Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pagan Christianity 3

We finally get to the substance of Frank Viola's book Pagan Christianity. Chapter 2 is titled, "The Church Building: Inheriting the Edifice Complex." For my first looks at the book, see

Viola's Preface
Barna's Introduction

One thing that struck me as I made my way through chapter 2 is the two very interesting "emerging" trajectories right now. Barna, Viola, and Erwin McManus are a kind of anti-institutional radical Protestantism trajectory. What's funny is that at the same time there is the "ancient-future" thing going on, where interest in incense, symbol, sacred space, etc. is on the rise. Very interesting!

Viola ends the "Delving Deeper" section of the chapter with "five key points" he is trying to establish in this chapter (46--by the way, I hate the way they have done the page numbers and footnotes in the Revised edition. They must only want young people to read the book. I've been reading it at night in dim light and my forty something year old eyes have suffered immensely. Very frustrating--the people who are prone to read footnotes can't read them!!! I can't even make out the page numbers at night without squinting).

Here are the five key points of the chapter, although the highlights are from me:

1. It is unbiblical to call a building a "church," "the house of God," "the temple of God," the "sanctuary of the Lord," etc...

2. The architecture of the typical church building hinders the church from having open-participatory meetings.

3. It is unscriptural to treat a building as though it were sacred.

4. The typical church building should not be the site of all church meetings because the average building is not conducive to face-to-face interaction.

5. It is a profound error to assume that all churches should own or rent buildings for their gatherings.

1. Let me start by saying that there is something significant to be gained here. I don't like the way Viola has gone about saying it, but I agree with what I take to be the heart of what he is getting at. For many, maybe most Christians, "church" is a somewhat superficial activity that doesn't penetrate into the core of who they are.

Interestingly, we were looking at 1 Corinthians 5 today in class and the question of church discipline at Corinth, the man sleeping with his step-mother. We were looking at the "little leaven leavens the whole lump" concept and pointing out some of the things Viola does, namely, that the church of Corinth was probably no more than forty or fifty people that met in houses. The potential for corruption of the "body" is way higher in such a small group than it would be in the 1000's of Willow Creek.

So then we posed the question, "Can we really be the church in a church that large if all we ever visit is a large, Sunday morning, "seeker sensitive," service?" (I realize Willow Creek is moving awy from this approach) If a person never gets into a small group out of the evangelistic fishing service into small group discipleship, has a person really "gone to church" (a phrase Viola hates)? Wesley of course had small class meetings where accountability took place.

At the same time, it is curious to me that Viola focuses all his energies on the building. To me it has more to do with the numbers. I value his concern for face-to-face interaction, for open participation. If all you are doing is going to a service of several 100 on a Sunday morning in which you sit and think about lunch, Viola is right, you are not experiencing the church. What's unfortunate in my view is all the distracting focus on the building.

I might toot the horn of the Wesleyan tradition and mention that in the past our revivalist heritage managed to accomplish many of Viola's goals in church buildings. First, because we were inwardly focused and a tad sectarian, we tended to be small in number. Secondly, we had even smaller Sunday night services and a "Wednesday prayer meeting" of which testimonies were often a part. And, interestingly, the really great Sunday morning service was when the "Spirit" came over the congregation and the pastor didn't even preach.

I speak of these things in the past tense because they are largely a part of the past in the Wesleyan Church, although small groups are on the rise!

2. I want to affirm Viola's sense that the local "church" is the visible gathering of the people of God and not the building. Of course I have no problem with referring to the building as a church. It just isn't the church.

At the same time, even though Viola correctly understands the body of Christ as the new temple of God, I think he so avoids the idea of the holy in general that he is unable to understand the nature of the sacred altogether. He gets the "Abba Daddy" side of the equation. He doesn't get the Ananias and Sapphira dropping dead side.

To be holy is to be set apart to God. Yes, this most meaningfully applies to the people of God. But when Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 delivers a member of the assembly over to Satan, what is the physical manifestation of it? The person cannot meet with the body of Christ any more. In other words, a shift in location is involved.

The idea of sacred space and sacred time is not absolute, in my view. To that extent I agree with Viola. But Paul continued to value feasts like Pentecost--it was a different kind of day than the others (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:8). He did not require believers to observe the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday (Rom. 14:5) but he also instructed the assembly not to look down on those that did (Rom. 15:1). The early believers met together ritually (not a bad word) on the Lord's Day (1 Cor. 16:2).

Any understanding of God that does not allow for sacred space and sacred time is an impoverished understanding. Leonard Sweet is not just unable to shake off tradition because it is too deeply ingrained in his head (37 n.198). This is a great gift that God has given us and that is part of our psyche. I agree with Viola--we should not absolutize such things. But we are robbing ourselves of something very special if we go with the radical Reformation, and the ancient-future movement is a powerful recognition of this fact.

I want to agree with Viola that buildings can be a great expense. I feel a little guilty to worship in such a nice church. When you think of the Crystal Cathedral or some of the incredibly beautiful structures in Europe, you have to wonder how much good could have been done for the poor with that money.

