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A religion on the move

Riding the roller coaster of Christian history: WORLD's engaging and myth-busting Book of the Year

A religion on the move

(Rodney Stark (Photo by Nick Layman/Genesis))

This is WORLD's fifth year of honoring a book published during the past 12 months. Our first two times we chose works that directly explained Scripture: Tim Keller's The Reason for God and Crossway's ESV Study Bible. The last two times we praised works that applied biblical thinking to key current debates: Arthur Brooks' The Battle and, last year, two books-Should Christians Embrace Evolution? and God and Evolution-that eviscerated a recently trendy doctrine, theistic evolution.

This year some evangelicals are displaying a pessimistic sense of decline. Internally and externally, Christian denominations are "sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed." Amid despair, Baylor professor Rodney Stark's The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion (HarperOne) provides long-term perspective. It is WORLD's 2012 Book of the Year.

One reason is that Stark, unusual among academic historians, writes well: He was a reporter for the Oakland Tribune and the Denver Post before gaining a Ph.D. (He then taught at the University of Washington for 32 years before heading to Baylor in 2004.) A second reason for honoring Stark is his lifetime of achievement: In 28 books-one from 15 years ago, The Rise of Christianity, prefigures his new work-Stark has employed both statistics and historical testimony to shoot down stereotypes.

Stark begins Triumph by describing the Asian competitors to indolent Roman paganism that had emerged 2,000 years ago. They had a competitive advantage: "Roman paganism offered very little in the way of community. Most Romans were very irregular and infrequent visitors to the temples ... what most dramatically set the Oriental faiths apart from Roman paganism was their capacity to generate congregations."

Cults of Bacchus, Dionysius, Isis, Cybele, and others, he notes, had regular meetings and strong ties among members, who for moments could transcend their "remarkably filthy existence." Stark notes that "the smell of urine, feces, and decay permeated everything." The Holy Land wasn't much better: "A recent analysis of decayed human fecal remains in an ancient Jerusalem cesspool found an abundance of tapeworm and whipworm eggs, indicating that almost everyone had them."

Christianity at first seemed to Rome like one cult among others, but over time others succumbed as bad news made the Good News stand out more. Stark notes that disease readily spread in dirty ancient cities, so Christians became blessings to their communities not only spiritually but physically. Simple provision of food and water to severely weakened people often allowed them to recover: Nursing by Christians may have cut mortality by two-thirds.

Stark doesn't sugarcoat common pagan practices such as abortion and infanticide: Because of a preference for boys similar to that in India and China today, historians estimate that while Christianity was on the rise Rome generally had 131 males per 100 females. (With no way to treat infections and not even any soap, abortion also killed many women and left others sterile.) The male/female ratio was 140/100 in North Africa and other parts of the empire.

Abortion was as vile then as now and physically even harder on women. The famous Roman medical writer Aulas Cornelius Celsus urged surgeons to use "extreme caution and neatness" as they killed the unborn child with a long needle or spike, and then forced a "greased hand" up the vagina and into the uterus-all this without any anesthesia. The surgeon would then insert a hook "into an eye or ear or the mouth" of the unborn child, and pull him out, unless the baby was positioned crosswise or backward, in which case the surgeon should slice him up and pull him out piece by piece.

Stark shows that ancient Greece and Rome were not glorious: Many residents were slaves and even those who were free lived at a bare subsistence level. Much as in Europe today, Romans started having few children-even when emperors offered subsidies to those who had more-and fertility fell below replacement levels. Meanwhile, the Roman government became corrupt and inflation set in. Rulers thought of new ways to rob taxpayers and killed Christians whenever they needed scapegoats.

After Stark spends 200 pages on the triumph of Christianity, he turns to some defeats. The biggest ones came in the Middle East and across northern Africa, where Muslims murdered hundreds of thousands. Stark, quoting Muslim bragging about churches and lives destroyed, points out that "a great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance." He calls the Crusades a "fundamentally defensive" counter-attack "precipitated by Islamic provocations, by many centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West, and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places."

Stark also criticizes other historians for being "as gullible as tourists, gaping at the monuments, palaces, and conspicuous consumption of Rome." He decries "the inability of intellectuals to value or even to notice the nuts and bolts of real life," and goes on to note medieval progress in windmills, crop rotation, chimneys, and a host of other practical matters.

He also calls "the Renaissance" a ridiculous myth: "Had there really been a return to classical knowledge, it would have created an era of cultural decline since Christian Europe had long since surpassed classical antiquity in nearly every way."

And yet, Stark mocks the idea of a medieval "Age of Faith," for "the masses of medieval Europeans not only were remarkably skeptical, but very lacking in all aspects of Christian commitment." Most people seldom if ever went to church, and some who did slept and snored, played cards while the pastor preached, or brought their dogs: "Most medieval Europeans were completely ignorant of the most basic Christian teachings," and many priests did not know the Lord's Prayer or other fundamentals.

The book has one major weakness. While Stark is right to see the triumph of Christianity as integral to the triumph of science-"It was only because Europeans believed in God as the Intelligent Designer of a rational universe that they pursued the secrets of creation"-he criticizes commitment to biblical inerrancy. Still, it's clear that the Protestant Reformation increased Christian commitment and even contributed to improvements in the Roman Catholic Church, as a "Church of Piety" arose to challenge "the Church of Power."

In later chapters, Stark compares American religious liberty to the state churches of Europe and sees denominationalism as a strength, not a weakness. He looks at Christian growth around the world in recent decades as one more assault on the conventional wisdom that modernity trumps religion. He avoids triumphalism in writing about Christianity's long-term triumph-we do not know what tomorrow will bring-and he teaches us to avoid pessimism in considering our temporary problems.

For, as Samuel Stone wrote about the Christian church in 1866, "'Mid toil and tribulation, / And tumult of her war, / She waits the consummation / Of peace for evermore; / Till with the vision glorious / Her longing eyes are blest, / And the great church victorious / Shall be the church at rest."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.