When I was a graduate student, I was introduced to the work of a sociologist of religion named Rodney Stark. Not so many years ago Stark briefly wandered over to the field of history and penned a book titled The Rise of Christianity. In this book, Stark attempts to reconstruct the social setting of the first century and to account for the rapid spread of Christianity across the Greco-Roman world.
The book probably sounds like a real yawner for most of you, but stick with me for a few hundred words, and for this Stark insight:
“…Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the Greco-Roman world… .To cities filled with the homeless and 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.”
Two insights here:
First, all the misery of life that exists today existed in the first century. We may have cell phones and jets instead of fleet-footed messengers and sailing ships, but the catastrophes of daily life gnaw at us like they did at Paul and Barnabas.
Second, the faith we profess has a superior capacity to address the problems that bedevil us. People gravitated toward the followers of Jesus, not because they were above trouble, but because they seemed to have solutions that made life more tolerable.
This is as true now as it was then.
Jesus’ up and down disciple got it right when Jesus asked if he was going to walk away: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of abundant life.”