by Rodney Stark
Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Wilmington, Del. 455 pages
REVIEWED BY ROBERT L. MONTGOMERY
This is a book for those who, like me, are interested in the “fruits of faith” that have followed over the last 2000 years since the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. It is also a book for critics of Christianity who are overly impressed with the 17th century so-called “Enlightenment.” Stark has written much about religion, particularly Christianity. This is not a book about Christianity per se, but any history of the West involves Christianity. Probably the greatest impact of Christianity on the advance of the West in Stark’s eyes is the stimulation of science from the belief in a rational God who created rational human beings who can investigate a rational world. Diversity, competition and freedom added to the stimulation. Stark does not dwell on the downside of competition, which may please conservative readers.
Stark writes very clearly and does not mince words in his challenges to conventional views. However, the book is loaded with detailed facts and observations from a wide variety of sources that back his views. There is certainly no claim that people from the West are any smarter than people from the past or from any other part of the world. In fact, at the time of the writing of the New Testament, Europeans were considered “barbarians,” even if this was a somewhat biased view of people in the Greco-Roman world.
Although granting great importance to the brief Greek espousal of and experience in democracy (primarily because they lacked a central state), Stark sees the collapse of Rome (“The Roman Interlude”) as a great boost to the advance of the West over the centuries. As a missionary who has made the understanding of the spread of Christianity a longtime goal, I recognize that Western colonialism has been a major albatross around the neck of missions having conveyed to many peoples a feeling of the imposition of a foreign faith, although this was not largely the case for many non-Western minority peoples. Stark is a reminder (without saying so) of how God brings about good despite (or even through) the sins of humans. He points out that much good was introduced to the world even through colonialism, but especially through Christian missions.
The West is obviously not as dominant as it once was, but Stark’s book is a reminder that freedom and democracy are the fruit of a long development; using them as slogans may be simply trying to paste them on sociocultural systems that do not support them. For those, like me, who believe that Jesus Christ introduced the “last days” of a long human history, Stark’s book also reminds us that there is much work yet to be done in the world, especially where there is little freedom. Christians can contribute (even if they have often failed to do so) acceptance and respect for diverse viewpoints. In the meantime, I believe we Christians, while boosted by Stark’s analysis, should continue to listen to critics, such as the ones produced by the “Enlightenment,” even if many of their judgments are superficial.
ROBERT L. MONTGOMERY is an honorably retired PC(USA) teaching elder.