Monday, September 08, 2008

A Couple Retractions

First of all, I'd like to modify my tug-of-war analogy. I formerly suggested that the human soul is subject to a not-so-elastic pulling in two directions, with God and Satan doing the respective tugging. Having searched within myself, it seems that the doctrine of free will has imposed the following change of heart, yielding the following analogue:

God pulls us to the Spirit side, which, when complete, would have us living fully in Christ. Most of us--if not all--have only achieved something akin to standing next to Christ. We are both the rope and the one resisting the change, because of the intimate transformation that God is trying to produce in us, which, among other painfully intrinsic modifications, requires us to surrender what we know as our identities and individualism. Satan, to spite God, wants to burn the rope. (See Zechariah 3 for an illustration of Satan's motives: to lead us into transgression, as if he were recruiting us, and then turn to God to demand God destroy us as a result of the sin into which he led us. This should not be confused with our nature, which is also prone to sinfulness. Hence, it might also be argued that Satan hauls on the figurative rope, but not as a finality.)

Now then, I will paste my latest assessment of this Pagan Christianity business, which I just submitted to Pastor AJ. He has been a great spiritual leader throughout my walk, and I should probably keep it private were it not for the fact that the message doesn't contain any privileged or confidential information as it relates to his end of things. Since I don't, at present, have a great deal of time to spend editing it for transparency, consider all "you" pronouns addressed to him and the advice he's been giving me. I don't mean to take any credit for either his insights or mine, as we should all agree that God is truth and it all comes from Him anyway. The rest of this message is from that email, and you can bet that I will be treating this matter to more concise elaboration in the future. Finally, I have ordered Frank Viola's new book, Reimagining Church, and will give it the careful and sober consideration it deserves. You will note from the contents of my email to Pastor AJ that, while several theological paradoxes result from the extremist point expressed in Pagan Christianity, it is not without its merits. Of course, seeing as I've now entered the dialogue that concerns how church ought to be lived and/or practiced, I am obliged to share any new revelations that result from my walk with God in correlation to these broader issues.

Message title: "A Conclusion of Sorts"


First, thanks for being patient and encouraging throughout my, umm, crash course in church and pagan histories. (I guess that's what it might rightly be called...) So anyway, here's where my mind has settled for the time being:

1. Are modern church practices foolish or pagan?

No more foolish or pagan than Mosaic law. Perhaps we're all guilty of doing what Paul describes in Romans 9:30-10:12, both as a corporate Body and individual members of said Body. No doubt, there are seasons when we "go through the motions," but it doesn't mean that the rituals, in and of themselves, possess any sacred or wicked properties to begin with. Of course, I don't mean to suggest that God handed the Israelites an inferior or incomplete law, but it certainly seems that no matter how simple or concise His directives, they were guaranteed to muck it up. Hence, as Paul states, faith in the Christ must be central and focal point of our worship and ministry, not the deeds themselves. History is full of pagan "similarities" to our worship style, and that can be traced all the way back to the Balaams and Asherahs of the Old Testament. In addressing the charge that baptism and the Eucharist were borrowed from mystery religions, Ronald Nash writes the following:

The mere fact that Christianity had a sacred meal and a baptism is supposed to prove that it borrowed these ceremonies from similar meals and washings in the pagan cults. By itself, of course, such outward similarity would really prove nothing. After all, religious rituals can assume only a limited number of forms, and they will naturally relate to important or common aspects of human life. Alleged similarities might reflect only common features of a time or culture, rather than genetic dependence (140). (Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, 2nd Ed. Phillipsburg: 2002)

This means two things:

a) When Jimmy Swaggart called rock music the "new pornography," he might as well have said that organized church was the new sun worship. All pagan accusations make sense when considered in a vacuum, but once you place our rituals onto the stage of human culture, we are forced to reckon with the fact that humans--gasp!--are subject to humanness.

b) On the subject of the genesis of our rituals, we are also forced to consider the culture that spawned them. As we read in Pagan Christianity, Luther's affinity for music led him to incorporate singing into the liturgy of the church with unprecedented emphasis. I would hesitate to rest on the possibility that he borrowed this practice from the Old Testament (e.g. 2 Samuel 6:5), but I would also guard myself against the notion that such forms of worship are necessarily ungodly. I can't say in good faith that our society has lost its affinity for music, so that discredits the notion that singing for God is unChristian. This, of course, is just one example.

2. If we can't use rituals as a measure of faith or a right relationship with God, how do we reconcile the apparent source of what we do?

The heart.

