that new research indicates that the Spanish Inquisition was much more a force of moderation than of torture and death than we've been told. I'll have to go and verify that one, but leave it to Stark to reveal it!
Finally, in Part 6 Stark revisits his research on how religions fare when there is religious pluralism, such as established in the United States. Stark's model explains, for example, why the fact that churches have to compete in a religious marketplace is actually a good thing for religion. If you want to read the definitive work on this, then read Stark and Finke's "Acts of Faith." Stark also contends with now disproved theories of secularization that naively assumed religion was on the demise. This, too, is an important truth that will be a startling reversal of the common myths we usually hear. Chapter 22 makes a fitting conclusion to Stark's meaty work because it chronicles the globalization of Christianity and explains some of the reasons why Christianity continues to grow, not the least of which is its cultural flexibility.
I strongly recommend "The Triumph of Christianity" to any serious student of Christianity, from educated laymen to Christian leaders to students and teachers. It explains a great deal about Christianity, all in one place, that you won't hear many other places.
The book is organized according to the following plan:
PART I - Christmas Eve
Chapter One - The Religious Context
Chapter Two - Many Judaisms
PART II - Christianizing the Empire
Chapter Three - Jesus and the Jesus Movement
Chapter Four - Missions to the Jews and the Gentiles
Chapter Five - Christianity and Privilege
Chapter Six - Misery and Mercy
Chapter Seven - Appeals to Women
Chapter Eight - Persecution and Commitment
Chapter Nine - Assessing Christian Growth
PART III - Consolidating Christian Europe
Chapter Ten - Constantine's Very Mixed Blessings
Chapter Eleven - The Demise of Paganism
Chapter Twelve - Islam and the Destruction of Eastern and North African Christianity
Chapter Thirteen - Europe Responds
PART IV - Medieval Currents Chapter Fourteen - The "Dark Ages" and Other Mythical Eras
Chapter Fifteen - The People's Religion
Chapter Sixteen - Faith and the Scientific "Revolution"
PART V - Christianity Divided
Chapter Seventeen - Two "Churches" and the Challenge of Heresy
Chapter Eighteen - Luther's Reformation
Chapter Nineteen - The Shocking Truth About the Spanish Inquisition
PART VI - New Worlds and Christian Growth
Chapter Twenty - Pluralism and American Piety
Chapter Twenty-One - Secularization
Chapter Twenty-Two - Globalization
on November 28, 2011
In the past 15 years, leading sociologist, Stark, has challenged a lot of what is commonly believed about Christianity. This is nothing new since Stark became famous for his challenge of some of the core beliefs held by the academy about religion in general. His basic insight: religion works like a market. When you have religious freedom it leads to competition and innovation, which leads to more religion. When you have a monopoly few believe in it, even though everyone is "forced" to. This insight has been the guiding theme of a series of stunning works Stark has released into the genre of the history of Christianity.
Up until this point, however, if you wanted to benefit from Stark's insight you had to read about a half dozen different books: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force ....,The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success,One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism,For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery,God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. Each of these books took on one or more major misconception held not just by the academy, but also by Christians about Christian history. Now, he has tied the core insights from all of these together into one single work. So if you have read all of his other work on this subject, there is nothing important that is new. If you haven't however, there is now a single book that contains it all!
And the sum is much more significant than the core insight. If you aren't familiar with his work, you will learn from this book that pretty much everything you think about Christianity is wrong. It's not primarily a religion of the poor. It's not on the decline. The Spanish Inquisition was nothing like the movies. The Crusades were not put on by a bunch of villains. There were no dark ages. Christianity led to the rise of science. The list goes on.