There is another side of me, however, that remembers the women who anointed Jesus' feet. "The poor you always will have with you, but she is anointing me for burial." I'm not saying it necessarily justifies it or that those who built these magnificent structures had the right motives. But many of these structures do indeed lead me upward to God. There is again something impoverished, merely animal, about an approach to God that doesn't have room for the magnificent and grandly artistic.

P.S. The stuff on steeples and Gothic cathedrals being pagan (read "wicked" here despite caveats) because of association with Plato was really bizarre to me. I know that's what I think when I see a spire--heathen philosophers! At times his quest to grab at anything about church buildings that he can associate with things "pagan" seemed to become a stretch.

3. Most of the chapter is a cataloging of how church building structures have interacted with cultural and historical factors. I am not an expert on these subjects but a lot of what he says seems well researched. I would agree with him that I'm not necessarily expecting to see Constantine in the kingdom. I'm okay with the idea that church buildings took off after him (after all, now it was legal to be Christian). I'm okay with the idea that reverence for tombs as holy sites took off after him.

Yes, there are some peculiar things in church history, like paying for your pew (thus "Free" Methodists). Yes, the Protestant tradition's emphasis on the word (not intentionally on the preacher, although this is admittedly a side effect) is reflected in building structure. Yes, I am similarly irritated with the "stage" quality of many modern church pulpits.

However, I think Viola has a very common but fundamental understanding of meaning. Meaning is always synchronous, not diachronous. What I mean is, meaning is always a function of now, not of prior history. To be sure, prior history (diachrony) can explain why the meaning now is what it is. But, ultimately, meaning is a question of the use and significance things have now (synchrony).

I've already talked much about how God meets us all, in every time, place, and generation, where we are at. Then he moves us on from there. Ultimately I don't care what the history of the church building was. To the extent that it fosters worship today is the question. I don't care about the history of Halloween or that Constantine put Christmas on the date when Saturnalia had been. What matters is the significance of these things today.

Paul demonstrates this attitude with meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8-10; Rom. 14). Using Viola's approach to meaning, we would expect Paul to be all concerned with finding out where the meat you were eating had come from. Indeed, some early Christians were so preoccupied--so much so that they became vegetarians (Rom. 14).

But Paul's approach? Don't ask; don't tell. God owns everything so eat the meat without asking questions. If you find out it has been offered to an idol, don't eat it so that you don't mess up the person who does have a problem with it. But no food is unclean in itself. Eat it. Just eat it... eat it... Oooo!

So most of this chapter, in my opinion, is much ado about nothing.

4. Viola uses a lot of language like "unbiblical" and "unscriptural." He is not arguing that you don't have to meet in a building. He says things like "profound error" and "hinders the church." Many will be surprised to find that "The message of the steeple is one that contradicts the message of the New Testament. Christians do not have to reach into the heavens to find God. He is here! With the coming of Immanuel, God is with us (see Matthew 1:23). And with His resurrection, we have an indwelling Lord. The steeple defies these realities."

I have to say, I had and--as I type--am having a good laugh about those evil steeples. God may be immanent, but if I remember my theology correctly, He remains transcendent as well. Viola gets the Abba Daddy part. He just doesn't get the Isaiah 6, Acts 5, or Revelation 4 part.

On the one hand, Viola has correctly identified a strand of New Testament tradition on the Jerusalem temple that points to the body of Christ (Paul) or heaven itself (Hebrews) as the temple of God. For Hebrews and Revelation, there is no need for a temple any more. I would similarly agree that, although Paul never says this, Paul's theology has no need for a temple. Stephen's sermon in Acts 7 does indeed seem to call the temple perjoratively a building "made with hands," as does the Marcan saying in Mark 14.

However, I think that Viola is slightly misreading these verses because of his radically Protestant lenses. For one, he assumes the popular but blatantly wrong idea that Jesus and Christianity left Judaism--he sees a sharp break with Judaism that seemly wasn't the case. It is far more accurate to call the early Christians Christian Jews than to call them Jewish Christians, in my opinion.

Secondly, most of the passages he is using as lenses are, in my opinion, more explanations for why the temple was destroyed than polemics against the temple per se. Even Stephen's speech in Acts 7 was written after AD70 and this fact likely (IMHO) plays a role in how it is presented.

Even the Jesus tradition against the temple should be read more as an indictment of that temple and its administration rather than against the temple institution itself. These are debatable points, to be sure, but I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about them.

Viola admits that the early Christians did meet at the temple and in buildings like the School of Tyrranus at Ephesus. Important for him is that the Christians didn't build them. I find this drawing at straws. A house is as fixed a building as a church building. I personally would not be surprised if we were one day to find out that some synagogue building somewhere (and it is significant to realize that most synagogues at this time probably weren't free standing, dedicated buildings either--a "synagogue," like an "assembly" simply referred to a gathering) completely accepted Christ and, thus, that there actually was an early Christian assembly meeting in a building somewhere at this time that was wholly given over to Christian-Jewish worship.

