“Pagan Week” has been held over in view of the extended conversation I’ve had with Frank Viola, which turned out not to be a brief one-post interview after all. We got into some pretty big questions, which help frame a deeper understanding of his latest book on which he collaborated with George Barna. My review of Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices ran all of last week, during which I voiced a number of concerns with the book and pointed out some strong points. In the end, the biggest caveat with the book is that it’s overly prone to being misunderstood, but can be recommended as a good discussion-starter: just don’t mistake it for an attempt to provide comprehensive answers on each subject it addresses. In no small part, this conclusion fueled my desire to have a conversation with Frank around the book itself. As we did with my Interview with Paul Young (Author of The Shack), the conversation was conducted via email, and I’ve stitched it together in this format. As I said before, just imagine we’re all sitting around a table in your favorite independent local coffee shop. Frank and I converse for a bit, but you’ll get your comments in edgewise a little further on — for now, grab that latte you ordered, pull up an extra chair and pass the biscotti.
Bro.M. Frank, thanks for agreeing to this — I always enjoy connecting around some of these subjects.
Frank: Thanks for the opportunity to dialogue. I’m a fan of your blog so this is particularly encouraging for me.
Bro.M. Great! So tell me something of your background, your journey to this point. You’ve published a number of books already and been engaged in the house church movement for some time now, isn’t that right?
Frank: I spent thirteen years in the institutional church, traversing many different denominations. I think I counted 13 different brands of church, from CMA, Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Episcopalian, Mennonite, AOG, COG, to virtually every stripe and flavor of charismatic Christianity. Add to that 5 parachurch organizations and dozens of church-sponsored Bible studies. I was intensely involved in many of the above. And as I say in the book, I owe my salvation and my baptism to the institutional church. God has used it in my life as He has in the lives of countless others.
But in 1988, I dropped out. I gave it up for Lent. :-)
The reasons are complex. But in short, I was hungry for Jesus Christ, I was bored with church services, and I had grown weary of much of what I had seen in the churches I was a part of. I also had trouble connecting much of what went on to what I read about in the New Testament, particularly the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. To my mind, there was a disconnect between them and my church experiences.
That said, myself and a few others who also left the organized church began meeting around Jesus Christ in a simple way. At the time, we had no idea what we were doing, and we had no idea that others had forged similar paths before us. Looking back, I believe we were following our spiritual instincts. We Christians have a spiritual instinct to fellowship around Jesus Christ in a simple, relational way. As time went on, we discovered a church-life experience that I never knew existed. I call it “the organic expression of the church,” a term that owes heavily to T. Austin-Sparks.
In short, that experience wrecked me. I found Jesus Christ in depths that I never knew existed, and I found the experience of His Body in ways I never imagined.
Bro.M. I find I’m meeting a lot of people with very similar stories about an exodus from the institutional church. A lot of us value the background, but for one reason or another don’t want to be part of the institution anymore… so we’re all in good company! Is when you were drawn into the house church movement, then?
Frank: While I often speak at house church conferences, I wouldn’t classify myself as a “house church” proponent. There’s too much diversity in the movement. Some elements I agree with; others I do not. The movement also puts the emphasis on the wrong thing — the house. Meeting in a home doesn’t make a group of Christians a church anymore than meeting in a donut shop makes them police officers. (No offense to police officers. Sorry cousin Joey!) I trust you get my point. There’s nothing magical about meeting in a home. That’s not the issue.
I think the same can be said about the “emerging church” movement or conversation (depending on what one wishes to label it). Many of the leaders in the emerging church are good friends of mine. I agree with certain elements of it; others I do not.
What drives me is the Lord Jesus Christ and the experience of His beloved Bride. I’ve made the discovery that Christ can only be known in the depths when His people live in a face-to-face community that’s centered on Him. Perhaps that’s not always the case; there are no doubt exceptions (Jeanne Guyon is one who comes to mind). But it’s been my experience and observation that this is generally the case. We were built to love Him, know Him, experience Him, and express Him in community, not as an individual. And that’s what ekklesia is all about. So it seems to me anyway. To put it another way, I believe in a deep ecclesiology.