The impact of all of this is quite significant. Not only can Christians confidently reject a lot of atheist mythology about their faith, but the building blocks of a new historiography are in place. Coming from the academy with no particular doctrinal allegiance, Stark looks beyond Catholic or Protestant-centric viewpoints which are embedded in everything we think we know about our past. A lot to be learned here for believers and unbelievers alike. Give one to your friends!
on December 8, 2011
Rodney Stark is well-known for dispelling persistent rumors. Many of his books have been well-received and recognized as an example of refreshing scholarship. More importantly, his works have pulled timeless accepted truths into the light, examined them and found them wanting. Those works have covered nearly every epoch of church history. Now he has published a history of the church from its inception to the modern age. Instead of this being an exhaustive treatment, he examines major periods of the church's history, dispels rumors and demonstrates their significance for future periods.
He divides his study into six parts. Each part focuses on the broader periods of history: Early Church, expansion throughout the world, Constantine, the "Dark Ages", The Reformation and the modern age. In every age, the church has triumphed in a world which seeks to destroy it. Despite being razed in A.D. 70, Christianity would ultimately conquer Rome. Caesar was not victorious. Jerusalem conquered Rome.
Stark will argue through each age of Christianity that it has triumphed - though not always in the overt way of kings and kingdoms. It certainly has not been the oppressive majority many of the new Atheists make it out to be; or the religion of the poor or the suppressors of science. Christianity has proven to be the opposite, in fact. That is part of Stark's purpose for writing this book. It combines the scholarship of his many other excellent books into one volume that examines important parts of the church's history in order to dispel rumors and demonstrate the prejudice of the academy towards religion.
As always Stark is well-researched and highly readable. He navigates the treacherous waters of scholarship: shallow-study-in-favor-of-readability on the right and unnecessarily-technical-jargon and difficult-to-follow logic on the left. Additionally, Stark successfully demonstrates that we ought always to be examining our assumed knowledge and its assumptions.
This is a welcome and highly recommended volume. I believe that every lay-person, pastor, scholar and teacher ought to read this book. Assumed knowledge is a plague on our churches, schools and culture. Stark confronts that and provides an excellent solution!
NOTE: In accordance with the regulations of the Federal Trade Commission I would like to state that I received a complementary copy of the aforementioned text for the purposes of review. I was not required to furnish a positive review.
on January 30, 2012
Insightful but flawed. Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity, New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011.
Vigorously argued, broad ranging and full of fascinating insights, this is a thought provoking and enjoyable book, but at times so carelessly written. It is a shame to see such a good read spoiled by mistakes that would not get by in a freshman's term paper. It's more serious than that. The revisions to certain historical perspectives proposed by Professor Stark are important, but when he diminishes his own credibility by flagrant historical errors, the whole purpose of his book is undermined. And that is a shame, because in other respects I think it deserves consideration and a wide readership. A few examples will show what I mean.
"Then the Assyrians arrived in 597 BCE and took thousands of Samarian Jews away to be held as captives in Babylon" (p. 36). In fact it was the Babylonians who arrived in 597 BC and took captives from Jerusalem. The Assyrians came to Samaria in 733 and 722 BC. He just has the wrong nation in the wrong place in the wrong century.
On the same page he has the Samaritan temple "at Nabulus, at the foot of Mount Gerizim." I think he means on the summit of Mount Gerizim near Nablus.
On page 71 he corrects his error about the Assyrians, but this time he mistakes the name of the nation invaded: "In 597 BCE, Israel fell to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar." The northern nation of Israel had ceased to exist in 722 BC; the Babylonians invaded the southern nation of Judah in 597 and again in 587-586 BC. It would be acceptable to refer to Judah as "Israel" in the religious sense of the covenant people of Yahweh, but that does not appear to be the plain sense here.
Stark tells us that the Romans "placed Judea under the rule of a Roman Procurator - a position eventually filled by Pontius Pilate" (p. 34). There is no problem in using the generic word "governor" of Pontius Pilate, but if we want to use his Roman title it should be "Prefect" not "Procurator". The famous inscription from Caesarea runs, "[Pon]tius Pilatus [Praef]ectus Iuda[ea]e."
