[BOOK REVIEW] Pagan Christianity
From the moment Jesus’ feet left this earth, there have been disagreements among the faithful on how we should live out our Faith. The Jews and the Gentiles argued over what rituals should be enforced among the churches. Barnabas and Paul split over their difference of opinion on who to bring along in their church-planting mission. The early church was rife with conflicts over worship style and practice. Yet through God’s grace, these conflicts have been good for the Church. Each one helped to refine our faith and deepen our roots in Jesus Christ. Disagreement is not wrong. In fact, conflict is often the thing we need to grow strong. So it came as no surprise in 2008 when all the controversy bagan over the Book Pagan Christianity.
After reading Pagan Christianity in 2008, I conducted a lengthy interview with both George Barna and Frank Viola [now unpublished]. I felt it only right to give them opportunity to address my own concerns about the book’s content before writing my first review. In doing that first interview, my prayer was that the church, yes even the “institutional” church, would grow stronger in Christ.
I will get back to my observations on the Church shortly, but first let me make a few observations about the book itself.
I, like many thinking Christians, agree with the criticism of pastors and of the church outlined in Pagan Christianity. I have written on most of these same topics throughout my blog, I teach on many of these same issues in my college classes, and I discuss positive solutions in my various publications.
The concerns that compelled V&B to write Pagan Christianity shaped my actions as a church planter, leader and teacher. Knowing that we value so many of the same goals for church, there are problems with the book that cannot be solved through endless clarifications. I consider Frank a friend, yet I must evaluate his work based on the actual content as it is published in the book.
So here is my honest evaluation of what needs fixed in Pagan Christianity.
1. I find the rhetoric of Pagan Christianity acerbic and uncharitable. Granted, the attacking rhetoric has helped sell copies, but I feel it has sold at the price of many good men and women who are faithfully following their call to serve Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the book lacks the tone of Christian love that comes through very clearly in my personal conversations with Frank. Many of the reviews of Pagan Christianity have been harsh because, in part, they reflect the tone and timbre established in the original book. The 2008 revision is a massive improvement over Frank Viola’s 2002 version, but the conversation needs to grow beyond the tone of this book and the anger it inspired in many of its readers towards those seen as promoting a dead “institutional” Faith.
UPDATE: Four years later, change has come. The man who was once seen as leading the charge against the “Mega-church” “Institutional” “Pastor” now frequently quotes these leaders like Rick Warren, both here in my interview with George & Frank and on Twitter.
I would have never pictured Frank quoting a mega-church pastor after reading Pagan Christianity four years ago, but I am glad to see the demonstration of acceptance toward the once marginalized “Institutional Pastor”
2. The rhetoric of Pagan Christianity is at times overstated and overcritical. This penchant for exaggeration has turned off good church planters like Ariel (AJ) Vanderhorst from “Bitter Sweet Life“
The book tracks church traditions that are rooted in surrounding culture. Fair enough. We need to be up front about the fact that “church” tradition borrows from the culture in which it finds itself. There is no alternative; Christ also assumed the trappings of the Jewish culture into which he was incarnated. It’s important, however, to discern between timeless truths and timely cultural practices, guarding the first, adapting the second.
The book points out various ways in which the church has taken cultural practices and elevated them as esteemed of “sacred” traditions. While this is somewhat helpful, Viola starts to sound nutty at times because his criticism is so widespread and scathing. Examples: “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! (p. 33). “The sermon actually detracts from the very purpose for which God designed the church gathering” (p. 86). “Nothing hinders the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose as does the present-day pastoral role” (137). And believe me, there is more. Much, much more.
The rhetoric has even bothered adherents of the Organic Church movement like Dennis McCalum of “Authentic Means Real“ who share this concern.
We’ve all seen steer wrestling at rodeos. The cowboy seized the horns of the steer and twists his head, eventually forcing the hapless animal in a direction he never wanted to go. Some interpreters steer-wrestle the Bible and history to fit pre-conceived views of the church. I’m not denying that many, and maybe most of their claims are true. But mixing in exaggeration and selectivity can seriously distort the picture.
I am on their [Viola and Barna’s] side of the river, and I’m recommending this book, even though I think they over-reached on a number of their points and weakened their case as a result.
3. Word choice is imprecise and consequently misleading. The imprecise writing of Pagan Christianity, has forced V&B to spend a lot of energy making clarifications to their position on issues such as “culture.” The confusion comes, in part, because they used ill-defined terms like “Pagan,” that also bring to the discussion a lot of baggage. Maybe this word was chosen for shock value and to help marketing, but no matter the reason, its use detracts from what the authors are really trying to say about culture’s influence on the church. Pastors of the “institutional” church like Dan Kimball of “Vintage Faith“ have made similar observations.
I also, love, love, love the heart of what Frank and George desire to see the church be and for Christians to experience. I couldn’t agree more and I am so much in agreement with these things. I have read every single book Frank has written and I love his heart for the church and for Christians to experience what God intended for the church.
But what I don’t really agree with, is the way that the book subtly and not too subtly stresses that the “pagan” things we have added or developed into church culture and practice is almost all bad. There is a subtle and not too subtle argument made for the small organic church to be the way true health can be experienced. What I disagree with is that if we follow this, then we should be all reading Scripture only from scrolls, as the “pagan” printing press was not around at that time and the “pagan” way we bind the Bible today and put them into pages was all developed hundreds of years later. Or that we have “pagan” forms of communicating and use laptops, blogs and the internet (I am using hyperbole to make a point, but it is this type of reaction which I feel the book consists of in how it stresses many of it’s practical conclusions).