Bro.M. I like the observation about not emphasizing the house — it’s the same argument as not emphasising the “church building,” which is consistent with the church being the people of God, the Bride. “Deep ecclesiology” is one of those terms we’re starting to see more of, so thanks for the link to your article on it — it saves me a followup question! So what led up to this book? It’s been a long-time project for you, if I understand correctly. Tell me something about that, and about George Barna’s involvement.
Frank: Since the late ’90s, I’ve written a number of self-published books that represent my very imperfect attempt to explain what I’ve discovered and experienced in the way of church life. All of those books, with the exception of “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church,” have been revised, expanded, and re-written. “Pagan Christianity” is the first of those revisions. Others will follow.
This one took me about four years to write. The research was rather difficult, especially the footnoting. The original edition came out in 2002 and was released without an editor. (Gulp.) Consequently, what I thought to be humorous and witty comments were taken by some people to be strident and inflammatory. An editor pointed this out to me and for that I’m grateful. Those statements were removed from the new version.
One of the motivations for writing the book was to encourage Christians to rethink their church experience. To question their cherished traditions. To ask questions that few Christian seem to be asking. And to give God’s people permission to experiment with new forms and expressions of the church which are faithful to Scripture.
When one realizes that much of what we’re doing today has no root in the Word of God, it has a liberating effect. We are free to pursue the Lord corporately in fresh and creative ways.
Bro.M. That makes good sense — the result should be freedom, not just a different set of constraints.
Frank: My outstanding motivation is for the headship of Jesus Christ. Right or wrong, that’s where my burden lies, and I’m quite jealous about it — His headship that is. I also have a lot of confidence in God’s people if they are equipped and turned loose to express the Lord in creative ways. Ways that stand outside the box and color outside the lines. My experience of organic church life ruined me, and I believe that deep down inside, every Christian longs for it. “Pagan Christianity,” for us at least, is designed to clear away some of the debris that we believe keeps us from experiencing what God desires all of His children to experience.
Anyway, George read the original version and wanted to publish it to get a wider audience. He went through the old manuscript and did a good deal of revising. He also contributed some new chapters, so the second swing was a collaborative effort, and it made the book much better.
While all the rhetoric in the first edition that caused some folks to have seizers have been removed, I’m told that some people are flipping out about the style. This is confusing to us because most of the feedback we’ve gotten has been on how gracious the spirit is behind the book. One man, a pastor of many years, said it was written “pastorally,” and leads people by the hand.
A friend of mine who is part of the emerging church conversation made an interesting observation. He said that when people hear a radical message that’s not just advocating tweeking the present system, but actually challenging its structural integrity and advocating a complete overhaul of it — and doing so confidently instead of insipidly — some confuse that with unsavory rhetoric and will attack the writing style.
I’m not sure. I’ll simply say that we didn’t write the book in the style of an arm-chair scholar. It’s not a book disseminating sterile historical information. I’m someone who lives and breathes for the church of Jesus Christ. This incredible Christ has overwhelmed my life. And she, the ekklesia, is my passion. Therefore, the writing style and message is not just aimed at the frontal lobe, but at the heart, the spirit, and the conscience. There’s passion and energy behind the book. For better or for worse, that passion is rooted in a jealousy for the centrality, supremacy, and headship of Jesus Christ and the freedom of His beloved Bride. That doesn’t make me infallible in my conclusions; it just means that these issues have moved from my head to my heart. (I agree with N.T. Wright when he said that about 1/3 of what I’m telling you is probably not correct. But I don’t know which 1/3 it is.)
