Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Book Review>Pagan Christianity

Last Saturday I truly experienced Sabbath. 11am-11pm doing one of the following (mostly the first two) watching the tourney, reading, sleeping. It was glorious.

If anyone cares at all (and I don't think you do or should) you'll notice that I've had the same several books on the "current reading" list for a while. Well, I knocked off one and finished another I never put up there. Since people get turned away from blogs if they have to scroll to read a long post, I'll give you the short review and the "extended edition" (something I think I've tried to do before).

Quick synopsis: Highly recommend this book. Very thought provoking, extremely informing. The authors make a strong thesis and do not attempt to keep everyone happy. They draw the lines in the sand, and force you to do a lot of examination- personally and corporately. Ultimately, I disagree with the authors over-simplification in making sweeping, universal claims. I also find fault in the author's view of the early church's character. Pagan Christianity is a quick read, and again, recommend this book highly.

Extended Edition: Pagan Christianity. Dan Kimball had this up on his blog, and it piqued my interest. So, call me a tool if you want, but I read the trendy book and really enjoyed it. Apparently this book has been around for a little while, but the orignal author Frank Viola teamed up with "the most quoted man in Christianity" George Barna. The thesis for the book is simple: the modern church looks nothing like the early church. Pagan Christianity "explore(s) the roots of our church practices" (the subtitle). I must say, it was fascinating. The book concisely funnels lots of well-researched* information. Even if you don't "agree" with the author's conclusions (a return to new testament church) reading this book may be worth it for what I call, the "o'reily factor factor". This is when you tune in to some talk show, just to get pissed off. This book could have that effect on just about every Christian I know. The authors make well supported claims, and one must concede that on a number of levels, they're right. In short, the book says: don't defend our church practices as being biblical. You can still support them, just not biblically.

Many of the things we do are not derived from scripture, but rather from tradition as a result of synthesis from other cultures. Again, the authors make a strong case for at least examining why the things we hold important are important, and then examining how we can make that assessment scripturally. They also are not willy-nilly in making broad claims, so there's plenty to disagree with. Example:
Nevertheless, despite the fact that the contemporary sermon does not have a shred of biblical merit to support its existence, it continues to be uncritically admired in the eyes of most present-day Christians. It has become so entrenched in the Christian mind that most Bible-believing pastors and laymen fail to see that they are affirming and perpetuating an unscriptural practice out of sheer tradition. (page 101)
There's a great example of a strong statement being made, which I appreciate. However, can you really say that there is "not a shred of biblical merit" to support the sermon? Not one shred? I would disagree.

The other big place of disagreement for me is the way the author views the early church's character. Viola asserts that the modern church's headship is in the hands of people, not Jesus Christ. He says the early church had no hierarchy, and that our current structures are unbiblical and a hindrance to the priesthood of all believers. Now, is there much to be said for this? Sure! But let's not pretend the early church was some utopia:
...The dominating aim of (God's) nature is to put you and me at the center of the beating heart of God. To put you and me in the core of His eternal purpose- a purpose for which everything was created. The early church understood that purpose. They not only understood God's passion for His church, they lived it out. And what did such body life look like? Consider the brief glimpse below: The early Christians were intensely Christ-centered. Jesus Christ was their pulse beat. He was their life, their breath, and their central point of reference. He was the object of their worship, the subject of their songs, and the content of their discussion and vocabulary. The New Testament church made the Lord Jesus Christ central and supreme in all things. (page 246-247)
Now, I could be wrong here. But it is my understanding that many of the Epistles were written to guide and correctthe church's the apostles started. I'm sure the early church experienced the same problems that we face, in principal anyway. Maybe people didn't complain about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, but I find it hard to imagine that no one ever bickered about the quality of food served at somebody's house.

Later, Viola says:
The New Testament church was organic, not organizational. It was not welded together by putting people into offices, creating programs, constructing rituals, and developing a top-down hierarchy or chain-of-command structure.
Hhhmmm...In Acts 6: 1-6 we read about the Apostles choosing seven men to distribute food to widows:
1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."

5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So, the Apostles made a judgement call on how to most effectively spend their time, and addressed a need by coming up with a job description then finding qualified people to perform that duty. Sounds like a hierarchy to me! Did they have an organized way to distribute food to widows? Sounds like a program to me! I'm exaggerating a little bit here, but my point is structure is not inherently evil, and its not entirely unbiblical.

So, there you have it. I agree with the author's that tradition many times exists for traditions sake, and not the Kingdom's sake. I just don't want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" in thinking that the first century church didn't experience the same problems the modern church faces, and that if we only would embrace the original practices that we would see the same explosive, powerful results as we saw in the early church.

*and expansively footnoted

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 Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://www.frankviola.wordpress.com