By Joshua Madden
Trying to document the history of the world’s largest religion would be a difficult task for anyone, but Baylor Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences Dr. Rodney Stark decided to fit in all in a book around 500 pages long without sacrificing quality or accuracy.
I’m happy to say that the result, his book “The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion,” succeeds in that respect. The book is, quite simply, excellent.
“The Triumph of Christianity” is quite possibly the best nonfiction book I’ve read this year. The only book even close is Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” but given that it discusses baseball statistics and “The Triumph of Christianity” documents the history of the world’s most popular religion, I think Stark’s book is certainly more meaningful. “The Triumph of Christianity” has certainly made more of an impact on my life than “Moneyball” did.
I picked up the book expecting it to be an exploration of Christian theology. While there is some of that sporadically throughout the book, Stark’s purpose is more to answer a relatively important question: how did an obscure Jewish movement become so big?
Whether you’re religious or not, you’ll find that this is indeed an important question. Why is it that so many people around the world believe in Christ? That’s not something that happens on accident — for some reason, whether you believe in Christ or not, you have to admit that his message resonates with people.
Stark starts the book out before Christ, focusing heavily on the religious elements at play in the Roman empire and he shows that this was a group of people who were desperate for some kind of meaningful belief system. In a world with high infant mortality, short life-spans and widespread poverty, Roman citizens were looking for some reason to not simply give up hope.
One of the most interesting concepts that Stark presents in the book is the idea of divine accommodation, which can be summarized as the belief that a divine power will shape its message and the delivery of that message in a way that resonates with the people who are expected to believe in it.
In the case of Christianity, there was a significant build-up to the Christ story; the idea that an all-powerful God would send his son to die publicly in order to wash away the sins of mankind is something that resonated with Roman citizens and, as Stark points out, is still resonating with more than a billion people around the world.
Stark goes through human history explaining how this message continued to resonate with people and also wasn’t responsible for many of the negative things that people associate with Christianity.
For example, Stark goes through “the Dark Ages” and shows why they weren’t dark at all. They weren’t a backwards time in which people weren’t developing at all; they were a time that led to major developments in art, engineering and even something that non-Christians can embrace: the development of modern capitalism.
That’s just one of many topics that Stark takes on — darker areas of Christian history aren’t safe from Stark’s analysis either. He shows how the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were not as simplistic as many modern scholars tend to present them. It’s interesting reading the book because what Stark says goes against what you may have been taught in classes, but when you look at the evidence that Stark presents in the book, it’s hard to argue with his conclusions.
“The Triumph of Christianity” is not a book by a Christian trying to force his beliefs down the throat of his readers. Stark’s claims are well-researched and well-documented — this is very much a historical work.
As strange of a comparison as this is to make, it’s much like Judd Apatow’s terrible film “Funny People.” Many people thought that a movie about comedians would be funny, but it was actually a drama and the dramatic participants just happened to comedians.
Much like “Funny People,” just because the topic matter is a religion, “The Triumph of Christianity” is not a religious book; it is a book about the history of a religion. There’s a big difference between the two. Unlike “Funny People,” however, “The Triumph of Christianity” is worth your time.
I don’t care if you are the most devout Christian or Christopher Hitchens, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Understanding the historical context that surrounded Jesus and the rise of the religion after he left the earth is something that every literate person owes it to themselves to do.
I can cite very few books that have had as much of a meaningful impact on me as “The Triumph of Christianity” has. Nearly every Christian facet of my life has been placed in a new context thanks to this book. It is my sincerest hope that you will read the book and find it as rewarding as I did.