Friday, October 20, 2006

Pumpkins, Pew-Sitters & Paganism

It's late October again and you know what that means....more preachers bashing halloween!:) I was driving home last night, listening to good ole' Christian radio and hearing the ever-so-familiar "pagan roots of Halloween" talk. According to this radio personality, the celebration of halloween should be avoided at all costs due to it's evil connection to pagan roots. Don't send your kids "trick or treating", send them to the "harvest festival" instead!:) (You can laugh there!):)

Now, I am in no way defending the demonic symbolisms, etc. that are attached to halloween. I just think that the whole thing is a bit paradoxical. After all, pagan traditions are pretty common throughout the institutional church system. Much of what we have come to expect from our Sunday services actually finds it's roots in pagan culture and ritual. Everything from the Aristotelian three-point sermon to the elegant chairs on the stage demonstrates the willingness of the traditional church to embrace pagan traditions and ideas.

Many believers go from service to service without ever stopping to think about what they are doing. While being scared to question or simply failing to do so, many believers simply partake of whatever the system serves up. Eventually, someone stops to ask why. Oftentimes, this person is neither popular nor welcome.

One such person was Martin Luther. It just happens that on October 31st (of all days), Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of the church at Wittenberg, thus declaring his distaste for and disagreement with the "system" of his time, the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, Martin Luther confronted a machine that had been steadily rolling downhill for over one-thousand years. Of course, the cry of the institutional church of his time was "How dare you?", or "This is the way we have always done it!". But, for Luther, tradition was simply not enough. He had tried everything from performing acts of penance to worshipping relics, but nothing seemed to cleanse his conscious. Finally, he discovered that wonderful passage from the book of Romans, "the just shall live by faith", and thus was the formal beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Think of it. The Reformers were willing to stand against long-held traditions and practices that had preceded their own lives by a multitude of years. I feel that in many cases, we should do the same.

What bothers me about many of our current church practices is really not so much that they are steeped in paganism. Rather, it is the inability of believers to distinguish such from biblical teaching. Instead of simply recognizing a tradition for what it is--either a past way in which the church tried to contextualize a biblical teaching or simply a case of getting it wrong--, we use "proof texts" from the Bible in order to read our practice(s) back into the Scripture. The danger in this is apparent; one can no longer distinguish between biblical teaching and someone's continued misapplication thereof.

Which is worse, someone's participation in a purely pagan custom with full acknowledgment of it as such, or the church trying to pass off long-held pagan traditions as sacred? What do you think?

15 comments:

Cindy said...

Great post, Ray. I agree! Following tradition is neither inerherently good nor bad; not knowing the difference between tradition and biblical teaching is... quite... bad. Many good points here.

Raborn Johnson said...

Thanks Cindy! After writing this, I wasn't sure if the point was going to come out quite the way I wanted, but you hit the nail on the head. Tradition (be it pagan or otherwise) is neither inerherently good nor bad, but it seems to me that to confuse it with biblical teaching (or trying to pass it off as such) is ALWAYS bad!:)

Tony said...

Hey Raborn,

You have articulated a lot of good thoughts here. I do not nor will I ever allow my kids to trick-or-treat or participate in Halloween and am vastly rethinking the whole “Fall Festival” compromise. I’m too late to avoid it this year; next year will be a viable possibility. Also, I got in a bit of trouble the first year I pastored the church I am at for refusing to promote the local fire dept’s big fund raiser of the year, the haunted trail. Ughh!

To answer your concluding question, I think one is just as horrible as the other. The institutional church may certainly have several practices that quite possibly find their roots in paganism, though is that at all necessarily bad? I think that you make a few sweeping generalizations. The basilica was the public hall in ancient Rome and when Constantine (and I know Constantine is not the best example, or maybe not even a good one, but he is all that is coming to mind right now) became emperor, they were used as Christian meeting houses. The focus of attention was at the back of the building, probably similar to the church I pastor, also with a raised platform from where civic officials and citizens would make public address. It was raised, not to draw attention to and set the speaker apart from the rest of the crowd, but for practicality, so the speaker could be seen and heard.

