Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Pagan Christianity", eager audiences, and some legitimate criticisms

'Pagan' or Alarmist?I am an advocate of staying faithful to our ancient Christian roots. I have spent some time researching early Christianity, not only back to the days of the apostles but even back to the synagogue and Temple. As I have mentioned before, I would like to see today's church retrace its steps from the beginning to double-check its work.

Part 1: The environment and the suspicions
Anyone looking at today's church can tell that it has gone off the tracks at a few points. However, that does not mean that everyone who sets to rework their way through the problem will get it right. People both within and without Christianity have dived into the gap with different agendas, different levels of attention to detail, different levels of knowledge of the available historical sources, and so forth. Unfortunately, a certain percentage of these books have tended towards the sensationalist end of the spectrum.

One such book titled Pagan Christianity? has recently come to my attention (h/t: Kevin at Familyhood Church, who referred to a book review at Kruse Kronicle, which in turn led to a web site where a sample chapter was available).

Let me be plain: I do not intend this post to be a critique of this particular book, or even to be a discussion of this particular book. I am more interested in the general trend of people uncritically accepting nearly any claim against Christianity in the current atmosphere. Here I am more interested in the reception of the book than in the book itself, much like the reception of The Da Vinci Code was more telling than the book itself.

Focusing on the reception of the book, we find people willing to believe that Sunday school and organ music have a place in a book titled Pagan Christianity -- as if there were any connection between paganism and Sunday school or paganism and church organs, both things developed by Christians long after paganism had lost its force in the world. We find people willing to believe that a pastor's white robes were a late development based on pagan Greek practices, overlooking both that robes were the common dress of the people in the ancient world and that the faithful wearing white robes have several mentions in the New Testament.

I have to wonder if the reviewer (or the book's authors) had ever attended services at a synagogue. If so, they would have recognized the traditional Christian liturgy as a direct descendant of the Jewish order of service, complete with Scripture readings and sermon. They would have recognized the clerical stole as a direct descendant of the Jewish prayer shawl that is worn to this day. These things were already in place in the synagogue, and can be seen in the New Testament references to then-current Jewish practices. Which brings us directly to the idea that a dedicated building was a late and pagan innovation. I again find myself wondering what they made of all the mentions of synagogues and the Temple in the Bible, all dedicated buildings, all in use by Jesus and the apostles.

In addition to the rampant distrust of anything related to an established church, some part of the suspicion traces back to the low level of Biblical literacy that is current. There are suspicions that paid church staff may be a late corruption, despite a couple of references to paid church workers in the New Testament. And do you remember when Paul wrote to the church of Corinth to correct their practice of combining communion and the love feast? Here, some would want to revert to communion as potluck since it was mentioned in the Bible an early practice, overlooking the fact that it was mentioned as something that needed to be corrected. Paul wrote to criticize this practice and to create a separation between communion and potluck, ensuring a separate remembrance of Jesus' last supper with a solemnity bound to be forgotten at a feast.

I am not sure whether the dates given in the book review for the various practices come from the book or the reviewer, but they are often off by centuries and occasionally by more like a thousand years. If there is one most-repeated mistake, it is overlooking the fact that Christianity traces its ancestry and the lion's share of its practices to Judaism.

Part 2: Historical criticisms that could be made more legitimately
I do not want to spend an entire post looking only at the sensationalists discussing Sunday School and church organs under the heading of "Pagan Christianity". (Maybe they've heard one of the less talented organists play; there have been days when I sympathized.) I'd like to take the opportunity to re-frame some of the more legitimate criticisms that I saw offered in the book review linked above, whether from the reviewer or from the original book.

For example, the fact that clergy now wear different clothes than the laity was framed as if the criticism were due to the fact that pagan Greek scholars also wore white robes. The badly-formed criticism detracts from a legitimate complaint: originally, sermons or commentaries on Scriptures were not the exclusive province of trained clergy.

I wish everyone who discussed Christian history would attend synagogue services at least once in their lives. All the full adult members of the congregation wear prayer shawls (stoles), not just the rabbi. Any full adult member of the congregation can lead prayers and readings in the services -- and has done so at least once at his bar mitzvah. Granted that there has also been change in the practice of Judaism over the centuries, still the most ancient form of the bar mitzvah may have been simply the first time at which the newly-adult young man was called to read the Torah during the services.

Again, the objection to a dedicated building is bound to be dismissed when it is framed as if a dedicated building itself were the problem. The synagogue and the Temple are too-obvious examples to the contrary; worshiping solely in houses is never commanded but is likely a response to persecution. Still, the kernel of truth is that worship should still be attached to home, family, friends, neighborhood, and hospitality. It has roots in all of these, and a dedicated building was never meant to be the sole place of worship or study, just as a public school was never meant to be the sole place of a child's learning. Reserving worship, Bible study, and prayer for a church building leads to an unhealthy segregation of "religion" from "real life".

