Now I understand.
Whenever I saw people review or even mention Frank Viola and George Barna's book Pagan Christianity, the reaction was pretty visceral. Having just finished it, now I understand. I can think of nothing more threatening to the churchy status quo than a book that tears apart piece by piece our most sacred traditions and exposes them as inventions of man that not only are not Biblical but actually hinder Biblical community and ministry.
What Barna and Viola have to say is nothing new to me and in many ways echoes what I have been thinking the last few years. They just put it more concisely and clearly and with a great deal more research than I do. I imagine that a lot of people will be put off by the title. What do you mean, pagan Christianity! This is how we do church and it is by the Bible! We follow the Regulative Principle of Worship after all! The reality is jarringly different, even for someone who long ago came to see institutionalized Christianity as what can only be called a perversion of the Biblical model of the church. The title is provocative but intentionally so and for a purpose.
I can hardly be effusive enough in my praise for this book. Barna and Viola go step by step through all of the traditions that we associate with "church" and dismantle the flimsy excuses for why we do what we do. Very little escapes their pen, from the oxymoronic "Christian tithing" to pews & pulpits to the entire clergy system. It is helpful to look at these trappings of "church" to see that they don't appear in Scripture, show where they came from and how they are culturally derived and finally why they impede Christian community.
There are some negatives. They use some of the same phrases over and over again ( ex. "knew nothing of"). They are smart guys, I am sure they could come up with some different ways to express their thoughts. Some of the footnotes were a little sketchy. I am a little leery of making bold statements footnoted by an email as the source. There are some pretty sweeping generalizations of things like vivid depictions of how the church met even though we have some pretty vague descriptions of the church meeting in Scripture. I found the weakest chapter near the end of the book, Reapproaching the New Testament: The Bible is not a jigsaw puzzle. I found the tone to be a bit haughty as if these two had figured out the key that has eluded Biblical interpreters through the centuries. I agree with some of their assessments but ironically one of their main beefs, i.e. proof-texting, happens a lot in the book with broad statements supported by a couple of parenthetical references to Scripture. I just found the tone to be a bit off-putting and the implications troubling. I will concede that the letters of Paul are only one side of the conversation but I think it is dangerous to try to "fill in the blanks" and make doctrinal statements based on what we think was going on. I am confident that the God who created all things ex nihilo is capable of preserving what we needed to have and He saw fit to not preserve the "other half" of the conversations of Paul with the various churches. I can see some people using these principles to chuck all sorts of Biblical truths in the name of cultural or situational anomalies that don't apply today.
The big question this book should leave the reader with is a simple one, but important. What do you do with this information? Do you seek a more faithful expression of the church, seek to live more like the first century church (not in terms of dressing in togas but in terms of living in a community of intentional witness to the world)? Or do you toss up your hands and go back to the Scripturally unsupportable model of church that dominates our cultural landscape? I am not sure what I would have done a few years ago (besides not read this book in the first place!). I really wonder what men who have invested enormous time and money into vocational ministry who read this with an open mind do with it. Do they leave "the ministry"? Do they explain it away or compartmentalize it and go on as before?
I would encourage, even challenge, those who are defenders of traditional church structures to read Pagan Christianity and see if our most cherished traditions have any basis in Scripture at all or if they are, as argued in this book, inventions of a pagan culture that sought to Christianize their pagan practices.
What if you found out that the most cherished traditions of your church were actually working against being faithful to the Bible? What would you do?