BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Rescuing history from Christianity's detractors
, March 31, 2012
THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY:
How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion
by Rodney Stark
(New York: HarperOne)
Hardcover: 512 pages
Reviewed by Bill Muehlenberg
This is another very important and helpful volume by the world-class historian and sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark. He 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 stimulating 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. He writes: “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 only a few thousand Christians in the Roman Empire, but 32 million (or 53 per cent of the population) by 350. There may have been 700 in Rome in 100AD, but 300,000 (or 66 per cent) 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, exposés 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 most 30 people killed a year. 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 is too many indeed, but it is nothing like 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”, writes Stark. Anti-religious intellectuals such as Voltaire and Gibbon tried to make this out to be 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 for 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 was in an age when such activities were commonplace. Moreover, 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 where people may disagree, 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 the Roman Emperor 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 recent volume by Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christianity (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2010). In fact, that book did as much myth-busting on Constantine as the many books by Stark do on other topics. So why has it been completely overlooked in this discussion?
Also, Stark is not one with a very high view of Scripture. For example, he says that the account of rapid 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 in which Stark has been involved for some decades. This volume, like many of his other volumes, deserves a wide and careful reading.
Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at: www.billmuehlenberg.com