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May 28, 2009
In The Village
Relating our faith to the rest of Christianity
by Orson Scott Card

How do you plan to spend your summer vacation?

Whether you're at the beach, in the mountains, visiting family, or just working on the yard and having an occasional barbecue at home, having a little free time can mean reading a book.

I'd like to recommend three books that I have found vital to understanding our faith in relation to the rest of Christianity.

By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion, by Terryl L. Givens, is the single most effective defense and explanation of the Book of Mormon ever written.

With scholarly rigor, Givens demolishes all the supposedly "fact-based" criticisms of the Book of Mormon, and makes mincemeat of the suppositional explanations, like the Spaulding manuscript.

Since your family and friends are bound to run into some criticism of or question about the Book of Mormon, it simply doesn't make sense not to own and read this book.

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We don't talk much about "the Great Apostasy" anymore, mostly because it annoys our Catholic and Protestant friends. But the fact remains that if authentic Christianity had been available, Joseph Smith's mission would not have been necessary.

Somewhere along the way, Christianity got lost, and Richard R. Hopkins shows exactly when and where it happened in his vital book How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God.

Because Hopkins has to explain the Neo-platonic philosophy that pervaded the Roman intellectual world in order to show how Christianity differed from it, then adapted to it, and finally became it, this is not an easy read.

Especially because it is the neo-Platonic idea of God that gives us all the nonsensical paradoxes that have long contorted Christian theology.

But Hopkins does a superb job of making things as clear as they can be, and Mormons who read it will no longer have the misconception that Constantine and the Nicene Creed marked some kind of watershed. The apostasy was complete long before Constantine was born.

The scary thing about this book is to realize how the identical processes are at work today, as many Latter-day Saints try to twist the gospel to make it fit one or another of the worldly philosophies of today.

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Whether the Christianity that came to dominate the Roman Empire was authentic or not, the fact remains that it did, and Rodney Stark does an excellent job of charting the process in Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome.

Stark's project is to get rid of some of the false assumptions that have grown up about the rise of Christianity by checking historical hypotheses against the facts.

Often in the study of ancient civilizations we are severely limited by the lack of reliable data. But resourceful historians who actually care about facts can often find them.

Stark begins by making some observations about how religious conversion takes place. Since we're a missionary church, Mormons will find this part of the book especially fascinating.

Historically, Stark does not consider baptism to be a marker of real conversion; nor is conversion caused by doctrine per se. Conversion only happens when someone leaves his previous religious tradition and commits to the new one; and it is only after conversion that most people actually learn the doctrines of the new faith.

Stark rejects the idea -- as do we! -- that conversion can be explained as a "miracle." If God made people convert to Christianity through miraculous means, Stark points out, that would be the end of free will.

We also believe that, while the Holy Ghost can affirm the truthfulness of the gospel, it is the desire of the convert to join with the Saints in living the gospel that causes conversion.

Thus it is no surprise that Stark reports that the most effective means of converting new Christians was the creation of a tightly bonded community that welcomed newcomers. People were converted to the church first, and only really learned the gospel afterward (though this does not imply that doctrines were unimportant).

Then as now, missionaries were most effective in cities, so that converts live close enough together to meet together often and form strong communities. Since Christianity was thus an urban phenomenon, Stark looks at the 31 cities of the Roman Empire that had a population of more than 30,000.

One important factor in early Christianity was the degree to which Jewish outmigration and proselytizing had spread Judaism among the hellenic (Greek-speaking) portion of the empire. Between 10 and 15 percent of the Roman population was Jewish; but many were "God-fearers" who worshipped the God of Abraham but did not live the full law.

When Christianity no longer required circumcision and dietary and Sabbath restrictions, many of these hellenic Jews welcomed Christianity because it offered them the God of Abraham and full fellowship without requiring the same level of personal sacrifice.

Through most of the first 200 years of Christian history, it is quite possible that most converts came from the vast pool of Jews and God-fearers in the empire. But Judaism was not the only influence on patterns of conversion.

Stark introduces us to the 31 cities one by one, then analyzes, statistically, the nature of the cities that adopted Christianity early on, to determine what influenced their openness to conversion.

It seems that cities where near-monotheistic worship of Isis was strong were most prone to embrace Christianity early on. This might explain -- or be explained by -- the growing veneration of the Virgin Mary in early Christianity.

Stark is aware that too small a sample becomes statistically meaningless, but by including all 31 of the larger cities of the empire, the patterns that emerge do seem to have some usefulness. While many of the results seem obvious, the very fact that his statistical method successfully demonstrates the obvious makes the method seem more reliable when the results are not so obvious.

Mormons -- especially those who have read Hopkins's How Greek Philosophy, etc. -- will be keenly aware that the time period Stark explores, with checkpoints at 100 and 180 ce (a.d.), is exactly the era when Christian doctrine and authority were being lost.

But that is one of the things I most appreciated about this book -- it gives some explanation of why Christianity continued to spread despite the fact that it bore less and less resemblance to the Church and doctrine of the apostles.

Another reason to love Cities of God is that it constitutes a ringing endorsement of serious, fact-based history in an era when rigor and the pursuit of truth have been all but abandoned by too many historians.

Too much historical writing today consists of applying the historian's biases (usually politically correct ones) to vague notions of what the past might have been, without any serious effort at finding out what the past really was.

In Stark's own words, "They argue that since absolute truth must always elude the historian's grasp, 'evidence' is inevitably nothing but a biased selection of suspect 'facts.'

"Worse yet, rather than dismissing the entire historical undertaking as impossible, these same people use their disdain for evidence as a license to propose all manner of politicized historical fantasies or appealing fictions on the grounds that these are just as 'true' as any other account.

"This is absurd nonsense. Reality exists and history actually occurs.

"The historian's task," says Stark, "is to try to discover as accurately as possible what took place. Of course, we can never possess absolute truth, but that still must be the ideal goal that directs historical scholarship" (p.2).

So Stark's book is valuable for both its content and its methodology. He sheds light on the early history of Christianity and on the way history ought to be approached.

And since he's an excellent writer, his history is easy to read, even for those (like me) who couldn't do a statistical regression to save our lives.

All three of these books prove that good writing can make deep and important information accessible to the general reader.

Reading any of these books is also likely to raise your standards of what to expect from scholars, both in the Church and the outside world. Once you know what good scholarship looks like, it's harder to get taken in by nonsense.

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Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion, $17.95 at Amazon.com.

Richard R. Hopkins, How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God, $24.48 at Amazon.com.

Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, $12.56 at Amazon.com.


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