So I’m taking a deep breath.
I began reading the George Barna/Frank Viola collaboration Pagan. It’s one of those books that I hear of in passing and decide on the spur of the moment to order. And after slogging my way through Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, I was looking forward to something a little more, well, Christian.
Which is why I’m taking a deep breath.
If you haven’t heard, the book purports to expose the lurid origins of our carnal church culture. Well, you get the idea. Minus the heavy-breathing. I’m apparently going to be supplying the heavy breathing, and not for the reasons I’d like to. That is entirely neither here, nor there.
Having studied a lot of theology and a lot of history, it’s not news to me that our church practices are by and large not reflective of the Scriptures. After all, while the New Testament mentions a lot of things in passing, it certainly doesn’t purport to be prescriptive about ways you have to do worship. Paul attempts to correct some of the grosser errors of the first Christian congregations, but that was all he had time – or apparently inclination and Spiritual guidance – to do.
So to effect a scandalized posture that *gasp* most of what goes on in churches today *isn’t* dictated in the Bible, is rather silly. Anyone who has read their Bible should be able to tell you that. But the idea of having a handy reference on the topic was interesting to me.
However, as with much of recent Christian popular publishing, the emphasis isn’t on description, it’s on prescription. Not simply does church not look like it might have in the first century, it should never have looked the way it does now. I’m not inherently disposed against that hypothesis, but tragically, the authors are presumably formulaic in their flailing efforts to disparage thousands of years of Judeo-Christian history and worship.
And I’m only about 20 pages into the book. Which is why I’m taking a deep breath.
The first topic addressed is the issue of sacred space – a structural entity, an architectural anchor for a Christian community. A piece of land. A nice building. Ok. I’m personally disposed to be *very* sympathetic on this issue. It sickens me how much of the faithful’s weekly giving (or hopefully, tithing) goes directly into paying the bills on a piece of property and a building which, if all goes well, should be woefully inadequate long before the mortgage is even close to being paid off. Imagine the true good a Christian community could do if their resources were liberated to other purposes! Imagine how transformative that could be in a community, what a compelling statement that could make to those who see Christians as self-focused, insular hypocrits.
However, the authors feel it necessary not simply to state that the Bible says nothing about church buildings. That’s fine, since they could hardly have afforded them even if they wanted to. Initially, they met both in the synagogues with their fellow Jews (since Christianity is really a sect of Judaism, remember?), and in small house churches. Once official Roman persecution began, no later than 64AD, well, the odds of being able to build a church were pretty darn miniscule. No big deal. No big argument. Sure, let’s trot out Constantine and his edict. All well and good. Life did change pretty dramatically for Christians once they weren’t being hunted down and imprisoned or executed.
But the authors feel compelled to take it a step further. God had never dwelt in buildings. God had never honored this clearly pagan Roman idea. The Jews were wrong from the get-go, and only the early Christians and now the authors know the real truth. Example of their argument: Jesus’ outrage against the merchants in the Temple courtyard was also an expression of outrage that the center of worship was the Temple itself. Curious idea. They seem to have forgotten that the three Gospel accounts of the event all reference Jesus as quoting Scripture as His justification. Each reference (Psalm 69:9 or Jeremiah 7:11) specifically refers to the temple as “my house”. And since God is speaking in each of these passages, that would mean that God is calling the temple his house. And let’s not forget that the Old Testament speaks of the glory of God settling in the Temple and inhabiting it (Ezekiel 43 for one, since I just recently finished reading that book).
I agree that Jesus is the new temple. I agree that He ended the sacrificial system, that He was the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King. But that doesn’t mean that, at a certain point in time and space, God did indeed deign to manifest His glory and presence specifically in the Temple. We don’t have to ignore the Old Testament in order to build an argument that today’s church is flawed in our attitude about what actually *is* a church.
So I need to take a deep breath.
Because I’m assuming the rest of the book is going to be like this, and I need the patience to sort through the crap theology and extract what useful history (and perhaps even theology) that I pray is there.
I just hope I don’t hyperventilate in the process.