Book Review: The Triumph of Christianity

Stark, Rodney. The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. HarperOne, 2011. Kindle edition. 

In The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, Rodney Stark seeks to revise various misconceptions about the “Jesus movement” from it’s inception in first century Rome to the current state of Christianity around the world. Writing from the perspective of a sociologist, he highlights “the three most crucial events, aside from the Christ story, influencing the course of…Christian history” (6). These events are the council of Jerusalem which gave Christianity a multi-ethnic shape and propelled it to the level of a world religion (413), the conversion and edict of Constantine which eliminated doctrinal diversity and unleashed all manner of violence and suppression (415), and the Reformation which “undid much of Constantine’s harm to Christianity” and set the stage for the reinvigoration of Christianity in multiple forms including the Catholic and Pentecostal resurgence in Africa, Latin America, and China (416). 

In support of this thesis, Stark maintains that: 

» The council of Jerusalem was pivotal in positioning Christianity as a viable competitor amidst the religious pluralism of Rome in the first through third centuries. Stark establishes the religious pluralism of ancient Rome by introducing the pagan temple societies and the competition occurring within a multifaceted Judaism in Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth. He then paints a picture of Jesus as a reasonably wealthy and well-trained rabbi rather than a peasant in poverty and seeks to demonstrate that the early church was made up of wealthy converts who had the time and energy to be dissatisfied with their faith, whether Jewish or pagan. The ability of Christianity to mobilize rich and poor alike in showing mercy as well as its welcoming stance towards women made the early Christian movement very attractive amidst the misery so common even for the wealthy in Greco-Roman cities. Stark uses this reconstruction to argue that diversity of gender and economic background were central to the steady 3.4% growth rate of Christianity throughout the first three centuries of its existence. This growth need not be explained by supernatural factors, argues Stark, but rather is the result of the Jerusalem Council’s support for diversity of doctrine and inclusion of others across ethnic and gender boundaries. 

» The conversion and edict of Constantine eliminated doctrinal diversity and unleashed all manner of violence and suppression into the Christian movement that was quite contrary to its founding. Stark sees Constantine as a “mixed blessing” in that he ended persecution for Christianity but by removing religious competition he removed the impetus for piety and dedication especially among the clergy. As persecution waned so also did the depth of discipleship leaving Europe Christian in name but largely pagan in practice. This requires a revision of the idea that paganism was stamped out altogether by Christianity. Somewhat contrary to his thesis, Stark then seeks to correct a variety of misconceptions of the history of Christianity from Constantine to the Reformation. He demonstrates that the Crusades were undertaken at extreme cost of money and life rather than as attempts to colonize and profit at the expense of Muslims. Here, the Crusades are not seen as imposing Christianity on Muslims but rather responding to a foreign invasion. So also, Stark highlights incredible technological progress during what he argues is wrongly labeled the “Dark Age” and dispels the image of a deeply religious medieval Europe as fiction. Finally, he argues that science was birthed out of Christianity not in spite of it. Returning to his thesis in Part 5, Stark argues that the unintended consequence of Constantine’s edict was the formation of two Roman Catholic Churches, the “Church of Power” and the “Church of Piety” (299). The two “churches” existed side by side for centuries with the Church of Power being evidenced in privileged, wealthy, and morally lax clergy and the Church of Piety emerging in reaction as evidenced by the “rapid expansion of monasticism” (303). The Church of Power maintained its position by suppressing the reform of the Church of Piety often labeling it heresy. It is against this backdrop that the Reformation occurred. 

» The Reformation which “undid much of Constantine’s harm to Christianity” was successful in that it survived the Church of Power’s attempts to suppress it (416). In so doing, it reintroduced religious competition and set the stage for the reinvigoration of Christianity in multiple forms including the Catholic and Pentecostal resurgence in Africa, Latin America, and China. A diversion from Stark’s thesis seeks to revise the perception of the Spanish Inquisition challenging the common, bloody portrayal as the creation of anti-Catholic and anti-Spain propaganda propagated by Protestant and British interests. Returning to his thesis, Stark argues against the prevailing Western intellectual assumption that secularization will lead to the disappearance of religion. He does so by demonstrating the vigorous growth of religion and Christianity in particular across the world with the exception of Europe. He argues that Europe’s exception can be explained by “lazy state churches” exhibiting Constantine-like behavior in contrast to the innovation and piety seen in Africa, Latin America, and China. The key difference is the existence of religious competition. 

