Do you ever wonder how the pencil came to be?
Henry Petroski did. He even wrote a book about it. He called it, naturally, The Pencil. In it, he traces the evolution of this common item from the 16th century, when someone first wrapped a piece of graphite between two sticks, to today, when billions of the ubiquitous items roll out of factories every year.
Along the way he shows just how this handy instrument, which is so easy to take for granted, is really a complex a feat of engineering, and how it continues to evolve as people tinker with its design and function.
Pencils aren't the only things that fascinate Petroski, an engineer by profession. He also wonders about everyday items like forks, paper clips and zippers. He chronicles their invention and development in The Evolution of Useful Things, How Everyday Artifacts -- From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers -- Came To Be As They Are.
Petroski's unique gift is his ability to break things down and clearly explain how everyday items came to be. He shows technologies we often take for granted didn't appear magically out of the air. Somebody had to do something to make them.
What Petroski has done for commonplace items like forks and pencils, Rodney Stark has done for the history of Christianity.
In his landmark book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force, Stark shows how the church came to be -- how it grew from a ragtag band of 12 disciples after the death of Jesus to more than six million believers in just a couple of hundred years.
For Stark, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, the growth of the early church can be explained by how Christians responded to the world around them. Key factors that contributed to its dramatic rise included the way it treated women, the love and care the early Christians showed for others and the way early Christians lived by higher ethical and moral standards than the surrounding culture.
In a 2000 interview, reprinted on Christianity.ca, Stark elaborated on his thesis. The church, he said, was attractive to non-believers because it made the ancient world "a lot more bearable... what Christians did was take care of each other. Christians loved one another, and when they got sick they took care of each other. Someone brought you soup. You can do an enormous amount to relieve those miseries if you look after each other."
When plagues struck, the early Christians extended the same care for others, staying in the cities to care for the sick and dying. According to Stark, the way Christians selflessly cared for the sick left a powerful impression on their neighbours.
The new faith was also was very attractive for women -- a vulnerable group in the Roman world at that time.
"Abortion was a huge killer of women in this period, but Christian women were spared that," he stated, noting infanticide was also a terrible problem. "We've unearthed sewers clogged with the bones of newborn girls. But Christians prohibited this."
Christian women also had "tremendous advantages compared to the women next door," he said, adding that non-Christian girls could be married as young as 11, but Christian girls could wait until the age of 18.
As a result, "a disproportionate number of the early Christians were women," he said.
When it came to ethics and morals, the church also stood out from its surrounding culture.
"If you look at the Roman world, you have to question whether half the people had any humanity. Going to the Arena to enjoy watching people tortured and killed doesn't strike me as healthy. Christianity told the Greco-Roman world that the definition of 'brother' has got to be a lot broader. There are some things you owe to any living human being."
In the book, Stark writes: "To cities filled with homeless and the 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. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services."
Many Christians today wonder how the church can respond and thrive in a post-Christian culture. Maybe there are clues in the way the early Christians engaged their pre-Christian societies: care for the vulnerable, a commitment to ethics and morals, and love and charity for all.
It seemed to work 2,000 years ago.