We are told that both "Peter and Paul accepted intermarriage" between Christians and pagans (p. 134), notwithstanding Paul's own admonition to the contrary in 2 Corinthians 6:14.
Stark confidently asserts, "in early years nearly all Christians were urbanites" (p. 163). I think he could have responded to Pliny's insistence that "it is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult" (Book X. 96: to the Emperor Trajan, translated by Betty Radice, Penguin).
It is a bold writer who claims that today "Italy is as modern as Sweden" (p. 384). Well, parts of Italy perhaps. But that is not stated. I doubt if my Swedish relatives returning from a vacation in the rural south of Italy would feel that way.
And so it goes on, but I had better stop now.
Overall, it's a fascinating book and one I recommend, but be aware that not all "facts" are equal here. Perhaps it was written in haste to meet a deadline. It would have been worth the extra time.
Rodney Stark has become one of my favorite writers since I discovered God's Battalions, his corrective history of the Crusades. The book busted myth after myth with carefully researched and presented fact, and Stark's other books have done the same. The Triumph of Christianity is no exception--Stark takes numerous popular ideas about the history of Christianity and corrects or outright demolishes them.
Especially good are his chapters on the involvement of women in early Christianity. Against many popular feminist critiques from the last fifty years or so--which generally emphasize the "repressive" character of Christian gender roles compared to enlightened present-day models--Stark shows that not only did Christianity offer women a life and system of belief vastly superior to that offered by paganism, it was rapidly and widely embraced by women at a pace far outstripping that of men. Wealthy women were particularly important members and benefactors of the early Church. And it did improve their lives, which Stark advocates as the primary reason for the triumph of Christianity--something of an Applied Pascal's Wager.
Stark also points out the role of wealth in the early Church. Far from the poor and sickly to whom Christianity supposedly appealed at the beginning (an argument popularized by Marx), Stark shows that the wealthy were among the earliest and most numerous converts to the new faith. Jesus himself, far from having been "a desert handyman," as an episode of "Community" put it, could be more accurately described as a contractor working in a rapidly growing section of Judaea--he was also literate and well educated. Stark does solid corrective work on the Crusades again, essentially distilling God's Battalion's into an excellent chapter on the movement, and addresses issues like the Inquisition, which he demonstrates was neither a single institution (there were multiple Inquisitions which operated differently based on time and location), nor as draconian or as bloody as stereotyped.
I could go much further, but other reviewers have already pointed out other strong points of Stark's book--and there are many. I want to address one enormous problem I had with the book, also relating to the Middle Ages.
As related by the evangelical magazine World, which selected The Triumph of Christianity as its Book of the Year (and rightly so), one of the myths Stark demolishes is of the medieval "Age of Faith," a period of widespread and intense personal piety through all levels of society. This may very well be a myth worth discarding, but Stark hardly demolishes it.
The problem is primarily one of evidence and application. Stark relies on a handful of anecdotal complaints about church attendance and clerical literacy from widely separated periods of medieval history, as well as surveys undertaken by the Lutheran church establishment from the middle and late 16th century. These surveys found dismal church attendance and many churches with vacant pulpits of absentee clergy. As to the anecdotal evidence, preachers have complained about church attendance since there was a Church, and is church attendance necessarily equated with religious literacy? In a society with extensive means of lay involvement in religion, the answer would seem to be no. As to the surveys, how is evidence from Post-Reformation German Lutherans supposed to indicate anything about religiosity in Anglo-Saxon England? Crusade-era Languedoc? High Medieval Rhineland?
The point is that Stark's evidence is too narrowly localized in place and time to apply to the entire 1,000-year sweep of medieval Europe. "The Middle Ages" and "medieval Europe" are misleading terms for many reasons, but one very important reason is that they imply sameness for numerous cultures varying greatly over many languages, thousands of miles, and many centuries. And if the enormous popularity of religious lay movements, pilgrimage, Crusading, benefaction to religious orders, religiously-oriented guilds, or even the construction of the cathedrals doesn't argue for popular piety, the scholarship of people like Eamon Duffy (who has carefully reconstructed popular religion in medieval and Reformation Britain, to name one place) should.
