Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Rise of Christianity (by Rodney Stark): Part 1

I read this book a few months ago and never got around to posting it on here. I put together a lot of my thoughts in an e-mail to some friends and will be posting it in three parts over the coming week or two. Here's the first part:

Having just finished Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity”, I wanted to forward my thoughts to some friends as some of you have likely heard of this book. With a subtitle like “How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries”, as well as noticing it in many bibliographies in books I have read and enjoyed (A People’s History of Christianity by DB Bass, The First Paul by JD Crossan/M. Borg, etc), I knew this was a must read. The book is almost 15 years old, and while I have some concerns, am curious to know how some of his findings have stood the test of time, and to see another sociologist engage his work, Stark has made a deep contribution to studies in early Christianity.

A small concern I have of his work is, despite his continuing disbelief in Christianity (he’s back and forth he recently hinted), he is still a deep apologist for it and the sources he uses seem to land often on the quite conservative side of the aisle. Additionally, he is not a theologian or technically trained historian and sometimes this shows, for better or worse. Still, some of the material in this book need not rely so exclusively on conservative hermeneutics and textual criticism to be extremely relevant and fair – as should be evidenced by the fact that Borg/Crossan use some material from this book from time to time. Indeed, many of
Stark’s conclusions based on particular social science methods fly in the face of traditional views…which leads me to the first chapter.

Chapter 1 tracks the rise of Christianity numerically based on the best growth models a religious sociologist can come up with – the result is pretty impressive. Despite Acts 21:20 claiming that by around 50 CE there were “many thousands” of Christians in Jerusalem,
Stark writes, “These are not statistics” but they are hyperbole, like many ancient writers tended to do in order to convey a point. If there had been many thousands of Christians in just Jerusalem at 50CE, it would have been declared the first Christian city. Stark’s growth model of 40% per decade (based partially on Mormon growth rates – one of the fastest growing religious movements) suggests that there were in fact only about 1,400 Christians in the whole Roman empire at that time (.0017% of the population). By the time of Constantine, constant exponential growth had lead to almost 34 million Christians, making up 56.5% of the empire – and at least partly as a response to this shift, Constantine converted and an already faltering paganism went into an exponential decline.

He continues to discuss social theories about religious conversion and studies he has conducted over the years with other sociologists to uncover some basic principles about the process. At the core is an open network theory of conversion for all religious conversions. One of the major ways in which Christianity exploded so fast was it’s ability to remain a relational community without closing themselves off to outsiders – even viewing Christian/pagan inter-marriages as a good way to gain new converts (indeed, this did work
Stark contends). Women, the dominant gender in the early church for a variety of reasons soon be discussed, would marry pagan men who would most often follow her lead to Christianity.

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