Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why Post About Politics?

This is my first political post. I hope I am not opening Pandora's box here. Well, perhaps I would be, if anyone ever read this blog. ...This post is intended as a qualification to provide some background to future political-type posts that I have planned. ...I am not one of those people who believes we will be saved through politics. The Moral Majority, Take Back America; or, alternatively, the Great Society, Obamacare ... bleh. Leaders come and go, but the conditions keep heading the direction they were going to head. Laws can make things better or worse, but in a democracy like ours, they mostly just reflect the way social conditions were heading anyway. Example: gay marriage laws in many states. They passed because people want them. ...So why post about politics at all? Politics are unimportant in that they don't directly change things. But political discourse is important because (however much the spin doctors may try to distract us), it is a conversation about ideas. Political discourse is society talking to itself about what is good, beautiful, and true, and about what is hateful and worthy of condemnation. It is society talking to itself about what kind of society it wants to be. ...So even though the leaders we elect, the laws we pass, the votes we cast change virtually nothing, this conversation we are having can and does change things long-term. The terms used, the way issues are framed, the influential stories and scandals can change our perception of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. These things can help shape what kind of leaders will be around, a generation from now, to be elected. ...Luckily, political discourse is not the only conversation going on. There are much more powerful conversations out there. TV shows, movies, and our very lives all tell stories that shape our society. Compared to these, political discourse is more a thermometer than a thermostat. ...Nevertheless, sometimes very important things are said in debates that have been categorized as political. Very important truths, half-truths, and lies are uttered. Sometimes I want to write about these. Stay tuned!

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.” [20] 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.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


"Barabbas waited on the death row shelf. He had run in a gang. He would die by himself. His muscles were thin, his skin was pale, but then that comes with a stay in jail. He was tough underneath, and rough as well, but he jumped at a thump on the door of his cell." So begins one of the best Arch Books ever. It's about the trial of Jesus, and everything about it is right, from the terrific poetry to the dark art that exactly captures the mood for this event. I would not want this artist illustrating everything from Jesus' life, but for these characters and this event, it is just perfect.
See how the trial before Pilate is shown. The details of the laurel leaves, the Roman crest, and the way the Jewish priests are clumped together. Jesus is the least ugly person in the room, but He is by no means pretty or feminized. Pilate's moral weakness is visible in the shape of his face and body. On other pages, there are pictures of Pilate washing his hands before the crowd, and reading his wife's letter warning him to "have nothing to do with that innocent man."
Just look at those ravens flying overhead in this mob scene! How perfect. They know someone is going to die today. They are carrion birds, like the mob below them. I must say a word about the poetry in this book. It is so different from some of the Arch books, where entire incidents, lines, or interpretations are added, obviously just to achieve a rhyme. Very few words are wasted in Barabbas. The rythym is pounding (rather like the relentless pound of events). The choice of words is solid and meaty. There are rhymes within the lines, such as "he jumped at a thump" and some are onomatopoetic, such as, "They hissed and insisted that several times/Jesus was guilty of terrible crimes." The book ends with a pale, puffy Barabbas stepping out into the light, squinting uncomprehendingly at the back of the mob as Jesus is led away. High recommended.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Yes, It's Pagan (and why that shouldn't scare you)

