Ben Witherington critiques Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity (part 2, part 3, part 4). He does a good job of exposing the bias and academic trickery behind the book. (Although I do think it asks some of the right questions, as I wrote here.)
There is a human tendency to want to go backwards in time, to return to idyllic time when things were simpler and people were less sinful. If only we could go back to Puritan New England, then all of our problems would be gone. If only we could go back to the 1950s, then America would be better off. If only we could go back to the 1st century church, then all of evangelicalism’s problems would fade away.
There is a danger in conservatism to replace caution with regression. To see the past as a Golden Age and the present as some kind of science experiment gone horribly wrong. The future, in many cases, is an unmitigated disaster, doomsday always lying on the horizon. The past is canonized, never changing, and always representing the way things ought to be. The present is a deviation from The Way.
This is what I find especially troubling about a book like Pagan Christianity?. Although it asks many of the right questions, and holds up a giant mirror to evangelicalism, the solutions the authors propose practically amount to nothing. Going back to the first century is not a solution, it won’t solve any of our problems. As Travis rightly points out, the first century church was just as screwed up as we are.
If we really want to clean up the Church and get rid of all the problems, the solution is really quite simple: kick all the people out. The problem with Christianity, both in the first and twenty-first century, is that it is made up of sinful people who are constantly doing sinful things.
Look back to the early chapters of Acts and the epistles. People were dying, people were forcing Gentiles to convert to Judaism, young men were sleeping with their stepmothers, some had already abandoned the Gospel, and Jesus was just about to completely leave others. And this is what we need to “get back to?” I’m not suggesting we’re better off now than we were then; no, we’re exactly the same, pagan practices or no pagan practices.
What I am suggesting is that going back to some pre-Constantinian ecclesiastical Eden is a pipe dream. The perfect New Testament church never existed, except in people’s minds. We should certainly give an honest critique of the Church, in whatever form we find ourselves in, but provide real solutions, not fantasy. (Ironically enough, this post contains no answers, but I would like to provide my thoughts on another day.)