Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.
On the first day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: a transformative social vision.
When I first read this book, I found myself agreeing with the points both those who liked the book and those who didn't like it made. (This was the first of Stark's volume's I'd read; I've since read many more.) The man clearly made many good ideas. His discussion of how the Gospel transformed the role of women is itself worth the price of the book, debunking errors about Christianity and women that are ubiquitous among American intellectuals. His insights about the courage believers showed during epidemics and martyrdom is also helpful. But, at the same time, the hubris of social science, a reliance on theories which are most persuasive within the framework in which most of Stark's direct research appeared to have been conducted, sometimes, I thought, caused him to overreach.
He argues, for example, that we do not "need" miracles or mass conversions to explain the growth of the church. Finding a growth rate over three centuries close to the 43% that Mormonism has maintained for the last century, he seemed to suppose he had discovered a scientific principle, which negates the need for "exceptional explanations."
Those who do not with to believe in miracles may find comfort in this explanation, and it is often cited by skeptics. For example, in The End of Christianity, Richard Carrier ham-handedly borrows the argument (without citing Stark, whom he has dismissed elsewhere as an historian), in a chapter pointedly called "Christianity's Success was not Incredible:"
"A full analysis of all the reliable evidence available indicates the rate of growth of Christianity as a whole, from its very beginning and throughout its entire history, was less than 4 percent a year, the same as that of any other aggressively evengalistic religion (such as the Mormon Church) . . . Its rate of development and success was entirely natural/ Since that rate was natural, we should expect its cause was natural, which alone closes the book on Christianity having any supernatural evidence or guidance."
This is, of course, an absurd argument, as Stark himself (in effect) admitted in an interview I conducted a year or so ago. The fact that Christianity grew no more quickly than Mormonism, under entirely different circumstances (persecution, higher overall death rate, no requirement that all young men serve in missions), does nothing at all to undermine reports that that growth included miracles.
When I first read the book, furthermore, I had just returned from a small town in China which, before the revolution, had about 20 Christians, but now had over a thousand. This is a 110% growth rate per decade. For most of that time, preaching was dangerous, and martyrs were seldom allowed to be treated as public heros as Stark described them. Yet this growth rate has been typical in many parts of China. In Anhui province, the church grew about a hundred times (not percent) in just two decades! In practice miracles, mass conversions, and the supernatural preparation of Chinese culture for the Gospel (as Paul and Augustine found in Greco-Roman culture) seem to be playing a tremendous role in these events. I have met people involved in mass conversions and miracles myself.
But as Stark shows, the message of Christmas spread mainly because early Christians did good works, and people found the Gospel attractive.
When I first took a social science course at the University of Washington where Stark teaches 30+ years ago, my immediate reaction was, "What this man is teaching, when translated into ordinary English, seems to reduce to either to common sense or to nonsense." Stark's ideas do not need translating, his style is lively and his thoughts clear. Better yet, his "discoveries" are much more of the first than the second. But most of them are not really surprising, on careful reading of the Bible. And a few may be mistaken.
As Stark told me, this and other books ultimately proved to be stepping stones on his own journey to Christian faith. "It all came to make sense."
Walking that journey with Dr. Stark will change how you see history. His works have immeasurably deepened my own appreciation of how the birth of Jesus has changed the world: how the Gospel improved the status of women, taught people to care for the sick and dying more deeply, and (in later books) invented science and liberated slaves.
Other books by Stark: For the Glory of God is indispensable, as is The Discovery of God. One True God, God's Battalions, and his book on Roman cities are all very worth reading. The gist of his sociological theories, which are very enlightening, can be found in these historical books, or read directly in Acts of Faith. Also look for Stark's article in Sociology of Religion, "Secularization, RIP." It will change how you see the Middle Ages.
Link to Second Day.
(Note: most reviews in this series will be partially adapted from those I posted on Amazon.com, with many corrections and additions, as in this case, and book suggestions at the end.)