We may not realize it, but pagan roots are all around us. If we look at Western culture alone, the ancient Greeks have claimed nearly every tree, plant, and fruit as the symbol of some god or other. For example, the apple was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of love. (Is anyone going to give up apple pie?) Easter eggs and wedding rings are pagan. Pagans have baby dedications, harvest feasts, weddings, and coming-of-age ceremonies. They wear jewelry. They wear their hair short – or long. They dress up on special occasions. The problem for consciencious Christians is that because pagans are human beings, they do all the things that human beings were created to do. All lawful human activities were first done by pagans. And there are a limited number of ways to do some of these things. So we should examine our assumption that it is always a sin to do anything the way pagans used to do it. If we carry this principle to its logical conclusion, we will soon find it difficult to engage in any activity at all. Of course, that is only half an argument. “This will make life nearly impossible for us” is not a good enough reason to resist a genuine command of God. God sometimes does expect His saints to suffer severe difficulties and privation for Him. For example, in Rev. 13:16 – 17 and 14:9 - 12, God clearly expects His people to starve rather than receive the mark of the Beast (no one could buy or sell without the mark on their hand or forehead). I would like to tentatively suggest two concepts that might help us navigate this question: meaning in context and loyalty. Let’s apply them to the situation in Revelation. Have you ever had a mark put on your hand? Probably, if you’ve ever been to a concert or a fair. In that context, what did the mark mean? It meant only that you had paid to be admitted to the event. But in the situation in Revelation, the mark on the hand means something very different. Taking the mark is a sign of loyalty to the Beast. I suggest that loyalty is also the central concern in Paul’s discussion (in I Cor. 10:14 – 33) of whether Christians may eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. It may seem strange that Paul instructs us not to eat the meat if our host says, “This has been sacrificed to an idol,” yet we may eat the same meat if we buy it from the market – even though we know it has probably been so sacrificed. In the second situation, are we pretending we don’t know? Is this culpable ignorance? But Paul’s concern is not whether someone has at some point offered this meat to an idol. His concern is what we are saying with our actions, and this depends on the context. When we buy meat in the market, we are not declaring our loyalty to an idol. We are declaring that we want some meat. But if we are at someone’s house and he serves us a roast, saying “This has been offered to Zeus,” he has created a situation where by eating we would be declaring our loyalty to Zeus. By eating at our pagan friend’s house we are having fellowship with him – which is fine with Pastor Paul, unless the pagan announces “If you want me ya gotta take Zeus too.” Note that Paul is not worried that demonic influences can adhere to an inanimate object such as meat. Paul clearly identifies the pagan gods with demons, and their sacrifices are “the sacrifices of demons” (verses 20 – 21). Yet even if meat has been in such a demonic ceremony, probably only a couple of hours before we buy it in the market, it is perfectly safe and legitimate to eat. We do not need to worry that by eating we will incur a demonically caused sickness or a spiritual curse. We do not even need to worry that we are accidentally sinning. Paul has told us that it is not a sin. This may seem shocking. Someone may say, “You don’t understand the reality of the spirit world.” Those demons are powerful! Yes, they are. Paul understood that, and he was writing to people who understood that, people who had recently been converted from paganism and probably were still afraid of the pagan gods (I Cor. 8:7 – 9). In fact, Paul urged his baby churches to engage in spiritual warfare. But here, he is urging them not to engage in it in a pagan manner – being afraid of unseen influences that might adhere to objects, come into your home, and get you. Christians know that the devil works not primarily in these magical ways, but rather by trying to lure our loyalty away from God by working on our minds – “arguments, pretensions, and anything that sets itself up against the living God,” and “doctrines of demons.” In some places the devil does manifest himself by causing sickness, pain, and possession. The point of these manifestations is to cause fear, in our minds, to lure us away from God. “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world” (I Cor. 8:4). If we become superstitious in an attempt to avoid paganism, we are thinking like pagans. Of course there may be objects that are never used for anything but pagan worship. (Amulets, pentagrams, skulls.) It would be very difficult for a Christian to use one of these without declaring his loyalty to pagan gods. On the other end of the spectrum, there are practices that were once pagan, but their origins have faded so far into the past that their use is now no declaration of loyalty at all. (Certain hairstyles, the use of red and green at Christmas, having bridesmaids at weddings.) And then there is a lot of stuff in the middle, such as tattoos; dressing up for Halloween; or objects which are symbols of cultural heritage but whose pagan roots are not completely forgotten. These are judgment calls, matters for discussion, but of course not for blaming and accusing each other. Paganism is spooky and it tends to scare us and cause us to react emotionally. But we should not forget that although our own culture is not pagan, neither is it neutral. It is secular, humanist and consumerist – in other words, Americans don’t worship pagan gods, they worship themselves. Just as scary! We too make “loyalty calls” every day. But we have the Holy Spirit. By God’s grace we can navigate our secular culture, just as by God’s grace our brothers and sisters overseas can navigate their pagan ones.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Themes in "PAGAN Christianity?"

Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
By Frank Viola and George Barna, BarnaBooks/Tyndale, 2008

