World — Some evangelicals are displaying a pessimistic sense of decline. Internally and externally, Christian denominations are “sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” Amid despair, Baylor professor Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (HarperOne) provides long-term perspective. It is WORLD’s 2012 Book of the Year.
One reason is that Stark, unusual among academic historians, writes well: He was a reporter for the Oakland Tribune and the Denver Post before gaining a Ph.D. (He then taught at the University of Washington for 32 years before heading to Baylor in 2004.) A second reason for honoring Stark is his lifetime of achievement: In 28 books—one from 15 years ago, The Rise of Christianity, prefigures his new work—Stark has employed both statistics and historical testimony to shoot down stereotypes.
Stark begins Triumph by describing the Asian competitors to indolent Roman paganism that had emerged 2,000 years ago. They had a competitive advantage: “Roman paganism offered very little in the way of community. Most Romans were very irregular and infrequent visitors to the temples?…?what most dramatically set the Oriental faiths apart from Roman paganism was their capacity to generate congregations.”
Cults of Bacchus, Dionysius, Isis, Cybele, and others, he notes, had regular meetings and strong ties among members, who for moments could transcend their “remarkably filthy existence.” Stark notes that “the smell of urine, feces, and decay permeated everything.” The Holy Land wasn’t much better: “A recent analysis of decayed human fecal remains in an ancient Jerusalem cesspool found an abundance of tapeworm and whipworm eggs, indicating that almost everyone had them.”
Christianity at first seemed to Rome like one cult among others, but over time others succumbed as bad news made the Good News stand out more. Stark notes that disease readily spread in dirty ancient cities, so Christians became blessings to their communities not only spiritually but physically. Simple provision of food and water to severely weakened people often allowed them to recover: Nursing by Christians may have cut mortality by two-thirds.Continue Reading on www.worldmag.com