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The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion Hardcover – October 25, 2011
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“2012 Book of the Year” (World Magazine)
From the Back Cover
More than 40 percent of the people on earth today are Christians, and their number is growing more rapidly than that of any other major faith. In The Triumph of Christianity, acclaimed religious and social historian Rodney Stark explains how an obscure Jewish sect became the largest, most thriving religion in the world.
In Stark's groundbreaking book The Rise of Christianity, he examined the early success of Christianity and how it conquered Rome. Now, in this much-anticipated volume, Stark tells a far more extensive story, beginning with the religious and social situation prior to the birth of Jesus and continuing to the present.
As it moves through six historical eras, The Triumph of Christianity gets right to Christianity's most pivotal and controversial moments—often turning them on their heads:
Christmas Eve surveys the religious situation within which Christianity began.
Christianizing the Empire looks at Jesus's life and the formative days of the movement he inspired, explaining why Christianity was a reprieve from the miseries of daily life for so many.
Consolidating Christian Europe argues that Constantine's conversion did the church a great deal of harm, examines the gradual demise of paganism, and clarifies the motives behind the Crusades.
Medieval Currents sheds new light on the misleadingly named "Dark Ages" and the essential role that faith played in the scientific revolution.
Christianity Divided examines two Roman Catholic "Churches"—the Church of Piety and the Church of Power—as they respond to the challenges of heresy, Luther's Reformation, and the Spanish Inquisition.
New Worlds and Christian Growth considers the development of religious pluralism in the United States and the continuing vigor of Christianity worldwide, disproving the popular notion that religion must disappear to make room for modernity.
With his signature knack for making the boldest and most original scholarship accessible to all readers, Stark presents the real story behind the tragedies and triumphs that have shaped the trajectory of the Christian faith and, indeed, much of global history. For scholars and armchair historians alike, this is a brisk and thought-provoking journey through events we think we know—and need to reconsider.
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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
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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