I have a hard time believing that the Christians of that era really understood that they were paganizing their new-found faith but rather just doing what was practical. And so, they had taken what was dishonorable and made it honorable; common and made it sacred. Also, just because what we do in institutional church, because we use a similar form, does that also make it pagan? It seems to be just too general a statement with too broad an application.

It also seems really strange and inconsistent to me that you would use Martin Luther as a case-in-point argument, because isn’t he one of the ones responsible for institutionalizing the church? I mean, he traded one form for another. We can celebrate the seeds of reformation he planted and the fanning of the flames of renewal, but it seems that the outcome that you so disagree with he was party to instigating.

I hope I don’t sound too harsh! This is just what has jumped out at me. I’m sure you will let me know about it! Oh, and btw, I preached a five point sermon today, not three ;-)

Kindest regards,
Tony

Raborn Johnson said...

The institutional church may certainly have several practices that quite possibly find their roots in paganism, though is that at all necessarily bad?

No. But, as Cindy aptly said, "not knowing the difference between tradition and biblical teaching is... quite... bad". One of the problems with pagan practices being adapted and brought into the Church is that, over time, these practices have been read back into the Scriptures to support their continued use.

It was raised, not to draw attention to and set the speaker apart from the rest of the crowd, but for practicality, so the speaker could be seen and heard.

Practicality? Only if sophist/Aristotolien rhetoric is truly God's idea of building up His Church...only if you consider it necessary for everyone to hear a "word from God" being communicated from a single man, rather than letting Christ speak through His entire Body.

Also, just because what we do in institutional church, because we use a similar form, does that also make it pagan?

No. I see no problem with "redeeming" pagan culture for the use of the Gospel. Paul said that he became "all things to all men" so that he might save some. He even quoted pagan poets and philosophers to support his presentations of the Gospel. If nothing is inherently wrong with the form, then no problem.:) But...I think that many of the forms that have been inherited from paganism are thorougly flawed when applied to the context of Church. I think that the whole idea of one man bringing the "word of God" to the "congregation" looks suspiciously like the mediatorial role of the Old Testament prophet, or maybe even like the "holy men" of pagan religions who were sought out for their ability to hear from the "divine". According to Paul, there is now only "one mediator between God and man; the man Christ Jesus."

It also seems really strange and inconsistent to me that you would use Martin Luther as a case-in-point argument, because isn’t he one of the ones responsible for institutionalizing the church?

This is a great point, Tony! I am really glad that you noticed this. In fact, I had originally written another paragraph explaining as much, but deleted it because I thought at the time that it was potentially going to take me off of the point that I was trying to make; that is the paradoxical nature of cursing halloween based on it's "pagan roots" while much of what is practiced each Sunday springs from the same.

You have actually brought me to a point that I originally wanted to make. Martin Luther took a stand against up to 1,000 (or more) years of church teaching. I believe that in many ways we should do the same with what I believe are errors within the structure of Protestant teaching and practice.

Martin Luther was persecuted for daring to challenge the status quo. Ironically though, he in turn persecuted other believers (ie. the Anabaptists) for taking his ideas to their logical conclusion. Some believers of his time seemed to get ahold of the idea of the "priesthood of all believers", and decided that this meant that they did not need anyone to be "in charge" of their meetings other than Jesus. These believers began to share the Gospel without official liscensing, and to meet without members of the "clergy" in charge. This led to many of them being heavily persecuted by Luther among others.

It's funny how one can go from being a catalyst of a move of God to becoming a persecutor of Christ Himself. (Acts 9:1-9)

I hope I don’t sound too harsh!

Not at all! Thanks for your sensitivity though. I hope that I do not come off this way either!;) I hope that nothing that I have said offends you. Please know that I do not judge you for your pastoral position. I love you as my brother in Christ and truly enjoy our dialogue as it helps me to discover and articulate what I myself am feeling about this life to which we have been called...the Body of Christ!

Just to let everyone know, I will not be able to comment until Monday night as I will be at work all day tommorow. But please, keep the dialogue coming!:)

Tony said...

Greetings, O able simple church apologist!! How art thou? :)

Let me first say that after reading the post for the fourth time (fifth? I dunno…) I realize that this post was probably meant to be a lighthearted address against a commonality among Christians and then an obvious connection to institutional church…therefore, generalizations would be totally acceptable. I just jumped into “discussion mode,” and abandoned reason! Sorry bout that.

