Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Rise of Christianity

If you've never read anything by Rodney Stark you are really missing out on a lot of provocation. Stark's arguments are always intriguing. I don't agree with everything he says and I wish he would do more to allow for supernatural explanations, but on the whole I find him full of good sense and delightfully iconoclastic.

I just finished reading one of his earlier and best known books, The Rise of Christianity. Stark, in debunking a number of historical myths, tries to explain from a sociological perspective "how the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries."

Here are some of his salient thoughts:
  • Christianity drew from the worldly, accommodated religious communities of the time. It is hardest to find converts among the serious religious, easiest to get them from those who are most secular or nominal in their commitment.
  • Christianity probably drew its converts, in large part, from the upper class. Privileged classes tend to be the most skeptical about God and most unaffiliated. Thus there are more of them to be won to new religions. If, that is, they are dissatisfied with what they have found in the world.
  • Christianity spread because the Christians cared for each other in times of sickness and disease. Their communal compassion both staved off death and served as an example to outsiders of the transforming power of the Christian faith.
  • The first Christians also cared for outsiders, which won them a hearing.
  • Women were more honored in Christianity. Baby girls were not killed. Women were to be protected. Husbands, not just wives, were expected to be chaste.
  • Christians had more babies than non-Christians, and abortions were considered anathema. The early Christians simply out-birthed the pagans.
  • Christianity grew when it remained an "open network" with connections into the lives of non-Christians.
  • Christians were over-represented in cities, which made them more influential than their numbers because culture tends to flow from cities to the countryside.
  • Christianity gave much needed dignity to human beings. They welcomed strangers, provided community, and offered a refuge from a brutal world.
  • Christian martyrs galvanized and inspired the faith of the early Christians.
  • Christianity in the first few centuries required great sacrifice and entailed a significant stigma. This process of sacrifice and stigma scared off free-riders and made Christianity a more virulent, vibrant faith.
  • Membership in the church was "expensive" and a "bargain" at the same time. That is, following Christ cost you something, but by becoming a Christian you also gained physical support, relational attachments, and shared emotional satisfaction with other believers.
  • Christianity promised rewards to its followers, the reward of being virtuous and the reward of eternal life.
Of course, the simple answer to the question about the rise of Christianity, and the one that Stark (as a sociologist) doesn't talk about, is simply this: God caused the church to grow. He saved souls. He converted hearts. It was God's will to cause the church to prosper.

Though having said this, I still think we can learn from looking at the social factors that God often (not always) uses, along with his word, to accomplish these results. The bullet points above may not seem very revolutionary. But that's probably because I haven't really done the book justice. Read Rodney Stark and I guarantee he'll get you thinking.


T Foster said...

"Christianity probably drew its converts, in large part, from the upper class."

Most of the disciples were in the lower classes and several times throughout the epistles we are told that the churches are poor and yet still willing to give. Yes, there are a couple of notable exceptions: Nicodemus for one, but to jump from a very small minority (What we see in the gospels and letters) to "in large part" is just a little ridiculous for me... Or does he provide a reason why the whole demographic of the church changes within fifty years?

Kevin DeYoung said...

You've hit upon one of the more controversial elements of Stark's work. He basically puts forward three arguments in favor of his theory about drawing from the privileged classes. 1) The passage in 1 Cor. 1 has been construed to mean no one was well-to-do in the church, where the text says "not many." So some were. 2) Stark cites a number of more recent historians who conclude that Christianity was not a proletarian movement. 3) Cults and new religious movements, according to Stark, always over-recruit from the privileged classes.

I admit that his reasons are more suggestive than conclusive. You'll have to read the book to see if you find his arguments compelling.

MSG said...


I couldn't agree more. I read this book as an assigned reading in a religious studies class at University of Florida. It was perhaps the only edifying book I read in my entire degree. This book is edifying to the reader, even handed in its analysis (though not without its moments), but most importantly a huge bridge to the skeptic and historically minded individuals. Several times I have used this book as a resource for people who have had skewed views of the progress of the Early church.

T Foster said...

I can accept that...


Post a Comment