Christian history is am important, but undervalued subject for Christian education. We are pretty good at teaching bible (or at least valuing it). We are pretty good about teaching application of Christian values and ethics and evangelism. We are getting better at teaching the importance of social ministry. But Christian history is usually something that we leave people to learn on their own.
The Triumph of Christianity is written by Rodney Stark (historian and sociologist) specifically to counter a lot of myths and bad assumptions about Christian history. This is really a summary of his three previous books: God Battalions (on the Crusades), Cities of God (rise of early Christianity) and Victory of Reason (on the rise of Western culture). I have only read God’s Battalions, but I think Triumph of Christianity is the book to start with.
There are places where I quibble with Stark’s approach. For instance in dealing with the crusades, I think he is right to give context and reason for the crusades. However, he goes further and says that Christians should not apologize for the crusades because they were an appropriate response to Islamic incursions. Regardless of the fact that they were a response, the reality is that there were abuses in the crusades and there is nothing wrong with apologizing for those abuses.
For the most part, I think this book is a good corrective to inadequate history. Stark starts with the fact that he believes that Christianity had significant participation from the wealthy and powerful classes of the Roman Empire early on. In fact, Stark believes that by Constantine, the majority of the urban Roman world was already Christian.
What is interesting is that he asserts that the problem wasn’t just the institutionalization of Christianity after Constantine, but that early Christian were very urban and the institutionalization slowed evangelization of the rural areas so that much of Europe was never really evangelized. He believes once there was a state church the clergy and institution was focused not on evangelization and teaching but on maintaining power. So Europe, especially Northern Europe, only evangelized the power structure but never evangelized the rural people.
So Europe does not have a modern problem with church participation, it has a historical problem of church participation. This is countered later in the book with a look at North America and then Latin America and how Christianity in these two areas were pluralistic and competitive instead of focused on a power hungry state church.
There is also a strong counter to the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. He asserts that the Dark Ages was some of the most creative and innovative parts of European history and that the Renaissance was actually backward looking and stagnant with regard to culture and innovation. And he makes a pretty good case for it.
My guess is that there will continue to be push back against Stark’s thesis. He is clearly taking aim at the academic sociologists and historians with this book. And he has likely overstepped the evidence in several areas. But it looks to me like his basic thesis is sound and we should reevaluate several our assumptions about the way that Christian history is told.
This book is not written for Christians in particular. And almost all streams of Christianity will be irritated by parts of it. But it is worth reading and taking seriously no matter what your stream of Christianity. (Although this is clearly focused on Western Christianity and not Orthodox Christianity.)