Saturday, March 14, 2009

What do Measles, Urban Density and Anal Sex have in Common?

According to Rodney Stark, they all influenced the dramatic spread of Christianity over the first three centuries of its growth. Stark’s primary shtick is to interpolate between sparse historical and textual data from the early years of the church by appealing to contemporary sociologicalmodels. In The Rise of Christianity he offers many convincing arguments about the social conditions that lead to the eventual supplanting of Paganism by Christianity. He argues that Church growth was arithmetic, at a rate of about 40% per decade[1] for the first 250 years, well before Constantine.[2] This fits the data, but leaves a glaring question: How did a tiny Jewish sect in a crowded, pluralistic, antagonistic religious landscape grow at such a rate. He offers dozens of explanations, but I think several have interesting application to our own time. So I will summarize and comment on three:

1. Christians Fearlessness of Death Increased their Survival Rate, Social Connections and Community Respect in the Wake of Two Plagues


Stark’s most famous argument, and the one that attracted me to his work[3] is that the plagues were central to how Christianity emerged as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. He describes the plagues of 165 and 251[4] which each wiped out a quarter to a third of the empire. He begins his argument by suggesting that, philosophically, “Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen on humanity.” But the heart of his argument is that the fearless abandon with which Christians risked their lives to care for others also made the plagues more survivable for themselves and the Pagans with social attachments to the Christian community. He cites Cyprian to convey the basic Christian attitude to the Plagues:

“Plagues and pestilence…searches out the justice and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick…Although this mortality has contributed nothing else…we are learning not to fear death.”[5]

And Dionysius:

“Many in nursing and curing others, have transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…The heathen behaved the opposite way…they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead.[6]



These sympathetic testimonies are collaborated by official documents and unsympathetic authors which lead Stark to the conclusion that at great risk, Christians provided basic nursing care and burial to the infected. This seems like quaint martyrdom until one realizes:

“Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate (during a plague) by two thirds or even more.”[7] So in the face of the most devastating disasters of the early life of the Church, Christianity proved not only intellectually satisfying, but efficacious. Christianity, ‘grew’ enormously because the population of Christians ‘shrunk’ much less. But this basic nursing care, not only improved the rate of Christian survival but the survival of Pagans that had Christian social networks and Pagans who owed their life to Christian theology. [8] So, Stark suggests, there were probably significant conversion rates among the surviving pagans.

Reflections on Contemporary Relevance: It seems like the contemporary application of these events was that Christian theology made the early Christians less vested in this life and generated an abandon for service of each other and outsiders. Christianity was evaluated as efficacious[9] because it had empirical, pragmatic value. This strikes me as the only kind of Christianity moderns and post-moderns would ever consider.

2. The Church was a Place Women Could Thrive

Stark opens chapter 5 with the statement “Amidst contemporary denunciations of Christianity as patriarchal and sexist, it is easily forgotten that the early church was…especially attractive to women.” He reports that men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. There were between 130 and 140 men to every 100 women, sex ratios that can only occur when there is ‘some tampering with human life.’

“And tampering there was. Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced…even in large families more than one daughter was practically never reared.”[10]

Additionally, abortion[11] was prevalent and dangerous in the Roman Empire. The two primary modes of abortion (taking a just-short-of-lethal dose of poison and surgery) both had very high mother mortality rates. On top of that "in perhaps the majority of cases it was the men, rather than the women, who made the decision to abort.” It is not hard to see how, at least in this context, the Church’s early and adamant opposition to infanticide and abortion was decidedly pro-woman.

As non-abortive birth control goes, there were two primary kinds: remunerated extramarital sex and intramarital anal sex[12]. I don’t suppose it is difficult to imagine that the Church’s prohibition of these was also seen in a positive light by women of the Roman Empire.

Finally, the Church’s ideological commitment to the powerless led them to support widows in a culture that did not. Bishop Fabious wrote that in 251, the church of ~30,000 people in Antioch, was financially supporting ‘more than 1,500 widows and distressed persons.’



So, from conception to grave, the Church protected women, but it also honored them. Christian women married at a much later age[13], had much greater marital security and equity and held positions of leadership[14], responsibility and honor. In all, as a place that protected and honored women, the church inverted the cultural sex-ratio putting the Christian birth rate well above the Pagan rate.

Reflections on Contemporary Relevance:The Church’s mandate to honor the unborn and the elderly goes all the way back. But, I think we need to earn our right to speak on this as they did. The early church was a place of social safety nets. Part of a robust opposition to abortion would be church sponsored day care so teen mothers could go to college and pulpits that pushed foster care and adoption as hard as they decried abortion.

