Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review: "Pagan Christianity?" by Frank Viola and George Barna

I was really excited about Pagan Christianity? after reading the first three or four chapters. But by the end of the book, I was ready to rip it apart. I'm not sure how a book that really piqued my interest to begin with could crash so quickly. But that's what Pagan Christianity? did for me.

In case you haven't heard, Frank Viola (not to be confused with the former Boston Red Sox pitcher with the same name) and George Barna (although Viola is really the primary author) have crafted a provocative book that looks at traditional church practices that the "institutional" church promotes. Thus, they discuss everything from church buildings to the weekly sermon to tithing to baptism. In short, they take all of these practices and institutions - and a few more - and throw them in the garbage, saying that they are unbiblical and borrowed from pagan culture throughout the ages.

And I must admit that I buy some of what they are selling. I agree that there are many questionable practices we have that seem to be rooted in pagan culture. And they have a lot of good historical data, detailing how each practice arose many years after the New Testament church. As a Seventh-day Adventist reader, it is rather interesting to see how much overlap there is between the data that Viola uses in pointing out the sins of Constantine, for example, as it relates to church buildings, and what Adventists use to point out Constantine's sins in relation to Sabbath/Sunday worship. This should certainly resonate with the Adventist reader.

And I agree with Viola's overall premise that we are robbing many Christians of the opportunity to take a more active role in worship, in the church, and in ministry. I am even a little open to the idea that maybe, just maybe, we should not necessarily have a paid minister, who stands up and preaches a sermon every week. Addressing this, they quote one pastor who admits,
I began to analyze why I could preach a great sermon and people afterwards would shake my hand and say, "Great sermon, Pastor." But these were the very people who were struggling with self-esteem, beating their spouses, struggling as workaholics, succumbing to their addictions. Their lives weren't changing (p. 218).
I have had the same thoughts, though I try to keep in mind that one should not expect a person or a congregation to change over night, simply because they may have heard a good sermon. But I do also recognize that an interactive service - as opposed to a monologue - may actually have a longer-lasting effect on a person coming to church.

Similarly, I am sympathetic to their disdain for ritual. I have always wondered why we do communion the way that we do - why we insist that only elders can pray over the emblems, or why we eat a small piece of bread and drink a cup of grape juice that is smaller than a thimble. Viola and Barna argue that these things are not biblical. There should be, first of all, no separate class that can only facilitate the Lord's Supper. And, secondly, the New Testament idea of communion was not a once-a-quarter meal ritual, but a regular event that involved open and (almost) casual fellowship. I think if we did implement this, communion would probably have more significance for us, and we would get more out of it. I know that I, as the pastor, would be more blessed by more of an agape supper experience, rather than sitting up front three times a quarter (since I have three churches) behind a table that requires two deaconesses to carefully and reverently uncover the bread and grape juice - all the while supposing that this ritual has been handed down from God, Himself.

Similarly, I appreciated Viola and Barna's views on "Sunday morning costumes" and the "order of service." Regarding the former, they argue that the NT never required anyone to dress up when it came to "worshipping" God, and such a ritual is based more on the industrial revolution, than anything in the Bible.

At the same time, our order of worship each Saturday or Sunday is often lifeless. It is so rote that it has lost most of its meaning. And yet there is nothing sanctified about having a particular order of service, and certainly there is nothing holy about insisting we do it one particular way.

For all of these things, I applaud Viola and Barna. We probably should become less pastor-dependent, less ritualistic, less hierarchical, less building-focused.

But then they lose me. And I started to notice some things in the latter half of the book that I realized had been present all along - which others had been quick to point out but that I refused to notice.

To begin with, I realized that the authors are not balanced at all. They use very broad, sweeping statements, and make gross and exaggerated over-generalizations (I realize, of course, that this is ironically a broad and sweeping over-generalization). I can't help but think that such a method is borne out of the fact that they (or at least Viola) is very bitter and cynical about the "organized" church system. Any organized church seems to be public enemy #1 to Viola. And it seems almost impossible for him to ever concede the point that, maybe, the organized church has been used by God to be a blessing.