Furthermore, Stark builds on his market-based hypothesis for the success of Christianity to suggest the reason Christianity stagnated in medieval Europe was monopoly control of the religious "market" by the Catholic Church which squelched rival options and offered one--and only one--means of "doing" religion. This idea would certainly tickle the ears of the anti-Catholic Fundamentalists I grew up with, but is by no means borne out by a close look at the period. To cite just one example, the sudden rise and growth of the mendicant monastic orders (especially the Franciscans and Dominicans) in the 13th century was an orthodox response to the popularity of Cathar heresy, which usually stressed asceticism at the expense of crucial Christian doctrine. Though skeptical, the Church gave its blessing to the orders and similar movements and their popularity boomed. All this is to say that, far from criticizing Stark's market thesis, I believe that if he researched further he would find that the medieval period reinforces it as a positive example.
Like I said, I don't doubt that there were many places in medieval Europe in which Stark's thesis would apply--but the broadstrokes application and weak research on this topic doesn't conclusively demonstrate that.
I've complained in detail about that section of the book, but I still highly recommend The Triumph of Christianity. It does far, far more good than harm, and perhaps a book on medieval Christianity from Stark, researched with the same diligence he put into his books on the Crusades and early Christianity, would add nuance to his arguments.
on February 18, 2014
One of the more intriguing books I have read is a short work on the philosophy of flight, Inside the Sky, by William Langewiesche. I first heard Langewiesche interviewed on NPR and, partially because airplanes fascinate me, picked up his book. There he makes an astute observation on how piloting with instrumentation conflicts with people’s stubborn resistance to trust the measurements plainly before them. Humans dogged refusal to deny their visceral instincts and preconceptions about their surroundings have led to lamentable disasters in a hundred years of flight. Langewiesche presciently warns that these disasters are unfortunately unavoidable and will continue because we fail to depend on the right instruments.
Rodney Stark, Baylor University sociologist, issues a similar warning through his recent work, The Triumph of Christianity, about needing to deny guttural academic instincts and to trust in careful analytical measurements in studying the history of Christianity. Stark has written a number of books, starting with his publication of The Rise of Christianity in 1996, on the development of Christianity and its singular influence on Western Culture, largely under the same rubric: historians have it mostly wrong. Stark insists that contemporary historians and sociologists have frequently misread the influence of Christianity and attributes their analytical impotence to anachronisms and secularist presumptions about the destructiveness of Christianity. He delights in overturning widely-held assumptions of the academy and vigorously challenges their refusal to examine Christianity’s global benefits. Like Langewiesche’s examples of pilots ignoring instruments, Stark asserts that researches failure to rightly understand Christianity’s progressive growth to eventual domination of the West and its progressive beneficial influence on the world are tied to their refusal to use objective analytical instruments like sociological measurement and comparative religious analysis and instead of have leaned heavily on secularist assumptions that have generally produced shoddy conclusions about Christianity’s history and impact. Stark insists that many studies of the history and development of Christianity have ignored what is plainly before them, that Christianity has had an overwhelmingly positive influence on the world.
Stark’s contrarian analytical insistence continuously pervades throughout his tracing of Christianity’s historical development. Almost with glee he exposes his opponents’ failures of correctly assessing the beginnings of Christianity. He focuses a significant portion of the book on the first three hundred years of Christianity, so much of his disagreement deals with the origins and initial progress of Christianity. He especially casts out the Marxist and Liberation Theology notions that Christianity was a religion originally dominated by ignorant, illiterate masses that only later came under the sway of the authoritarian and theologically-minded church leadership. He convincingly traces the expansion of Christianity not despite its intellectual and cultural effect, but because there was such a significant swelling of thinkers and influencers in society coming into the ranks of Christians. Similar discussions of the influence and place of women in the church and the exponential growth of Christians due to its mercy-ministry both contrast with the surrounding Roman culture and confound conventional contemporary opinions regarding early Christian misogyny and sectarianism. Early, significant influence of intellectuals in the nascent Christian movement continued throughout the growth of Christianity because of a commitment to, not bias against, theological and academic rigors.
