A Review of Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity
In the early 60s, Johnny Cash recorded a spoken word piece called Here Was a Man. In it, he reflects on Jesus’ life, ministry and impact on the world. Toward the end, he makes this observation: “All of the legislative bodies that ever sat and all of the kings that ever reigned / All of them put together have not affected the life of man on this earth / So powerfully as that one solitary life / Here was a man”. People can argue over the ‘historical Jesus.’ They can come up with dozens of explanations for the empty tomb. They can even claim that Jesus never really existed (though they’d be fools to do so).
But no one can argue with the fact that Jesus is the most consequential person in human history.
Who could have imagined that this wandering Jewish rabbi would alter the course of human existence forever? And yet, he has.
But one important question remains. How did it happen? How did this man’s band of 120 or so followers become the largest religion in the world? This is a question that many have attempted to answer. In The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark offers his perspective.
Stark’s Episodic Approach to Christian History
Before going any further, I think it would be wise to recognize that this is not a general history of Christianity. For that, you would either need a multi-volume set or a book so shallow that it barely left you feeling wet. No, Stark is clear up front. “I have, rather, selected important episodes and aspects of the Christian story through the centuries and assessed them from new perspectives” (pg. 2). A selection of ‘episodes’ is the perfect way to describe this book.
In some ways, it reminded me of watching a documentary series. Stark doesn’t move seamlessly from one period of time to the next. Instead, he hops around. Though the book is divided up into six main parts, and each part does focus on a general time-frame, the chapters don’t necessarily appear chronologically. For example, he covers much of the first millennia of Christian history in ‘Part Three: Consolidating Christian Europe’. But then, in part five, he briefly returns to this era in order to talk about different forces at work within the Roman Catholic Church leading up to the Protestant Reformation.
In other words, each chapter is like a documentary episode that focuses on a particular subject. There’s one on the religious landscape of the first-century world. And another on the effect persecution had on the church. There’s an episode where Stark deals with Constantine’s impact on Christian history. And one where he discusses the Protestant Reformation (focusing solely on Luther).
Dispelling Long-standing Myths
Each ‘episode’ is exceptional and Stark works hard at dispelling some of the calcified myths that have built up around the modern telling of Christian history. He shows that the Spanish Inquisition was not nearly as horrific as we’ve been led to believe. And he makes a strong case for the idea that Christianity is the foundation of modern science – not its enemy. Likewise, he pulls back the curtain on the ‘dark ages’ and reveals that they’re little more than myth. I’m thankful for Stark’s work on this front because we desperately need to do away with these misconceptions.
Stark helps us see that too much religious history (especially in the past, but even in our own day) has been written by enemies of religion in general – or of the sect they’re chronicling in particular. What kind of history do you expect to get when the author hates his subject? A history that’s as off-the-mark as if he worships it.
We need to be careful about portraying historical events as objectively as possible. Christians should be especially keen on this since we have a command about not ‘bearing false witness.’ I believe Stark walks this line well – following the evidence where it leads with minimal interrupting bias.
With all of that said, I did have a couple of complaints.
A Few Complaints
I was a little disappointed because Stark’s more recent book, Bearing False Witness, reuses a fair amount of the information found here. There were three or four chapters that felt like they’d been copied and pasted. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t recommend both books. They’re both helpful in their own way. But if you’re planning on reading them both, beware that there’s a lot of repeated content.
Stark subtitled the book, How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. And most of the book is focused on answering that question. The early chapters are especially helpful in this regard as they do an excellent job of discussing how Christianity was able to take root in first-century, Greco-Roman soil. Unfortunately, a few of the chapters don’t have much bearing on the subject at all. For example, chapter 19, The Shocking Truth About the Spanish Inquisition is important. Christians – especially anti-Catholic Protestants – ought to read it. But it contributes very little to the story of ‘how the Jesus movement became the world’s largest religion.’
In the end, Stark recognizes four primary reasons that Christianity has been so successful: the simplicity (yet potential depth) of its message, the narrative-nature of its Scripture, the competition that religious pluralism has engendered, and the success of Judeo-Christian-based modernity. Though Stark is neither a minister nor a theologian, the Church could learn a lot from his study of Christian history.
Some Final Thoughts
I also ought to note that, because of its episodic quality, Stark leaves out stories that do have bearing on the growth of Christianity. For example, the Methodist movement is barely mentioned. And yet, it had an enormous historical impact – especially in Great Britain and North America.
Likewise, no mention is made of one of the biggest events in Christian history: the Great Schism. Surely this had an impact on Christianity’s growth. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it (or even that it happened) from this book.
I don’t blame Stark for choosing to write the book in the format he did. I think it’s probably best for what he was trying to accomplish. My main gripe is that I believe he could have replaced certain topics with more appropriate (and informative) ones.
With all of that said, I’d still whole-heartedly recommend this book. It’s an important reminder that God has been, is, and will continue to be at work in this world.
May we continue to work alongside him, until the redemption of all things – and until all of the history books are finally closed.
You can pick up a copy of The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion on Amazon.
P.S. – Don’t forget to sign-up for our newsletter. Not only will you get my book, ‘A Disciple’s Manifesto’, for free, you’ll also be able to easily keep up-to-date with the book club, podcast, and other updates.