Book Review: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World

The 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, ISBN: 0060677015

If you are like most people with an interest in early Christian history, you probably think that the mission to the Jews as a massive failure and that a majority of early Christians were from the lower strata of society. And you probably have a hard time fathoming how it is that this small, persecuted sect went from a group of Jewish peasants in a backwater of the Roman Empire to, 350 years later, becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Rodney Stark’s book will blow your preconceived notions out of the water. Stark approaches the early Christian movement with the mind and methods of a sociologist, catching many items that historians have let slip through the cracks as insignificant, smashing some of the long-held and greatly-loved myths of early Christian history, and going a long way in explaining why Christianity would eventually become the dominant cultural force of the West and the world.

His thesis that the mission to the Jews was actually a stunning success is particularly interesting as it is a piece of “common knowledge” that the mission to the Jews failed and Christianity became a Gentile religion. On the contrary, says Stark, Jews converted in great numbers to Christianity well into the fifth century. He points out that fifth century Church Fathers like St. John Chrysostom would have had no reason to be so concerned about “Judaizers” as they were had Christianity become a thoroughly Gentile religion by that point. He also points out, using the modern Reformed movement in Judaism as a reference point, that Christianity would have been exactly the religion that the rather impious, thoroughly Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora would have been looking for; it had significant links to and indeed claimed to be a continuation of the Jewish revelation while at the same time disposing of, within a largely hostile Gentile majority, what would have been the more cumbersome aspects of the Torah, such as circumcision and eating kosher.

His thesis that the early Christians included a significant number of moderately wealthy individuals is also a particularly interesting one that seeks to turn the “common knowledge” of early Christianity on its head. He argues that there were a relatively large number of converts to Christianity from amongst the noble and even imperial families, and the evidence is presents is quite convincing. Interestingly, this lends a great deal of credence to the traditions regarding some of the saints who are said to have been members of the various imperial households; however, he does not address a point which I think needs to be addressed in order to establish this argument, namely, the accusations of pagans like Celsus in the second century who claimed that Christianity was essentially a movement of the uneducated riffraff. While I don’t think that a failure to address this point hurts Stark’s analysis, it would have strengthened his position to have addressed it.

It think perhaps the most valuable aspect of Stark’s book is the application of sociological principles to the study of early Christianity especially in the realm of studying rates of conversion; he reaches the conclusion that the growth rate of Christianity was 40% per decade for its first 350 years or so. He also does an excellent job of explaining why it is that women and urbanites were disproportionately represented amongst early Christians, a fact taken for granted and rarely explained by historians.

Even while demonstrating the variety of contributing sociological and incidental factors in the rapid growth of Christianity in its early centuries, Stark, as a responsible and intelligent scholar, is clear that the primary accelerant for Christianity’s remarkable expansion was its novel idea of unbounded loving charity. He explains that Christianity’s greatest strength was its revolutionary theology of universal brotherhood and that this, in the end, was the reason that it grew from a small Jewish sect to the largest religion in the world.

Stark’s book is an excellent read for anyone interested in early Christian history. His innovative approach, using sociological rather than historical methods, brings many new revelations and does much to further explain the origins of Christianity. This book is a great starting point for a reevaluation of some of the common notions of historians of early Christianity and I hope that future historians will apply some of Stark’s findings to their research as they will do much to contribute to our knowledge of the nativity of the Western world.

I am like an emperor

One of the brothers said, “When I was in Oxyrhinchus, the poor came on Friday evening to eat the love-feast. When they went to sleep afterwards, only one of them had a covering. He put half the blanket underneath him and the other half on top; but he was still very cold. When he went to relieve himself, I heard him grumbling and moaning about the cold and he consoled himself like this, ‘Thank you, Lord. How many wealthy men are in prison, sitting in irons or with shackled feet, so that they cannot even go out and relieve themselves when they want to. But I am like an emperor, I can stretch my legs and walk wherever I like.'” (from the sayings of the Desert Fathers)

How your money is being spent in Haiti

From OBL on how the money sent to the Orthodox Churches in Haiti is being used, and a reminder that they still need our help:

New York, NY – The Fund for Assistance to ROCOR continues disbursing aid to our mission in Haiti one month after a series of earthquakes devastated the island nation. To date, FFA has collected over $90,000 and disbursed $30,000.

