George Barna, head of the conservative Christian polling organization The Barna Group, has co-authored a new book that takes a deeper look at traditional Christian practices. The result, “Pagan Christianity”, seems almost like a fun-house mirror reflection of the rhetoric you can hear from many modern Pagans.
“Pagan Christianity makes an unsettling proposal: Most of what present-day Christians do in church each Sunday is rooted not in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles. Authors Frank Viola and George Barna support their thesis with compelling historical evidence and extensive footnotes that document the origins of our modern Christian church practices.”
Barna, a Catholic turned conservative evangelical, and advocate for the “house church” movement, sees paganism everywhere in the modern Christian church structure.
“Pagan Christianity? also addresses a myriad of other practices, including tax-exempt status for churches, pews, stained glass windows, altar calls, the pastoral prayer, church bulletins, bishops, clergy attire, choirs, tithing, the collection plate, seminary training, infant baptism, the “sinner’s prayer,” and funeral processions, among others.”
Barna’s attitude isn’t all that unique. Many critics of Catholicism and other Christian denominations that cling to “high church” trappings (“smells and bells”) often invoke the spectre of “paganism” to discredit their idealogical opponents and label them “unchristian” (to differing degrees). While Barna claims he only wants to promote “significant reflection”, his insights aren’t that much removed from the obsessed fringe.
Did Christian leaders borrow/steal/sanctify elements from ancient pagan culture, philosophy, and religion? Of course they did. Few argue otherwise. Christianity leapt into the cultural and religious vacuum created within the Roman Empire when Constantine, and subsequent emperors, gradually removed the traditional/pagan faiths from power. It is only natural that the assumption of that much power and prestige would alter a previously persecuted minority faith in an overwhelmingly pagan world.
The question now is if these “acquired” practices are still “pagan” centuries later. Barna, like many disaffected believers, longs to re-create a more “biblical” Christianity. An urge that has fueled radical reformations, and created several different ideas of what “biblical validity” means. In the end, I think the “Pagan Christianity” label says far more about Barna’s hopes and aspirations than it does about content of “high church” Christianity.