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A rambling review of Viola/Barna's 'Pagan Christianity'

Several years ago, organic and house church author Frank Viola came out with the original version of Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices, an historical look at how many of the ways we “do” church today veered away from the New Testament and instead were absorbed and adapted from pagan cultures throughout the centuries. However, I didn’t run across the book until Andrew Jones posted about this version, which has been revised and updated with church-stat guru George Barna.

For those of you who frequent this blog, you know that for the last couple of years I’ve been thinking through what it looks like to live in the Kingdom and be the church, how Kingdom life happens in the here-and-now and why that life isn’t the norm in churches today. Much of what has come from those ruminations is summed up here, here and (more recently) here. Basically, I’m discovering that Kingdom life is not something we create, but flows from our relationship with God as we walk with Jesus and those around us in the wide-open spaces of his grace, glory, love and life. It all begins with and flows from the Father and our relationship with him. Only as we live in trust with the Father can kingdom-living be expressed. And the “church”—this living-together in the Kingdom, this tangible and local expression of the Kingdom—operates the same way. It flows out of our relationship with God as we live with each other, encouraging each other to accept, deepen and live in and out of relationship with God. It is both purposeful and organic: it is the love, justice, life and mission of the Kingdom here-and-now as we go about living-together every minute of our lives. As part of all that, I’ve come to agree with those who think that this kind of living-together isn’t generally fostered or facilitated by the way we “do church” today. Instead, it seems to grow more organically among folks who are simply walking with Jesus and those with whom their paths cross—if only for a season. And it seems to flourish in simpler, smaller and more organic and basic structures than found in the way we do church today.

It is in that context that I read Pagan Christianity?—and I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the book. I appreciated much of it, but personally I think it also had its flaws and weak points.

On the positive side, I appreciate the detail and research Viola puts in to the book. It’s heavily footnoted, which is something I deeply respect; I’ve always thought of it as both a step of strength and vulnerability for an author—strength in that lends credibility to the author’s words and puts it in context of others who are discussing the same thing; but also a vulnerability as it opens the door for his conclusions to be questioned in the light of the sources he chooses (as well as those he doesn’t—which some critics of the book pick up on). I’m no stranger to Viola’s premise that we are a pale comparison to the New Testament church that, as Viola puts it, “represents the dream of God . . . the beloved community that He intends to create and re-create in every chapter of human history.” I first ran into that idea a few years ago in Houses that Change the World by Wolfgang Simson, another house church guru; however, Viola’s book is much more researched and better presented in the area of church history.

I also appreciated the book because it helped me understand in more detail why the current way we do church seems to create brambles or hurdles that prevent us from experiencing and being the people of God we are called and enabled to be—that how we meet together hinders who we are called and enabled to be. For quite some time, I’ve been trying to express the reasons behind why I feel like we are swimming upstream in much of our church culture when it comes to being and experiencing the bodylife expressed in the New Testament, and Viola fills a lot of that in—from the buildings we meet in to the way we meet. For example, take the way we tend to come together on Sunday mornings. Says Viola, the “order of worship represses mutual participation and the growth of Christian community. It puts a choke hold on the functioning of the body by silencing its members. There is absolutely no room for anyone to give a word of exhortation, share and insight, start or introduce a song, or spontaneously lead a prayer” (elements expressed in the meeting-togethers in the New Testament). It “encourages passivity” and “implies one of hour per week is the key to the victorious Christian life.” Viola also examines where we meet, the addition of the sermon and tithing, the changes in the role of pastor, the roles of music and baptism, and how we practice communion—all of which, says Viola hamper us. Much of that I’m inclined to agree with.

But almost from page one, I must admit I started scribbling words in the margins like “a bit misleading,” “agenda leaking through” and “disagree.” Some of it was simply the way he wrote. Like many others (and myself), Viola’s not for recreating the first century church, but instead believes we can re-learn basic principles and universals by which the church flourishes—that the kind of bodylife and love and impact on the communities in which early believers lived is a picture of who we could and can be. But Viola has a specific vision of the way the people of God should function in their meetings and that leaks through in this book. There’s little wiggle room for other ways of meeting. I like how one commenter put it at Leaving Munster (where Graham gives us a taste of his own thoughts):
Although I consider myself a strong advocate of organic/simple churches I'm not a lets restore the New Testament church kind of person. I'd say let us look at the scriptures, consider what is universal about the church, apply it in our context and see what we get. This recognizes that things will look different in different places. I'd also say be mindful that our structures and mediums carry a message all their own and whatever we create must be consistent with the message we proclaim in that context.

I wouldn't given Pagan Christianity a ringing endorsement because he considers much more than I would universal. However . . . [t]here is loads of stuff to grapple with in his critique.
I felt the same way: Viola gives us a lot to think about, but he considers more than I would as universal.

In addition, I was curious about the historical accuracy and validity of his sources, so I spent some time reading through other reviews of the book as well. While some of the reviews I came across were in my opinion overly harsh and even guilty of some of the tactics of which they accuse Viola, I started seeing some common observations. Pastor Brandan O’Brien at Out of Ur observes that Pagan Christianity? is agenda driven and Viola tends to use history to make his point rather than explore it a less biased manner. In another review, O’Brien also points out that Viola presents a fairly narrow vision of how church can be expressed. In a review at Next Wave Magazine, pastor Darryl Dash observes that Viola and Barna seem to take for granted that the institutional church is not redeemable; like Dash, I too would have preferred more discussion and questions as to whether or not aspects of institutional church (like the buildings, pastor-driven nature, ect.) can be changed or transformed to help grow bodylife rather than hinder it. I’m not as optimistic as Dash, but I think they are questions still worth asking. (You can find a list of links to more reviews—mostly from emerging circles—here.) To Viola’s credit, he addresses the criticisms and other objections at his website. Even if I don’t agree with him in all his explanations, I do give him big credit for encouraging conversation rather than just speaking-at people. That's the way we should do it in this Kingdom living-together.

But perhaps my biggest concern is that neither the book nor the reviews really get to the heart of the matter: what grows church—this body of Christ, this living- and walking-together, this missional kind of life—that believers exhibited and flourished within in those early years? I get that Viola does this in other books, but I get a little discouraged when I don't see the conversation go deeper. For these explorations, I still turn to folks like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Wayne Jacobsen and Scot McKnight.

This will probably be one of the last books I read on how the current way we “do” church is broken—not because I’m disappointed or discouraged or think I’ve got all that down (heh, far from it) but because my heart is being stirred in another place. The discussion Viola and others are undertaking is helpful in that it shows us ways that may hinder us from being the people call calls and enables us to be, but I am now more eager to explore those universals and practical here-and-nows that go into how we grow that life, both individually and corporately—and how that can be seeded and encouraged amongst us.

Comments

Jilliefl1 said…
The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at
http://www.ReimaginingChurch.org
It’s also available on Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://www.frankviola.wordpress.com