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Sunday, November 18, 2012
Are Church Buildings Evil? ("Pagan Christianity" Chapter 2)
This essay will review the second chapter of the book Pagan Christianity, by Frank Viola and George Barna. The book’s thesis is that most of what the modern church does is unbiblical because it developed from paganism. The name of the chapter is “The Church Building: Inheriting the Edifice Complex.”
One of the perils of being poorly educated about church history is that, when we encounter an argument like the one in this chapter, we are apt to be thrown by it. The chapter delves into the early practices of the church, including the beginnings of the saint cults and veneration of relics, and the role Constantine played in legalizing Christianity, pushing building projects, and promoting saint cults. For me, as probably for the average reader of this book, most of these details are new information. Pastors learn this stuff in seminary, but no one has ever made us study it. So we are in no position to dispute the facts in this chapter. That can be intimidating, and we can conclude that since the authors have done all this research that we haven’t done, they are right in their conclusions as well.
In fact, this chapter shows the limits of research. The authors are probably right in their facts, but that does not make them right in their historical analysis. Facts about syncretism in early Christianity get passed through the grid of the author’s assumptions: that the way the apostolic church did things is the only God-approved way to do them, that any form of social hierarchy is evil, and that anything that has been done by pagans is therefore unlawful for Christians.
Much of this chapter is about Constantine. Apparently he was a syncretist who continued many pagan practices, such as sun-worship and emperor-as-deity, after his conversion to Christianity, and in fact tried to integrate these practices with Christianity. Obviously a bad thing. And, as is the root, so is the fruit. When Constantine, with his pagan heart, sought to increase Christians’ social power, he went about it in a very pagan way.
Most churches built under Constantine’s auspices were built over the bodies of dead saints, were named for those saints …. were, in fact, temples to those saints. The authors point out that this happened concurrently with a growing tendency among Christians to venerate the dead, and with the increasing popularity of relics: pieces of dead saints’ bones, or things they had touched, which were thought to have miraculous powers barely distinguishable from magic. Constantine, and especially his mother who allegedly brought back from the Holy Land pieces of the true cross, were instrumental in promoting “relic mongering.” In fact, say the authors,
By the fourth century, obsession with relics got so bad that some Christian leaders spoke out against it, calling it “a heathen observance introduced in the churches under the cloak of religion … the work of idolaters.” 
Well how about that! God was not silent! As early as the fourth century, the Holy Spirit moved some leaders to notice that the trade in relics was essentially pagan, and to condemn it. And about 1200 years later, the scandalous trade in relics was one of the stones that started the avalanche known as the Reformation. Turns out Christ is able to care for His church after all. When something is truly pagan, He can clean it up.
The authors have shown that basilicas were essentially “we can build ‘em too” copies of pagan temples, but they have yet to convince me that we are all therefore in sin for building church buildings that do not house a dead saint or a relic.
But Barna and Viola have other reasons for hating basilicas, and by extension all buildings designed on what we might call the “high church” model. “Basilicas … were wonderful for seating a passive and docile crowd to watch a performance. [They] were designed so that the sun fell upon the speaker as he faced the congregation. The platform was usually elevated by several steps. There was also a rail or screen that separated the clergy from the laity.” [page 22 – 23] In short, “the hierarchical distinction embedded in the basilican architecture was unmistakable” [page 24]. And, as we all know, hierarchy is bad.
Granted, there were some very bad aspects of the growth of a priestly class and a lay class that the authors so abhor. It was functioning to separate people from God. Lay people no longer got to pray, read or understand the Scriptures themselves, sing praises themselves, or even take communion. Obviously all of this was terrible. (And, again, the Reformation addressed a lot of it.)
Nevertheless, we in Christ’s church are in a hierarchy. He is the Head over us. And even within the Trinity there is hierarchy. God is the Head of Christ. Surely our buildings should express this? The same architectural language that can be used to elevate the bishop, can also be used to elevate God. Soaring ceilings, sunlight striking the one who speaks the word of God, an elevated place for him to speak … when properly handled, these can draw our minds to God and help us appreciate His power and authority. (Some of these factors are also simple matters of logistics. If you are going to have a gathering of more than a few dozen Christians, it makes sense to have your speaker stand somewhere slightly elevated and well-lit.)
To answer this, Barna and Viola fall back on their other assumption, that anything first discovered by pagans cannot be lawfully used by Christians. They concede that, “With their dazzling color, [Gothic] stained-glass windows … induced feelings associated with the worship of a mighty, fear-inspiring God” [page 28]. Why is this bad? Well, because hundreds of years before Christ, Plato also figured out that “sound, color and light have lofty mystical meanings. They can induce moods and help bring one closer to the ‘Eternal Good.’” [page 29] Since a pagan, aided only by his natural understanding (described in Romans 2), had already advocated the use of our physical surroundings to facilitate worship, we cannot do that. We are only allowed to worship God in the ugliest, most ordinary surroundings we can find.
Of course God can be worshipped anywhere. That is one of the most precious gifts He has given us … His presence with us through Christ. What a tremendous privilege: we do not have to go to a church building to pray; we can pray in a hospital, in a concentration camp, in a prison. The God who once dwelt with His people in the Temple has now, through the temple of his body, given us His constant presence. Now we are His body, we are His temple.
All this is absolutely true, and very precious truth at that. However, we still do need to meet somewhere every week. And when deciding where to meet, there are practical decisions we will face. Within the range of our means, will we choose a noisy place or a quiet place? A beautiful place or an ugly place? A place with windows and high ceilings, or a place with soundproof tile ceilings and fluorescent lights?
And let us not pretend that these environmental factors do not have an effect on us. It is true that God’s presence is with us everywhere. This we grasp by faith. But we are still human beings. He gave us bodies and emotions, and we are affected by our physical surroundings. We acknowledge this in the rest of life. (Mr. Barna, you love your wife whatever your physical surroundings, but on your anniversary, do you take her to a nice hotel or to the bus station?) But sometimes, when it comes to “spiritual” things, we suddenly talk as if we have to be disembodied minds, grasping everything by sheer intellectual faith and giving no support to, nay actually discouraging, our bodies and emotions from worship. This reveals a philosophy that prizes the mental and spiritual and despises the body as irrelevant. And guess, Mr. Viola and Mr. Barna, where that philosophy comes from? Not from the Bible … but from ancient pagans.
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