Rodney Stark, Cities of God The Real Story of How Christianity Became and Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco, Harper SanFrancisco, 2006) 280pp.Introduction
Rodney Stark brings a unique perspective to the history and development of Christianity. Not only is he a responsible scholar who seeks to construct reliable histories, as a sociologist he looks at the events, times, places with an earthy human perspective. Stark’s most recent book, Cities of God, (henceforth COG), is an interesting analysis of how the Christian faith spread first through the urban areas of the Roman Empire. Stark tests his urban hypothesis with several available samples of social data from the first several centuries of the movement. His use of quantifiable social data from the first three centuries of Christianity makes this book unique in its treatment of the subject. Rather than reading a theory onto data, Stark’s attempt is to form a hypothesis and then test it using quantitative methods. I was interested in the book for a few reasons. First, it is looks seriously at the Christian faith as an urban phenomenon. With the populations of the world continually moving towards large urban centers, Christianity as an urban faith is of paramount interest today. Second, the book places the fledgling Christian movement in its proper social/cultural world, neither idolizing the early days of the church, nor minimizing the faith commitments of the early propagators of the gospel. In this review I will briefly summarize the work, look at what I considered some of its strengths and weaknesses, and then draw a short conclusion. At the outset I want to make my position clear. I am looking at the work primarily as a practitioner, albeit one who is scholarly interested. I am not an historian or sociologist and will make no such intimations in my review. Others will likely want to evaluate Starks work on the grounds of his statistical methods, sociological assumptions, and historical conclusions. This is not my goal. I will simply look at this work from a standpoint of one interested in history and what we might learn from the church’s past.Summary of the Book
Stark’s main thesis in the book is very interesting indeed. His claim is that the meteoric rise of the Christian faith in the ancient world can be accounted for by the following factors. First, that religious conversion takes place through existing social networks and relationships. Second, these networks primarily took root in the densely packed urban centers of the Roman Empire. Third, the growth of Christianity in a relatively short time span can be accounted for by a moderate rate of conversion in these major population centers.
To support his thesis he first develops a sociology of conversion from research done with the Moonies in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century (COG 8-13). He then uses this to reinforce the idea that conversation comes first through relational connections and only secondarily through ascent to new belief systems. Stark goes on to support his thesis by researching social data in 31 major cities of the empire. He first models how moderate rates of conversion in cities and spreading through travel/commerce could easily account for the flowering growth of the faith. Along the way he adjusts and supports his conclusions by looking at various social conditions and their affect upon acceptance of Christian beliefs. These additional factors are a literal tour de force of ancient religious practices in the Roman Empire. He spans the influence of eastern religions (Isis and Cybele worship), thoroughly factors in the rich response to the gospel in Hellenized Jewish communities of the Diaspora, and dances through the influence (or more accurately lack of influence) of the various Gnostic heresies so popular with religious scholars and pop fiction of our day. He finishes with a brief chapter on the last days of Paganism before closing with an exhortation towards the use of quantifiable data in testing our historical hypotheses. The book also includes a thorough appendix highlighting the data underlying his research – all the sociology research geeks will rejoice in this I am sure.Critical Analysis
In evaluating this work I will do so by briefly looking at what I considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of the book. I will look first at the strengths as they occupy most of my analysis, and then move to one major drawback I found in the book. I consider the latter minor in comparison to the strengths, but it does involve serious theological assumptions which affect our understanding of the progress of Christianity.Strengths
I found Stark’s analysis to have many benefits to both our historical understanding as well as application to contemporary life and ministry. To look at the positive aspects of his work I will first comment on his emphasis on social networks and conversion. I will then look at the relationship of this emphasis to Christianity as an urban phenomenon. Next I will comment on his focus Paul’s missionary activity burgeoning from Hellenized Diaspora Jewish communities before closing with Stark’s analysis of historical studies in the ancient empire (City Abstracts, Gnosticism, Isis/Cybele worship).Conversion as a Sociological Phenomenon
Stark’s argument is based upon a certain social understanding of conversion. I found this to be both helpful and a bit theologically shallow. First, expanding on research on conversions done with those moving over to Sun Yung Moon’s Unification Church (Moonies), Stark establishes that people move from one religion to another distinct belief system through relationships in social networks (COG 8-13). Only when strong social bonds exist in the new religion, do people find the courage and strength to move out of their traditional religious setting. In concluding his summary of recent research on conversion he makes the following summary statement:
By now dozens of close-up studies of conversion have been conducted. All of them confirm that social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place. To convert someone, you must first become their close and trusted friend. But even your best friends will not convert if they already are highly committed to another faith. (COG 13.)I found this to be a helpful understanding for those seeking to share the gospel with others today. Evangelistic methods that are not highly relational, that do not include opportunities to love and do life with others, may be perceived as inauthentic and they may not be very effective. There is a mammoth shortcoming in this view in that almost relegates God to the sidelines of the act of conversion. This is primarily due to the author’s theological views, which color his understanding of conversion. This will be a feature of the work which will be addressed in a moment, but for now I will only say that a social network understanding of evangelism to be very helpful. Finally, while Stark does make mention of the strength of monotheism in providing both missionary zeal and long term commitment to “the one true God” his focus is clearly that conversions happen when the non committed are connected relationally with the faithful. It is in this ground that conversions take place and such soils were readily available in the urban contexts of the Roman Empire.