So, Viola has some very important points to make in this chapter. Unfortunately, those points are overshadowed by a whole lot of smoke and mirrors, in my opinion. Next week, the order of worship.


James Petticrew said...

I think Viola's main point how every much "over egged" is an important one.
I have pastored a church that was obsessed with its building (ask Drury he was in it) Church was for them an event in a building and the pull of the building was so powerful that it could not be broken. Money was tied up in funds that should have been used for mission just in case something "happened to the building" they called it a contingency fund I called it an idolatry fund (well to myself not to the board)That building its shape and the attitude of some of the leaders to it stop that congregation being the church in my opinion. I don't believe its unique.
I could turn round your argument, that building did the transcendent bit really well but destroyed the immanence of God.
Can't remember who said it but I think its true "we shape our buildings then our buildings shape us" I believe a lot of our buildings are shaping the wrong kind of Christianity, one which often undermines the ethos of missional Christianity because it perpetuates the myth that church is an event you attend rather than a community that embodies the Kingdom of God. I am not against buildings I am just against the "house of the Lord" theology that we attach to them and the traditional form of architecture which often frustrates the building of authentic community.
On your remark about the divergent strains of the emerging church its interesting that Scot McKnight very much of the ancient future group and Erwin McManus and Eric Bryant of Mosaic are both involved in the new Origins grouping which is being formed at the moment. Should be interesting to watch how that debate develops.

Bill said...

Hey, Ken. Nothing I'd quibble with in your review. Thanks for emphasizing his main points so effectively. I do have to point out that your defense of church-buildings of course parallels your defense of the Jewish Temple. But how to say which is the cart and which is the horse? ;)

Personally, I've got my own cart/horse train going the opposite direction. I strongly believe God didn't want Solomon to build that Temple, but when Solomon began it, God said, "Ok, here's what I'm willing to do..." There is more in Stephen's speech by far (ImyHO) to suggest a moving Testimony, a living Tabernacle, is what God wanted. Just like He told Moses... and as I already said, like he told Solomon too.

That said, I genuinely, greatly and enthusiasticly rejoice for your early methodist experiences, and other such gathering occasions, and for *every* time the body of christ gets to share in the spirit, no matter where they may be, or how long they claim the same spot. Sacred space is indeed very important, but sacred space can be a patch of ground by a bush. In any given case, it may or may not need to be [get to be] the same patch of ground for oh-so many moons. The moving of God's Tabernacle was not merely a temporary desert expedience. It was a picture of his true house in eternity.

Of course, meeting inside any building is never a problem. Of course it can be wonderful. But a building envisioned as a permanent institution inherently, eventually, necessarily must demand primacy [in some ways] over the meetings themselves and even the congregation that gathers there. And establishing a physical building with the expectation it *will* host decades or centuries of future worship may be the ultimate embodiment of this all too human mindset. It is utter vanity to believe we can ensure one particular location (or even one congregation) will remain perpetually spiritual long after we ourselves die.

Anyway, that's my way of expressing the problem Frank was getting at. Sorry to run on so long. There's a lot else in your post and F's chapter that's thoughtworthy, as in nearly all of your posts. These were merely the points on which I thought my contribution might be worth sharing. :)

Love to hear your reply...

John Mark said...

I find all this fascinating. It should be obvious to all that I am not a scholar, but that never stops me from throwing in my 2 cents.
I think you can make a case that the Temple is connected to the idea of immanence. Was this not the purpose of the tabernacle in the wilderness, Gods desire to actually "dwell" with his people?
The transition from tabernacle to temple is not something I have thought a lot about, so I may be missing something obvious here, one of my gifts, I think.

I was part of a small Nazarene church during most of my youth, and we did experience koinonia and a sense of Gods presence from time to time, though it was far from perfect. In the late 1950's my family and a few others left the church for reasons that are not totally clear to me today. We were a house church for 3 or 4 years; the sanctuary was a very slightly remodeled garage in my dads home. It was the model of simplicity. Our "pastor" was a man from California, an uncredentialed man who lived with us, and was apparently estranged from his family.
For all our spirituality, or whatever it was that drew "us" away from the institutional church, there came a point when it apparently wasn't working, and my folks drifted back to the church, which, by the way, never did have a steeple....or stained glass until I was an was an ugly building, actually.
As you pointed out in an early post, Viola is scratching a real itch, or something like that.
Still, I am not ready to walk away from the institutional church. I looked at Viola's book once, was intrigued, but was irritated right away at what I perceived was the tone. One of the things the emergent folk are usually good at is insisting that all discussions be marked by humility, and I think-forgive me FV if i am wrong- this may be one place where he has missed it.
Anyway, thanks again for your review of this, and for your blog. I look forward to your continued Q&A with PE.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Yeah I guess in the end we need to be PROACTIVE in being the set apart people of God we are called to be.

If buildings are a problem for you... stop meeting in them and building them... if people are dressing too casually, dress up in reverence and make a mode of worship...

I mean, get over it. Isn't Resurrection, Heaven-coming-to-earth style living taking something (say an old building) and bringing out the good inherent in it and then perfecting that good?