While Stark teases his interlocutors with his contrarian interpretations of early Christianity he appears intent on positively inflaming contemporary multiculturalists’ views of Christian intolerance during its post-Constantine ascendancy. He overturns assumptions that Christianity decimated European paganism in the fourth century and clarifies the relationship of Christianity with Islam by insisting that Muslims, not Christianity, were largely the aggressors and sources of many of their ongoing interreligious tensions and conflicts. He pointedly reminds his audience that Islamic decimation of North African Christian communities through aggressive, militaristic action came far before the more measured counter-thrust of the crusades. Even Stark’s view of the egregious Inquisition seeks to correct the scope of its destruction and nuance its role in the overall medieval justice system.
If The Triumph of Christianity has a shortcoming, it perhaps is found in Stark’s overreliance on sociology at the expense of biblical, historical accounts of the church. For instance, in his analysis of the size of the early Christian community, he far too quickly dismisses the renewal records early in Luke’s Book of Acts as imprecise and improbable accounts of the sudden numerical rise of Christianity and thus underestimates the size of the early Jesus Movement. He does so with scant analysis of Doctor Luke’s own careful observation, analysis, and literary allusions to the miraculous-like growth of Christianity throughout Luke’s writing. Critics might seize on this observation and broaden the implication that Stark does the same with those whom he roundly critiques.
Stark closes his work with a provocative analysis of the growth of contemporary religious movements. At his contrarian best, he chides mainline churches for following the marketing advice of their consultants and constantly lowering the doctrinal and behavioral expectations of those that are connected with them. In contrast, Stark observes that those religious groupings that continue to grow are ones that place the most solemn of requirements on their initiates. The expansion of evangelical-rooted movements that are dismantling high doctrinal and behavioral expectations begs the question whether they are hastening down a pathway to their own marginalization. Rodney Stark would caution that we measure that carefully as we proceed to analyze.
This is another very important and helpful volume by the world-class historian and sociologist of religion. Stark has already penned a number of volumes on related themes, but here he offers a detailed look at the spread of Christianity over the last two millennia.
This is not a standard history of Christianity, but more of a thematic approach, with each meaty chapter covering important historical, sociological and ecclesiastical topics. Those already aware of his earlier works will find some familiar territory here, but there are a number of new issues covered as well.
He demolishes a number of widely held myths along the way, and backs up his impressive array of knowledge with prodigious amounts of research. He has done his homework quite carefully, and is fully abreast of contemporary scholarship and the relevant literature.
As to the early spread of the faith, Stark notes that this was not mere "pie in the sky" stuff, but a very this-worldly religion: "Christianity often puts the pie on the table! It makes life better here and now. Not merely in psychological ways, as faith in an attractive afterlife can do, but in terms of concrete, worldly benefits."
Stark reminds us of the enormous growth of Christianity which took place as a result of all this. He estimates that in 40AD there may have been 1000 Christians in the Roman Empire, but 32 million (or 53% of the population) by 350. There may have been 700 in Rome in 100AD, but 300,000 (or 66%) by 300. That is some church growth. Of course figures today are almost the reverse for secular Europe.
But he has a chapter on secularisation in general, and Europe in particular, and reminds us that church attendance was never very high in Europe. Also, state churches of various stripes did not help matters much, resulting in "lazy churches," indifferent believers, and the tendency to hinder or harass other churches.
His specific chapters on various other themes are excellent albeit brief exposes of often fuzzy and confused thinking. For example, his look at the Spanish Inquisition is a major demolition job of the accumulated nonsense which has been written about this. Says Stark, most of what has been written about it "is either an outright lie or a wild exaggeration".
