Ben Witherington shared Howard Snyder’s review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola here. I find Snyder’s review helpful . He pointed out that there are three approaches to church history: 1. the “traditional orthodox” approach, 2.the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory and 3. the “renewal movement view.” Snyder mentioned John Wesley’s renewal attempt within the Anglican church as an example of the ‘renewal movement’, which he sees as the preferred solution compared to the ‘secret history of the faithful remnant’, which Viola prefers, where the institutional church is often regarded as corrupted and true Christianity is seen as carried in history by remnant groups. Of course the opposite of the ‘remnant’ theory is the ‘traditional orthodox’ view which sees the institutional church and its progressive development as a natural development of authentic Christianity and Constantinianism is viewed as a victory for the church.
I would like to respond to both the book and Snyder’s review from the perspective of mission, in particular from the inculturation point of view. I will make some quick attempts here to offer alternative views on the issues of ‘pagan’ practices within the church which Viola seems to suggest for the church today to do away with.
First, I am surprise that Augustine of Hippo and his ecclesiology, especially that was expressed in his confrontation with the Donatists, was not mentioned – neither by Snyder nor Viola! Augustine made some important points regarding the church when debating with the Dontists. Dualistic or Platonic as it may seem, Augustine argued (especially later in his ‘City of God’) for the validity, authenticity and authority of the institutional church, while acknowledging that the institutional church and its ministers are not perfect. Though the debate was much more complicated and involves a lot of theological technicalities, especially on the issue of sacraments, it serves as one of the earlier if not the earliest debate on the authenticity of the institutional church and its ministers.
Secondly, I agree with Snyder, who helpfully sees that the whole issue is about ‘the nature and practice of the church’. Now there is still a difference between the ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’. The other term which one will think of, which is related but not equivalent would be the ‘Kingdom of God’. Again Augustine linked the kingdom with the church as a means to defend his high view of the institutional church. If we are talking about the church (ecclesiology) let the discussion be on the people or ‘group of people’ who are Christians.
Now that is where I think both the book and the reviewer fall short. None noticed that if we are talking about church – we are talking about the universal and the local church. In each case we are talking about people, and when people is involved culture is involved. It would be better to evaluate ‘Pagan Christianity’ with a larger view. From the mission point of view, the so-called ‘pagan practices’ mentioned in the book are just ‘pagan practices’ in the Western church. Constantinianism was a triumphant victory of Christianity successfully converting not just the individuals but the culture of the time. Since ‘Christianity’ has archived such victory, the ‘church’ or the people groups were then happily Christianising everything in their daily lives. These people were not living in a cultural vacuum. Now zoom out and consider the mission situation and we will see that when the Chinese or Indians converted to Christianity, they do not abandon all that is in their culture.
For instance, language is a a key element of culture. Do we abandon our language and adopt Hebrew and Greek so we could ‘fully’ appreciate authentic Christianity? We all can imagine how a Chinese, an African and a Westerner would understand the word, ‘Lord” quite differently – each according to his or her cultural understanding. Feudal Lord for the Westerner? Does it exist in the history of China (the word ‘Lord’ is translated as ‘master’, not ‘lord’ in Chinese Bible) and Africa? The is no escape of having to face the trouble of cultural difference when one is in mission field. Hudson Taylor has to dress and speak like a Chinese to relate to the Chinese. Now when the Chinese converted, what do we expect them to change? The same happened when Constantine and others ‘converted’ to Christianity – ‘what do I do with my clothes, my language, my habits, my hairstyle, my furniture, my pets, my buildings, my life?’ Stripe everything and live like John the Baptist? Even Jesus didn’t do that! Viola did his research in the book and one should rightly doubt Constantine’s conversion, but besides that, I wonder how much would the most powerful man in the Western world then be able to theologically reflect and take time to contextualise his faith?
The other problem which I sense when observing the church, especially the modern church, is the insufficiency in Theology of Creation. Viola traced the development of the church architecture, and highlighted how ‘pagan’ they are. However he failed to see how art was ‘redeemed’ for the worship of the creative God. Human beings are created to be creative by the creative God. Architecture, in particularly church architecture is a way people at different times, bound by their cultural circumstances, expressing their feelings towards God. If any house church today arrange their seating in a certain way or sing songs creatively we fall into the same category.
