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Timothy Larsen


Stark's Sampler

Church history for the chronically misinformed.

One of my hallowed childhood memories is that my father would mark special occasions by buying a Whitman's Sampler. He insisted that we treat this box of candy with such ritualistic reverence that I would dutifully ask catechizing questions: why is this chocolate not like any other chocolate? I vividly remember him carefully instructing me in the meaning of the mysterious term at the heart of our cult, "sampler." Long ago, he testified, in the Golden Age of Whitman, one could buy separately any of the various kinds of these candies and therefore the original purpose of this box was to allow one to sample the whole range of products and select one's favorites.

The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion is a kind of Stark's Sampler. The bibliography lists 26 previous Rodney Stark publications. Only two of the 22 chapters fail to include a citation of his previous work; many of these references direct the reader to a place where the author has made the argument at greater length. The earliest item of his in the bibliography (but not in his career) is from 1964, and thus there now exists around a half century of Stark scholarship.

Over the course of my much shorter career, I have come to value deeply various parts of this corpus. Although he twice self-identifies as a historian in this book, Stark is primarily known as a distinguished sociologist of religion, and the final part of The Triumph of Christianity puts on display his brilliant debunking of much nonsense propagated in that field. Notably, he was an early and highly insightful and persuasive dissenter from the secularization thesis, which argues that modernity inevitably causes religion to wither away.

Stark gleefully catalogues how reports of God's death have been greatly exaggerated. Voltaire predicted that religion would be gone from the Western world by around 1810. If I may be permitted to augment this argument from my own research, I have been struck by how even those ...

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