This one is too simple for deep thinkers like Barna, Viola, et al. to accept. Those who are prone to analytical trappings are handicapped by the simple things. Not to sound conceited or to allege that I am a "great mind," but I am certainly prone to all the mental patterns and symptoms one would expect of such people. Thus, when I can't draw a crystal clear parallel to Scripture, it's not hard for me to read sinister motives into liturgical or ritual practices. But He who said "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (bringing low the ritual and high the sincere heart that performs it) also promised us a Counsellor to guide us on our walk. I think Barna and Viola are guilty of not considering the following point (or worse, deliberately avoiding it): What are the chances that the Holy Spirit would allow the ENTIRE church to deviate from God's will for more than 1700 years? Where was God in all that? If it were conclusively determined that Pagan Christianity's hypothesis is true, we'd all be forced to bury God in the same grave destined for the liturgy it condemns. Of course, we might find the truth somewhere in the middle, i.e. the reverent devotion of the doer, not what is done, is the spiritual filtration system. Romans 14 is very unambiguous on this point. We are not to cast judgment on what one does for God, but the sincerity and reverence with which said worship is offered. Hence, we also find in Paul's writing the ultimate form of worship, which is in giving ourselves wholly to God. Isaiah was sawed in half for telling his contemporaries that God was displeased with their offerings. How did they react? By defending the laws handed down them. How many times must we repeat the Cain/Abel story? ("Hey, God, here's your stinkin' ram. Done to the letter, as per your instructions.")

I maintain what I said to you the other day, which you astutely rephrased in practical terms: I am very disillusioned with people. It is horrendous that so few are willing to share in the work load. (Paul actually said not to feed them, and I don't think he meant just in earthly foods, either. Similar passages exist in Hebrews re: milk and solid foods.) It is utterly shameful that we allow our staff and leaders to burn themselves out so as to necessitate a summer break in ministries. And I am careful and deliberate in my employing the word "necessitate." We have to break because we are a broken body. In this sense of their argument, we owe a great debt to Barna and Viola for bringing to light the holy discontent this revelation merits. Unfortunately, they've convicted the crime instead of the criminals.

However, one might argue that, because we live in a different culture and time, God would find us disobedient if our worship resembled too closely that of Paul and the apostles. Another hole in the logic of Barna and Viola is the fact that their hypothesis supposes that Christian worship was pure until Constantine legalized it. But if they are suggesting that the Christians who embraced Constantine's changes were both genuine AND led astray, then we are forced to trace the faith-deviation further back, because that means that those who were doing church "properly" were also the ones who allowed for the drastically damning changes. There is a contradiction in there that we can't avoid. Obviously, the authors would say that the "right Christians" were simply lost or absorbed into all the pagan believers that jumped other ships to join the new breed of churches, and on this point I need more research. Not that I have reason to doubt the interpretation presented in the book, but I am committed to reading many of their sources. (Mind you, even if it were determined that liturgical church is evil, this would just lead back to the above point that God sat back and watched it happen, in which case we should think Him nothing more than an impotent spirit-being who cares little for the church in the first place. My convictions and conscience and the Spirit within me assure me that I don't need to go there.)

As I keep learning, the truth is a lot harder and more demanding than my former ignorance. Before I was dissatisfied, and now I am quite overwhelmed with the work that lies ahead. I think you were right when you noted that Satan would not likely take me away from the Yarmouth Wesleyan just so I might "fight the good fight" in an organic setting; he'd be more apt to render me into a cynic with arms perpetually crossed in disdain. I would here repeat what you said before, that if God were leading me elsewhere it would eventually suffer some kind of institutionalization (if not corruption) for the mere fact that churches are comprised of people.

I do believe, however, that my time away has given God a chance to work in me. That could have been the purpose all along. I'm reading with heightened interest the Andrew Murray book you lent me, and I see that there are seasons in life when God wants to do with us what He did for Christ: take us into the desert, away from everything, and prepare us for something we can't imagine. (Okay, so maybe Christ knew in advance, but He's not exactly of the same breed as us. :D) If I can paraphrase what God might have been saying to me: "James, I need you to shed all the distractions and learn to lean on me. You are way too prone to fighting your own battles. Yes, if you treat church as a weekly fix or a mandatory practice that temporarily raises you up a bit, all it does is allow Satan more room and momentum to ram you into the ground. But that's only because you've been hinging on what you think you've been doing in my favour. If, on the other hand, you learn to let me work through you, which I can't do so long as you use the church as a crutch, only then I can use you to implement actual change in this world."

I see in hindsight that my reaction to Satan is often to wrestle with him, and I don't think I need to tell you how futile it is or how merciless he's been toward me. Not to defend the obscene amount of time I spent/spend alone with my thoughts, but I am certainly guilty of mismanaging time that should have been alone with God. Instead of welcoming His fellowship, I cursed Him to His face for how lonely it felt. God was sick of it, and I needed a timeout.

So yeah, that's my latest contribution to our ongoing dialogue.

Your brother in Christ,



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