Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Review: Pagan Christianity

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?


Jason Anspach said...

I haven't read this yet, but it's on the list. One critique I've heard over & again is that the authors completely discount or ignore the influence of the OT in worship & ignore the correlations to the synagogue system the church modeled itself after. Did you see similar?

Arthur Sido said...


There is not a ton about the OT worship patterns in the book. The focus is really in the NT witness. I would agree with the authors in this emphasis in that it seems that using the synagogue system leapfrogs from the OT to the traditional church with very little attention paid to what the NT has to say about the church. You should definitely read it, it is not terribly long and you could probably knock it out in a weekend if you had the time.

Eric said...


I was greatly challenged by this book as well. The information is shocking and almost overwhelming. I do wish that it had been written in a bit more gracious tone, but nevertheless the data is amazing.

I wrote a review of this book back in April of this year. It is interesting to read through the comments. Three pastor friends of mine (you can tell who they are by their comments) commented against this book. Interestingly, they gave very little-to-no biblical data to support their complaints.

This book is a direct threat to the modern clergy system in this country. It's no wonder many traditional church pastors do not like Pagan Christianity at all.

Here is the link to my review and the comments:

Arthur Sido said...


I remember reading your review but I missed all of the comments afterward to my chagrin. I find that a lot of people refer me to "Why We Love The Church" as if that is the end all and be all of defending the traditional institutional church. You and I both read and reviewed it and found it wanting. I don't think it is a stretch to say that if "WWLTC" is the best defense of the institutional church out there, the institutional church is in worse shape than I thought.

So I am curious, some four months after reading Pagan Christianity, what are you feeling led to do about what you read?

Eric said...


It is amazing how much we think alike. It's almost freaky sometimes considering that we haven't ever met.

I'm going to avoid your question just a bit for now. Suffice it to say that I'll be answering it through my actions (which I'll write about on my blog) very clearly within the next month or so. Thanks for asking!

Noel Giger said...

Another one for my list! I've just finished "The Irresistable Revolution" and am reading "Blue Like Jazz". I'm curious if you've read/reviewed either of those?

Arthur Sido said...


I haven't read either one. You can probably find Pagan Christianity at your library, that is where I got it although I might buy a used copy at some point.

Mark said...

I think Ben Witherington's response to this book is the best. You can find the links here.

Arthur Sido said...


Thanks for the links!

Witherington's review is certainly lengthy and peppered with appeals to his expertise. I have to say that I found his criticisms to be fairly uninspiring. The big issue is that in reading the New Testament and holding what we see up to the institutional church, we don't see anything similar at all. As I mentioned in my intro, I came to many of the same conclusions about the institutional church on my own. PC merely reinforced what I had already come to realize.

Mark said...


You said, "The big issue is that in reading the New Testament and holding what we see up to the institutional church, we don't see anything similar at all."

You seriously do not see "anything similar" in local churches?

Along the same thought, would you say that you see an exact representation of New Testament churches in today's house churches?

Arthur Sido said...


I posted my reply in the form of a post:

Can I ask, have you read Pagan Christianity in its entirety or are you relying on a review from someone else?

Alan Knox said...

While you're reading Witherington's review, you may also want to read John Zen's response here: