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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
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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.
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on July 9, 2015
A noteworthy effort about the Rise of Christianity, but there are some flaws. First, I should note the good parts.

I think it's mostly accessible to beginners in this area of history. I read a lot about Christian history. I think there were parts where Stark could have gone more in depth but he did not. So I think a complete beginner could read this. It feels dense but never too confusing. I think there are some areas of difficulty but overall it's good. It's not a complete laymen book. It achieves the rare feat of actually being serviceable to history buffs and laymen. It skews slightly toward the history buff but not so much that a laymen could not enjoy it. That gets the book about three stars right there.

The other star is just for presenting the information in a way that felt honest. I don't know if the author is a Christian. There are some things in the book where Christians would probably say "Heck yes." Stark is down on the scholars who glorify Roman culture, noting that nothing innovative came from that time period. He quotes from a Roman civil servant who stated that their technological capabilities had basically been tapped out. Roman society never really produced anything noteworthy besides some architecture and rudimentary sewage. This was a time when people threw buckets of feces out their windows into a gutter of more feces. It smelled all the time. Stark notes that even the dead were left to rot in the streets. When terrible diseases broke out, Christians banded together to help each other and the afflicted. Those that believed in pagan gods didn't take part in any such charity. Stark argues that they didn't believe the gods cared about them. Christianity's personal God and the life of Jesus, specifically, encouraged action in people, unlike the pagan gods. Christian love advocated helping those outside ones own network of family and friends. Pagans believed that mercy was a defect. Despite no real medical technology, it was enough for those on the brink of death to receive even the most rudimentary care. Many people died. But those that would have died without basic care, survived thanks to the efforts of Christians. For some people, this meant just being provided food and water. This was a time of no medicine. So as soon as people were sick they were avoided at all costs. Some were left to die in the streets.

Sections like this were a high point in the book. However, I feel like a lot of the content didn't match the title of the book. It wasn't exactly a strict tale of Christian growth.

The book begins about after the time of Paul. It charts the growth of early Christianity by mostly comparing it to paganism and other belief systems of the time. Early church fathers were mentioned. Guys like Origen and Iraneus. But it was mostly against the backdrop of paganism. Christianity seemed to have been more favorable to a lot of people. But Stark defends paganism in the sense that Christianity did not wipe it out completely. He shows how Christianity grew according to modest growth rate models. This would be an area where non-Christians might feel vindicated as there seems to be no miraculous explanation for converts. He offered a reasonable growth rate of 3.4%. And that was enough to get to 30 million followers (I forget what year).

About halfway through the book, I felt like things started to go awry. Stark talks extensively about the Crusades. I suppose it's impossible to talk about Christianity without mentioning them. But he offers a defense of the crusades in light of modern scholarship which seeks to vilify Christianity through the crusades. It's easy to tell that Stark has a bone to pick here. For what it's worth, he makes an excellent case. I just didn't think that the crusades were actually on point with regards to how Christianity grew. I purchased the book because I was expecting more of an early centuries approach about how Christianity spread: a real nuts and bolts look into how the gospels likely got around, who the church fathers were, and what were their sources. This book is not that. I'm still looking for that book though.

Overall, this book is satisfactory. If you want a cursory glance at Christianity without getting bogged down in academic minutia, then this is the book for you.
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on December 30, 2013
Right away I need to admit that I'm a pastor and a devoted Christian, and there were sections of this book that contradicted things I had previously accepted as fact and even taught from the pulpit... which is why this book gets 5 stars, and why I would make it mandatory reading for any Christian who wants a serious, truthful understanding of the origins of our faith. This book took me to school and adjusted areas of my historical knowledge and even my understanding of the Bible that badly needed a tweak. Understand, of course, that I read it through my devout Christian filter and I'm mature enough to handle the information and draw my own conclusions. I know it's not the Bible and that Stark doesn't necessarily write from a Christian perspective or cite Evangelical scholars, but this is material that thinking Christians need to absorb and contemplate.
It would be easy to praise Stark for freely slicing through all the anti-Christian, anti-religion garbage that's been produced by his sociologist colleagues since Modernism decided to paint a target on faith, but I'll admit my bias in that area and move on. What made this book worth every last cent were the following things:

-In typical Stark fashion, he never presents an argument or an opinion without data! That is a dying art in any field, but especially were religion and sociology intersect.
-His depictions of the devotion to charity of early Christians is moving and inspiring, especially the section about the church caring for Roman plague victims who were abandoned by their families.
-His treatment of the political and economic conditions during the time of Jesus adds depth and color to the Jesus story without taking anything away from the gospels.
-One chapter in this book includes the best information about Constantine's conversion and the establishment of Christianity in Rome that I have ever read, from any author.
-The chapters on medieval Christianity and the Spanish Inquisition will shock your ideas of those time periods and straighten you out with cold, hard facts.
-His treatment of the Reformation adds background socioeconomic information about Europe that is usually left out of the spiritualized Protestant accounts.

This book will help any Christian put their faith and the current state of the church in perspective. If we're honest, Christians will admit that in "Triumph", we look good when we are faithful and we look bad when we are dissolute, and that is as it should be.

A final point - Stark's writing style is extraordinarily readable, not boring at all if the subject interests you, and this one is fascinating.
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on August 28, 2016
I'm a sucker for "everything you thought you knew was wrong!" books, and The Triumph of Christianity is a perfect example. I'm still grappling with his understanding of who Jesus was, and how the early Christian movement made its mark. Stark is not a Christian, but has made it his life's work to figure out how Christianity became the world's dominant religion. Along the way, he debunks many of the myths that have accumulated in academic and popular circles about the rise of Christianity. Myths like:

* Christianity appeals primarily to the poor and oppressed
* Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire
* Constantine stamped out paganism by force
* The Dark Ages was an era of scientific and cultural stagnation
* The Enlightenment was a time of radical scientific and cultural rebirth
* The Crusades were the start of Christian colonialism, and displayed Christianity as uniquely brutal and corrupt
* Luther's Reformation succeeded because of superior doctrine and religious toleration
* Science and faith are opposites, and the growth of one necessitates the reduction of the other

And so on. The book's hard to put down, and is a whole lot of fun. Highly recommended.
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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.
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on June 28, 2013
My favorite subject in high school was history. We had a year of Western Civ, a year of American History and finally a year of modern history. The class I hated most freshman year of college was a history course. The difference? Our high school was the guinea pig for Harvard U's education programs. We had no text books, we read original documents and a plethora of historians' and social scientists' perspectives on topics. Every summer, we had reading to do...before Western Civ, we got a packet with stories about three teens. One was the son of a Jewish (immigrant) deli owner in Brooklyn. The second was an American Indian and the fourth was a 'mid-western' youth. The stories involved the boys and their dads. When we got to class in September, the teacher asked what we thought of the writings. Most of the class wondered what they had to do with anything. But some of us, saw them as generational/cultural conflicts. Each boy is immersed in a different milieu but the conflict remains the same. So we discussed the reason for the conflicts. It was cultural Anthropology/sociology (which ended up being my major). History was taught through this lens rather than facts and dates. Time periods were important, why was far more important than when and the interplay of culture, place and generation created the background for a very full picture. For me, this is what Rodney Stark does in all his books. He doesn't care who wins but rather why they win, what was it that made one side successful and the other not so much, and how that 'win' or 'lose' affects the next chapter in the history of Christianity. Who was right or wrong is not part of the equation.

He has no dog in the chase, so he calls on all the facts that are out there, not only those that move a particular agenda along. It is really the way all history should be taught. They say history is written by the winners. Good history is written by the objective observer. In Church history, there are very few of those. Mr. Stark one of those rare observers; he is a gift given to the Church.
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on May 23, 2017
Stark is very unique because he explains things very plainly, doesn't use jargon to confuse, and it's quite accessible by just about everyone. He also makes his point and moves on he doesn't take pages to explain something when a paragraph would do, it's refreshing to read someone like this.
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on July 9, 2012
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.

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on February 16, 2016
I have read more than one history of Christianity and get bored half way through with the very dry discussion of events. I did not know the author was a sociologist. I started reading the book at friend's house and bought my own to finish it. I found the text most interesting because along with the events he discusses the personalities and people interactions of the time. We may never know for certain all about the people that inhabited those early house churches, but it sure make reading the history more personal. I read about the author after reading his book and said to myself, oh that makes sense.
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