In Pagan Christianity, Frank Viola, chronicles how the church slowly adopted practices that were pagan in origin: church buildings, priests, togas, Lord’s Supper as mass, choirs, liturgies, sermons, hierarchy, music–which interestingly he recommends in house church gatherings–and so on. He aims to encourage Christians to go back to the primitive model, of meeting organically, in houses, non-hierarchical, and so on. But may I ask, so what? Viola’s conclusions, at least I intend to suggest, are mistaken on at least two grounds. First, that if two practices are similar, the latter emergence is derivable from the earlier. Second, that emulating practices is wrong, impure, or unbiblical (although not sinful).
Fundamentalist Christians have leveled a bevy of these types of similarities against Catholics for years, and Viola one-ups them at their own game; he turns their argument against them. But a person should never tuck away a smoking gun, but it appears, Viola, and other like him have seared themselves. Anyone who has done any serious study of Judeo-Christian history will find undeniably understandable similarities in practices with their pagan neighbors. An exhaustive list is beyond the purposes of this article, but a few examples should be sufficient.
The feast of tabernacles coincided with a Canaanite vintage festival. Sundry statutes and ordinances mirror Babylonian law. Israelite Cosmology reflects the worldview of her older siblings. And the worship, liturgy, priesthood, and design of the tabernacle and temple, fit neatly in Ancient Near Eastern milieu. It’s also long been recognized that similarities, some overplayed, exist between the Jewish creation account and her stories with her cousins. All of these practices existed before Israel received her tradition. Christianity emerged within both Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. Religious similarities can be found between the emerging church and the mystery cult. They talked of gods coming to “save” humankind, that is, immortality and union with the gods. The initiates usually underwent a baptism or a washing to enter into the mystery cult. And the new converts participated in ceremonies commemorating the dying and rising of the gods; this is only to name a few. I think, our early inquiry, “So what?” can naturally be raised again.
We are tempted to do one of two things: to deny the antiquity of the pagan practices, or else, to attribute Christianity with watering the syncretism found in Judaism and her neighbors—disavowing Christianity as nothing more than a new pagan religion. I offer two of many responses. The similarities are coincidental, it would be like saying writing with tools, or producing records of writings (books or scrolls), are pagan because so and so started it or these people over here do it. To continue with the analogy, since writing is good (and the adoption of a nations tongue) and recording history needful, it would be wise and good to use and build on good technology. Rightfully, it’s been argued that these people breathed the same air and lived with similar worldviews, so it’s half baked criticism to suggest what proceeded from whom. I might add, in passing, that the pagan religions and cities possessed truth beneath and within their less amiable discoveries. Another two things: might we not expect the true religion to incorporate truth in the deposit of faith and rather than speaking of the church being paganized, wouldn’t it better to call the paganism Christianized? We give rings at weddings: this is of pagan origin, and should such a beautiful ritual be discarded? We glory in the cross a Roman ensign, now subverted for Christ’s use.
I’d like to open this up for dialogue, not a dialogue about whether dogma can change, but practice: clothes, prayer posture, the naming of things, clothes…not the efficacy of baptism with water, or the resurrection of Jesus or any doctrine of the faith. Mainly, I am getting at the growth of Christianity and the Christianizing paganism, or put better, “reconciling all things in heaven and on earth” to Christ.