The Urban Spread of Christianity
Stark’s treatment of the role of urban centers in early Christianity is also very insightful. Cities in that time (as are cities today), were centers of commerce, greater population density, diversity of peoples, and the movement/exchange of ideas. In the Roman Empire travel increasingly took place via sea routes with the Roman road system being difficult to pass with commercial goods. The roads were a great network throughout the empire, but they were designed primarily for the nimble movement of roman soldiers throughout the provinces (COG 74). As a result the major port cities became the preferred urban hubs for commercial travel. Christian believers committed to the new faith would carry their beliefs with them establishing social networks in the port cities where they lived and did their work. Believers saw discipleship to Jesus as a new way of life, at times being known simply as followers of the way (Acts 9:1, 2). They lived and travelled the empire in the normal courses of life taking the message of the gospel with them into new social networks, precisely the contexts in which conversions take place. Stark traces the early movements of the gospel through the larger, Hellenized, port cities of the empire, with those being closest to Jerusalem becoming Christianized first (COG 76-83). Stark also connects the success of early Christianity to cities which had prominent religious diversity and acceptance of other eastern religions (namely Cybele and Isis worship). His idea here was that cities with these religions were already accepting beliefs that were different than those of the classical paganism of Greece and Rome hence making religious movement easier. This focus on the successful mission to cities should also encourage Christians who are interested in the mission of Jesus to focus on urban social networks for making disciples in the post Christian west.The Mission within Diaspora Communities
Another strength of the book is Stark’s focus on Hellenized Jews of Diaspora communities which were found in the port cities. These Jewish communities had become very Greek in culture with many leaving some of the strictures of The Law (COG 125) prior to the arrival of the Christian gospel. These were Greek speaking Jews who were almost living between cultures; quite ready to accept a new way which is in many ways are middle ground between Athens and Jerusalem. Stark sees the Christian mission to these communities a significant factor in much early Christian conversion. His conclusion:
For many Hellenized Jews, a monotheism with deep Jewish roots, but without the Law, would have been extremely attractive (COG 126)
Hellenized Jews and “God-fearers” who were associated with the synagogues would be the beachhead in many major Roman cities. The result of the conversion of Diaspora Jews would be vehement opposition from the Jewish traditionalists holding onto their culture – precisely what we observe in the book of Acts.
A few final strengths
There are a few other features I want to mention before closing my remarks on the strengths of the work. First, the brief abstracts on the 31 prominent ancient cities were very valuable as an educational experience. It was interesting to see each geographical region of ancient Europe and the major cities that propelled it into the middle ages (See Chapter 2 – The Urban Empire). Additionally the background and theology of the ancient near eastern religions of Isis and Cybele were very interesting and bit bizarre. I will just refer the reader to page 91 of the book for some spooky weird stuff on the Cybelene priests. I will just say that I would have been a quick drop out from Cybele Seminary and that modern drag queens have nothing on these ancient enthusiasts of the eastern goddess. Finally, the chapter treating the history and influence on Gnosticism is worth the price of the book. For those who have read the Ehrmans and Pagels of the world on the so-called alternative Christian communities in the early church, this chapter is extremely helpful. Stark demonstrates sociologically that these aberrant and heretical sects were not major players in the expanse and propagation of the faith. They were heretics practicing a different religion than the Christian faith which spread through the urban centers of Rome. For those interested in discussions of the heretical Gnostic sects, chapter 6 of Starks work is a welcomed addition to that discussion.