Consider the number of deaths. While reports of hundreds of thousands killed are common, this has nothing to do with reality. During the bloodiest period, there were at tops 30 people a year killed. After this, of 45,000 cases tried, just over 800 were executed. Thus over a two century period we have at most some 2,300 killed. That may be too many indeed, but it has nothing to do with the wild figures so readily thrown around.
What about the so-called Dark Ages? They "not only weren't dim, but were one of the most inventive times in Western history". Antireligious intellectuals like Gibbon and Voltaire tried to make this a dark, backward period, but the opposite was the case. Progress in areas like the arts, music, literature, education and science were quite significant.
Speaking of science, the notion that religion and science have always been at war is another myth which Stark handily dispenses of. Says Stark, "The truth is that not only did Christianity not impede the rise of science; it was essential to it, which is why science arose only in the Christian West! Moreover, there was no sudden `Scientific Revolution'; the great achievements of Copernicus, Newton, and the other stalwarts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the product of normal scientific progress stretching back for centuries."
His chapters on Islam and the Crusades are also goldmines of information and myth-busting. Consider the issue of dhimmitude, or second-class citizenship of non-Muslims. As Stark rightly notes, a "great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance".
Many of the supposed great scientific, literary and artistic achievements of Islam were in fact due to the dhimmies - conquered Jews and Christians - living amongst them. And most subject peoples were "free to choose" conversion - with the only other alternatives being death or enslavement.
As to the Crusades, those involved "were not greedy colonists, but marched east for religious motives and at great risk and personal expense. Many knowingly went bankrupt and few of them lived to return." The Crusades were in fact a defensive response to the previous 450 years of Islamic imperialism.
Also, the crusaders made no attempt to impose Christianity on the Muslims, and the various Crusader "war crimes" have been wildly exaggerated. Sure, some massacres took place, but this in an age when such activities were commonplace. Indeed as Stark laments, why do most histories fail to mention the many horrific Muslim atrocities and massacres, such as the massacre of Antioch?
Of course even a great work such as this may have its weak spots. I found a few areas which folks may disagree with, but they do not detract from the overall strength and brilliance of this book. I was for example quite surprised that he took the usual line about Constantine, finding him to be, all in all, bad news for the church.
Stark does not even mention, let alone take into account, the very important 2010 volume Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart. Indeed, that book did as much myth busting on Constantine as the many books by Stark do on other topics. So why its complete exclusion from this discussion?
Also, Stark is not one with a very high view of Scripture. For example, he says the account of mass church growth in Acts 2 ("about three thousand souls") must be "dismissed as hyperbole". And he considers what he calls "literal inerrancy" and early earth creationism to be so much foolishness. Thus not all will be happy with everything found here.
But all up this is a terrific and much-needed volume. It continues the fine work he has been involved with now for some decades. This volume, like many of his other volumes, deserves a wide and careful reading.
on September 14, 2015
The Triumph of Christianity- by Rodney Stark
A very quick paced book that was an enjoyable read (as opposed to something dry). It basically is a quick overview of some highlights in church history with a commentary of how things became so. Beginning with the time around Jesus, it takes its time to set up a picture of early Christianity before Constantine and then shoots off rather quickly through the middle ages, reformation and into the modern era. Its strengths are in its readability and good job at getting your attention through "you thought it was x, but no, it is really the opposite of x" statements.
The book basically sets out about to explain, historically and sociologically, how Christianity came to become so big (and continues to thrive). He does this well and makes some really interesting points about "competition" and how diversity, rather than causing more trouble, actually turns out to be a vehicle for both growth and peace.
This is a good starting point to know the general flow of history, but because of the length of time it covers (2000+ years), there is sometimes a lack of in depth argument about things that are in truth quite a bit contested (and many things are skipped, like the schism between the East and West). Rather than go into detail about opposing views and their arguments and counter arguments, he often times will brush off a lot of strongly held beliefs sometimes so quickly one wonders if there might be more to it than what he presents.