Bro.M Frank, I’ve got to confess that I struggled with the writing style a little as well — you probably saw that in my review. Ultimately I concluded that the issues are emotionally-charged, as we’re all invested to some degree in the ways we’ve practiced our expressions of church. To shake that up can be quite disorienting! I love that perspective from N.T. Wright as well. I’ve heard Brian McLaren use it also, and it’s a beautfully humbling posture for us when we can keep it at the forefront of our opinions. I have a cynical, sarcastic wit at times and I’m a writer as well, so I’ve been misunderstood with some of the things I’ve said and written — so I can sympathize.
Frank: Brennan Manning is an incredible writer. I once (very literally) sat at his feet and asked him while he was seated: “As a more seasoned writer giving advice to a less seasoned writer, what is the most important piece of advice you can give me?”
His answer — “If it doesn’t move you, throw it in the trash can. If it moves you, write it!”
Underneath the content of “Pagan Christianity” is what for me has been a breathtaking and electrifying vision of Christ and His church. And that vision burns within me still. It comes through the book at times as well as through my spoken ministry.
I’ve noticed that people who are used to objective-seminary-professor-styled-even-toned lectures often find fiery-preachers who have an emotional edge a turn-off. When I heard Brennan Manning preach at a conference workshop last year, a few people didn’t like the fact that he raised his voice while he preached nor the absolute way in which he talked about God. Most loved it, however, and they were mesmerized by the passion in his spirit. The same thing happened when I first heard Tony Campolo many years ago. He yelled, beat the podium, and gave an impassioned, fiery, high-pitched message about Jesus and the poor. Many were turned off by the style, thinking him an angry man. Others were moved greatly.
It seems we’re all drawn to different styles. But I think it’s counterproductive to impute base motives to a person whose style we don’t like, whether in print or in speech.
I appreciate the words of A.W. Tozer on this score:
If Christianity is to receive a rejuvenation it must be by other means than any now being used. If the church in the second half of [the twentieth] century is to recover from the injuries she suffered in the first half, there must appear a new type of preacher. The proper, ruler-of-the-synagogue type will never do. Neither will the priestly type of man who carries out his duties, takes his pay and asks no questions, nor the smooth-talking pastoral type who knows how to make the Christian religion acceptable to everyone. All these have been tried and found wanting. Another kind of religious leader must arise among us. He must be of the old prophet type, a man who has seen visions of God and has heard a voice from the Throne. When he comes (and I pray God there will not be one but many) he will stand in flat contradiction to everything our smirking, smooth civilization holds dear. He will contradict, denounce and protest in the name of God and will earn the hatred and opposition of a large segment of Christendom.
Some recent movements in the Christian faith appear to be opposed to the kind of ministry-style that Tozer is speaking of, equating it somehow with arrogance and dogmatism, while others are captivated and changed by it.
Related question: Peter exhorts God’s people when they minister to “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). That’s a text worth discussing, I think.
On another note, it’s fascinating to me how much attention this book is getting now that George’s name is on it. It’s like Frank Viola didn’t exist before Barna… except in major league baseball of course :-) Maybe I should return to pitching!
(Disclaimer: I’m actually not the MLB pitcher of the same name (head drop). People confuse us all the time. I have been trying to swap jobs with the other Frankie V. for a while now, but he continues to decline for some reason. Sigh.)
Bro.M. Well, don’t give up on either career! I gather the reaction to the book has been mixed, to say the least. Some of the endorsements are pretty glowing, but I think I actually saw someone call you guys “antichrists” the other day. Are you surprised by this? What’s been the strongest reaction or criticism?
Frank: The overwhelming response to the book has been incredibly positive. We get encouraging letters constantly from readers.
As would be expected, the main criticisms seem to be coming from people who are invested in the institutional church somehow. I’m told that the book is making Reformed ministers scream and Fundamentalist pastors break out into apoplectic fits. As for the strongest reaction, I’ve been getting hate mail from Quakers and bodily threats from the Amish. Does that count? :-)
From what I’ve seen, some critics of the book are incredibly articulate. They are highly gifted writers — the kind of people you’d love to have in your corner if you were under attack. It’s been reported that at least half the reviews are by people who didn’t read the book or surface-skimmed it. (Interestingly, a friend of mine recently made the observation that “Pagan Christianity is the most reviewed book by those who haven’t read it.”)
