Review Of Pagan Christianity #1
By Gary Tebbe
Last year a friend gave me the book Pagan Christianity. Originally written by house church leader Frank Viola, the book was republished by the church marketing expert George Barna. The authors contend that every practice in Christianity as we know it is derived from or influenced by the surrounding culture. They further assert that this process is unbiblical and represents the "contamination" and "corruption" (authors' words) of pure New Testament Christianity. Therefore church buildings, pulpits, pews, professional pastors, choirs, church services, sermons, systematic theology, hymn books, etc are all basically "pagan" innovations.
After reading the Pagan Christianity I wrote a review that I left unpublished. There was little in the book that I had not heard before. The historical data was apparently intended to surprise but should be familiar to anyone who has studied even the basics of church history. Admittedly, I did not find the arguments particularly compelling. Pagan Christianity is a work of deconstruction (authors' word) at a time when deconstructionism is in vogue. It was an unimpressive book.
Recently however I am hearing about a growing number of Christians who are impressed by this book and not always in the best of ways. Apparently many readers find in Pagan Christianity a justification to stop participating in the local church.
Now, George Barna and Frank Viola do express their desire to see Believers come out of the Institutional Church and join more pure organic church/ home church type fellowships. However many of their readers are leaving Christian communities of any form altogether. No doubt this is unintentional on the part of the authors, nonetheless Pagan Christianity is contributing to the secularization of many discontent Christians.
Invitation to the Reader
If you the reader are such a person, let me encourage you to reconsider the wisdom of your decision. There are plenty of reasons to be upset with organized Christianity. Many Christians, Christian leaders, churches and para-church organizations have failed and have hurt those who trusted in them. They will give an account before God. However, you know that is not the case with all Christians and all churches. There are many failures. Yet there are also many faithful and you my friend need to be one of and are needed among the faithful.
Furthermore if you are sympathetic to the arguments of Pagan Christianity, you should know that there are serious problems with the book and its underlying premises. You owe it to yourself to read the various critiques of the book that have been offered in the past few months. For your own spiritual health, and for those whom you influence, such as your family, you would do well to think through the implications before jumping on this bandwagon.
A Big Target
Author Frank Viola boasts on his website that Pagan Christianity is the most criticized book on the internet. Perhaps a little hyperbole there, but the book has received a fair share of negative reviews. This is unsurprising since Pagan Christianity makes itself and easy book to criticize.
1. First, historical errors abound, and much has been made of these mistakes in other reviews. Mr. Viola often over-simplifies complex events and makes gross distortions between causes and effects. At times he makes assertions that simply are not true.
A random example to illustrate:
"Put another way, neither homilies (sermons) nor homiletics (the art of sermonizing) have a Christian origin. They were stolen from the pagans. A polluted stream made its entrance into the Christian faith and muddied the waters." (p.93)
That is quite an accusation. Do sermons and preaching really have "no Christian origin"? Jesus never preached to his disciples? The "Sermon on the Mount" is actually a pagan misnomer. The Apostle Paul never gave homilies to the congregations he established. Peter's messages in Acts were not Christian preaching.
On Sunday when a contemporary pastor opens the Bible and preaches the text he is really wallowing in the "polluted stream" of paganism. Biblical exegesis and exposition are actually stolen from the muddied waters of heathenism. Sunday morning preaching is not following the example of Christ and the apostles.
That is an odd conclusion. What most pastors do in church on Sundays certainly sounds a lot like what Christ did in the synagogue in Nazareth on Saturday.
"And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.  And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written."
Luke's passage goes on to describe Christ giving a formal public message based on the text that was read in the synagogue. If that is not preaching a sermon, then what is it?
We see the apostle Paul doing something very similar in the synagogue in Acts 13:15-40. His message reads like a sermon and the whole format of the passage resembles very closely what preachers do in churches around the globe. If one did not know any better, it would be easy to conclude that Christian sermon had at least some roots in the Jewish synagogue. (The Jewish-synagogue roots of Christian worship is a rather obvious connection that the author goes at lengths to deny.)
Paul told the young church leader Timothy to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching." 2 Tim. 4:2
If Pagan Christianity's supporters were more familiar with the New Testament they might not feel the need to reinvent New Testament Christianity.
Mr. Viola relies heavily on second-hand sources. He does not seem to have much personal familiarity with primary sources. If one is going to attempt to overthrow two millennia of thought and practice then one needs to show some mastery of the subject matter in question.
