Friday, February 1, 2008

Pagan Christianity?

pagan christianity cover“Pagan Christianity?” is a fascinating look at the history of the Christian church and the origins of the practices of the modern church. The book was written by Frank Viola and George Barna.  You probably recognize one or both of their names.  Frank is “an influential voice in the house church movement.  And, George is the author of Revolution (and several other books) and is listed as an influential leader in the Christian church.  “Pagan Christianity?” is a look back at the origins of many of the elements of the modern church and church service.  It explores the origins of the modern pastor, the origins of the sermon, the origins of the architecture of the church building, and several other things most of us take for granted.  Most people assume that all Christians for all time have done what we do now.   They assume our church “service” was done this way by Paul and the apostles, which gives it the weight of “tradition” and the feeling of being handed down by G-d.  But, the reality is most of what we do was developed well after the establishment of the church. IMO, the most important thing about this book is it gives us permission to question where we are today.  Why do we have a sermon? Why do we dress up on Sunday morning? Why do we have a choir?  Why is there a pulpit?  Because  most of us think things have always just been done this way, these are questions that don't enter most of our minds.
The title is a reference to the fact that many of our practices today originated in Pagan (secular) culture and came from outside the church.  This will shock most mainstream Christians.  My only criticism of the book is it does seem to appeal a little to emotion.  And, the premise seems to be New Testament practice good- Pagan practice bad.  In fairness to the authors, they point out, more than once, that just because something is pagan in origin doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad.  But, in spite of the disclaimers, I kept getting that feeling from the book. I think there may have been criticism of earlier editions of the book for not documenting the claims the authors made concerning origins.  You can't make that claim any more.  The book is chock full of footnotes.  I didn't read all of the footnotes.  I glanced through them.  To me, there were so many, reading them all would have interrupted the flow of the book. 

Personally, I don’t think the origins of a thing have much to do with its effectiveness or appropriateness.  As they point out, Christianity originally did not have the division between the “secular” and the “divine” that we find today.  So, if a thing is “secular” or “Pagan” in origin that does not mean it’s not appropriate for the church. But, the authors seem to be claiming the model of the New Testament church is somehow divinely inspired and the way things should be done today.  I don’t agree with this point of view.  If the church is a living, breathing organic thing, the church of today should be the church of today, not the church of the first century or the church of the 15th century.  But, what I do agree with the authors on wholeheartedly is we should examine the things we are doing today.  The New Testament model has some things we can learn from and take forward, as do the some of the things that have come along since then. A practice should not be accepted simply because it originated with Paul, nor should it be rejected simply because Pagans first used it.

A great chapter that is not directly related to the church or church service but which I think every Christian should read concerns how we read the New Testament.  The authors came up with a brilliant illustration of how absurd the ways we take Paul’s writings are.  Paul’s letters are one side of a conversation with several churches and people over several years. Churches that were in different circumstances than we are today (and than each other were even then).  We take those letters, divide them into chapter and verse and use them as “proof texts”.  We would never dream of doing that with say Billy Grahams’ emails to churches he has visited. 

I picked up this book because someone sent me a link to an article on the origin of the pastor, an article that I found very interesting. That is one chapter of the book.  It’s quite possibly the most important chapter since the modern church completely revolves around the pastor who acts as CEO, spokesperson for G-d (on Sunday morning), counselor and just about everything else in the church. It’s way too big a burden to place on one human being. Reading how at one time, people actually thought ordination made a pastor more than a man is amazing stuff.  We still do this to the pastor, expecting him to be superman and then marveling when he can't be all things to all people.

Another thing I found extremely important about the book is how the congregation in the church “service” has devolved from being an active participant to a passive audience.  Early church gatherings were church meetings, not church services.  Over time, most have become church services.  Of course, practically speaking, you cannot have a church meeting with 2,000 in attendance on a Sunday morning. (Another reason why I will never attend another megachurch).  Churches have grown larger and larger and practically speaking to have an orderly Sunday morning service, it has to be scripted, controlled and the audience must remain passive. But, is this the best way to equip people for G-d’s service and for us to edify one another?   The authors talk of a “priesthood of all believers” which is a vision of Christianity where all us are functional priests serving one another.  Most churches not only fail to promote this vision, the passivity they demand makes it difficult for people to grow into this role.

I don’t have any idea how well this book will sell or what impact it might have.  I love the fact that the authors have discouraged people from grabbing the book, running to their church and trying to draw people out of it.  Whether people are going to remain in the institutionalized church should be a personal decision.  Personally, I continue to remain involved in a denominational church. I see pros and cons to house churches (which the authors are active in establishing) and I see pros and cons with institutional churches.  Maybe someday someone will be able to blend the best of both.

I’m not much of a history buff.  I really only read history when it has a direct bearing on where I am today.  As I began to study universalism, it was important for me to know there has always been a thread of universalism in Christianity and that one time it was actually the prevailing doctrine of the church (until it was intentionally throttled by some church leaders).  As people like myself continue to explore how we are going to be involved with the church, a book like this is extremely valuable.  It helps us understand how we got where we are today.  And it helps us realize many of the things we may believe are “holy” and ordained by G-d as part of our “order of service” are not necessarily so.  I thank Frank Viola and George Barna for allowing us to question and to think outside of the box that the church has put so many of us in.

I hope this book has the impact of reviving the institutional church. We cannot turn the clock back to the first century, nor should we. We should take advantage of what G-d has spoken to us since then.  But, just as important, we should not remain mired in traditions that have somehow been given the authority of scripture and declared holy, infallible and unchanging.

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