Frank: The main argument being made by those who haven’t read it and/or who have skimmed it is that George and I are saying that everything that has pagan roots is wrong. That’s not our argument at all, and we state this in the book numerous times. But I suppose it’s a lot more fun (or effective in misleading others) by using straw-man arguments to discredit the book.
I had the privilege of speaking at a recent Emerging Church conference last weekend with Shane Claiborne and others, and I was encouraged by so many emergent folks who expressed appreciation for the book. A large number of the folks there, mostly in their 20s and 30s, also expressed deep appreciation for the message I delivered, expressing how much it impacted them. (I gave an abbreviated talk from my book “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church” with a focus on an indwelling Christ.) Their positive feedback was both humbling and encouraging. Many of God’s people are hungering for a deeper experience of their Lord. I see it everywhere I go. Some of these folks lamented the fact that several emerging church bloggers have used the exact same tactics that John MacArthur used against my friend Brian McLaren’s work in his book, “Truth War.” This disappointed them monumentally. I’m thankful that most of my friends in the emerging church love the book and are supporting it.
Someone recently observed that some Christians “have pointed a pious finger at Constantine’s influence on Christianity with respect to the nation-state while benightedly approving his unwholesome influence on church structure, ritual, and leadership.” It’s my observation that over the last 50 years, countless books have been written to try and reform the institutional church. Those books have been well received for the most part. Most of them talk about how pastors should give better sermons, how they should operate in a less-business-like fashion, how they should lead the flock more effectively, how they should pray more, how they should and can avoid getting “sheep-bite,” etc. etc. etc. Elton Trueblood said, “The basic trouble [with the modern church] is that the proposed cure has such a striking similarity to the disease.”
Bro.M Now there’s a phrase we could camp out on for a while, something to let sink in. But you’re proposing changes — or “cures” if that’s not overstating — that consist of much more fundamental changes.
Frank: George and I have come out with a book that doesn’t advocate repairing the system or tweeking the structure. Our position is that the modern pastoral office (the clergy system) just may be one of the major problems. (I think I heard dozens of computers shut off just now :-)
The book suggests that for too long we’ve been treating the symptoms and have failed to go to the roots. But this approach is unthinkable in the minds of many Christians. Our traditions are entrenched and even deified. J.C. Ryle put it best when he said, “Experience supplies painful proof that traditions once called into being are first called useful, then they become necessary. At last they are too often made idols, and all must bow down to them or be punished.” Or perhaps Dresden James said it better: “A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. It wasn’t the world being round that agitated people, but that the world wasn’t flat. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.”
Despite the fact that some don’t like the message, we by conscience stand with the evidence, because that’s where it has led us. Obviously, we could be wrong. At the same time, we wish that God’s people would be open to the possibility that our conclusions just may be correct. I stand with John Howard Yoder’s critique when he said, “The whole concern of Reformation theology was to justify restructuring the organized church without shaking its foundations.” “Pagan Christianity” seeks to shake some of its foundations.
By the way, while we’re on the subject of name-calling, I don’t usually fancy people defending me. I have a friend who wrote me recently and said, “Frankie V., I saw this guy on a blog say that you were a heretic, that you are not a Christian, and that you are a poor writer. I want you to know that I defended you… I told him that you are a good writer!” :-) At the same time, what Martin Luther King Jr. said is right on: “It’s not the words of our enemies that we remember the most; it’s the silence of our friends.”
Bro.M Well Frank, my raving-lunatic friend, I need to pause for a coffee refill. Can I get you one as well? What about the rest of you — what do you think about the controversy around the book, and the way that we deal with intra-faith critique? Wait, maybe that’s a good term, something we forget… intra- rather than extra- or inter-faith. What do you think?
(We’ll continue the interview tomorrow, after we’ve refilled our coffee cups!)