Mitigating Misery: “The Rise of Christianity” / book review

The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few CenturiesThe Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sociologist Rodney Stark uses tools from social science to try to understand and explain why and how Christianity grew from a tiny, marginalized sect in backwater Palestine to overwhelm the Western world in only three centuries.

There’s a lot to consider in this book, and I won’t comment on most of it – mostly because I don’t have any real knowledge of the social sciences to comment on Stark’s methods for arriving at his conclusions – but several of his observations resonate quite deeply with me. For example:

Into the brutal reality of first century Roman cities – crowded almost beyond imagination, filthy and disease ridden, violent, dangerous and cruel – grew small enclaves of devout believers who uniquely understood God, and God’s core orientation toward the world, as Love. Key was the understanding that the most appropriate way to worship and honour this God was to love what this God loved. Quite simply, this translated into caring communities who’s central doctrines “prompted and sustained attractive, liberating and effective social relations and organizations” capable of mitigating misery. Practically this played out dramatically during the major plagues of mid second and third centuries that decimated about a third of the population. When most of the elites fled the cities, Christians, in response to their understanding of God, stayed in the thick of the tragedy and were renown for taking care of the sick and dying. This risky care tended to win people to the faith not because they encountered convincing doctrine or beliefs, but because they encountered real mercy and love.

Stark identifies several surprising, key features of the Christian faith, which translated practically as “good news” in an otherwise merciless environment (especially for women and children). To the ancients, mercy and pity were considered contemptible, even pathological emotions (defects of character): “Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice.” Yet, in a last effort to stop the spread of Christianity, Emperor Julian, in 362 C.E., attempted to establish and sustain various charities. In a letter to a high priest, Julian complained “those impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us…”

What makes the book interesting is that Starks makes no attempt to validate or invalidate the truth claims of Christianity. His interest is in data that explains, in sociological terms, the ascendancy of this particular religion over other better-established options.

As a Christian believer, it strikes me as instructive that in our current age, when Christian influence seems to be in decline and so many Christians find themselves embattled in culture wars, ideological debate and increased social marginalization, perhaps duking it out in the political, cultural and ideological arenas, in an attempt to impress our doctrines and beliefs on the wider culture, just may be counter-productive. Perhaps we might simply return to loving our neighbors indiscriminately, prodigally even – properly “minding our own business” as it were – not so much as a strategy, but as a simple act of worship.

– Steve Bell

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