Russell and Duenes

from the ivory tower: “discovering god,” by Rodney Stark

with 4 comments

My good friend and world historian, Charles Weller, recently recommended Discovering God, by Baylor University Social Science professor, Rodney Stark. I can’t begin to describe the joy I experienced back in the late 90’s when Charles was mentoring me a bit, giving me superb books to read and discuss with him. Charles has a keen historical mind, a PhD from Kazak National University in Kazakhstan (probably the only American to have such a degree), and a wealth of cross-cultural experience in Central Asia and Japan. Though we are now separated by thousands of miles, I still look forward to fruitful discussion with him through my reading of this book. With that in mind, I intend to blog my way through it so as to set my thoughts about it in order. Should you find my reflections interesting, great. If not, no worries. Here’s the editorial review on Amazon, if that helps pique your interest:

Skeptics such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have just lost their monopoly on the topic of religious evolution. Only a believer, Stark asserts, can fathom the origins and subsequent unfolding of the world’s great faiths. In this wide-ranging investigation, Stark detects sacred reality—not pious deception—at the heart of transcendent beliefs shared by Aborigines and Anglicans. In their myths of the high gods, Stark contends, early tribal peoples glimpsed divine truths obscured in later civilizations when pharaohs and emperors lent government support to temple priesthoods more interested in maintaining a comfortable lifestyle than in serving God. The eventual emergence of a religious marketplace in ancient Rome opened a wide range of metaphysical options. Yet in a culture of religious pluralism, the insistent claims of tightly knit communities of Jews and Christians appeared threatening to Roman leaders, who defended the status quo by persecuting adherents to these unsettlingly intense faiths. Yet it is in these revelatory faiths—and not the meditative religions of Eastern Asia—that Stark discerns the fullest manifestation of God. Some readers will resist Stark’s comparative judgments; others will dispute his religious interpretation of modern science. But serious students of religion will recognize this as an essential sourcebook. Christensen, Bryce

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Revelation and Cultural Revolution

1. Gods in Primitive Societies

2. Temple Religions of Ancient Civilizations

3. Rome: An Ancient Religious Marketplace

4. The “Rebirth” of Monotheism

5. Indian Inspirations

6. Chinese Gods and “Godless” Faiths

7. The Rise of Christianity

8. Islam: God and State

Conclusion: Discovering God?



Written by Michael Duenes

February 21, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Duenes, History

4 Responses

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  1. I read Mr. Stark’s book around this time last year. I really, really enjoyed it. Like his past efforts, he works to reintroduce the study of history to empirical data. In fact, his chapter on Christianity in this book is a summarized version of Cities of God, a book that is a must-read for any Church planter, in that it details exactly how Christianity spread so fast.

    His thesis in this book regards the socio-historical development of religion around the world. His studies have lead him to conclude that every world tradition has some idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing deity. This deity is also slightly personal, being distinct from creation yet interacting with it, as well as sovereign, having complete control of either creation or other gods. In a sense, all cultures have some tradition of monotheism.

    This thesis runs counter to what the majority secular anthropologists and historians have been saying for years in that human society began with nature-worship, moved on to polytheism, and eventually came around to monotheism. Of course, Mr. Stark claims to have objective, empirical data, not subjectively gleaned from old texts in dead languages.

    There are two weaknesses with Mr. Stark’s book. The first regards his scholarship in general: he does not know any of the languages of the cultures he is writing about. This limits him to using secondary sources or others’ interpretations of primary sources.

    Second, Mr. Stark, towards the end, engages in a bit of speculation himself. For instance, in writing about the historicity of the Gospels, he quotes new scholarship regarding the book of Matthew. He adopts the view that Matthew was written first, and originally in Hebrew, not because he himself translated, but because a few new scholars and traditions have thus interpreted the Book. However, such speculation should take place in an opinion piece or scholarly journal, not in a work that is otherwise purported to be history. Mr. Stark does a fine job of sociology, but he is not nearly qualified enough to disagree with the vast amounts of scholarship that argues the primacy of Mark. If there are other such errors in his book regarding eastern religions, I would not be wise enough to point them out, but I do believe he is a bit more modest in his claims about scholarship regarding their histories.

    Mr. Stark does a fine job of anthropology and historical sociology. Highly recommended!

    Joshua House

    February 21, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    • Thanks, Josh. Your take is one I’ve had before in reading Dr. Stark’s work. I don’t yet know what he has to say about Matthean priority, but I must add something about it. Matthean priority enjoyed a great following throughout church history and only very recently has given way to a Markan-priority majority view. I don’t think biblical inerrancy is hanging on it or anything, but it’s not a novel view and is probably being revived by some modern scholars.



      February 22, 2010 at 4:23 am

  2. What are your views regarding its original language? I don’t know Hebrew/Aramaic, so I wouldn’t be able to know whether it was written in that or Greek first. But I think you know a bit about the languages – allow me to leech off of your intellectual capital!

    Also, I have to say, I am beginning to lean towards Matthean primacy myself, despite what I was taught in school about the sequence of the synoptic Gospels. What are your thoughts on that?

    Joshua House

    February 22, 2010 at 4:33 am

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