For example, on page 125, in the chapter about women in the church, he makes an aside about the Pastoral Epistles—"those letters wrongly attributed to Paul". This is a reference to Robin Scroggs point of view, but no use of quotations show that it is Stark's view and way of saying things. Whether the letters were really Paul's is not the point here, only that there is a lot of contention on this issue that Stark brushes off very quickly. Making simple something one knows to be really quite complicated gives uneasiness about accepting other statements face value, even if what he says sounds good for one's point of view. And so, I am left with a lot of questions…did capitalism really come from the "dark ages"? How much did the Spanish Inquisition really try and stop witch hunts? Did Luther really fail at reaching the masses? (no pun intended)
Still, with this quibble (and some others not mentioned) I really liked the book.
On the plus side of things, debunking some wild views about the Spanish Inquisition was interesting and full of a lot of reports and evidence, Christian growth during early Christianity, scientific progress in the "dark ages", where we are often told there was none, motivations behind the crusades and how, not until recently, these were not a big issue with Muslims…these are the arguments that make you want to read more about such and such an era to find out more, and so Stark's knack for debunking commonly accepted views, or at least challenging them, is really enjoyable. Though I mentioned before that there is sometimes a lack of in depth argument, that is not to say that such is always the case. Stark does have some great arguments with a lot of data to back them up and it's when he takes his time that the book really becomes fulfilling.
I think that there is an excitement in trying to find the truth. A lot of times we grow up in such and such a culture and we inherit a lot of views about history that are accepted without further inquiry (one thinks of Stark's example of how people came to believe that "people from back then" believed the world was flat), but this kind of looking into history to find the truth is what Stark ignites in the reader. And so, because of this, the book was quite enjoyable.
--As a side note (not really part of the review), coming from a Christian perspective, as with apologetics, while reading, feelings rise up that say "I'm gonna tell people the right answer now that I know". But sometimes this "knowledge of what's right" can turn into a weapon rather than "truth in love", and so lose its real power. It might be wise for people to keep in mind that simply having a right perspective or truthful view on things doesn't necessarily translate to us breaking down arguments and winning. Lovingly listening, considering and even willing to put some of what we've discovered about history aside for more inquiry (so many times what we think is an obviously right answer turns out not to be so) is what we should continue to do…and perhaps it is having this attitude, coupled with knowing more about history, that can make more differences in the conversations we have. I'm not saying we have to be iffy about everything, just that we should continue to have a gentle and listening disposition.
_The Triumph of Christianity_ is Baylor University sociologist/historian Rodney Clark's revisiting of his previous book _The Rise of Christianity_, in which he expands on parts of the previous book and condenses the rest. As such, the book is both broader in scope and lesser in details. Anyone who is familiar with the populist science writings of Malcolm Gladwell will find Stark's writing style approachable.
Stark begins BEFORE the beginning, sketching an outline of life in the ancient world just before the birth of Jesus. Much of this world will be unfamiliar to readers, particularly the sections on pagan religious life. Later, Stark proposes that Jesus was a bivocational rabbi of some means, who like most rabbis of his time had a mandated fallback career, in this case, carpentry. He goes on to follow the rise of the Church and includes a plethora of interesting facts, many of which are at odds with conventional wisdom:
* The early Church, which was perilously close to extinction for its first 100 years of existence, drew a much higher than normal rate of new converts from among the wealthy, the educated, and the upper middle class. Women were clearly important, far more so than in other religions.
* Monotheistic pagan religions adopted Christianity in far greater numbers than their polytheistic neighbors.
* Paul's mission to the Gentiles was actually more successful to the Jews, and early Christianity was far more Jewish for centuries afterward than is often believed.
* The Romans largely protected the early Church in Palestine, as Jewish persecution was unrelenting without Roman interference. James, one of the early Church leaders, was assassinated by Jewish zealots mostly because Rome was briefly between overseers in the area.