The earthquakes destroyed the local infrastructure, making it practically impossible to disburse collected aid in the wake of the disaster. The first sums of money which provided medical supplies and financial aid to the mission were sent through the deacon of St. John Chrysostom church in House Springs, MO, Fr. Matthew Williams, who travelled to Haiti to support the faithful after the quake. While there, Fr. Matthew and an associate provided medical assistance, as well as moral and spiritual support to the parishioners, and arranged access to food and water and other supplies for the mission.

Another $10,000 was distributed to the mission through IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities humanitarian aid group) who provided food and hygiene items to the faithful in six local ROCOR parishes.
Further assistance is now being sent directly to the mission.

As the country and the ROCOR mission struggle for a return to normalcy, the Fund for Assistance is working closely with the mission priests, Fr. Gregoire Legoute and Fr. Jean Chenier-Dumais, as well as the mission’s administrator Fr. Daniel McKenzie of Miami, FL to develop a plan of action so as to better address the short and long-term needs of the mission.

Among the mission’s most pressing needs are shelter, food, water and a vehicle for each priest, so they can deliver supplies and visit their parishioners. All of these things, according to Fr. Gregoire, are best acquired locally, as any imported supplies cost the mission extra money in freight and other charges.

Having lost nearly everything in the quake – houses, possessions, family – our brothers and sisters are restarting their lives from scratch. Church buildings have been damaged and are not usable. Homes have to be rebuilt.

Those who wish to assist the ROCOR mission in Haiti are encouraged to make a donation on the Website

The mission’s future existence depends on our support.

Remembering the spiritual riches of the early Christians

From my perspective, one of the most striking aspects of Protestantism is its profound spiritual poverty. I don’t mean this in an offensive way at all and I apologize if it comes off that way, but the impression that I get from Protestantism is one of utter spiritual emptiness. I don’t think my impressions are that far off the mark, as statistics on religious conversion have shown time and again the exodus of children raised in Protestantism to more traditional forms of Christianity and, unfortunately, to eastern religions, which are viewed as being more spiritually rich.

I think that the spiritual poverty of Protestantism is the natural offspring of Protestantism’s theological poverty, in which the two most primary events commemorated on the Christian calendar, Nativity and Pascha, are viewed in such a skewed way as to destroy any of the original meaning of these events.

An early Christian view of the Incarnation, the event celebrated on the Feast of Nativity, was very different from the way most Western Christians view it today. To the early Christians, the fact that God had become man was earthshaking news. Mankind was restored to the union with God which had been lost in the primeval fall. Human flesh was made sacred. “God became man that man might become god,” as St. Athanasius of Alexandria put it.

This central belief of Christianity reshaped the culture of the Roman world and beyond. The pre-Christian world had never viewed human life as valuable in and of itself, much less as something sacred. Christian belief in the Incarnation created the belief in the innate value of human beings.

The implications of God assuming human form were enormous. A mystical-sacramental worldview came naturally to early Christians, as God had now reunited the spiritual and material worlds. God had blessed the waters with his Baptism in them. He had blessed motherhood through having a Mother. He had blessed food by eating. He had blessed humanity by becoming human. He had blessed material creation by assuming it, and so it made sense that even the things of the material world could now act as a conduit for the Grace of God. With the loss of a deep understanding of the true impact of the Incarnation, Protestants have necessarily lost this mystical-sacramental worldview of the early Christians.

