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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 who accept secularization as a modern fact keep dating when it actually occurred later and later (with the 1960s being the current consensus). As the thesis which explains why this change had occurred was being taught well before the adolescence of the baby boomers, those who hold to it are faced with the ironic fact that secularization theory is older than secularization.

Stark is also on sparkling form explaining why the liberal assumption that religion can be made more popular by making it less demanding flies in the face of what we know from both sociology and history. Possibly echoing Bonhoeffer, Stark dubs the low-demands option "cheap" religion. While urbane intellectuals imagine that exacting sects are so out of sync with the modern world that they cannot possibly persist for long, it is they that grow while pandering alternatives shrink. However much secular scholars might shake their heads at the presumed irrational primitiveness of speaking in tongues, in the 21st century Pentecostals are thriving. On the other hand, no one would be surprised to hear that the determinedly up-to-date Unitarian-Universalists were holding a going-out-of-business sale.

This leads on to the final chapter, on modern global Christianity. The story has been told by others, of course, but Stark synthesizes and distills it well, and he also brings to it his personal experiences and research as an honorary professor at Peking University. This chapter builds on material from the earlier discussion of secularization: despite generations being taught secularist ideology, Stark observes, even in Russia only 4 percent of the population identify as atheists—the exact same percentage as in America. (Stark's book appeared before the survey reporting a marked increased in Americans with no religious affiliation—the much-discussed "nones"—but we can confidently expect that he will weigh in on that in due course.)

Christianity is by far the largest religion on earth and it is flourishing in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This is a result of Christians believing that it is their duty to spread the gospel. Stark once again points out that liberal theology is self-defeating. When mainline churches (which he dubs "sideline") decided that missionaries should merely be social workers going into all the world "to teach sanitation, not salvation," they merely conceded the globe to more full-blooded forms of the faith.

The first two parts of The Triumph of Christianity recapitulate the delightfully provocative and generally convincing arguments that Stark expounded in The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force (1997). Much of this material provides valuable correctives to standard views. For instance, although Christianity's appeal to the lowly has been emphasized, Stark sees as a sociologist that new religious movements typically gain disproportionately large adherence from the privileged classes and the evidence is there that this was true for early Christians. (Still, when Stark pushes the view that Jesus himself was from the élite and might even have come from a wealthy background—have you ever noticed that his illustrations are about investment portfolios and land ownership?—I begin to feel as if I had wandered into a Word of Faith teaching session.)

Stark excels at explaining how Christianity was attractive to women because "it offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led." Secular feminists often denounce the New Testament's perspective on women as oppressive, but they generally do this without considering the alternative on offer in Roman society. For example, the teaching that women were free to remain single was a counter-cultural affirmation of female autonomy and independence. Romans assumed that fathers had the right to force their daughters to marry. They found the idea of a woman not being controlled by a man so unsettling that an emperor even decreed that widows were required to remarry. Roman husbands routinely forced their wives to have abortions. Infanticide was also a standard practice and it was a fate much more likely to befall a girl. A study which reconstructed 600 Roman families found that only 6 of them had raised more than one daughter. Christians were thought strange because they grieved for the death of a daughter as much as they did for a son. This is only one of a whole series of factors that led to the growth of Christianity according to Stark's illuminating analysis.

The three parts in the middle of this book have less to commend them. Stark is a com-pulsive revisionist. He is perpetually insisting: you have always thought this, but you were wrong. This often makes a Stark monograph a thrilling read. As I ate my way through this sampler, however, I gradually lost the delight of a special treat and began to feel like a forlorn man trying to make an evening meal out of a fridge full of desserts. Stark's imagined reader seems to be someone who is well read in the entire sweep of church history, but who has somehow had the misfortune to invariably read the wrong thing. No one is ever uninformed, always misinformed. The concern is not that HarperOne readers might have never before attended to the Spanish Inquisition, but only that they might have learned about it from D. Antonio Puigblanch's The Inquisition Unmasked (1816).

This often allows the book to give the impression that Stark is the church's one true prophet. On through the centuries he goes, offering a hundred revisions before the taking of a toast and tea. Moreover, Stark so relishes exposing the distortions of others that he sometimes ends up himself leaving the reader with an imbalanced picture. For example, he is right to debunk the idea of the "Dark Ages," which serious historians have now decommissioned. Nevertheless, he does this in a way that so conceals the evidence that the old view was based upon that an innocent reader is left with an impression that will itself be in need of revision.

Notably, Stark writes as if the Dark Ages was a synonym for the entire medieval period when it referred only to those early centuries between the fall of Rome and the rise of Western Christendom. He therefore brings in Dante and Chaucer as witnesses for the prosecution: "So much for 'Dark Age' illiteracy and ignorance." Nowhere does he mention that the Roman Empire in the West was overrun by illiterate tribes which became the new power reality. He puts "barbarous" in quotation marks when referring to the Franks on the grounds that they were actually very innovative at killing people, while never acknowledging that they did not possess the art of writing—which is precisely how scholars traditionally defined the difference between a "civilized" and a "barbarous" culture.

When Stark gets the bit between his teeth, one often wishes he was more reined in. To wit: "the masses of medieval Europeans not only were remarkably skeptical, but very lacking in all aspects of Christian commitment." All? "Most medieval Europeans were completely ignorant of the most basic Christian teachings." Completely? There is much more in these chapters that is worth challenging, including Stark's insistence that Christians have nothing to apologize for when it comes to the Crusades.

Still, even in these middle parts there are useful gleanings. The section on how the medieval church nurtured science is particularly welcome. I suppose I can see those parts of The Triumph of Christianity that put me off as like my disappointment when I discovered that a chocolate was filled with jelly or fruit cream. The abundant nuts and caramels, however, make Stark's Sampler well worth savoring.

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford Univ. Press).

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