These observations are fair because, unlike the clarifications made in my 2008 interview, Pagan Christianity does a poor job of defining the term culture and its proper or improper role in the church. For example, V&B’s use of “shag carpet” as an “acceptable” cultural concession comes across as anemic in light of the weightier issues discussed.
The use of more meaningful examples, providing better definitions for their terminology, and a more balanced rhetoric, would improve the book’s quality and impact.
4. There is an unfortunate tendency in Pagan Christianity to mix history with personal opinion and philosophy. Readers of this book will need to spend a good deal of effort in discerning how history is used. A.S. Tatum from “Truth To Tell” makes this observation.
This leads me to my second substantive issue with the book as a whole: the authors’ understandings of theology, church history, church structure, etc. are all based upon particular readings of scripture which they seek to universalize (thus, the precarious situation of the reader who is left to choose between “accepting” historical “facts” or the person who “ignores” the “facts” and is, therefore, “unfaithful”).
5. Pagan Christianity makes far too many leaps in logic. This point is really an application of the last two observations, but a discerning reading will see clearly how V&B move from historical observation to theological conclusions without establishing any logical connection. Alan Knox, professor, and supporter of the organic church movement, from “The Assembling of the Church“ makes this salient comment.
As the authors themselves state, not everything that arises from culture is bad and not everything negatively affects the church. Therefore, they cannot simply demonstrate that these practices arise from culture, they must also demonstrate that the practices negatively affect the church. For the most part, this is assumed without analysis.
One example of this historical obfuscation is mentioned above by AJ Vanderhorst. V&B assert,
“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 (p. 33)!”
Speculative observations presented as fact do not help the reader. This particular comment demonstrates V&B’s lack of historical perspective in two ways:
- It demonstrates ignorance toward the biblical tension between the transcendence and immanence of God… Yes Frank, even in the NT, Jesus ascended to heaven and we look to the heavens for his return.
- In addition, as someone who has studied both architecture and art history, I believe that V&B’s assertion distorts the aesthetic use of the steeple to suit their pre-formed conclusion about “pagan” buildings. There is nothing in a Steeple that contradicts the message of the NT and such theological fancy disguised as “history” is folly.
Let me share my own fictional example of what I see happening in Pagan Christianity. Let’s pretend I want to write a book called, “Pagan House Church.” In this book, I seek to prove historical how the house church movement is rooted in pagan ritual. How would I do it? Using the methods employed by V&B it is quite easy.
Observation: Organic church people also promote doing church in homes and celebrating a common meal with wine.
Conclusion: Doing a shared meal with wine (or symbol of wine) in a home, as is promoted by those in the Organic Church, promotes a Pagan Christianity because clearly this ritual comes from Greek worship of Dionysus.
Clearly, my fictional example demonstrates a flawed logic, but that same flaw is repeated time and again in Pagan Christianity and forces the reader to lose sight of the more important points about much needed church reformation that V&B are making in the book.
I should note that the core of their message has been refined and comes out more clearly in the interviews and blog articles these guys have done since the books 2008 release.
If you are looking for more insight onto what the church should be, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of “The Ancient Church as Family” by Joseph Hellerman. You can read my review in this previous post.
Finally, let me go back to my very first assertion that reading Pagan Christianity restored my faith in the institution of church. Certainly many cultural (pagan) things have influenced the church. I empathize with the many who have been hurt by the practices of some of these congregations. If these traditional “pagan” methods cease to be effective in reaching the lost, or if they stand in the way of genuine Faith, then these practices should be abandoned. Let me quote again from Dan Kimball as I agree with his thoughts on the nature of doing church.
I also don’t agree that large established churches with paid staffs are bad. I think that you can have a healthy church of 5,000 and a healthy church of 15. Or you can have a unhealthy church of 5,000 or an unhealthy church of 15. I am not into numbers. We intentionally don’t count the people in our worship gatherings so we don’t fall into the “we had 30 more this week” or “30 less than last week” trap. We do count (so to speak) leaders and those in Community Groups as that is a more accurate way to track health (and other ways too). So, I truly am not into just asking about numbers for the sake of seeing how big or little a church is. But like any farmer checks the growth and multiplication of crops, in the church we shouldn’t be afraid of asking and checking about growth and multiplication over time and in the right seasons. Jesus said to go and make disciples and the Bible records times and numbers of people putting faith in Jesus. Jesus said to be fishers of people, which means there was an expectation that new fish would be caught (so to speak). George Barna, who is the co-author of Pagan Christianity makes arguments and cases for things using lots of numbers and statistics. His last book Revolution was based on surveys and numbers. So numbers in the right motive for asking, shouldn’t be bad to do.
Is it possible to address every single issue raised in Pagan Christianity and still have different approaches to church?
The New Testament allows for a great deal of diversity in our forms and practices. Even the most organic church must have viable systems in order to function, and this too is taught in the New Testament.
I have had my share of bad experiences with churches, but as pastors take to heart some of the criticisms in this book, and others of its kind, I think we will see more creative ideas that integrate church and culture in ways that do not compromise our faith in Jesus Christ.
Pagan Conversations—Challenge to the Reader
Pagan Christianity made broad and sweeping attacks against whole groups of people and this approach cut to the quick of many people who are called to “pastor” the local church. In response, many of these people have shot back with their own strong challenges that hit at the core of Frank’s book. This is good! This is the kind of discussion, challenge and counterpoint that we need in the Body of Christ. This is the only way to guarantee that our pagan influences do not become our religious worship.
What concerns me though is not the forceful exchange of ideas. What concerns me is that, in some cases, forceful passionate argument has turned into judgement and condemnation of brothers and sisters who are