Another challenge is that Viola essentially views the Old Testament as purely pagan. It has no relevance to the New Testament Christian. Thus, tithing is out because the New Testament does not mention this. Choirs are out (even though David formed huge choirs and wrote music for them in the book of Psalms) because, not only does the NT not mention choirs, but choirs encourage a passive/non-participating audience, and that is bad. Thus, as Viola argues, some things can be "biblical" (because they're mentioned in the OT) but "unchristian" (in other words: pagan).

But this attitude presents serious hermeneutical errors. While I will grant the fact that there are some things in the OT that are no longer binding or relevant to the NT Christian, I cannot say that everything in the OT is wrong carte blanche. Does the NT need to mention an OT practice in order for it to be still relevant? I wrote about this in my last post, and I think Viola would be well-served to read that.

At the same time, I am not sure how one can make the argument that the description of the NT church is necessarily prescriptive and normative. Nowhere does the New Testament, that I have seen, ever set forth the admonition, "Thou shalt do church this way." While I am comfortable with the idea that the NT Christians met in houses, and they didn't usually have one person preaching, etc., nowhere do I read, "Thou shalt have house churches."

Ironically, Viola wants it both ways when it comes to this issue. When he caricatures a well-meaning Christian who wants to start a home-church and sets up elders because Acts tells us that "Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in every church" (Acts 14:23), Viola says "No, no, no" and insists that this was not normative but localized. "The verse is referring to an event in south Galatia during the first century," he writes, " ' Every church' means every church in south Galatia in AD 49! Luke is talking about the four churches that Paul and Barnabas just planted" (p. 235). But he must allow the reader to use the same reasoning when it comes to the alleged normative practices that Acts elsewhere describes.