With respect to female leadership in the church, I do not believe in a ‘trajectory hermeneutic’ but it does seem to me that the church was founded as a place that acknowledged the fundamental and equal humanness of woman, and was a place they could thrive, serve and lead. We are each bound by our exegetical consciences, but I think the early church sets a provocative example for us.

Finally, a lot has been said about church demographics leaning and even marketing towards mostly women.  [15] But Stark made me think of it in a different way. He leveraged sociological theories to demonstrate that strong sex imbalance in a religious grouping demonstrates that the dominant group is finding more benefit. In that sense, even the contemporary church, with all our accusations of misogyny and sexism, seems to be EMPIRICALLY pro-woman.

3. The Church Embraced the City
 Stark, with others asserts that Christianity was, from the beginning an URBAN movement. Stark estimated the population density of Antioch at 195 persons per acre. Compare this to 100 for Manhattan, 122 for Calcutta and 183 for Bombay…but with many fewer vertical floors.

‘Parker (1967) doubted that people could actually spend much time in quarters so cramped and squalid. Thus he concluded that the typical residents of Greco-Roman cities spent their lives mainly in public places.”

Part of the reason for such high population density in the residential areas is that 30-50% of the city area was dedicated to public space. So urban Romans lived their lives in common, public spaces. The common use of public spaces increased the number and density of social networks[16] and kept Christianity ‘open’:


“The basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and interpersonal attachments. Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semiclosed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks, able to reach out into new adjacent social networks.”

It was, in part, the willingness of Christians to live in cities[17] and be participate publicly in the common spaces and objectives of corporate urban life that facilitated the dramatic growth of the church.

Reflections on Contemporary Relevance:  Tim Keller uses Stark (as well as Wayne Meeks, author of The First Urban Christians) pretty heavily to demonstrate that the missiology of the early church was to concentrate their efforts on the cities because ‘as the city goes so goes the culture.’ This actually sets up one of my favorite Keller quotes: “American Christians are the most anti-urban Christians in the world and as a result American cities are the most underserved by Christians. (It would take) 10% of evangelical Christians in this country to move into cities to live proportionally…Jews for example, gay people for example, Asian people, Black and Hispanic people all live disproportionately in cities, and as a result the have a lot more cultural power, and they deserve it, because there they are, than white evangelicals that don’t want to live there…I remember Jim Boice said ‘until evangelicals are willing to live in the city they can stop bellyaching about what’s going wrong with the culture.”

The Church does not thrive in contemporary suburban culture where houses are super comfortable and little time is spent in public spaces. Contemporary Christians could take an important lesson from the early church to live life in urban (and academic) population concentrations with dynamic public spaces where they can live and serve side-by-side with Christians and the city’s other inhabitants. Christianity dies huddled in McMasions with the family in front of the television and/or shuttled cautiously from one Christian function to another. As the exiled Hebrews in Babylon we are to vest in our cities, love them, serve them and represent the gospel.


This post was prepared while listening to: ‘Plans’ by Death Cab for Cutie.
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[1] As evidence of the possibility of this kind of arithmetic growth he tells us that the Mormons have been growing at a rate of 43% per decade for the last century.
[2] In fact, Stark convincingly argues that Constantine’s edict did not make Christianity the dominant religion of the Roman empire…instead his edict acknowledged a well established phenomena. “Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress (of the Church), not its cause.” (p10)
[3] I first heard about this work in William Dyrness Apologetics Class materials (available from Fuller with or without taking the class). Years later, Keller cited the work as well.
[4] Both before Constantinian adoption but after the last of the eye witnesses.
[5] Interestingly, this whole thing reminds me of my famous work of existentialist fiction (if, we exclude Dostoyevsky as a proto-existentialist), ‘The Plague’ by Camus. Curiously, the roles are switched in ‘The Plague.’ The Camus type characters provide care with abandon to their own safety while the Christian seems fearful.
[6] If you suspect that I included this quote just so I could make the ‘not dead yet’ reference from Monty Python…well, you might be right.
[7] The sublime paradox here is that the more reckless and fearless approach resulted in lower mortality.
[8] Pontiaus writes “there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do more than the heathen (and)…love his enemies.”
[9] Stark’s sociology of religion rests largely on the idea that since the benefits of religious belief are uncertain, our sociological response resolves around reducing the perceived risk and uncertainty of commitments.
[10] This last conclusion was reached by examining 600 family lists and finding only 6 with more than one daughter.
[11] I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but the difference between abortion (particularly late term) and infanticide always struck me as a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference. Peter Singer (the Princeton utilitarian philosopher) famously believes the same thing…but it leads him to embrace infanticide. At least it is a consistent position. I remember the first time I heard about contemporary infanticide in India and China…I was in a developing world class in undergrad, and the whole class was horrified. But many of these same people would believe that easy access to abortion should be part of the statagy to curtail world population.
[12] This was a very memorable part of the book.
[13] In the early to mid-twenties as opposed to Pagan marriages that tended to happen in a woman’s mid to EARLY teens.
[14] Stark surveys numerous references to women as deacons…and none to women as elders…but this is still an enormous move towards equity for the time.
[15] Though the vast majority of it is overstated.
[16] Anyone who knows me knows I love Facebook. I have heard several times that the most people that one person can know is about 120, which is why so many churches max out at 120, because they are pastor driven and that is how many he can know. I honestly believe that social networking sites like Facebook can almost double that number by optimizing the transfer of event based information transfer. In a sense, it is digital public space…but it does not replace the value of utilizing physical public space.
[17] In much worse health and safety conditions as even the worst contemporary cities.