One Glaring Weakness
Reading Theological Presuppositions into Research
My main frustration with Cities of God was not sociological but theological in nature. Starks is not a theologian, but he presses his theological perspectives a bit awkwardly into some of his research. The place this surfaces is discussing the way conversions take place and what God can and cannot do in the process. The problematic sections surface in the chapter on Christianization. He begins with a discussion of a phenomenon known as mass conversions which are recorded in the book of Acts and thought by some historians to be the only explanation for the massive growth of the church in its first 300 years (COG 64). Stark finds these mass conversions (including those recorded in Acts) dubious for four primary reasons – theological, sociological, historic, and arithmetic (COG 65). For my purposes I will focus on his theological objection to mass conversions, which in fact he literally applies to all Christian conversion in general. I will quote him at length so as to not misrepresent his view:
Harnak was right that mass conversions would qualify as miracles. And that’s precisely the theological basis for rejecting their occurrence. God could have created human beings incapable of sin and in no need of Christ’s sacrifice. But he didn’t. God could have caused all human beings to accept Christ. But he didn’t. Either act would have violated free will. It was in this spirit that, as scripture reports, Jesus charged his followers to go and “make disciples of all nations.” So why would God perform a lot of little conversion miracles? Intervention in human affairs to compel even one person, let alone a few thousand people, to embrace Christianity is inconsistent with essential Christian doctrine. (COG 65, emphasis in original.)I find this quotation almost unbelievable in light of both church history and the witness of the New Testament. First, there are vast Christian sources from history which teach precisely that conversion is in fact a work of God This tradition can be traced through all Christian sects and is found prominently in reformed groups represented in the works of Spurgeon, Edwards, Bunyan, Knox, Calvin, and St. Augustine of Hippo. Yet even outside of the reformed line others consistently give God at least a role in conversion. The great Catholic doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, a strong proponent of the freedom of the will in conversion, readily taught that man cannot be converted but by an act of God. A brief citation from his Summa Theologica will suffice.
Likewise, the order of nature can only be restored, i.e. man's will can only be subject to God when God draws man's will to Himself, as stated above. So, too, the guilt of eternal punishment can be remitted by God alone, against Whom the offense was committed and Who is man's Judge. And thus in order that man rise from sin there is required the help of grace, both as regards a habitual gift, and as regards the internal motion of God. (Summa Theologica – Question 109 – The necessity of Grace, Article 7 - Whether man can rise from sin without the help of grace?)It seems that Stark’s view here is at odds with, at the very least, large segments of Christian thought and history; it seems equally out of step with the New Testament. John’s gospel describes conversion as a new birth and that birth as being from the work of God. Additionally, Jesus taught clearly “all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37) and additionally “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Paul uses the metaphor of Christians being made alive by God to describe conversion in Colossians 2:13. Finally, Paul’s treatment of calling in 1 Corinthians 1 and Romans 8 also seem to indicate God’s intervening work in conversion. I do not want to go into the detailed debates surrounding the doctrines of election and effectual calling in this book review, I only want to say that Stark seems to fall radically to one side of the spectrum in describing God’s role in conversion. Stark’s view is almost completely naturalistic, a conversion based only on sociological factors, needing little if any work from the Spirit of God. Additionally, the dismissal of the accounts in Acts of mass conversion is also suspect for all who maintain a high view of the inspiritation of Scripture. Scholars who research the effects of preaching in historic revivals may also find the statement:
One sermon, no matter how dynamic, does not prompt the fundamental shift of identity essential to a religious conversion; even after these listeners had been baptized, there would have been a great bit still to be done before any of them could have been claimed as Christian. (COG 64, 65)
to be a bit problematic. I acknowledge that Stark may be using the term conversion in a more holistic fashion, but when dealing with theological issues I would have preferred greater clarity. Stark’s theological views of conversion and freewill perhaps bias him against supernatural explanations of early church growth which would perhaps compliment his conclusions based on helpful sociology. I found this to be the most glaring weakness of the book.
Overall, I highly enjoyed Cities of God and recommend it highly as a useful study for those thinking about missional engagement in complex cultural settings. His insights into the importance of social networks and urban centers will prove helpful to church planters and missionaries who take the message of the gospel into our world today. For those who can see past his theological perspective (read – relax intensely reformed brethren), I commend this book to those interested in studies pertaining to early Christianity and missiology.