Also, I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you yesterday evening; one thing leads to another, you know how it is! Glad to see the discussion is still open. I hope that nothing that I have said offends you. No way! If you didn’t feel strongly about what you believe I would think less of you and the discussion would not be nearly as much fun or edifying! It is healthy among the Body to hold differing opinions, as long as it is in the right spirit.

I think that many of the forms that have been inherited from paganism are thoroughly flawed when applied to the context of Church. Which ones, specifically?

I had mentioned in commenting before that I wanted to pursue your concept (or lack thereof) of preaching, the “monolithic discourses” you call them. You made this statement in your last comment: I think that the whole idea of one man bringing the "word of God" to the "congregation" looks suspiciously like the mediatorial role of the Old Testament prophet, or maybe even like the "holy men" of pagan religions who were sought out for their ability to hear from the "divine". According to Paul, there is now only "one mediator between God and man; the man Christ Jesus."

However! I know this is off topic of the original post, and I wanted to get your permission before we pursued it.

Blessings, brother!!

Raborn Johnson said...

Tony,

Discussion mode....No prob! :)
You definitely caught the spirit in which I intended this post. I know that I have made some generalizations and I appreciate your "calling me to the mat" :) for such.

When it comes to pagan forms that I believe the Church has inherited to it's detriment, I would like to only focus on a few. Most of these have to do with the way in which we "do" the Sunday service.

First, let me say that I believe that the tearing in two of the Temple curtain was a hugely, precedent-setting event. I believe that here, God was stating that never again could a religious formality or religious "class" come between Him and His people. The Levitical priesthood (comprised of human mediators between God and the people) was over, and the priesthood of Jesus (which resulted in the priesthood of all believers) had begun.

With this in mind, I believe that the institutional church system has a tendency to resurrect the Old Covenant and simply "tack" Jesus on to the end. Even further, I believe that some of the system is reminiscent of the prophets of Baal trying to get the attention of their pagan gods. They performed a day-long ritual to try to get the attention of their idols, when all that was required was a simple appeal to the Living God.

So far, I have not been completely specific, but let me do so here. Sermons find their origin in sophist/Aristotolien rhetoric. I don't necessarily want to go into more detail on this now, but I would like to write a post on this later. Stick around and flesh it out with me!:)

Church buildings (while an Old Testament form), found their way into the life of the Church during the time of Constantine. Since every other religion had a "holy place", didn't the Christian God need one too? However, Stephen was stoned, partially as a result of stating that God did not live in buildings. The early disciples were constantly accused of speaking against the Temple as a "house of God". They were convinced that the only house that God truly had, were believers in Jesus.

The "clergy"/"laity" distinction comes straight from paganistic thinking. Every other religion but Christianity was ear-marked by such. Whether it was "shamans", "holy men", "priests" or simply "witch-doctors", every other religion carried with it the idea that someone had to "hear from the divine" on behalf of the others. After the end of the Old Covenant, Clement is the first person we have on record to present such an idea. This then continued to be developed by Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyrian and then finally the "nail was put in the coffin" (theologically speaking anyway) by Augustine. Backed by Augustinian theology, the institutional hierarchial will was enforced by the Roman government. This deteriorated from the ministry of the Gospel being only in the "clergy's" hands, to the clergy's seeming control over even the people's very salvation.

The Reformation was a God-send. Many of the biblical concepts that we both embraced were recovered during this time. But even the Reformation seems to have fallen short of God's will for His people. The whole idea of the "clergy"/"laity" distinction was so entrenched in Christian thinking that by 1530, even Luther believed that anyone who publicly preached the Word of God without being "liscensed" should be put to death, even if their preaching was true. That sure doesn't sound like the "priesthood of all believers" does it?

Does this help? Please know that I am not against anyone that adheres to the traditional church model. I believe that God can and does use it to bring blessing to multitudes of people. My question though is this; does God bless us because of it, or in spite of it?

I have alot of respect for you, Tony. I appreciate your willingness to talk through these difficult issues. I truly hope that I do not come off as a preachy "apologist" for or against anything. I know that you said that in jest, but I want you to know my heart in these discussions. I totally value your input and am thankful for it. You are a blessing to me and I look forward to much more dialogue with you!:)

Raborn Johnson said...

