If I had come across this book in a vacuum, no doubt I would’ve thought it mediocre and occasionally annoying, but nothing to get worked up about. But, knowing as I did (from word of mouth and from the enthusiastic blurbs on the cover) that many in conservative evangelical circles loved this book, I spent the entire time I was reading vexed by the question “Why?” And unable to satisfactorily answer that question, I found myself in a very ill temper throughout. Now, because this book received such endorsements from such unlikely quarters, I shall be ridiculously thorough in backing up my many criticisms, and if you don’t have patience to read the whole thing, I understand.
Of course, that’s not to say that there’s not much to profit from in this book--there certainly is. If you wade through the whole review, you’ll find at the end three things that I enthusiastically learned from this book. And, it’s understandable why Christians might get excited about this book at first glance. After all, it advertises itself as a sort of modern-day Speeches on Religion to Its Cultured Despisers--a defense of Christianity against the critiques of the Enlightenment and its followers, showing that Christianity is not in fact barbaric, backward, repressive, obscurantist, etc.
However, there’s a problem with this particular defense even more serious than that of the original Speeches on Religion--in this case, the author is an unbeliever, and not just any unbeliever, but one who seems to be particularly doped up on modernity, accepting uncritically all of its trappings as eminently desirable. This much is evident from the title, which made me highly skeptical despite the rave reviews: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Now, for all my Kierkegaardianism, I’m certainly not one to say that Christianity is anti-reason--indeed, it is the only viable source of true reason--but it is certainly skeptical enough of it that it is oddly incongruous to describe its triumph as “The Victory of Reason.” Remember that we’re talking about a faith that preaches as its central event the voluntary crucifixion of its God as a lower-class ruffian at the hands of imperial authorities, and then claims that he popped up alive again three days later, having, somewhere in the midst of all this, conquered all evil spiritual forces and erased all the sins of the world. I can think of a lot of ways to describe the triumph of such a faith, but “The Victory of Reason” would not be among them. (It is perhaps rather telling that Stark does not, so far as I remember, once mention either the crucifixion or the resurrection.)
See, here’s the problem. There’s two ways a book like this could be written. One would be to assume that the Bible and the historic Christian faith were good and true, and then to show that it had borne good and true fruits in modernity, despite many troubling and countervailing tendencies in modernity. Such a book would have much to offer, though I would still be suspicious at points. The other approach is to assume that modernity and the Enlightenment are good and true, and then show that they grew out of many things that were good and true in Christianity, despite many troubling and countervailing tendencies in Christianity. Such is the approach of this book. In the first approach, Christianity is the yardstick by which modernity is measured; in Stark’s, modernity is the yardstick by which Christianity is measured. Of course, that could be said of any number of modern attacks on Christianity; what makes Stark’s book so maddening is that he claims to find that Christianity measures up to this yardstick--that Christianity is in fact reasonable, progressive, and capitalistic in our modern sense. Unsurprisingly, in order to make Christianity fit this Procrustean bed, he has to push it and pull it, emphasizing this odd element here, and covering up this important element there, in order to make it fit. The result is a “Christianity” that any sensible Christian should disavow, and a historical narrative that is scarcely coherent.
Now, it seems that some have latched onto this book because for them it provides a defense of capitalism as something Christians should embrace. But the problem with this (aside from Stark’s failure to clearly analyze “capitalism”) is that this isn’t what Stark is trying to do--he is taking for granted that capitalism is a great good, and is then trying to “defend” Christianity as something capitalists can embrace. This means, of course, that Stark’s hierarchy of values is quite inverted from that of a Biblical Christian, and it shows in all kinds of deeply troubling ways. Repeatedly, Stark points to a genuine historical change in how Christendom responded to some social or economic issue, and, because “progress” is his barometer, he consistently rejects the earlier form of Christianity as “irrational” and seemingly, un-Christian, while the later form represents for him the true (because “rational”) Christianity. The problem is, of course, that in general, Christians at the time (and Biblically-minded Christians today) would clearly recognize the later form as a heresy or corruption.
Thus, Stark tends to identify heretical or corrupt elements in the Christian tradition, holds them up as as the true Christian tradition, and thereby asserts that Christianity is friendly to his Enlightenment ideals of reason, progress, and mammon. The result, therefore, in my mind, is to mount a convincing case that genuine Christianity is in fact hostile to capitalism, since Stark repeatedly demonstrates that it became receptive to capitalism only after deserting its first love.
Now, I will return to illustrate the various ways in which Stark distorts Christianity to try to fit it into his “capitalism” mold, but first, I want to spend some time critiquing the ways in which Stark fails to even provide a persuasive account of capitalism, much less Christianity.