Three Themes
This book examines a variety of common church practices. I have chosen to review it chapter by chapter. It needs this fine-grained approach for two reasons. First, the topics in the various chapters differ from each other in kind. Some of the chapters are mostly right; others deserve nothing but a lampooning. Second, even within each chapter there is an intricate mix of valid points and spurious reasoning. This calls for a fine-grained approach to disentangle the two.
However, there are three themes that run throughout the book which I would like to treat at the beginning. Three assumptions of the authors seem to be:
1/ The church as it existed in the New Testament provides the (only) Biblical pattern for how Christians should meet and worship today.
2/ Democracy is good; heirarchy is bad.
3/ Anything that started out as a pagan practice is unlawful for Christians.
New Testament Church as the only valid model
The authors state, numerous times, that the New Testament church was doing things the way God wanted, but within in a few hundred years (certainly after Constantine), things began to go wrong, and they have been wrong – drastically wrong – ever since. The answer to this argument was well put by a review posted on House Church Unplugged ( :
The book’s perspective is that Jesus, rather than making good on his promise to build and guide his church despite the gates of Hell, somehow long ago lost control, became dependent upon humans, is now lonely, hands tied, looking for freedom, romance, and a place to go.
There is a certain arrogance in the authors’ assertion that all of Christendom has been pretty much completely wrong for almost 2000 years, but now they, the authors, plus a small group of enlightened others, are finally getting back to the Biblical way.
Granted, this is not a complete argument in itself. This was also the objection brought to Martin Luther when he defended his view of the Gospel. “Are you alone right?” Of course, in Luther’s case, he was.
But there are other reasons to question this assumption. Quoting from the same review:
Viola in the original edition of PC, page 294, writes: “Take note, the NT is not a manual for church PRACTICE.” George Barna, in like manner, wrote in Revolution: “The Bible does not rigidly define the corporate PRACTICES, rituals, or structures that must be embraced in order to have a proper church.” page 37
So the authors have elsewhere denied their own premise in principle, but when pressed to explain why they hate institutional Christianity, they take back those “methods and structures” detail by detail. For example, they contend that early churches met in homes not because they were new, small congregations with little social power, but because that was the Biblical way and because it was democratic.
Which brings me to my second theme.
Democracy Good, Hierarchy Bad
This principle is never stated explicitly in the book, but it is relied on heavily. It is the reason the authors give for unBiblicality of having both pastors and sermons, for example (both of which they hate – but more on that later). They assert that Jesus can only speak to His people if the meeting is a free-form, egalitarian one where any person present has the freedom at any time to speak up, interrupt, ask a question, or start a song. They also hate clothing that implies hierarchy (that is, any kind other than casual clothing).
I am not arguing that democracy is bad as a political system, but the authors seem to hate hierarchy in any form, anywhere in life. I will deal with this more fully later, but for now let me point out that this strong value of theirs is a characteristically modern and American one rather than necessarily a Biblical one.
Pagan Roots Are Dirty
Yeah, but so are all roots.
I will treat this theme at a little more length because I think it is misunderstood by many Christians, as well as by the authors, and this book is a shameless attempt to manipulate that misunderstanding. Look at the cover of the book. Red background, the word PAGAN in big, black letters, tipped on its side to resemble a tree and sprouting sinister-looking roots. (The authors’ names, and the word Christianity, are in white and are configured to resemble a cross.)
In the acknowledgements, Frank Viola tells us the origin of this book: “I left the institutional church … I sought to understand how the Christian church ended up in its present state. For years I tried to get my hands on a documented book that traced the origin of every nonbiblical practice we Christians observe every week.” (xiii) Notice, Viola had already decided that institutional Christianity was thoroughly broken. He “knew” that most things most churches were doing, were unBiblical (they may be too, but not in the way Voila thinks). If these practices did not originate in the Bible, they must have come from somewhere else. Since Viola could not find the book he was looking for, he researched and wrote it himself. To his credit, he acknowledges the limits of his research and hopes that true scholars will pick up where he left off.
Viola’s experience is recreated within each chapter. First, we are told that whatever practice the chapter is treating (church buildings, sermons, etc.) is unbiblical. Then, there follows a brief historical survey of how such a practice developed from paganism. Then, we are given the real reasons the authors dislike the practice: arguments that it is undemocractic, unbiblical, or both. These later arguments are real arguments and deserve to be answered. But they are irrelevant to whether a given practice is pagan. If Jesus commands us to do something that the pagans also do (e.g., be wise in dealing with people – Luke 16:8 – 9), then that practice is Biblical, right?
A practice should stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of what it resembles or what it developed from. But in the authors’ minds, if they can show that something developed from a similar thing that was pagan, they have got at least halfway to proving it is unBiblical. And I fear that many American Christians would agree with them.
Interestingly, pagans share this assumption. They delight in pointing out the similarities between Christian and pagan practices, and especially the borrowings. They assume that by pointing these out, they have proved that Christianity is not unique.
G.K. Chesterton, in his book The Everlasting Man, has blown this argument apart. He argues that human beings were created by God to do certain things. Human beings, wherever they live and whatever their religion, will do these things. They will have festivals and parties at certain times. They will pray. They will make beautiful clothes and dress up sometimes. When circumstances permit, they will bake cakes. This is part of the creation order and the cultural mandate, in addition to being lots of fun.
When they are pagan, the tragedy is that people do not really have anything or anyone to do these things to or about. They are forever in search of an entity and an event that matches their huge capacity for celebration and worship. Eventually, it all falls through and degenerates into violence, or superstitious fear, or a sexual free for all.
But God does not expect us to stop doing these legitimate and lawful things when we leave the pagan gods to worship Christ. He redeems these things! For the first time, we do them for a good reason. So once, we baked hot cross buns unto the Spring Equinox. Now, we bake them unto Christ, and eat with even more joy in our hearts. Once we sang songs and made art unto our pagan gods. Now we sing and make them unto Christ!
Let me hasten to add that of course some pagan practices cannot be carried over into the Christian life. Worshipping other gods is out. So is temple prostitution, consulting the dead, divination, practicing magic, and making images to be worshipped. All of these are explicitly forbidden in the Bible, so we do not need to discuss their origins to see that they are unbiblical.
But there are a host of human activities that are not unlawful in themselves, are not condemned in Scripture, yet were certainly done by pagans before they were done by Christians (or even Jews). Pagans are human beings, and they do all the things human beings do. So, art, formal clothing, dancing, and yes, sacred buildings, priests, and sermons are not necessarily forbidden to us just because pagans do them. We will have to find stronger arguments if we want to get rid of these things. What we cannot do is strengthen a weak argument against a practice by tacking the word “pagan” on it. This is dishonest, and frankly it is unfair to pagans. Why blame them for the fact that you don’t like liturgical robes? We need to remember that although their gods are false gods, pagans are real people.