Now, as it relates to specific topics, here are some of my challenges:
  1. I understand his contention with the sermon and how it can produce passive and non-participatory Christians, but he doesn't seem to want to allow for the fact that a lot of good has been accomplished through preaching. Jesus preached. Paul preached. The Reformation - which he almost downplays altogether - resulted more from the preaching of the Word than anything else.
  2. He claims that accepting Jesus as Savior and the act of baptism should not be two separate events. He is mostly railing against the "sinner's prayer" method popularized by Dwight L. Moody, et al, which I am sympathetic to. However, I have put a lot of thought and study into this subject, and I do not necessarily think that a person who accepts Jesus should be instantly baptized, nor is it biblical to baptize someone apart from them joining the body of Christ (ie., indoctrination).
  3. He greatly denigrates American revivalism that saw such figures as Moody, Sankey, etc., and really harps upon "personal" and "individual" salvation. He does not like the idea of Jesus as a "personal Savior," and he spends a lot of ink tearing that apart. I understand what he is saying, but I think, above all, this rant reveals more the fact that he's grown cynical about popular Christian jargon than anything else.
  4. Where he really loses me is his tearing down of the Christian educational system. He claims that seminaries, Bible colleges, etc., are based more upon Aristotelian methodologies and logic than what the Bible uplifts. He seems to want to get rid of any reliance upon reason and logic, instead trading our brains in to rely upon some quasi-spiritual learning that we do. What he neglects to see - or, at least he mentions it in passing - is that Paul was trained by some of the best thinkers of his day and was quite a logician. Now, I don't doubt that, for many of us, we have way more "head knowledge" when it comes to our religious experience than we do heart-knowledge. And a PhD certainly doesn't necessarily qualify anyone for ministry, or secure our ticket into heaven. But God invented Wisdom. Indeed, He is Wisdom personified, and He invites us to come "reason" with Him. But the irony of all ironies is that, not only does he necessarily have to use the same type of logic to communicate his points to the reader, but he so often refers to authors, who will bolster his arguments, as "scholars."
  5. He laments the order that the New Testament canon is presently arranged and wishes that chapters and verses were never invented - as if this were the single greatest challenge to true Christianity. We do not really understand the true picture of the NT church, he claims, if we don't recognize that Galatians was the first letter Paul wrote, and 2 Timothy was the last, etc. We get a distorted picture of what God intended for NT Christians. This is all well and fine, but there are a few problems with his citing this as a problem. First, Paul's epistles themselves do not indicate the order that they were written, or the exact time they were written. Thus, any dating or ordering of Paul's books is extra-biblical conjecture and thus pagan (as he defines "pagan"). Secondly, the "average" Christian does not know the correct order of the books, or when they were written, and the only way to find out is to rely upon the "guesswork" of scholars (the same scholars that Viola decries because they received their pagan doctorates from pagan seminaries). Hence, such an exercise naturally sets up a hierarchy between the "enlightened" scholars who know all about the Bible, and the uneducated and uninformed "laity" who don't have the time, resources, or knowledge to figure these things out. And such a hierarchical set up is pagan.
  6. Viola necessarily has to downplay doctrine and theology (in fact, the word "theology" itself is anathema to him, having been invented, or at least popularized, by Peter Abelard in the 11th century). These are, for the most part, unimportant to him. All that matters is a bunch of "Christ-centered" people, who get together (face-to-face), sing songs, pray, and spontaneously do whatever the spirit leads them to do. But this watering down of theology and doctrine - which, at their best, are simply insights into God's loving character - is very problematic, not the least of which is because God cares about how He is represented to the world.
  7. Viola's favorite phrase, by far, is "organic church." This is what the church should look like today. But I'm not quite sure what he means by this, even though he explains it over and over again. For example, he writes: "The New Testament church was organic, not organizational. . . . The church was a living, breathing organism" (p. 248). Okay. So is the Baptist church, or the Catholic church, or the Seventh-day Adventist church not "living" and "breathing"? What does it even mean to say that a church is "living" and "breathing"? This concept does not even make sense to me and I'm not quite sure what he means by it. Furthermore, is "organizing" necessarily pagan and bad? If he would accept the OT as every bit as valid as the NT, he would recognize that God certainly condoned organization as it related to the 12 tribes of Israel - though I suppose we could also go to Revelation 7 to see that as well. At the same time, unless a church "organizes," how would foreign missions, for example, ever work? His way of doing church would be to have some type of "vanilla" church (with very basic "historic creeds" that serve as a doctrinal foundation, even though these creeds are themselves extrabiblical - or should I say "pagan") in each community that is totally isolated from any other church in any other community. Thus, under his model, I would go to Massachusetts and not know another Christian soul, and I would have to "reinvent the wheel" to plant another church there. But I don't believe this is necessary, nor do I think having an overarching structure is bad (ironically, those who have gone the organic/house church route have "organized" a website that can be resourceful to those who are interested: And, to be quite honest, there is something refreshing about going to virtually any Seventh-day Adventist church in the world, and meeting someone who knows someone you know, or knows someone that knows someone that you know. It gives a sense of connectedness; of common mission. It gives the sense that God's work is, indeed, a global movement.
  8. Finally, Viola is very inconsistent with his views on pagan practices that have crept into the church. When I picked up the book, for example, I assumed that he would certainly touch upon the issue of Sabbath/Sunday worship, seeing how it is very well documented that the NT church continued worshiping on Saturday, and it wasn't until the second century when Sunday-sacredness starting creeping in (ultimately culminating in Constantine's decree in the 4th century that Sunday would be the day of worship). But there was no mention of this at all. In fact, on his website, someone asked him why he did not address this subject in the book, and he answered by saying that there was "no evidence whatsoever that the early church gathered for their meetings on the Sabbath." This, of course, is a very faulty use of logic, since the burden of proof would rest upon the Sunday worshiper to demonstrate that the NT Church worshipped on a different day than was practiced by Moses, Ezekiel, and Jesus - to name a few. Instead, Viola violates his own disdain for proof-texting and taking verses out of context by citing Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor 16:2 as examples that the NT believers worshiped on Sunday. But this is just plain fallacious. Paul simply says in 1 Cor 16:2, for example, "On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come." I'm not sure how anyone could make the case for Sunday-sacredness from this, though, especially in light of the fact that the word "day" is supplied in our English versions, and the Greek actually literally reads, "On the first Sabbath, each of you should lay something aside." Talk about lifting a verse out of context!
And so, that's where I will leave our friends Frank Viola and George Barna. I am not sure that I will buy Viola's sequel, Re-Imagining Church - mainly because I didn't "buy" all of this book.


Anonymous said...

I wonder what Viola says about the "foolishness of preaching"?