4 comments:

Ford said...

I especially like your point about Churches providing daycares. Such a simple idea, but one that could drastically alter the landscape upon which the abortion battle rages. We must "be" and "do" before we can regain the credibility to inform legislation.

I had never thought about the urban density point before either. Our small group has been considering meeting in public places in addition to home meetings, and this is yet another reason to do so.

Kel said...

The church definitely needs to get back into the cities. Especially now as the catholic church struggles economically and is closing parishes and parish schools. It seems to me that the catholic church is the predominant urban church right now, and they could use some support from other faith communities (especially ones that are smaller and "nimbler" to use the business parlance).

I just wrote a bit about Michael Steele and the republican party, and I wonder how the church relationship to race is affected by it's not being as engaged in the urban environment, much like how the republican party has not been engaged in the urban environment, sticking to the "small town america", that I'm not sure really even exists anymore. I checked out the "stuff christian culture likes" like on your blog, and it is interesting how there is a large overlap with that and "stuff white people like". Many people in more urban area's don't relate to either the GOP or mainstream Christian message in part, I think, because both groups aren't fluent in the culture, and attempts to be "relateable" ring hollow (Mitt Romney asking "who let the dogs out" comes to mind). Christ's example of spending time amongst the people, including those deemed "less desirable", and getting to know them, is one the church could benefit from. While efforts to do "drive by charity" where people come in to distribute food or clean up a neighborhood are nice, real change isn't going to happen until Christians get to really know the people they are trying to serve and bring to Christ.

as far as the idea of the "feminizing" of the church as being pro-woman....I'm not entirely sure that's true, so much as it promotes a stereotype of womanhood that is not good for either gender. I could be wrong, but it would be interesting to examine the "feminization" asking the question, does this respect and acknowledge diversity with the female gender? or does it present a stereotype for women to conform to that is presented from a male perspective?

And I couldn't agree with you more on the pro-life issue. I still believe that abortion should always be a choice, but I would love for it to be a rare choice.

sojourney said...

This was by far one of my favorite posts you've written. And not just because you mentioned sex in the title. (Although I am curious if this drove up your hit counter). I especially resonated with your quote from Keller and your summary statements re. the comfortable suburban lifestyle that seems so enticing but also seems so meaningless. I have more positive things to say, but alas cannot do so in this forum. Nice work my friend! Brian

stanford said...

Ford, Yeah, I have been thinking a lot about the day care thing, since we live in a college town. Not sure how it would work...would it just be for single moms applying to Davis...would we link up with the school. The public small group idea is pretty intriguing. I'd recommend anything Keller has said or written on the City.

Kel, I agree that in the eastern urban centers, it is mainly the Catholic church AND the black church. One of the problems with the current whitish church growth model is that if you have a great church, you grow until you buy a corn field on the edge of town for a new building...taking some of the best churches out of heart of the city where they can be of most use and influence. I would love to see an exploding church in the shallow suburbs say, 'you know what, instead of moving out...lets move in...and see who goes with us." I have a lot to say on multi-ethnic Christianity too, but that will have to be its own post.

I found your thoughts on the 'feminization' of the church really interesting. I will stand by the fact that, as an institution, we must be more pro-woman than pro-man since we empirically attract more of the former...BUT...your thoughts about specifying and prescribing a pretty narrow definition of womanhood is pretty right on. I know Amanda has struggled with finding a place in the subculture. I actually have way more thoughts on this too...but am really ill qualified to comment. Whenever I tred into gender issues it really is with all of the precision of bovine visitor to a seller of fine dishes.

Brian, I don't actually do hit counts. I tried to add a counter and it went poorly and I took that as a sign (ah, my charismatic baggage rears its dormant head). I am afraid of what quantifying interest would do to me, positive or negative (of course, I already do kind of quantify interest in the way of comments, but that is a whole other story). I would be interested in your thoughts on the church and the built environment (particularly the urban environment and what we could learn from middle eastern culture) as one of my two geography trained friends.