Book Review: Pagan Christianity By Viola & Barna

Let me begin on this (the first day of school) by making a typical bloggy self-referential comment:  I can’t believe that I’m doing a book report for fun.  I used to hate these things!  OK – on to the book report:

Frank Viola has teamed up with George Barna (czar of evangelical statistics) to write a scathing polemic against the modern institutional church.  “Pagan Christianity” is a summary of all the ways that our modern churches have departed from the New Testament church.  Viola argues forcefully that all the ways in which we have altered the idea of “church” since the first centure have pagan roots and that we ought to get back to the purity of the first century.  Viola’s ideal of church is what he calls the “organic” church – which meets in homes with no paid clergy, not permanent building, no set order of worship, etc – just as the NT church was.  In each chapter he takes an element of modern church life (paid clergy, church buildings, etc) and explains when and where the innovation came from and how these things are harmful to the church.  What I liked most about the book was the historical data on the origins of many church practices.  These are laid out in an easily digestible format and are meticulously footnoted for those who want to dig deeper.  It is eye opening to see the origins of many our our church practices.

However, Viola is consistently unsympathetic in his explanations of why these innovations occurred.  For example, when writing about baptism he excoriates the 2nd century church for creating a 2 to 3 year catechetical process which was required before baptism.  Viola doesn’t tell us why this was done, other than that it was to transform conversion into a salvation-by-works scheme.  I certainly don’t think we ought to put barriers down for people to become baptized, I am sympathetic with the reasons the 2nd century church did this.  They were under intense persecution.  Christians were being brutally executed and tortured by the Roman government.  One motive for a long and thorough catechetical process was self preservation.  The church was very wary of allowing Roman spies into the fellowship who could then inform on all the church members and their activities.  A long and strenuous initiation process ensured that converts were genuine and wouldn’t inform on church members and activities.  I don’t know that those early church leaders made the right choice, but I’m sympathetic to their situation for sure.  Those early church leaders also worked without the benefit of the canonized New Testament.

Viola also speaks little about the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church through the centuries.  He seems to paint a picture of the early church as the perfect ideal and all innovations in church life since the first century simply pollute the purity of that ideal.  Surely innovations in church praxis have been guided by the Holy Spirit to adapt to a changing world.  Viola argues otherwise.

I found that part of me was tempted by the thought of going “off the grid” and joining a simple “organic church” that Frank espouses.  However, I find that I still believe in the church, in my church (I suppose that now is a good time for full disclosure – my church pays my salary!) and in the way we do a lot of the things we do.  I certainly think there are lots of problems, but they come from sinful, fallen people (more disclosure – I’m sinful and fallen too) and not from the fact that we own a building or have paid clergy.

Perhaps I simply can’t be objective because I’m too much a part of the problem that Viola describes, but I won’t be giving up on the “institutional” church just yet.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Pagan Christianity By Viola & Barna

  1. In the first century in Palestine when you would go to school growing up, your main (if not only) “textbook” was the Scriptures. The Jews were raised on them. They were educated with them. The average Jew was more familiar with scripture than the average Canadian is today.

    2000 years later, half way around the world, most people need to go to a special school to learn the Bible in an in-depth way. We have to have it translated. Even then, we don’t get the cultural nuances, unless we’re studied in that area. Frankly, I’d rather pay a guy, who has specialized Biblical training, to sit around studying the scriptures and get back to me once a week with what he’s learnt, than to have some guy like me tell me what he’s learnt this week in his spare time.

    I don’t care what the average person on the street thinks about something. I want to know what the experts think.

    Back then, they didn’t have Christian colleges and Christian seminaries. They made-do with what they had. We’re living in different times.

    I haven’t read this book, but I have heard similar arguments. I am unconvinced. The original church experienced growth that we hardly see today. It spread like wildfire. Not to discount what The Holy Spirit is doing today, but He was likely more involved then in a way He hasn’t been since then, and probably won’t be until Christ’s return, for this simple reason: He _had_ to be. The church was small (very small) and under intense persecution.

    The church doesn’t pay my salary, so I’m not experiencing the same cognitive dissonance that you may be. But, I, for the reasons stated above, am not ready to leave my “structured” church for an “organic” one.

  2. Geoff,
    Good for you for reading this book! I haven’t yet. However I came across a few reviews, I thought I’d share, take it or leave it.

    http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/06/pagan-christianty-by-george-barna-and.html

    http://bobhyatt.typepad.com/bobblog/2008/02/out-of-ur-vs-pa.html

    Bob Hyatt has about 5 or six well thought out posts on this book, starting here:
    http://bobhyatt.typepad.com/bobblog/2008/01/so-call-me-a-pa.html

    The blog “Out of Ur” has some heated discussion on this book too…
    http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2008/02/is_the_pastorat.html

    Viola/Barna stir the pot it seems…
    Keep blogging!!
    Doug

  3. Another scholar wrote an outstanding response to Ben W’s review. You can read it all at http://www.paganchristianity.org/zensresponds1.htm
    There are some other reviews for the book at http://www.paganchristianity.org/reviews.htm.

    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://frankviola.wordpress.com/ . Also, have you seen the spoof video for “Pagan”? Very funny. Check it out at http://youtube.com/watch?v=hslswIal9u4 .

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