Saturday, May 31, 2008

Pagan Christianity

Last night I read Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. I must admit it was interesting, and I am inclined towards some of the ideas.
However, I believe that the author fails to examine some of his own assumptions.
Let me preface this with the fact that I do not love the "institutional" church, and I often long for a more simple expression of Christian community. I understand that Viola's opinions are a major threat to many who cling to the Christian tradition of what we call church. Yet, I am still disturbed by some of the idea that Viola wants us to buy into. And the fact that he has the answer to all of my problems. I can just check his website, and get his books on how he interprets the way that church is supposed to be done.

The history and exploration of where our traditions come from was fascinating. I particularly enjoyed his brilliant take on the birth of American Evangelicalism. The book breaks down different pagan elements of church into individual chapters. So he does a chapter on the church building, the order of the service, preaching sermons, the offering, the pastor/clergy, dressing up for church, etc, and he demonstrates in each chapter how each of these have no foundation in scripture but are more so rooted in the pagan world. Now this might all sound so horrifying to some people to the degree that they would never listen to the fascinating insight offered in this book.
But what truly disturbs me is that Viola doesn't play by his own rules.

He deals particularly with how institutional christianity hinders believers from expressing themselves as the church. We have buildings that don't facilitate genuine relationships. We (the laity) sit in rows looking at the back of the congregation's heads while listening to a trained pastor (the clergy) preach a message. We listen silently, passively. There is no dialogue, and no room to question. The building is sacred, which presupposes a division of secular and sacred.

I agree that there are some serious problems with this form of "worship" and that it can become an addiction. However, Viola's call to arms is quite ironic. He traces these traditions back to pagan roots. Thus pagan roots equals evil. Yet Viola never asks us to swallow that assumption because his rhetoric (which is an art invented by the pagan greek sophists by the way) has already induced a spell to get us to agree with him without ever facing his baseline assumptions. Pagan = evil. Therefore, if any remnants of the pagan world find their way into the church, then it is not biblical.

How can Viola rail against the institutional church's terrible dichotomy of secular and sacred and priesthood verse laity, when he uses the same reasoning? The Bible is a book of redemption. Psalm 24:1 says that the earth is the Lord's and all that is within it. We don't forfeit the world as Christians, we let God redeem it. Viola sets himself up as the interpreter of the New Testament as it really was yet he does the very thing that Paul of Tarsus had fought against. You see Paul had this revelation that he was to take the gospel to the Gentiles, and he believe that they could partake in the promises simply by faith. However, many Jews demanded that the Gentiles be circumcised and basically converted to Judaism. Eventually the apostles held a council and decided that Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be Christians. Thankfully this happened because this allowed Christianity to explode in the Greek world so much so that by the end of the first century the majority of Christians were Gentiles. The bottom line is that Christianity is not bound to a culture, and therefore it can thrive in any culture. If the Jewish culture were a requirement of Christianity I dare say that I wouldn't ever have heard of Christianity.

Now I agree that Constantine's implementation of church was devastating, but even that is something that God is redeeming. In the meantime, God has redeemed pagans and I don't know of any other kind of person he has redeemed. That's the point. From Adam to the last man on earth, we're all pagans. Humanity has a knack for discovering things as well. The Greeks discovered theatre, they didn't invent it. The Greeks discovered rhetoric, they didn't invent it. We as Christians don't need to forfeit these things just because "pagans" discovered or even invented something. If a man in some remote primitive tribe comes to faith in Christ should he throw away his conch shell that he once worshipped his gods with? Yesterday he blew the conch in worship to false gods. Is the conch evil? Is it pagan? Or is it possible that the redeemed man determines the direction of worship? Is it possible that he can now worship the god of heave and earth with the same tools. Even in America should we throw away our guitars? How many worship leaders once played them in bars, but now play them for the glory of God. Is this pagan?

Where is the line? What is Viola saying? Even if I joined his house church movement, I'll bet that they would encourage us to be relevant to our culture. But isn't that pagan?

Yet, I must admit the criticisms are insightful and can bring some constructive criticism to the church. We do need a massive revolution. I'm just not so sure that I want to follow Viola. It scares me when someone claims to know what God really wants. This is the way to do it. This is the way they did it in the New Testament. Viola uses this reasoning to support his own ideas, and yet he also criticizes the institutional church for not being organic like the new testament church (which I agree with). But this accusation is backed up by his point that the new testament church didn't even have the new testament, they didn't have all the systematic theologies that we do. They simply expressed the life of Christ and what came out of it is what we call the New Testament Church. So he criticizes the institution for not being fluid and spontaneous -- organic if you will. Yet when he puts forth his ideas of home churches he relies on his claim that we must understand the new testament in all of its fullness and historical context, which by the way Viola has an entire curriculum that will help us laity, I mean Christians, to understand. But not just to understand, also to mimic and reproduce the church as it was meant to be. However, the act of following a prescription excludes improvisation and the organic life that we're supposedly supposed to live. It sounds more like the institutional prescription that Viola is criticizing. Which one is it?

So as you can see I don't trust Viola's arguments. It disturbs me because he's just one more expert out to tell me God's will. I need him to help me interpret and understand. I need to listen to his lectures, sermons, and read his books. I need him to be my priest, my pope? But according to him we don't need leadership except that of the lord Jesus himself. Now that of course is only in a small group setting. But we do need itenerant apostles to keep us in check... I'm just poking fun. I love the church. And the lingo is constantly recycled. I just don't like the gaps in Viola's logic. We aren't the first century church, and the Bible doesn't give us a lot of prescriptive methods. So I am on a journey. And I'm looking for leaders that aren't trying to go back to yesterday, but are trying to find God today in the here and now with all the stuff we've built and done, good and bad... Just like the first century church.

1 comment:

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
It’s also available on Frank is also blogging now at