Monday, May 16, 2011

Rodney Stark: Cities of God

Mostly on a whim, I picked out another of his books, "Cities of God," on the urbanization of the early Christian church. The subtitle of the book reads: "The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome." I'm guessing Stark wasn't responsible for the subtitle, because his thesis is 1) Christianity began as an urban movement, and 2) Christianity didn't conquer anything.

Rodney Stark is a professor of Baylor University who specializes in the history and sociology of religion. He is best known as the author of "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success," which is an unabashed defense of the Middle Ages as an deeply rational era. In "Cities of God," he tackles the question of Christianity's early spread, grounded in a statistical-sociological perspective.

Because the Roman Empire was moved primarily its urban centers, Stark limits his analysis to the thirty-three major cities with populations of 30,000 or more. He relies on statistical analysis to demonstrate that the spread of early Christian church wasn't driven primarily by mass conversions or even by the extraordinary work of the apostles (in contrast to early church historians like Eusebius), nor by violent anti-pagan riots under Constantine (in contrast to modern historians like Gibbons). Rather, Stark shows how the early Church grew at a gradual exponential rate, spreading along existing lines of social connectedness among the urban centers. Thus, he finds strong correlations between early Christian presence and the presence of Jewish populations and synagogues from the Diaspora. He also finds that the early Church was more likely to spread to Hellenic cities, as well as port cities around the Mediterranean, both of which comport nicely with historical expectation.

Stark uses the same data and statistical techniques for a number of other incidental claims. He argues that the early Christian faith was preceded in many of these urban centers by other "oriental" religions, particularly the cults of Cybele and Isis. He maintain a sharp distinction between these pagan faiths and Christian monotheism, but also demonstrates how the worship of Cybele and Isis predisposed Hellenic audiences towards accepting a One True God and thereby towards accepting the monotheistic claims of Christianity. Stark also argues that Paul's primary role was in traveling among existing congregations to encourage and exhort (and thus he was more of a conventional apostle than a pure evangelist), and that Paul's most effective outreach was not to the Gentiles but to the Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora. Both of these claims may be controversial, but I found his arguments compelling.

More pointedly against his brethren in the historical sciences, Stark makes a strong case against treating the Gnostics as preservation of "true Christianity," or even as a primarily "Christian" tradition in the first place. Drawing from similar sources of evidence, Stark demonstrates that most Gnostic "movements" were isolated intellectual heresies, and their spread was not organic (along known lines of sea travel, for instance), but among existing pagan communities. This chapter is probably the most relevant for modern historians, and the most effective in conveying the profound esoteric weirdness of much Gnostic thought. Stark also points out the general uselessness of "Gnosticism" as a category, and suggests more precise distinctions (such as "Demiurgism") for historical reference.

I personally enjoyed the final chapter ("The Last Days of Paganism") the most. It serves as a refreshing antidote both to the anti-Constantine fervor that grips the popular understanding of the period, thanks to Edward Gibbons' landmark (and famously anti-Christian) tome "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Stark's research further demolishes the hagiography surrounding Julian the Apostate, the last pagan Emperor who instigated anti-Christian riots and disrupted the uneasy peace that had been forged by Constantine. Stark also examines the Mithraic cult, concluding that it was a very minor phenomenon mostly limited to low-level frontier soldiers, and that its importance is grossly exaggerated by modern anti-Christian writers. Lastly, this chapter attempts to show that, despite the occasional imperial proclamation forbidding pagan rites, paganism declined gradually and enjoyed remarkable tolerance among the rising Christian elite.

I am not a professional historian, so I'm not in a position to offer a critique of "Cities of God." As an amateur social scientist, I'm not as convinced by his insistence that the historical sciences require a statistical foundation. All that same, Stark does show how such analysis could be useful and might drive historical discovery. In terms of the content, however, I found both Stark's analysis and conclusions to be insightful and thought-provoking. For anyone interested in the history of the early church, this work is highly recommended.

This was cross-posted at A Sacramental World.

To purchase this book, check out
Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered RomeReligion & Spirituality Books)

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