Misery to Hope; Through the Church!—Rodney Stark (1934 – )
Leading sociologist of religion and professor at both the University of Washington and Baylor University, Rodney Stark, has written a number of important books on Christianity and culture. In The Rise of Christianity (1997), Stark describes how, in the first few centuries A.D., Christianity grew from being an obscure Jewish sect, to becoming the dominant ideology in the West. One major reason was the impact of the church’s life. Amid the chaos of cities like Antioch, in what is now Turkey, the Church was a glorious force for urban renewal. Acts 11:26 reports that it was at Antioch that believers were first called Christians, which literally means “little Christs.” Stark’s research shows that long after that first designation the Christians continued to live up to their name by letting their good works speak for themselves.
[Antioch was] a city filled with misery, danger, fear, despair, and hatred. A city where the average family lived a squalid life in filthy and cramped quarters, where at least half of the children died at birth or during infancy, and where most of the children who lived lost at least one parent before reaching maturity. A city filled with hatred and fear rooted in intense ethnic antagonisms and exacerbated by a constant stream of strangers. A city so lacking in stable networks of attachments that petty incidents could prompt mob violence. A city where crime flourished and the streets were dangerous at night. And, perhaps above all, a city repeatedly smashed by cataclysmic catastrophes: where a resident could literally expect to be homeless from time to time, providing that he or she was among the survivors . . .
Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationship able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.1
1. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 160-161.