The book seldom interacts with the actual writings of the historical Christians that it criticizes. The author does not allow the accused to speak for themselves. He interprets their actions, often negatively, yet seldom listens to their own explanation and reasoning. The author of this book may have cataloged the history church practices. He definitely has not wrestled with the history of Christian thought behind those practices.
Then there is the emotionally charged language which at times makes the book's message hard to hear. His anger and vitriol seem ill-placed to say the least. Issues rarely framed in moral categories are here portrayed as the worst of evils.
For example, in chapter 6 Viola condemns "dressing up" for church. Okay, some parishioners do turn Sunday morning into a fashion show. He argues that God does not need care one whit what you wear to church. Fair enough. But then Viola does not know when to stop.
For Viola wearing your Sunday best "is a study in pretense that is dehumanizing and constitutes a false witness to the world." (p. 149)
Ladies, putting on your nice dresses to church is "a study in pretense," "a false witness" (that means that you are hypocrites) and even worse dressing up is "dehumanizing."
Good grief. Dehumanizing?
Pornography is dehumanizing. Auschwitz was dehumanizing. Human trafficking is dehumanizing. How does an individual or a family putting on formal clothing for an event that is important in their lives constitute an act that deprives them of human qualities? This is just one example, the shrill tone prevails throughout.
Perhaps the emotionalism is simply a marketing ploy. People listen when you are loud. Perhaps the author is genuinely upset about the issues he attacks so forcefully.
Still, his anger is misdirected. There is a place for righteous indignation. Christians can and should speak out forcefully against injustice, sin and evil. If he were attacking real wrongs, then the outrage would be justified.
Here, however the author uses the language of moral condemnation to denounce practices that are morally neutral. For Frank Viola, pulpits and the pastorate, steeples and sermons, choirs and church buildings are "postbibilical", "postapostolic,""polluted" and "pagan." In a word, these practices of Christianity as we know it are bad. It is not just that some pastors are bad, but rather that the institution of the pastorate itself is bad. It is not that some or many churches do wrong things. It is that the church as an organization is intrinsically wrong.
This zeal against form sounds more like Don Quixote than John the Baptist. It is hard to take such misguided overstatement serious.
The basic premise of this book implies an enormous degree of self-confidence. The proposition: everyone who came before us and indeed everyone outside of us is in error.
"The institutional church system and structure are not biblical."
God's people are enslaved and this book brings deliverance.
"It is because of our desire to see God's people set free that we have written this book." (p.251)
The authors see themselves as revolutionaries, following in the footsteps of Christ the revolutionary. (p. 244) They are happy that "fortunately more and more Revolutionaries today are catching that vision. They recognize that what is needed is a revolution within the Christian faith- a complete upheaval of those Christian practices that are contrary to biblical principle. We must begin all over again, on the right foundation." (p. 244)
George Barna has used the term "Revolutionary" countless times through the years in his various how-to books for Institutional Christianity. (Books that he continues to sell, by the way.) Every latest fad in the Evangelical world is billed as "revolutionary." Everybody is a revolutionary. Even Venezuela's Marxist president Hugo Chavez called himself a follower of "Christ, the first revolutionary." Frankly the term is cliché. The agendas it describes are worn-out and cheap baubles repackaged for the young, uninformed and impressionable.
Do we really need another revolution? In the past century we have seen more revolution than we know what to do with. For the past 40+ years the revolutionaries have had their way in our society. We have endured a revolution of morality, a revolution of authority, a revolution of epistemology. Now we do not know how to behave, what to believe, who is in charge or what the meaning of the word "is" is.
The social science experts have taught us well that the only creed we are to believe is that all truth is found in the self, severed from history and any higher authority. How many times before have we been told we must begin all over again,( and again and again) continually reinventing ourselves.
There is nothing more contemporary than to call "for a complete upheaval of Christianity" as we know it. There is nothing more misguided. What is most needed is not revolution but reformation. But that is another matter for another time.
Pagan Christianity suffers from a serious dose of hubris. The term refers to the presumptuous defiance of authority. The word is Greek and pagan, of course.
The Real Issue
In summary, the tone and style of the book seriously undermines its thesis.
However all of these errors in the book could be corrected yet the fundamental arguments still remain. These deeper arguments need to be clearly articulated and carefully examined. For it is these underlying assumptions that resonate with so many people and make books like this so popular.
The first argument involves the relationship between Christianity and Culture. The second, what is Christianity's relationship with tradition? Finally, how does Christianity relate to institutions? Behind all of these lay the deeper issue of authority, a matter of serious crises in the west. In the following posts I would like to examine each of these in more detail.