Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Fresh Perspective on Church History

Book Review:  The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark

One of my favorite non-fiction authors is Baylor University professor Rodney Stark.  One of my favorite topics to read about is history.  So imagine my interest when a favorite author releases a book on a favorite topic of mine.  That's what happened with Rodney Stark’s book The Triumph of Christianity:  How the Jesus Movement became the World’s Largest Religion.

In a world where people assume that Christianity has become increasingly irrelevant and marginalized, the title of Dr. Stark’s book comes as a shock.  Modern people do not often use the words Christianity and Triumph together in a positive way.  In response, Dr. Stark’s book offers a much needed corrective.  He sets out to give his readers a historical and global perspective on how Christianity grew from a handful of followers of Jesus to a faith that encompasses the whole world.

The Triumph of Christianity is a selective history of the Christian church.  If you are looking for a comprehensive history of Christianity that leaves few rocks unturned, look elsewhere.  But if you want an interesting, well-written and at times counter-cultural history of pivotal moments in church history, this is the book for you.

One of the reasons I like Dr. Stark’s books so much is that he has a wonderful ability to overturn some of society’s (and my own) most basic historical assumptions.  The key to his perspective is the fact that Dr. Stark is not an historian, but rather a sociologist.  As one who studies human society, he approaches history with a different set of evidence and reveals conclusions many historians fail to see.

So what are some of Dr. Stark’s different conclusions?  Here are some examples.
a. Early Christianity was not a religion that attracted only slaves and the lowest classes – many prominent and powerful people of the day became Christians. 
b. Paganism was not stamped out by a triumphant and intolerant Christianity, but rather disappeared slowly but never completely.  
c. The heart of the Christian faith was found in the Middle East and North Africa until those cultures were destroyed by Muslim invaders.  
d. The Christian crusaders were motivated not by greed, but faith and travelled at great risk and expense, many knowingly going bankrupt because of the journey.   
e. The so-called Dark Ages were one of the most inventive and progressive times in Western history. 
f. Despite the dominance of the church in the Middle Ages, most Europeans were Christians in name only, did not know the most basic doctrine and rarely attended church. 
g. Science arose not in opposition of the church, but because of the fact that the church taught the existence of a rational creator who set the laws of nature in place. 
h. The Spanish Inquisition caused few deaths and saved a great many more lives, opposing witch hunts that swept through the rest of Europe. 
i. The religious monopolies like existed (and still exist) in Europe only result in a lazy church – the Christian faith thrives in competition.  
j. Luther’s Reformation grew at first not because it reached the hearts of the common people, but because it appealed printers and to lords who were overburdened by Catholic Church control. 
k. American faith was truly unique, especially when compared to European church monopolies and attendance.  
l. Although prominent atheists argue religion is passing away, faith is actually growing all over the world. 
m. 40 percent of the world belongs to the Christian faith and their number is growing more rapidly than any other major faith. 
Do you want to argue any of these points?  Read the book and argue away.

Although I enjoyed this book, I found I did not agree with Dr. Stark on everything.  He and I disagree on the issue of the inerrancy of Scripture, the role of women in leadership and a few other areas.  But I don’t want that to turn you away from what is otherwise a very good book.  The Triumph of Christianity gives the reader a healthy historical and global perspective on the church, a perspective that is often sadly lacking these days.

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