Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Cities of God by Rodney Stark
I’m not sure how Cities of God by Rodney Stark got on my list. Probably it was after I read his book, How the West Won. The subtitle describes the thesis of the book: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome.
The book uses statistical analysis to follow the rise and spread of early Christianity. He is able to use data, not easily available to create multiple hypothesis and test them. This leads largely to verifying what we already know, but he is able to quantify why what we already know is true and to what extent it is true. Yet a few times he offers new insight. One particularly interesting statistical fact shows that Paul’s ministry did not necessarily spread Christianity. He definitely helped define and focus Christian theology, but he seems to have gone where churches either already were or would have eventually been.
He begins by pointing out that most early converts were in fact Jews, not mostly gentiles as we so often picture. This is because they were already open to a monotheistic faith and Christianity stripped it of “ethnic encumbrances.” In addition, the church found its early success in large cities, not far from Jerusalem, with large diaspora communities of Jews, which were largely hellenized. He goes into why all this is so in the book. In addition, cities which had experienced an influx of the near-monotheistic religions of Isis and Cybele seemed the most open to Christianity.
He makes some interesting points contrasting monotheism with polytheism. He states that monotheism always wins this contest. It seems that polytheism creates a system in which people “god-shop.” Their level to any one particular god is relatively low. But when there is One True God, people are much more likely to engage in a “lifelong commitment and devotion.” After discussing the success monotheism engenders when confronting polytheism, Stark states, “Monotheism prevails because it offers a God worth dying for—indeed, a God who promises everlasting life.”
He goes on to explore Gnostic writers and ideas. He makes a convincing case that the Gnostics were not a sect of Christianity, but of paganism with Christian overtones. They were rightly and immediately rejected by early Christian fathers.
He also discusses the rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire. He shows that Christians were very tolerant and mixed well with the pagan religions that still existed. But he also shows that when Emperor Julian attempted to stamp out Christianity, it was in actually an attempt to stamp out effective religion. He states, “Julian’s effort to restore the temples was a fool’s errand that achieved nothing because when monotheism and polytheism collide, monotheism always wins. Easily. It does so precisely because it offers far more, and does so with far greater credibility, making it the choice of philosophers as well as of the people.”
He ends the book with a plea for historians to begin counting. Literally. He encourages them to back their assertions with quantifiable data as he has done repeatedly throughout the book. He believes the data is there for the finding and historians can avoid making claims later proved to be wrong if only they search for statistically quantifiable data.
This is a quick and easy read for those wanting to understand the spread of the early Church and what kinds of variables played a role.