And, I also wonder who introduced Viola to Christ? Was it some one (friend, family member) from an organized church? Even if were not and he would say his conversion came directly from the scriptures, who was responsible for the Bible's publication? Wasn't it organized Christianity?

Rondi said...

Very interesting review! I enjoyed reading it and thinking things through with you.

Shawn Brace said...

Good questions, Anonymous! There are definitely inconsistencies.

Thanks, also, Ms. Aastrup, for your reflections.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading all 3 of Viola's books as I have felt that the Adventist"church in a box" structure was stifling & suffocating for the 25 years I have been a member. The rituals that are looked down upon as meaningless in other churches are meaningless in the SDA church washing feet of people you don't know or could care less about eating the bread & wine again all with our heads lined up in rows. What a wonderful community of love & sharing! It seems a mockery to me. I joined the SDA church when I was 29 & was so excited to find God's "true" church & my finding this church was very unusual. But when I tried over & over to engage people on real levels , seek change I was always not allowed to be apart of the status quo. I seek to praise God with all my heart & mind to be an onlooker is not what I believe worship is all about. I am not against sermons but I think there is certainly more to worship then rote week after week by your watch we always do it this way. I think that is telling the Holy Spirit what to do & stifles community, spontaneity of corporate contribution and just plain boring!! Renee Hernandez

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your review but I have to ask if you've read any of Frank Viola's other books? A lot of his position and views on things are evident in his other works and provide a clearer picture of what he means. It is unfair to hear only this part of the argument. Unfortunately, he spreads his whole view over about five books and several articles and not to mention his blog. However, all that provides a little bigger picture to what he is really trying to say.

jon said...

Thanks for the review, enlightening as I've not read the book & was thinking of buying. Your comment re: 'connectedness' also reveals that Christian believers can relate to one another uniquely, regardless of denomination, race or position in life or region; surely God would have it even more so, coming back to the command,'love one another.'

Gabrielle Eden said...

Hi. I found you by googling the title of the book. A friend is all excited about the book, but it leads me to think that this invites one to get all morally superior to those who engage in organized church. This does not foster the unity that we all so sorely need - between denominations, between believers of all persuasions - he has just created yet another "denomination" of the "disorganized" church.

Thanks for your review. I wanted to read the book, but wanted to read some reviews first to get an idea of what to expect. This is what I kind of thought I would be getting in to with this book.

Gabrielle Eden said...

Additional comment: one thing this book does for me is it helps me to be confident in the unusual way that God has for me - I go to a number of churches and am not a member in any one of them. It shows me that God has led me in this way that I am on.

Shawn Brace said...

Hi Gabrielle,

I very much appreciated your comments! I'm glad you stumbled upon my blog.

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

One thing for sure, while we are debating this, the authors are becoming very rich men! (Especially seeing someone suggested we need to read all five of his/their books to ascertain the full perspective!) Just a thought....


Just like any good book, you guys, you must eat the meat and spit out the bones. Do not think that when writing that he "had it all together". There were many inconsitencies and ideals that went unmentioned (ESPECIALLY SABBATH). However, the history of things as we are led in obeying God, does add value MUCH VALUE to our further decisions and actions as a church.

This is terribly important if you want to grow in the knowledge of God's truth. Therefore, our goal is to pay close attention to THE TRADITIONS OF MEN in lieu of THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD.

The truth I believe Viola was attempting to convey was not that todays Church has no good qualities. It does. The point is that the current church has HEINOUSLY perpetuated an instition that ROBS THE PEOPLE OF GOD OF A LIVED EXPERIENCE by a hierchical system that is anything but holy.

History has shown it. Many people's personal experience has testified of it. And maybe you haven't experienced it yet, but institutional church has organized Jesus from centrality. This is seen on many levels and you can look at statistics to understand how church members respond every year to the church woes.

We thank God that our "forerunners" in the gospel have made sacrifices generation by generation to move further away from paganism. Nevertheless, the things that they were fighting to get away from, they perpetuated in their need to dominate or control the processes.

ORGANIZING IS GOOD!!! Organization that hinders God's people from fully functioning as Christ-centered believes IS BAD!!! Organizing was not his argument. Institutionalizing (which includes organizing), has perpetuated THE SIN OF THE CHURCH.