In conclusion, while Viola’s research and ‘Pagan Christianity’ has been helpful in many ways, it is clear that they suffer from what Snyder calls fallacious syllogism – ‘It holds that because much church practice is pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned.’ Instead, as Snyder pointed out, the whole issue of Contextualisation needs to be taken into account. The very fact is that, we do not live in the New Testament times! The Western church is as such because it went through a process of interaction of faith and culture. It may need to further undergo more contextualisation for the postmodern world but lest we are able to consider the issue as a matter of culture we will never be able to progress.
From my previous blog:
One of many books that I value highly is ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath. You can find its excerpts here. They were also interviewed in the 2009 Global Leadership Summit organized by Willow Creek Community Church.
Their idea matches the format of the Revivalists in the nineteenth century America, where concreteness, emotion, stories and to a certain extent, unexpectedness played a part in shaping the ‘new measures’ of revivalism. A particular case would be Lorenzo ‘Crazy’ Dow who delights in unexpectedness. Applied to preaching, this can be used to distinguish a revivalist from an ‘old school’ (as per Finney’s definition) preacher. Today, such difference is evident between charismatic preacher and his more conservative counterparts.
When Stearns wrote about waiving goodbye to Christian America and saying hello to true Christianity I cannot help but to reflect on whether we can separate symbols and belief. Stearns’ arguments have their merits. Surely, nominal Christianity has always been the opposite of authentic Christianity, and as America now actually moves out of it one may naturally think that the time has come for people to finally consider the Christian faith without needing to be conversant to its symbols.
However, things may not be as straight-forward as it seems. Firstly, as Christian America converts into Secular America, new symbols will be adopted. Entering into a typical corporate culture entails the adoption of its cultural elements, including that, among others, the ‘belief’ in free-market capitalism, the ‘ritual’ of certain shopping exprience and no less, taking on of the symbols of the said culture. For example, if the symbol of the cross, in general, represents the Christian faith, the symbols of some logos, like that of Google, or that of the Guy Fawkes’ mask symbolise deeper meanings too. People simply move from one culture to another, or in the typical postmodern pattern, pick-and-choose from a variety of cultures to form their own very private culture or grouping together with the like-minded to form a sub-culture. So strictly, people do not move from Christian America into a neutral ground, but will be or have been absorbed into other culture(s) in the process. This is typical of the postmodern condition, where people are exposed to various cultures and have largely skeptical towards a self-proclaimed, fix meta-narrative.
So leaving Christian America may actually mean entering into secularism, which in turns, means new symbols embraced. It is of course true, that Christians have always keen to adopt symbols of the world. In so doing, Christians relate those symbols to certain values which they cherish. In other words, it is an attempt to Christianise symbols. Obviously the Roman form of execution, the cross has been Christianised. A more interesting example would be the obelisks. This Egyptian symbol can be observed at various ‘Christian’ places, no less at the centre of the St. Peter’s Square.
Thus, I am not convinced that as we waive goodbye to Christian America, we would then be welcoming the true Christianity. What follows would be a time when Christianity embracing and ‘Christianising’ new symbols, as it slowly taking another cultural form. One example, is the change of church architecture, where new symbols replace old ones. Some may bemoan the disappearance of the cross as the centrepiece of the design but one must scrutinise the reason for our displeasure. It is not enough to just say that ‘it used to be there, right at the centre of the front’. Instead one must scrutinise the reason for the concern – is it due to our concern that we may lose sight of the symbol which reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross? What does the cross mean to us? I believe the majority evangelicals, which follow the tradition of a deep appreciation and belief in salvation by grace through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, would find the cross a symbol which is able to best capture this belief. However we can argue that God’s creation and Christ’s resurrection should have no less significant in the whole grand story of God’s redemption of man. Should then we have symbols for them in place of the cross? So maybe the cross is emphasised because the evangelicals find it meaningful in relation to their belief. If the evangelicals and the reformed churches emphasise the cross, surely the Pentecostal and other newer churches which put more weight on other aspects of God and His mission, would adopt other symbols. See example here.
Stearns authored the book:
I have enjoyed reading Martin Jacques’ opinions published in the BBC website and I though it would be good to share them here:
As a Chinese whom speaks, writes and breath Chinese I am please to see that someone in the West has finally cracked it! Jacques understands China. He is also able to put in words the very differences which distinguish Chinese worldview and that of the West.