In my view…

 » The “force” that Stark sees moving the history of the Christian movement is religious competition (see Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1313). His reconstruction places diversity and inclusion as positive drivers of religious competition, and when those factors are fostered Christianity grows. This is a decidedly modern and secular assessment, and it strikes as an apologetic of Christian history aimed specifically at Western intellectuals. Further evidence of this apologetic subtext is his portrayal of Jesus as a wealthy and educated man who chose to identify with the poor (52). This is the ideal self-portrait of a Western intellectual and strikes as a convenient reconstruction for that purpose. In addition, Stark explains conversion as a sociological phenomenon with doctrine being “of very secondary importance in the initial decision to convert” (68) and dismisses miracle stories in the New Testament as “hyperbole” (155). By emphasizing the values of diversity and inclusion, sidestepping the miraculous, and painting Jesus in the colors of Western intellectualism, Stark provides a compelling reconstruction. However, Starks’ “force” does not explain the key question raised by the “historical bedrock” of Palestinian, monotheist Jews suddenly confessing their crucified rabbi to be God (“Historical bedrock” refers to “facts…so strongly evidenced that they are virtually indisputable…any legitimate hypothesis should be built on it” Licona, 56). Conversion is not the most difficult historical event to explain but rather martyrdom. Why would first century Jews be willing to die for the “doctrine” of Jesus’ kingship when he was no longer around? By skipping past this “historical bedrock,” Stark makes his reconstruction more palatable to modern Western intellectuals, but he leaves unanswered the far more fundamental question about the existence of the Jesus movement. To borrow an illustration from Tolstoy, he points to the smoke trailing behind a locomotive and claims the smoke make the locomotive move (Tolstoy, 1321). Clearly the “smoke” of religious competition had something to do with the movement of Christianity throughout the centuries, but to claim that as the “force” fails to account for all the data available to us. 

» Stark claims, “my concerns are historical and sociological, not theological” (2). This would appear to be his attempt to make his “horizons” public in keeping with good historical method (see Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 53). However, evidence of an anti-supernatural presupposition abounds. First, the resurrection of Jesus as a miraculous event explaining the origin of the Christian movement is not considered. Instead, Jesus is seen to gather a following from his family like “most religious innovators” (59). Second, in explaining the growth of the Christian movement, Stark dismisses the explanation of a miracle by both modern writers like Harnack (153) and ancient writers like Luke in Acts 2:41 as “hyperbole” (155). In its place, Stark sidesteps causation and opts for a statistical model of growth that is “plausible” given “credible milestones” and “possible” given observed growth rate of religious movements in the modern era (164). These “milestones” are estimates provided by modern historians and dismisses estimates made by ancient historians such as Luke or Tertullian. He falls into Tolstoy’s trap of answering questions that no one is asking (Tolstoy, 1316). No one wants to know the rate of growth of Christianity over two thousand years. We want to know why it grew. What is more, while he contends that his statistical model is intended “to impose needed discipline on the subject of Christian growth” (164), he demonstrates lack of discipline in that he prejudices modern, anti-supernatural assumptions over against ancient assumptions. Both modern and ancient assumptions remain unverified, and ultimately unsatisfactory in answering the questions that confound us about history. “Why did this happen?” and “What does it all mean?” (Tolstoy, 1316). By contrast, the ancient historian, Luke, repeatedly and consistently answers these questions by pointing to the intervention of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the “force” which explains why something happens instead of nothing and what that something means now not just then. Stark naively assumes that it is possible to operate without theological concerns. The truth is that every reader of the history of the Christian movement carries theological concerns that will inevitably interact with the data emerging from the first century. Stated more firmly, every historian is a theologian if they attempt to answer the questions that matter. The ancients knew this. Moderns blinded by “chronological snobbery” fail to do so (Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Harcourt 1966, 207-8). 

» Stark is at his best when assessing sociological data. Therefore, he is better at the modern era in which more data is available and weaker in the early century where data, especially sociological data, is sparse. Consequently, his reassessment of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch hunts of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries is particularly helpful in bringing to light data contrary to the propaganda promulgated in most European histories (339-340). In addition, his challenge to the prevailing secular notions that religious competition would erode religious affiliation seems decisive (357-8). While Stark’s loose definition of “Christian” is evident in his inclusion of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “Christian denomination,” his point that high demands of members correlates with increased membership not decreased is well made (362). 

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