Everybody,

I am going to be out of the house for a while. I look forward to jumping back on later today to continue our discussion.

But, for now.....I've got to go get my newly-released copy of "Nacho Libre"!!!!!!!:)

Tony said...

Thanks for all the explanation on some of the "forms" that are used in institutional church; that clears the air for me.

I will hang out and wait on the post about preaching...I will be very interested to read it.

I do want to make a few comments regarding your other points.

The rending of the veil; my heart shudders just thinking about it! Thank God we have no mediator that must go to God on our behalf any longer. I can only speak out of my experience; I do not act as a mediator for the people that I serve. I counsel, advise, and shepherd. I never hear confessions, offer absolution, or request penance; though I do know, sadly, that some pastors act in this way.

As far as the clergy/laity distinction, it has done a great detriment to the local body, to both sides. The laity think that only clergy should "do ministry," and the clergy do not receive their due respect and that ministry is not viewed as a viable "profession." I think our views may diverge here, at least as far as the pastoral role is concerned.

I think I made my point clear in the last comment-post about church buildings; I see no inherent wrong in sanctifying an "old form" for sacred use. I do agree that the Spirit of God lives within each one of us and we as individual believers constitute the church. The church is not a building, though we meet in one.

Also, I can honestly say I did not know that about Luther. However, given his inflammatory style and that he was writing out of a context steeped in controversy, do you think it a possibility that you don't know purely what that comment is referring to? I mean, I'm not trying to defend Luther, and it may seem I'm nit-picking, but could it be possible that he might be referring to the Catholic priests, for whom he held unequivocable disdain? I know he despised the Anabaptists and made that known in the preface of all things, his commentary on Galatians. Strange...

Nevertheless, my point is, I think again that is a generalization, and that you unfairly apply it to current pastoral/preaching ministry.

In spite of...because of...phew! That also could be applied across the board; there are so many things that I know God blesses me in spite of my futile efforts (fatherhood especially; btw, you got kids? I highly recommend them!).

Raborn, I echo your sentiment, if I haven't made that clear; I have a lot of respect for you as well, my friend.

Blessings multiplied, and I will be looking forward to that new post!

Tony

P.S. What's a Nacho Libre?

Raborn Johnson said...

I do not act as a mediator for the people that I serve. I counsel, advise, and shepherd. I never hear confessions, offer absolution, or request penance; though I do know, sadly, that some pastors act in this way.


These are all caricatures of the real problem; strawmen if you will. Even if these extremes are not practiced by the average pastor, many other duties are reserved for the caste of the clergy alone. Even though Protestant pastors do not hear confessions, offer absolution, or request penance, I believe that they still are believed to uphold a mediatorial role between God and the laity. Even though the Protestant pastor does not stand as a mediator to forgive sins, he still is expected to fulfill the duty of communicating the Divine will. Now I know the common answer to this; "I tell my people to read God's Word for themselves and to believe what it says over what I preach." This is all well and good, but in the scientific age in which we live people usually defer to the "professional". The average lay person will read their Bibles, but if the pastor says something that disagrees with their conclusions, these same people will usually, at best, "punt" to the pastor, and at worst, be expected to do so. After all, he's been to school to learn what the Bible says. Hmmmm.

Usually, people are expected to come to the same doctrinal conclusions as the leadership of the church. If they vary, they are expected to either come into line with the leadership, or find another place to call "home".

The laity think that only clergy should "do ministry," and the clergy do not receive their due respect and that ministry is not viewed as a viable "profession." I think our views may diverge here, at least as far as the pastoral role is concerned.

You are correct! Our views do indeed diverge here!:)

I do not see the pastoral gift as a profession, but rather as a gift; no different from that of the gift of administration, the gift of the working of miracles, the gift of prophecy, tongues, the gift of giving, etc. I think that we do the "ministry" a disservice when we confine it to either the pastor, or the charismatic "five-fold ministry".