Among the interesting points he made is the fact that Chinese has a deep sense of superiority, and this is due to their view on history and culture. Jacques also refers to China as a civilisation state, effectively differentiating it from the West’s understanding of ‘nation state’. The Chinese simply has a very different worldview and culture. It is true, from my own reading and feeling, that China, or the Centre State (中国), has never thought itself as any less, than being the centre and most supreme. History does attest this. In fact, there have been records of people as far as Africa living in China as early as Tang Dynasty, and all those who have come to China has accepted the superiority of the Chinese culture and many have since been assimilated. So there has never been a desire to be superior or world domination. Instead, having people coming to China and wanted to stay and willingly becoming a part of the society has always been a norm. Furthermore, stronger neighbours have, over the ages, came to China for learning. The Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese have all been a part of the grand Chinese sphere of influence and the Chinese are so used to being the centre of civilisation admired by others. Thus, with this so-called resurgence of China, the Chinese are just relishing a return to what they used to be.
In an article titled, ‘Crisis of Faith Statement‘ from Christianity Today, the issue of a certain tension between theologians or biblical scholars and the theological institution or bible colleges was highlighted. Apparently some professors or lecturers of certain theological colleges were having some tough times manoeuvring between freedom of academic expression and adhering to the faith statement of the institution they serve. One example is Michael Pahl, whose new book had caused him his job.
After reading Pahl’s basic perspectives on the Genesis Creation account, one could not help but to be more certain that his dismissal is not merely due a disagreement of a certain ‘faith statement’. It is bigger that that. Others have bemoaned over the issue, citing the problems as ‘narrowness defined by institutional power and a quest for absolute conformity on everything.‘ However, it appears to me that there are deeper issues here.
Firstly, there is an intellectual gap between the institution’s decision makers, stakeholders or policy makers and the theologian(s). For example, anyone who has been actively doing serious biblical or theological studies in the past twenty years would find Pahl’s basic perspectives on the creation narration in Genesis agreeable. In particularly, when he mentioned that the Bible was not written to fit into our modern, scientific worldview. This is crucial – one cannot ignore the vast cultural gap between those in the past and us now. Language and literary forms have changed. The biblical writers and us live in very different times and cultures. Furthermore, once the above are acknowledged, it is also clear that in the cause of history, different people (including the Roman Catholics!) have had different ways of interpreting the biblical texts at different stages – mostly influenced if not dictated by the challenges or needs of their times. However, regardless of whether the policy or decision makers are aware of these differences, as long as they do not wish to take into consideration the aspect of cultural difference in the interpretation of the biblical account, there will be a gap. The result – faith is reduced to a statement and all that they will do is to refer to it. Often, such ‘theological position’ is said to be the backbone or core beliefs which determines the identity of the institution. So it is not surprising that when one infringe the ‘identity’ one should be questioned of his loyalty to the institution. This is reasonable and acceptable. So this is not the problem. The problem is, do we notice that there is actually a cultural gap in between and what do we do with it?
Secondly, it seems that the Conservatives are still reacting to the Liberals. Certain Christians are still fighting an old war. Some simply defined Fundamental Christianity as a reaction to Liberal Christianity. If so then both are the products of an age which we now call ‘the modern age’. In the modern age people believe that they can, with their own scientific method, know the truth. This confidence was in turn a result of the Enlightenment, which call humanity to replace reason and their own ability to make life and the world better, and embark on a truth-finding project. Man replaced God as the centre in all areas of life – even in religion! So there emerged the liberals who exercised the very criticism methodology which was employed in science with the Bible – not to help with the interpretation of it per se (that’s exegesis!) but to approach the scriptures with a certain modernist assumptions. Did God create the world in six days? If so what are the evident? How can we trust the source of Genesis? So as the liberals, with, their fondness of reason, asked these questions, others have reacted to it. Fundamental Christians, in their quest to protect the church and the truth rose and defended them against the onslaught of the liberals. They have done so with many means, and theological institutions are among them. And in order to guard their institution against the liberals many of these colleges or universities developed a faith statement which outlines their beliefs, distinguishing themselves from the liberals. This is especially true in the America. If we are careful enough we will also find that the Fundamentalists were also using modernist methods to counter the liberals – logical arguments, apologetics which utilises evidences, etc.
Our interest here is not to comment on the tension between the two camps but to note that as a result of modernism and its reaction from the church, we have institutions which has statements which are fighting an old war and live in an old world with its old culture. As a result, the theologian finds himself or herself having to face not just a set of rules but a certain cultural gap between them and the institution.