Similarly, the Penal Substitution theory of Atonement, which has become the dominant view of the Atonement amongst Western Christians, has desecrated the true meaning of Great and Holy Friday and of the Pascha which follows it. The Penal Substitution theory has essentially restored Marcionism, with its view of God the Father as an angry, vengeful pseudo-pagan deity, demanding the blood of a righteous man. This view stands in stark contrast to the view of the early Christians, and the exuberant joy of hearing and proclaming the “Good News.”

The most moving (and most accurate) literary depiction I’ve yet seen of the early Christian view of the Atonement is in C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, a short summary: Edmund, the youngest boy of the group of children (symbolic of a fallen humanity), becomes a traitor to Aslan (representing Christ) by befriending Aslan’s enemy, the White Witch (representing the devil and death). Edmund repents of his treachery and is rescued by Aslan as the Witch is trying to kill him, but the White Witch demands that he be handed over to her for execution, as the ancient laws say that all traitors are to be handed over to her. Aslan, though, makes an agreement with the White Witch to die in place of Edmund. He is executed in place of Edmund and, of course, Resurrects afterward.

In this story from C.S. Lewis is the early Christian belief concerning the Atonement. While later Western Christianity, beginning with Anslem of Canterbury in the 11th century, would mistake the New Testament’s use of the word “ransom” to mean rescue from the hands of an angry God, the early Christians believed that we had been ransomed by Christ’s death from death itself. The early Christians would have known that the term “ransom” referred to purchasing a slave from his master in order to free him. And this is what Christ did through his death; he purchased us from our former masters, death and the devil, and freed us. And, in his Resurrection, he defeated death once and for all; as the Orthodox Church sings on the Feast of Pascha, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

How these early Christian views of the Nativity and Pascha devolved to the point of destruction in Western Christianity is not something I can fully comprehend, even with a familiarity of the history of the downfall of Western Christendom. I thank God, though, that he has brought me out of this darkness and into the Church which is the sole heir of the spiritual riches of the early Christians, and which knows like no other how to live the amazing truth of the Nativity and how to sing the profound joy of Pascha.

Agriculture in Maysan

From the International Herald Tribune. As the entire article is not specifically about Maysan province, but the agriculture issues in Iraq as a whole, I quote here just the section concerning Maysan. To read the entire article, click here.

“Much of the agricultural sector is dysfunctional or outright broken,” said Jon Melhus, an agriculture adviser to the U.S. provincial reconstruction team in southeastern Maysan province.

“The lack of education and essential services, especially electricity, modern irrigation and drainage practices, transportation … greatly limit Iraq’s ability to compete.”

Abdel Hussein al-Saidi, Maysan’s deputy governor, called for greater aid from the central government, echoing the cries of provincial officials in every sector across the country.

“The farm sector is the foundation for developing the entire country. Everything else rests on it,” he said.

Maysan, like other parts of southern Iraq, suffers from severe salinity, which turns vast expanses of land into white powdery salt, supporting only shrubby brush.

It has been a problem for thousands of years, but it is exacerbated by south-flowing irrigation that boosts downstream salt levels and flood irrigation that leaves salt on the soil.

Nassir al-Alami, Maysan’s top farm official, said salinity had reduced productivity in some areas by three-quarters.

Iraq is now aiming to reclaim 6 million acres (2.5 million hectares) of salinated land.

Yet given the lack of resources, hopes of transforming the farm sector quickly into an engine of growth may be in vain.

“The combination of reduced budgets due to the decline in world oil prices, corruption, and bureaucratic inefficiencies poses enormous challenges,” said Dan Foote, who heads U.S. reconstruction efforts in Maysan.

St. John Chrysostom on reading the Holy Scriptures

A quote from St. John Chrysostom, especially apt for the Feast of Theophany and the Blessing of the Waters:

“Reading the Holy Scriptures is like a treasure. With a treasure, you see, anyone able to find a tiny nugget gains for himself great wealth; likewise in the case of Sacred Scripture, one can get from a small phrase a great wealth of thought and immense riches. The Word of God is not only like a treasure, but is also like a spring gushing with ever-flowing waters in a mighty flood.”