Their are two parallel passages talking about the gifts given to the Church. Ephesians 4 & 1 Corinthians 12 both contain a list of "ministry" gifts given by Christ to the Church. What is interesting about these passages, is that they are not completely identical. The order of and list of the gifts differ. One contains the gift of "pastor", while another does not. I believe that one reason this is so is because the emphasis is not upon the gift itself, or upon the idea that only a few people are "chosen" or "called", but rather the emphasis is on the idea that everyone is gifted by God in various ways and that it takes all of these gifts to build up the Body of Christ.

What did you have in mind when you said that "the clergy do not receive their due respect"? Are they due any more respect than the plain-jane believer? Are we as believers supposed to submit to a special caste of religious professionals any more than to the most humble believer? As to the idea of the clergy being a valid "profession", I do not think that this idea was really even implemented until the time of Constantine, when the Roman government declared Christianity as the state religion.

could it be possible that he (Luther) might be referring to the Catholic priests, for whom he held unequivocable disdain?

I don't think so. What Roman Catholic priest would have been preaching without having first been licensed to do so. I believe that he was speaking of, among others, the Anabaptists. Caspar Schwenckfeld, a close follower of Luther, was one who began home cells and Bible study groups. Martin Luther came after him for publicly coming out against some of Luther's theology, such as the idea that someone could be born again as a result of baptism. "When Schwenckfeld died in Ulm in 1561, Lutheran pastors tried to bring his many disciples back into the churches by force, and if they were not willing, had them thrown into jail and their children taken away from them." {Houses That Change The World by Wolfgang Simson} Luther turned from being the one persecuted to passing it on to others who did not agree with his conclusions.

Nevertheless, my point is, I think again that is a generalization, and that you unfairly apply it to current pastoral/preaching ministry.

How does any of this come off as a generalization? As a Protestant minister, this is the heritage you have received and we would all be remiss if we think that we have not been affected by it.

Now to the most important, burning question in your last comment.....

What's a Nacho Libre?

Nacho Libre, my friend, is perhaps the funniest movie that has ever hit the big screen. In it, Jack Black plays the part of a friar in a Catholic monastery who spends his nights as an amateur wrestler so that he can earn money to buy fresh ingredients to be used for the meals he prepares for the monastery's orphans. It is a definite "must-see"!!!!!!

Raborn Johnson said...

Hey everyone. ded made a great comment in response to this post, but accidentally put it on the previous post. I would like to paste it here:

ded said...
I agree. It is hypocritical to slam Hallowe'en in its pagan roots when we hang greenery at Christmas, celebrate Christmas when we do, the word Easter appears in the text of the KJV, there is an altar at the front of the church building, and Christians do not recognize how often their feelings are swayed by circumstances in the material world. I have heard the pulpit referred to as the "sacred desk" as if wood was made holy by its function. Christendom is rife with paganism!!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Raborn Johnson said...

ded,

Great point!!!

The point is not just that Christianity has been contaminated by paganism, but that it is hypocritical to pick and choose what we will allow to be "redeemed" out of paganism for "sacred" use.

ded said...

I wondered why that post didn't show up...8^)

Tony said...

Hey Raborn,

I sincerely appreciate the conversation we have had on this topic. I guess I have not articulated myself as well as I would have liked; I admit, the "generalization" thing was not the best way to defend my pov.

I will give you this, Raborn. You have made me back up and think. And reevaluate. I'm not saying my opinions have changed (yet), but you have definitely challenged me to understand why I really hold them, other than that is "just the way it has always been" or "the way I was taught."

You are a blessing and I thank you for talking with me, fretful as I can be!

Oh, and in the spirit of recommending movies, might I submit Pride and Prejudice? If you haven't seen it and you need to rack up some cool points with your wife, make a special trip to your local movie rental place!

Tony :)

Raborn Johnson said...

Tony,

You are a blessing and I thank you for talking with me, fretful as I can be!

The feeling is completely mutual...and by the way, you don't fret be at all!:) I really do treasure the friendship that we have and look forward to us stretching each other some more. You are a real blessing!!!

As to Pride & Prejudice...I wasn't sure that it was actually "safe" to admit that I enjoyed it. Good to know I'm not alone!

Cindy said...

well i missed out on a good conversation! i should have checked back sooner, though i doubt i could have added much color to your discussion. i appreciate the way you guys chose to disagree and discuss with candor and respect at the same time. I'll be back.