Book Review | Rebellion, reforms part of church history of power versus piety
Christianity's failings were often due to its political involvements or to meddling from rulers. The Church has repeatedly had to fight against this power orientation.
While Emperor Constantine deeply damaged the Church for centuries, Christianity has always reformed and remade itself, on the whole staying faithful to the Gospel. Especially since the Reformation, but at many episodes prior to that as well, the Roman Church has been a community of the pious.
In "The Triumph of Christianity," Rodney Stark clearly shows that when Constantine decriminalized the Church, he also vastly enriched it, thus setting off the centuries-long battle over simony. Wealthy and even mediocre ecclesiastical offices attracted men and their backers more interested in financial gain and worldly power than in religious service. The medieval Western Church is a history of the resulting decay and reform.
Thus Roman families would control the papacy, putting into the chair of Peter men who gambled, prayed to the gods, womanized and had illegitimate children, and mocked the liturgy. Stark, a professor of social sciences and co-director of the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University, describes well the resulting great, European-wide reforms that would sweep the entire institution, as in the 11th century, when several popes including Gregory VII (pope 1073-1085) promoted a more saintly episcopacy and priesthood and fought against the buying and selling of Church office (simony).
St. Francis was another from the "church of piety," as Stark calls it -- the part of the Church that existed throughout the centuries, even at the most corrupt periods, and that always followed Christ devoutly and served the people. Yet because the "church of power" retook the institution after the 11th-century reforms, the centuries between 1100 and the Reformation in the early 16th century witnessed one rebellion against the Church after another, as cited by the author.
The Waldensians, near-cousins to the Franciscans, were rooted out as heretics because, unlike Francis and his followers, they did not carefully offer their loyalty to the church of power. The Cathars, or Albigensians, mostly of southern France, were also savagely destroyed in the 13th century.
Yet Stark offers a balanced view of Christian history, one that counters all the defamations of Voltaire, Denis Diderot and the other voices of the so-called Enlightenment. Stark is especially strong on showing how science directly grew out of the medieval Christian view that because God was reasonable and had made men reasonable, so the world was also built on logic and could be known in this way. The author writes convincingly that the so-called Scientific Revolution never happened and has been an Enlightenment slander against the "Dark Ages."
The early medieval period saw profound technological growth. Stark, a sociologist-historian interested in the lives of the common people, also notes the very high use of water mills by the 10th century. He attributes this in part to the Christian prohibition against slavery, which meant that agriculture and industry had to find alternative sources of power to slaves.
Catholics will come away from "The Triumph of Christianity" with a lot to tell their Protestant or secular naysayers. Stark notes that much uninformed and unjustified anger and bigotry directed at the Catholic Church not only originated in the Enlightenment, but also in Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda.
He goes so far as to say that English and Dutch slander against the Spanish Inquisition was racism or Hispanophobia. "Astonishing as it may seem, the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast to the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process and enlightenment," Stark observes. He notes that the Inquisition actually stopped the witch craze from spreading to Spain because it made a point of examining the accused, and often found a misunderstanding of Christian theology.
Stark does the Church a service by bringing to light the heroic history of the Church and showing how this past, and the heritage of all of Christianity, has been slandered by people who hate Christianity. "The Triumph of Christianity" is a welcome dose of reality.
About the book
TITLE: "The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion"
AUTHOR: Rodney Stark
PUBLISHER: HarperOne (San Francisco, 2011), 506 pp., $27.99.
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