* Persecution of Christians in Rome largely occurred not because of politics, not doctrine. Many Roman leaders died as a result of plotted assassinations or other skullduggery, so any group dedicated to meeting regularly was viewed as a pool for conspirators, a perception the community-loving Christians ran afoul of.
* When Emperor Constantine converted, it gave the Church a boost in support but also led to monolithic church structures corrupted by Roman bureaucracy and nepotism, which ultimately did more harm to the Church than good.
* Monolithic, state-sponsored churches diminish Christianity, while pluralism and some antagonism create vitality.
* The moniker "The Dark Ages" is an unfortunate fabrication and polemic. That time period was nowhere as bleak and unenlightened as some revisionist historians claim. To blame Christianity for creating "adverse" conditions in that time is foolish, especially since many of the breakthroughs in science and culture worldwide in this era were driven by Christians.
* The West became the seat of scientific inquiry because Christians believed God was rational and approachable, while the Middle East believed Allah was too variable to have created an ordered reality and the East believed that an ordered universe could not contain mystery.
* While considered Christian, Europe was never at any time a seriously church-going region of the world. As in earlier times, the Church then was dominated by the presence of the wealthy, educated, and upper middle class, with very little connection to the rural poor.
* For 450 years, the Church was plagued by "terrorism" against pilgrims to the Holy Lands and atrocities committed against Christian towns and regions in the Middle East before the Crusades began. Much of the anti-Crusades mentality today is based on lies and misunderstandings fostered by Enlightenment opponents of the Christian faith.
* The Spanish Inquisition was nowhere as bloody and as "evil" as portrayed in common understanding. In fact, battles between Protestant sects were far more virulent and violent than what the Catholics perpetrated in the Inquisition.
* Because no one sect was able to establish a monolithic majority in the new nation of the United States of America, the nation soon outstripped its European ancestors in piety, though only about 17% of Americans in 1776 attended church regularly, a number less than half what it is today.
* If anything, worldwide, the Christian Church is more vital than it has ever been. Stark, who often teaches in China, notes that despite official antagonism toward non-Chinese polling studies, China is home to about 70 million Christians as of 2011, with the numbers growing rapidly.
Those are just a few of the facts presented in _The Triumph of Christianity_. Many parts of the book will blow away misinformation one hears regularly from the press and from liberal academia. Stark makes a solid case that resentment against Christianity gave too much power and authority to warped history manufactured by Renaissance and Enlightenment gadflies. The book has an almost overwhelming "everything you think you know is wrong" element, which never fails to keep it interesting and generating "hmm, I did not know that" responses.
If the book stumbles in any way, despite it's relentless attributions, it's still a broad overview, with many details left to readers to explore further. Also, Stark is not a theologian, so some of his objections to conservative Christian readings of certain "controversial" Bible verses seem out of place. That said, I nonetheless found his commentary on Jesus as a rabbi and His disciples as men of some financial means to be thought-provoking.
I highly recommend this book to all Christians. Its upbeat and positive focus on how Christianity has bettered the state of the world for most everyone is a breath of fresh air amid the world's disinformation campaign against the Faith and its followers. Essential reading.
on January 1, 2014
This book is very interesting. I am not sure how to start the review. The book has a lot in it. I do think any believer will find it well worth their time to read it. The first part of the book is a rough history of the church. The history goes over things most people will learn something from.This isn't a deep history. The development of theology is almost ignored. He gives some eye opening information about how fast the church as grown under Roman times. It had reached across all levels of society. I liked how he presented information that Jesus and the disciples might have been a biblical version of the middle class. That information sort of recasts the events of the New Testament in a new light.
Then the book moves to a review of various issues that have confronted the church over the past two thousand years. I really liked the chapters about the non PC version of the crusades and the expansion of Islam at the point of a sword. The last couple of books is really eye opening. He reviews the church as it is today. His statistics shows that the church has grown to a stage most of us haven't realized across the globe. All who are familiar with the new testament will know the significance of that piece of information.