Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The First Book of Christmas: "Rise of Christianity"

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. 

Day 1:  Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity

How did Christianity spread in the Roman Empire?  By force?  By burning down libraries and blowing up pagan temples?  By oppressing women? 

Hardly.  As Dr. Stark, one of the world's leading sociologists of religion, shows in this landmark study, the Gospel spread because Greeks and Romans found it attractive for good reasons.  Christians aided the poor and sick, even at the risk of their own lives -- leading to higher survival rates, overall.  Women were given a higher status in the early church than in society as a whole. 

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 StarkFor 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, with many corrections and additions, as in this case, and book suggestions at the end.)


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but Stark is nothing but an apologist for Christianity and renowned scholars have shown just how shoddy his books are. As one example his take on slavery and Christianity is horrible. One very good example is Stark's statements about St. Thomas Aquinas, who he argues on page 329 to 330 that Aquinas paid very little attention to slavery and that it was a "thing of the past." This is wrong. Aquinas grew up in the Kingdom of Sicily until his 20's. In the 13th century the Kingdom of Sicily "was thriving with the slave trade."

In his Summa Aquinas says explicitly that slavery is not against natural law: "Considered absolutely, the fact that this particular man should be a slave rather than another man is based, not on natural reason, but on some resultant utility, in that it is useful to this man to be ruled by a wiser man, and to the latter to be helped by the former as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states... Wherefore slavery which belongs to the right of nations is natural in the second way but not the first."

He believed that slavery was against the first natural law, but not the second.

Arguing that there is such a thing as "just" and "unjust" slavery is not in any way a step toward abolition since slave masters could come up with multiple reasons why slavery is good for the slave.

Aquinas also wrote how he believed that slaves should do what their masters tell them, and given this, how can he say he was against slavery? "[A] subject is bound to obey his superior within the sphere of his authority; for instance...a servant his master in matters touching the execution of the duties of his service..."

I agree. If someone reads Stark they will definitely have a different view of history. A view that ignores facts and is geared more toward saving the face of Christianity than remaining historically truthful.

David B Marshall said...

You discredit yourself with your very first sentence. Stark was of the most eminent sociologists of religion before he even became a Christian. In fact, Rise of Christianity, the book I am featuring here, was written before he converted. I learned about it in a very positive review in Newsweek. Atheists like Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins often cite him approvingly, in an effort to pad their own thin religious studies resumes.

The book you appear to be attacking is For the Glory of God. You should say so. I lost my copy, and in any case didn't make any points about Aquinas' view of slavery here, so it would be going pretty far afield to respond to your attack on him at that point. One wonders why you chose to focus on something so far removed from the subject of this blog.

If you respond, please give your name, and focus on the actual issues.

Anonymous said...

LOL He may have been great in his field of sociology but his “research” on history (which is not his expertise anyway) is horrible. Yes the book I am critiquing – not attacking – is The Glory of God. I am sticking to the subject at hand. Your post is about how great Stark is and you also mention the Glory of God and call it “indispensable” so I am well within the subject of the blog post in question. If you don't want “anonymous” comments I'm sure you could disable them.

These facts demonstrate the nonsense Stark peddles in his books (and yours as well) and your reply makes it obvious that you have no answer to the facts presented.

David B Marshall said...

Yes, you're obviously the same character who posted anonymous "critiques" of like quality in the past.

You said "Stark is nothing but an apologist for Christianity and renowned scholars have shown just how shoddy his books are."

You never named those "renowned scholars." You now back down on your absurd evaluation of Stark ("nothing but") slightly, and take some cheap shots at me, to cover your rear end as you retreat.

No, you are not "critiquing" For the Glory of God. You're cherry-picking one insignificant point in a long book that is, in itself, a paranthetical point in my blog OP.

Stark covers a lot of historical territory, and yes, makes some mistakes along the way -- as does any writer who attempts anything so sweeping. I point some of those mistakes out myself, even in my OP.

All your ad hominem attack (not critique) suggests is that you're full of anger, disinclined to think in a balanced way, lack generosity of spirit in evaluating books (only what picayune errors you think you find count, even in so substantial a work as For the Glory of God), and are, apparently, lacking for anything productive to do this season.

Scrooge reformed, so there's hope. Best of luck getting in the holiday cheer.

Anonymous said...

LOL You're so delusional it's funny. You obviously have no clue what an ad hom is. I said he wasn't a historian which is true. His expertise is only in sociology which casts doubt on his books that are on topics that are outside of his area of expertise. I also provided a few examples of his errors.

You're clearly projecting with your last statement so it requires no response.

David B Marshall said...

TB: You're set in your ways, and I don't expect you to learn anything from me, or anyone else. But I think I'll give you a bit of advice, anyway, in case a more open-minded skeptic happens by this stretch of desert, notices your bones sticking out of the sand, and takes heed.

In your final post, you pretend visible falsehoods about what anyone can see above:

* You did, of course, use ad hominem, which means to substitute personal attacks on someone (Stark, then me) for a refutation of the points at issue. This is obvious from the fact that, EVEN IF your one substantive claim were true (about slavery), NOTHING I said would thereby be disproven in the slightest.

* You now claim to have given "a few examples" of Stark's errors. In fact, you only attempt to offer one, or at most one in two parts.

* You again fail to back up your claim that "renowned historians" show how "shoddy" Stark's "books" are, or even that any of them CLAIM this. (In this context, that must include Rise of Christianity to be relevant.)

* Now you try to obscure your original claim that Stark is "nothing but an apologist" who writes "shoddy books" by claiming you were merely denying he was an historian! Heh.

You attempt to denigrate Stark's work based on one supposed error (I could and have named others), and refutations by "renowned historians" whom you apparently can't name.

By contrast (just to pound your scurilous attacks into the ground), here are a few genuinely renowned historians who, like me, find much of value in Stark's work, providing enthusiastic "blurbs" for the back covers of four of his books:

* Irving Hexham, Calgary U.

* Roger Bagnall, Columbia.

* Jeffrey Burton Russell (UC Santa Barbara, Harvard, Notre Dame, etc)

* Justo Gonzalez, Emory

* Phillip Jenkins, Penn State

So here's my advice. Don't begin with a bombastic claim whose truth you have not examined first. If you do that and you're challenged, you'll be forced to retreat. And then you'll be tempted to insults (as in your second and third posts) to cover your errors. Very likely, in humiliation, you won't retreat to a defensible position this time, either. Then when you're dislodged again ("the history Stark peddles is 'nonsense'"), you'll have to fall back to all the silly, face-saving expediants of your third post.

An intelligent disputant begins an argument either by staking out a position he knows to be solid to begin with, then defending it (fortified infantry), or by giving himself wiggle room (calvary), by expressing his views cautiously, so that he can abandon them without dishonor, should the point prove untenable.

Better not to be thrown on the defensive in the first place, than to try to "cover" your retreat with empty bluster.

I'd call that a "word to the wise," but I think I know whom I'm really addressing.