- The Rhetoric of Science inThe Rise of Christianity: A Response to Rodney Stark’s Sociological Account of Christianization
The focus of this article is Rodney Stark’s recently published book The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton University Press, 1996), which systematically relies on social-scientific concepts to explain the ascent of Christianity in the first four centuries c.e. Because Stark’s account strongly foregrounds the social-scientific origins and character of its own theoretical proclivities, the present study investigates the rhetorical effects, implied social contexts, epistemological assumptions, analytical merits, and methodological shortcomings that are all related, in various ways, to this special tendency of the work. Initially the book’s emphasis on the virtues of its own methodological orientation is explored and contextualized in relation to the prestige and power of the social sciences in contemporary North American culture. Subsequently, both due to an appreciation of the work’s many fresh descriptions of the relevant data and in order to set the stage for a more detailed critique, several of the book’s most important theses are summarized. And finally, questions are raised in particular about the ironically ambivalent attitude of the work toward other varieties of social science (e.g., interpretive ethnography and functionalist linguistics), about its apparently positivistic philosophy of language, and about its generalizations regarding the status of women in early Christianity. [End Page 162]
Context: The Rise of the Social Sciences
Twelve years ago, in a stimulating essay on whether the social sciences can rightly be considered scientific, British anthropologist Ernest Gellner mused, “I suspect we shall know that the social sciences have become scientific when their practitioners no longer claim that they have at long last stolen the Fire [i.e., the socio-cultural power and prestige of the natural sciences], but when others try to steal it from them.” 1 Much to the consternation of the late American philosopher Allan Bloom, who in 1986 fumed that the social sciences’ successful popularization of low-grade nihilism was impoverishing the intellectual life of America’s best universities, 2 Gellner’s observation was probably born out-of-date. For in the ten years immediately preceding 1986 several prominent publications in the field of early Christian studies overtly employed social-scientific vocabularies and concepts to redescribe the literature and social realities of the ancient Christians. 3
But even if kleptomaniacal historians lusting after the Sacred Fire of scientific credibility had not already begun to pick the locks of social scientists when Gellner penned his essay, it is clear that the plunder is now under way. Indeed, if it is defensible, as I am convinced it is, to read Rodney Stark’s recently published study The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History 4 as an academic sign of the times, we may have to conclude that the age has arrived in which thieves no longer prey upon the natural sciences; the latter having been rifled and looted, it is the social scientists who now possess the coveted flame. And crouching outside their door, makeshift keys in hand, is a small but determined band of exegetes and historians. [End Page 163]
Historical scholarship’s experience of the social sciences as a kind of aphrodisiac, capable of rekindling romantic enthusiasm between bored critics and haggard texts, cannot be adequately understood apart from the larger dialectical process of which it is a part, namely, the ongoing conversation between academic institutions that produce “science” and the societies that consume it. The powerful impact that this commerce has had on the consciousness of the American populace in general is marvelously illustrated in the following story told by Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind.
A few years ago I chatted with a taxi driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily he had undergone “therapy.” I asked him what kind. He responded, “All kinds—depth-psychology, transactional analysis, but what I liked best was Gestalt.” Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that...