This leads straight to the next point about Sunday school. There's historically nothing pagan about the origins of Sunday school, and it seems to border on the irresponsible to discuss it under the heading of "pagan Christianity". Once again the framing of the argument threatens to rob it of its legitimate point. Sunday school is a great help for students whose parents are not Christian; I was first introduced to Christianity as a guest of my friend at her Sunday school. Still, for the Christian parents, it is a great loss not to be involved in the Christian education of our own children, both for their sake and for our own. It makes the parent somewhat less responsible for the bond between the child and church (i.e. the assembly of faithful believers). It may deprive the child of the chance to hear his own parents discuss religion at any length, since the parent may not recognize the need. The parents, in turn, may not develop or mature in their own ideas in the same way as if they held onto their primary responsibility for teaching their children. At some times and places in Christian history it was considered the parents' responsibility to teach the children at home.

Perpetual Reformation
I would be glad to see reform in the church -- not a renouncing of church buildings but a welcome of family worship and Bible study back into the home, not a renouncing of communion but a comparable dedication to fellowship, not a renouncing of Sunday school but an involvement of the family in the work and life and knowledge of the kingdom of God. I would be glad to see, not a renouncing of the more admirable part of the special training of clergy, but wider-open doors to lay leadership in the service. If there is one common thread to the complaints, it is that it takes following Christ out of our personal hands and puts it into someone else's hands. It should be no surprise when people feel less involved, are less likely to come, and are less likely to teach their children.


LT said...

The author defines "pagan" in the book as anything that came from culture. He makes is very clear that just because something is "pagan" in this sense that does not mean it needs to be rejected.

The book is a deconstruction of church practices and often leaves the reader to discern whether the practice is worthwhile or not.

I think many of the reviews have missed the nuances and the depth of the author's positions. While the intent of your post is to talk about the reaction to the book you really can't understand that reaction until you go to the primary source.

Weekend Fisher said...

From some of the reviews, you'd think that Barna had thrown in his hat with Dan Brown and Bart Ehrman as far as Christian origins, though of course seeing himaself in the role of loyal opposition.

I have to expect that the provocative title of the book was a calculated market maneuver. I can't speak for the other author, but Barna at any rate is no stranger to market nuances. If the title had been a problem, they'd have changed it.

The sample chapter I read on-line had a protest of market-driven trends in the church. But how much was this book just another market-driven trend, I have to wonder. Sure fits a popular niche-market ... Cynical, cynical. If the cynicism is just (or unjust) one place, why not both?

Would you say the reviewers are fairly representing the authors' points?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

LT said...

I think the reviews are a real mixed bag. There is a strong emotional reaction. Lots of people are talking about "unstated assumptions", it "feels like" or "seems like" the author is believes such and such.

To get a good sense of what the authors are saying one would need to be very careful to understand the terms as the authors are using them.

I think the book is almost excessively footnoted and the Tyndale editing staff double checked the those footnotes. Because I've seen other authors address similar issues I'd say the research is accurate but they may not always present both sides of a specific issue.

Weekend Fisher said...

Last time I commented on a book, the author stopped by to comment. The comments you make and the way you make them cause me to wonder, are you associated with the book?

As for the reviews and the unstated assumptions, almost everybody has assumptions that they haven't stated. I wouldn't worry too much about that.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

LT said...

Nope. I didn't even get a review copy. I bought my copy when I saw the discussion erupt online.

Keishia Lee Louis said...

"things developed by Christians long after paganism had lost its force in the world"

I'm quoting this part because paganism has not lost it's force in the world. It just goes by many other names--including Humanism, Secularism, and even Neo-Paganism... just to name a few...

We must not be fooled... The roots of paganism have not been dug up. The tree may have been chopped down, but the roots still run deep, and they will continue to run deep until the return of Jesus Christ at the end of the age...

You make some great points-- Paul's comments to the Corinthians about the communion supper, for example.

However as you mention prayer shawls/stoles I think of the College Greek System. Some fraternities & sororities mention this type of attire in their handbooks... Some still use this practice (I'm sure) while others find it atiquated (sp?)

Where do they get this practice from? Greeks who were known to be Pagans...

How do we know if wearing stoles/shawls didn't creep into the church during ancient times--

I think about the Scripture that talks about the way men and women should pray (uncovered and covered)but I would have to go back to those passages...

Anyway, just because it's old does not particularly mean that it's the way God intented...

We won't know for sure until He comes back.

The fortunate thing is that God looks at our hearts.. As the word (and your blog says) He wants us to love Him with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength... And to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We must be seeking truth and sharing truth-- no matter the cost...

It may mean looking at tradition and realizing that certain "traditions" were not a part of God's plan.

I have not read the book, in fact I had not heard about it until coming here. But I want to read it...

I think that is what the book is trying to do-- It's challanging the traditional mindset that has lulled the church to sleep...

This is what Jesus, Himself, came to do-- He came to bring understanding... He challenged the religious traditions that were oppressing the people AND He got nailed to a cross for it. We can not forget that...

Emotional reactions-- got our Savior nailed to the cross... People did not want to see the truth... It's the same today. Some people regard tradition higher than truth...

Let me be clear--I'm not pointing the finger at you WF... I think that this mindset is every person's condition (my own included) until God rightly divides the word in our hearts-- on each issue... That why we as Christ followers struggle... We wrestle between following the ways of God or the ways of man...

The NT talks many times about what the church would look like in the last days... I respect Barna's research because I see it lining up with Scripture...

There will be many Christians caught without oil in their lamps at the return of the Bridegroom.