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Like a seed of the mustard tree

By Bill Muehlenberg - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2012


This is another very important and helpful volume by the world-class historian and sociologist of religion Rodney Stark. Stark has already penned a number of volumes on related themes, but here he offers a detailed look at the spread of Christianity over the last two millennia.

This is not a standard history of Christianity, but more of a thematic approach, with each meaty chapter covering important historical, sociological and ecclesiastical topics. Those already aware of his earlier works will find some familiar territory here, but there are a number of new issues covered as well.

He demolishes a number of widely held myths along the way, and backs up his impressive array of knowledge with prodigious amounts of research. He has done his homework quite carefully, and is fully abreast of contemporary scholarship and the relevant literature.

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As to the early spread of the faith, Stark notes that this was not mere "pie in the sky" stuff, but a very this-worldly religion: "Christianity often puts the pie on the table! It makes life better here and now. Not merely in psychological ways, as faith in an attractive afterlife can do, but in terms of concrete, worldly benefits."

Stark reminds us of the enormous growth of Christianity which took place as a result of all this. He estimates that in 40AD there may have been 1000 Christians in the Roman Empire, but 32 million (or 53% of the population) by 350. There may have been 700 in Rome in 100AD, but 300,000 (or 66%) by 300. That is some church growth. Of course figures today are almost the reverse for secular Europe.

But he has a chapter on secularisation in general, and Europe in particular, and reminds us that church attendance was never very high in Europe. Also, state churches of various stripes did not help matters much, resulting in "lazy churches," indifferent believers, and the tendency to hinder or harass other churches.

His specific chapters on various other themes are excellent albeit brief exposes of often fuzzy and confused thinking. For example, his look at the Spanish Inquisition is a major demolition job of the accumulated nonsense which has been written about this. Says Stark, most of what has been written about it "is either an outright lie or a wild exaggeration".

Consider the number of deaths. While reports of hundreds of thousands killed are common, this has nothing to do with reality. During the bloodiest period, there were at tops 30 people a year killed. After this, of 45,000 cases tried, just over 800 were executed. Thus over a two century period we have at most some 2,300 killed. That may be too many indeed, but it has nothing to do with the wild figures so readily thrown around.

What about the so-called Dark Ages? They "not only weren't dim, but were one of the most inventive times in Western history". Antireligious intellectuals like Gibbon and Voltaire tried to make this a dark, backward period, but the opposite was the case. Progress in areas like the arts, music, literature, education and science were quite significant.

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Speaking of science, the notion that religion and science have always been at war is another myth which Stark handily dispenses of. Says Stark, "The truth is that not only did Christianity not impede the rise of science; it was essential to it, which is why science arose only in the Christian West! Moreover, there was no sudden 'Scientific Revolution'; the great achievements of Copernicus, Newton, and the other stalwarts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the product of normal scientific progress stretching back for centuries."

His chapters on Islam and the Crusades are also goldmines of information and myth-busting. Consider the issue of dhimmitude, or second-class citizenship of non-Muslims. As Stark rightly notes, a "great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance".

Many of the supposed great scientific, literary and artistic achievements of Islam were in fact due to the dhimmies – conquered Jews and Christians – living amongst them. And most subject peoples were "free to choose" conversion – with the only other alternatives being death or enslavement.

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This is a review of The Triumph of Christianity, by Rodney Stark (HarperOne, 2011).



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About the Author

Bill Muehlenberg is Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, and lectures in ethics and philosophy at various Melbourne theological colleges.

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