Causes in Christian History, From Stark’s “The Triumph of Christianity”

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Book Review, Part 1

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The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion by Rodney Stark.

I’m about one-third of my way through Rodney Stark’s 2012 book, The Triumph of Christianity. an historical survey of sociological causes and effects in Christian history.

Stark is an historical sociologist; and in this work he speaks with that voice, and that voice only. When he speaks of the Christian movement’s effects, that focused sociological approach works well: he’s well within his field. When he speaks of the movement’s causes it’s not so clear-cut. While it’s proper and commendable that he constrain himself to speaking from within his expertise, I find myself wishing  he would acknowledge  other causes outside his expertise might also be in operation.

Causes In Christian History: The Movement’s Rise and Growth

According to Rodney Stark…
Christianity was planted and grew in a religiously pluralistic Roman Empire—but not a very religious empire. Pagan temples abounded, but they had no congregations attached to them, and their patrons were occasional visitors, not members in the sense we think of religious adherents today. There were exceptions: Isis worship and Zoroastrianism developed congregations of followers, and of course Judaism, which at the time of Christ’s birth comprised as many as 10 percent of the empire’s population, was characterized by close-knit communities.

Among the Jews

Judaism varied then as much as Christendom does today: the Hellenic Jews of the Diaspora, for example, held to their monotheism loosely. even naming their sons and daughters with the names of Greek and Roman gods. Still Judaism represented the ancient world’s most vibrant monotheism (Zoroastrianism was an also-ran), which served it well, for nothing matches an ethical monotheism, with its clarity of ideas and its promised eternal rewards, for its ability to attract lifelong committed followers.

Early Christianity spread primarily among Hellenized Jews, according to Stark, and the principal reason for this was its happy combination of an ethical monotheism with a relaxed (compared to traditional Judaism) ceremonial and religious legal structure. The movement grew at an average rate of 3 to 4 percent per decade, with ups and downs of course. Some of the downs were attributable to persecution; but then, so were some of the ups, for even their executioners were impressed with Christians’ strength and joy in dying for their beliefs. Many pagans began investigating into what it was that could induce such strength and joy, and many of them believed.

Amid the Plagues

Christianity grew both numerically and proportionately through the plagues that swept the empire in the first few centuries after Christ. There was martyrdom here as well: for while many were heading for the hills for safety (the famous early physician Galen among them), Christians stayed to care for the sick, exposing themselves and sometimes succumbing to the danger. Through their care many survived, for in many cases what was required was simple nutrition, water, and shelter. This, too, led many to follow Christ. Christianity’s proportion of the population increased also in that they cared for each other, meaning that their relative survival rate was higher than pagans’.

For Women

And Christianity also grew proportionately through its counter-cultural treatment of women and girls. Abortion—a grisly and dangerous affair in those days—was a matter of men’s choice and of severe danger to women’s health. Female infanticide was so rampant that families with two girls were rather exceptional. Adult women therefore were therefore hard for men to find and marry; but then, men didn’t wait for girls to grow up before marrying them: girls were pressed into wedlock in their early teens. Among the Christians, though, it was different: the age of marriage for girls/women was considerably older, and abortion and infanticide were both prohibited—so the population of Christians grew considerably faster than that of the pagans.

Causes Unacknowledged

And so it goes: these explanations for the cause of Christianity’s growth, and others he presents besides these, are fascinatingly insightful; and as far as I have any reason to know, they are also true.

What he never delves into, though, is whether Christianity’s growth might have also come about because its message is true: that God truly was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, that there is real life in Christ, that there is real power in Christ’s presence in the world by way of the Holy Spirit, and that the goodness represented in Christianity was connected to the goodness at the heart of all reality, which might be an additional explanation for how well it “worked” in the world.

For Stark, doctrine is important for its defining and clarifying effect upon a community’s raison d’être, its purposes, its commitments, its actions, and its cohesiveness. Whether it matters that its doctrine be true or not, Stark does not say.

It seems to me that in this book, Stark is speaking what he knows—what he knows specifically as a scholar, that is, and not what else he might believe or know in his larger spheres of interest or knowledge. He’s staying within his discipline, a constraint which strengthens the book, to be sure, in its accomplishing its intended purpose.

And yet I could wish he had at least acknowledged that behind the causes he named, there could have been deeper causes operating—not denying or contradicting the ones he identified, but undergirding them, and explaining them at a more fundamental level.

Still to come:

Rodney Stark on the effects of Christianity in the ancient world, in which his historical/sociological specialization is exactly the right expertise to bring to bear.