The Low To The Mighty

HOW DID CHRISTIANITY, A TINY AND obscure messianic movement from the fringe of the Roman Empire, dislodge paganism and become the dominant religion of Western civilization? And how could this be accomplished in less than 400 years? Believers, of course, credit the Holy Spirit, but even he has to work through human agents. Evangelists stress the public preaching of the apostle Paul and other missionaries. Some intellectuals -- Karl Marx was one -- believe that Christianity was the triumph of a proletarian revolution. And many historians point to Emperor Constantine, whose Edict of Milan in 313 led to the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.

They're all wrong, writes veteran sociologist Rodney Stark of the University of Washington in a brilliant new book, The Rise of Christianity (246 pages. Princeton. $24.95). Using what is known about contemporary religious cults and the principles of social science, Stark fills many blanks in the historical and archeological records. The result is a fresh, blunt and highly persuasive account of how the West was won -- for Jesus.

Beginning at the end of the story, Stark argues that Constantine did not cause the triumph of Christianity. Rather, his historic edict was a politically astute ""response'' to the rapid growth of Christianity within the empire. In the absence of census data or anything like public-opinion polls, Stark charts a ""plausible'' growth curve of 40 percent per decade for Christians. Starting with a few hundred believers in the years immediately after the death of Jesus, he estimates, Christians had reached a critical mass of at least 10 percent of the empire's citizens by the year 300. How did this happen?

For one thing, Stark says, they weren't rabble. Contrary to Marx, Stark insists that Christianity from its inception drew on converts from the privileged classes. Just as new religions today like the Unification Church attract the better educated, he argues, so the cult of Christ took root among the middle and upper classes more easily than among the less fortunate. What's more, he says, it wasn't preaching in the marketplace that won converts to Christ. Then, as now, he believes, ""conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments.'' Mormon missionaries, for example, average only one convert for every 1,000 cold house calls, but convert one of every two persons they meet through relatives or friends. Christianity spread the same way, says Stark: mainly through family and friendship networks.

Convert Jews: Again contradicting received opinion, Stark argues that for four centuries Christianity's best prospects were also Jews. Most Jews lived outside Palestine. And like post-Enlightenment Jews in Europe, most were caught between two cultures: the ethnic enclaves of the Orthodox and the ""progressive'' Hellenistic culture of the Gentiles. Once the early Christian leaders (Jews themselves) decided that converts need not follow Jewish law, he argues, it was easy for these marginalized Jews to embrace the new religion as a way of resolving their in-between social status.

Stark's most provocative thesis is that most Christians in the Roman Empire were women. Christianity ""promoted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family,'' he writes, giving women more status than they enjoyed in Roman society, where they remained the property of men. Moreover, from the very beginning Christianity prohibited infanticide and abortion, gruesome procedures that produced a pagan population that was disproportionately male. Women also benefited from the church's sanctification of marriage and opposition to divorce. ""Roman men held marriage in low estate,'' he observes, and even when they did marry produced few children. The church encouraged Christian women to marry pagan husbands -- including senators -- thus allowing Christianity to penetrate Roman high society through the conversion of spouses and children. Roman persecutions were savage, Stark acknowledges, but the number of victims was wildly exaggerated and limited mainly to bishops and other male leaders.

In short, Stark finds that Christians prospered the old-fashioned way: by providing a better, happier and more secure way of life. When epidemics struck, the indifferent pagan gods were of no avail. Nor was Roman medicine. But Christians survived in greater numbers than their pagan neighbors because they had both faith in a loving God and extensive social services that cared for the sick, the poor and widows. In the end, Stark concludes, Christians ""revitalized'' the Roman Empire because they manifest a demanding God who cares.

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