Interview with Rodney Stark, Part IV

IV.  Missions, Cultural Capital, and The Rise of Christianity, Revisited


In The Rise of Christianity you wrote about how Christianity could be explained without the need for miracles.  You followed the upward curve of the Mormon church and (concluded that) maybe the Christian church did the same thing.  Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that miracles didn’t happen . . .


No, of course not! 


Have you changed in your thinking about that? 


If miracles happened, they happened!  What I’m saying is that no miracle was required.  It was a pretty ordinary growth rate.  By the way, I’m rewriting that book, and it’s going to be about three times as long.  That’s what I’m doing currently. 


With a different title, I assume. 


Well, I think it’s going to be The Rise of Christianity Reconsidered.  And I didn’t know much when I wrote that book, actually.[1] 


When you wrote A Theory of Religion you had about 200 postulates …


Yeah, well, that’s way, way back in history, and Acts of Faith, as far as I’m concerned, completely replaces it. Acts of Faith is a theory book that is much cleaner and I don’t try to derive everything. 


I don’t think I’ve seen that book. 


Well, you should. (Published in) 2000, Stark & Finke. It is my fundamental theoretical statement on all this stuff. Of course things have happened in these other books, but mostly it's all there …. People who sat down and did the arithmetic thought that it's pretty inconceivable that in the time that history provides, that you could have converted the empire. And what I was trying to do was put some discipline on those kinds of claims and point out that actually, a very ordinary growth rate will do it, and you don’t have to sit here postulating all these miracles. And, you know, somebody went into town and gave a sermon and 5,000 people jumped up and said, "I'm for Jesus!" It didn't happen that way. At least if it did, that was a miracle because in social science we have no knowledge of such phenomena. 


When you have missionaries going into a tribe like the Dani in New Guinea or the Lahu in Burma, you do see some pretty phenomenal growth rates. 


Sure you do, once you get a start. Those are really intense, highly integrated communities. And if you can get a wedge going, if you can get some people to convert, then I would expect, because of the intensity of the networks, for the faith to spread really rapidly.


One of the keys in many cases seems to have been what you talk about with the "preservation of religious capital"; where people saw Christianity as a fulfillment of their highest ideals. 


Yes! That works, for sure. Yeah, one of the things on this cultural capital that people really miss – we all see the cultural capital with Judaism. Jews can become Christians and throw away nothing. Add the New Testament they don't have to throw away the Old Testament. OK, fine. But some of the things that are said about Christianity as attacks – it sounds very, very pagan – the virgin birth, the wise men, the star. (Such critics) don't notice the enormous cultural continuity that has for pagans, who are out there to be converted! And if we accept the whole notion that God speaks to people in a language they can understand, the whole Christ story happens that way in many respects – including the blood sacrifice of the crucifixion – precisely because it speaks so directly, and with such great familiarity to this whole pagan world! 


Justin Martyr picked up on the term "tutors to Christ" …


Justin Martyr says to some Roman, "I should tell you the story of Jesus because it's a story you're familiar with. It's like your story." 


He couldn't make up his mind whether he thought the demons had inspired that, or whether it was from God. 


This is something that's greatly overlooked. The rationale of course, is if Christianity is so plausible, the second people heard about it and thought about it, they said, "Yeah, right!" That's not the way life works.


[1] Reviewers nevertheless gave it high marks, including in the Newsweek review that first alerted me to Dr. Stark’s work.