Stark, Rodney. “The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion.” New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011. 506 pp.
Every story worth telling is worth telling well, and Rodney Stark is worried that the story of Christianity has often been told poorly. The Enlightenment in general, and Hobbes and Voltaire in particular have exalted their own times and ideals by maligning what went before: religion belongs to oppressive regimes and unwashed masses, and this shackle on the advancement of civilization and the development of the individual mind must be shrugged off as reason begins to shine. Stark, a noted sociologist of religion, knows that this old chestnut does not mesh with observable facts, and sets out to provide a counter-narrative.
His offering is compelling and his style engaging. The chapter on the Spanish Inquisition provides strong analysis of the extensive texts and records from Aragon and Castile to argue that the Inquisition was exemplary in moderation, humanity, and due process in an age where minority religions were widely persecuted. While it is not uncommon to note that Christianity has not (as secularists would have us believe) been antithetical to science, Stark goes further by noting the disproportionate numbers of believers among scientists and mathematicians (in contrast, as he dutifully informs us, to social scientists). He also locates this fact in the Judeo-Christian belief in a God who is a rational creator of a rational world. He devotes considerable effort to situating Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, where its original appeal was to the large numbers of hellenized Jews in the Empire, for whom Christianity offered a bridge between their Jewish roots and the Greek world which surrounded them. Unfortunately, Stark neglects to treat the relation between Christianity and the philosophies of late antiquity, a necessary element of any attempt to situate it in that world.
Sometimes, Stark over-argues his case. While he is right that the Crusades were not the utter blight on human history which we are told about, he pushes the stick too far in the other direction, concluding flatly in their favor: “No apologies are required.” His paradigm of the Church of Piety and the Church of Power is a useful tool for thinking about lax and strict elements in the church, but he sometimes almost seems to forget that there were not, in fact, two clearly delineated rivaling ecclesial bodies.
The most striking element of Stark’s story is his strong and compelling argument that Christianity is thriving today. Indeed, it is stronger now than it has ever been, and it is precisely a capitalistic “free market” of religion which makes it strong. While Stark’s claims have a certain plausibility, one of the pillars of this counter-narrative is built on imperfect historiography: the picture he paints of the Middle Ages as a time of profound irreligion needs stronger evidence. He primarily draws upon two sources for this: reports on ecclesiastical visitations in Lutheran Germany, and the rhetoric of medieval preachers and writers who promote reform. While it is always dangerous to assume continuity over the course of several centuries, assuming continuity in the face of the kind of religious upheaval effected by the Reformations seems particularly problematic. As for the medieval reformers, insufficient attention is given to the likelihood that their rhetoric overstated the case.
While the evidence that Christian practice is stronger today than it has ever been may be a bit shaky, Stark’s statistical analysis and argumentation for the vitality of Christianity today is strong. While the mainline denominations (which, Stark drily notes, might be more accurately described today as “sideline”) are declining, more conservative branches have experienced an explosive growth in both traditionally Christian regions and mission territory. While this age is not without its challenges, Stark is right that we should hear a rallying cry for a vital and dynamic faith, not the death rattle of a tired old religion.