A Contrarian’s History of Christianity: A Review

I have been hooked on Rodney Stark’s writing since I read his The Rise of Christianity in college. Stark is a sociologist by training, and that book was his first foray into writing about the history of Christianity from a sociological perspective. What I appreciated about that book, and all of his books that I have read since then, was his data-driven approach, lively and clear writing style, and contrarian streak. Maybe it is because he works as a professor in the social sciences, a guild in which it is popular to see all religion as a social phenomenon and nothing more, but Stark seems to relish thumbing his nose at the “conventional wisdom” of the sociology of religion—especially Christianity.

This book, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, draws together and expands on several of his other works on the history of Christianity. His chapters on the early spread of Christianity draw on The Rise of Christianity and Cities of God; his chapter on the Crusades draws on God’s Batallions; his chapters on the medieval era, the Reformation, and after draw on For the Glory of God and The Victory of Reason. In it he continues his contrarian streak by arguing, among other things, the following:

• The popularity of Oriental religions (in addition to Judaism) in the Roman Empire paved the way for the spread of Christianity.
• In spite of some anecdotal evidence, the early Christian mission to Diaspora Jews was largely successful.
• Most early Christians did not come from the ranks of the economically downtrodden, but from the upper classes.
• It would have been better for Christianity if Constantine had not become a Christian.
• Paganism was not stamped out by post-Constantinian Christians, but survived for centuries afterward and slowly died out or was incorporated into popular Christian practice.
• “The Crusades were not unprovoked,” and “were not conducted for land, loot, or converts” (234).
• The idea that there was “warfare” between Christianity and science is a later fabrication. In fact, Christianity was essential to the scientific revolution.
• The Spanish Inquisition was not as cruel, and not as widespread, as it is often made out to be.

As with any overview, there is some oversimplification. And even readers who largely agree with Stark’s premises, like myself, will find things that they disagree with. But overall, this is a highly readable and entertaining 30,000-foot overview of the history of Christianity. I recommend it.

My only major complaint comes from the fact that I make a living as an editor. I know what good editing looks like, and this book was edited sloppily. A few examples:

• page 156: Robin Lane Fox is referred to as “Robert.”
• page 195: Peter Brown is referred to as “Roger.”
• page 203: The island nation of Cyprus is called “Cypress.”
• page 249: “Canvass” should be “canvas.”
• page 334: Edgar Allan Poe’s middle name is misspelled “Allen.”
• page 337: “Pouring over” should be “poring over.”

If anyone at HarperOne is reading this, you know what to do. The rates for my work are quite reasonable, and the quality is no doubt higher than what you are getting now.

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3 thoughts on “A Contrarian’s History of Christianity: A Review

  1. timgiovanelli May 5, 2013 / 6:12 pm

    Great stuff. I am actually re-reading our Christian history text book from Regent at the moment – Gonzales The Story of Christianity.

    I love Stark’s writings too – will try and get my hands on a copy.

    • Elliot May 6, 2013 / 5:09 am

      Glad to hear that, Tim. Are you teaching a church history class, or is it just for your own edification?

      Thanks for taking the time to write!

      • timgiovanelli May 6, 2013 / 8:29 pm

        Just for my own edification. I think it is really helpful for preaching at the church I pastor too.
        Bless you buddy and catch you soon,
        Tim

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