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Review of "The Rise of Christianity" by Rodney Stark

I read The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Become the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries based on the recommendations from blog friends. I am not disappointed. Rise is an excellent sociological history of the first Christian centuries, beginning roughly with the martyrdoms of James, Paul, and Peter and ending with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. A must read for those interested in rising religious movements in general, Stark’s brilliant application of “rational choice” economics to the field of religion is a must-read.


The Reform Judaism of the 1st Century

Rodney Stark is a rational-choice sociologist, who views belonging as a good that people attempt to maximize. Belonging-providers can either be public or private. Examples of private providers are magicians, wizards, heelers, and pagan cults, while public providers tend to demand exclusive committment and accept some degree of alienation from society. Most of Rise of Christianity is an extremely readible exploration of this delving into many aspects of city life.

I first heard of The Rise of Christianity after a commentator noted its similarity with my blog series, Jesusism-Paulism. Because this has been mentioned before, I will now address how his 1997 book relates to 2000s series.The similar is clear, and the posts that overlap most with Stark’s book (in particular, “Love Your Enemy As You Would Have Him Love You,” “Caiaphas and Diocletian Did Know Better,” and “the Fall of Rome“) clearly share a similar orientation, though Stark’s methods and focus are different. As Rise ends with Constantine, the claims of my last two posts, “The People of the Book” and “Embrace and Extend,” are not addressed at all. Finally, while both Dr. Stark and I view women as vital to the success of Christianity, my focus on harmonious deconfliction contrasts with his more feminist interpretation.

The Rise of Christianity is an excellent book. Strongly recommended.

Rise

A friend from the Chicago Boyz has informed me of The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. The general theme of the book parallels my series, Jesusism-Paulism, in viewing Christianity as a liberating movement that offered love and worth to all humans (a radical new concept at the time). I unknowingly paralleled his work in the earlier posts of my series (parts I, II, and III) and I will put Rodney on my reading list. While he is relatively silent on the Christian conquest of Rome and the early Islamic wars, we seemed to share a very similar view of the rise of Christianity. Touchstone’s interview and Father McCloskey’s review are particularly good sources of information on the question.

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A quick review of Dr. Stark’s academic writings show a lot of wisdom. He argues that religiosity is a consequence of city life (painfully obvious in the increasingly radicalized and urbanized Arab world, but denied for centuries by an intellectual elite) and that Europe’s “secularization” is a consequence of its regulated state (and not the future of all soceities, as parroted for decades by an intellectual elite). Despite being a sociologist, Dr. Stark is a great fan of rational choice theory, and he has applied it in interesting and new ways to the study of Christianity.

Likewise, his (and Alan Miller’s) work on sex and religiosity is worth reading. After attacking gendered/socialization theories of why women are more “religious” than men, the authors write:

One possibility we did not explore is the degree to which risk preference, and by extension the relationship between gender and religiousness, might be physiologically based. While it is still possible that gender differences in risk preference are due to differential socialization, a growing literature suggests otherwise. Furthermore, our results strongly suggest this is not the case. Since general measures of differential socialization are unrelated to religiosity, one would have to propose that risk preference is somehow different: that it alone influences gender differences in religiousness and not other forms of differential socialization, and that it is taught uniformly to all females. Such a proposal, to say the least, is unlikely.

So the more I read of Rodney Stark (including articles such as Hellfire and Delinquency and Becoming a World-saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective) the more excited about The Rise of Christianity I became.

Thanks for the tip!

Related Post: Economic Man vs. Primary Loyalties by Zenpundit at Chicago Boyz.