Welcome to “Pagan Week!” This week we’ll be hitting the themes in Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, and wrapping up the week by interviewing Frank Viola.
On the whole, the book sounds a lot more Frank than George. No surprise there, as it’s a reworking of some earlier material by Frank Viola and represents a long-time project for him. Knowing the subject matter in the book and the subject matter of this blog, it would be fair to conclude that I am going to land on the same page in most areas and quickly recommend the book. Not so fast… you’ll have to wait for the exciting conclusion for that. I do have some concerns with the book that give me pause. In most cases, these have less to do with the conclusions reached than the manner they are arrived at and the language with which they’re stated… but we’ll come to all that.
In the meantime, since this is the beginning of a brief series I would like to offer a caution against drawing a final conclusion on the book and its message until we actually get there, and particularly when we get to the interview with Frank and he addresses a few of the concerns I raise. In my discussion, I’m referring to an advance review copy, so the actual wording or page number in the final edition may vary slightly. Frank is already engaging some early objections and questions on his website, so further statements may be found there that deal with what I present here.
1. The Church’s Right to Exist. The early copy of the book contains a controversial statement that was softened in the version that went to press. The revised statement is as follows:
We are also making an outrageous proposal: that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does. This proposal, of course, is our conviction based on the historical evidence that we shall present in the book. You must decided if that proposal is valid or not. (page xx)
I don’t choke on this statement merely because it seems so brash, but because it begs the question whether the church needs the grant of a “right” to function as it does. I would suggest that it has historically been granted the civil right to function as it does, hence the statement is incorrect, at least in one sense. As for whether a biblical right has been granted, I would want to be cautious… the Bible grants precious few “rights” as we conceive of them at all, the chief of those being the power to become children of God (John 1:12). The bigger — and much more appropriate — question is whether the church has been given the grace to function as it does. In my mind as I read Frank’s preface, I was already not on board: the proposal is not valid because its premise is askew. Still, there is other material of value, and we will engage with it as we move along. This statement has gotten its share of attention, but we’re going to acknowledge it, question it, and then try to let it put us off the material that follows.
2. Back to First Century Christianity. Frank’s preface states his belief that the first century church was the church in its earliest, purest form, before it was tainted or corrupted. (p.xviii) He then goes on to describe the first century church as “organic,” which he describes as “a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions held together by religious programs. Organic churches are characterized by Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and nonhierarchical leadership.” (p.xix) One might be excused for feeling after reading this that the church should be expected to follow the customs and practices of the first century church and no other. The descriptor of the first-century church as the “purest form” stands without significant support. While it was certainly the “earliest” form, I don’t think it was necessarily the purest one in matters of its praxis. To equate “early” and “pure” too closely, you would end up with a Hellenistic church only, void of Gentiles… and herein lies one of the most important things to keep in mind when doing narrative theology. In essence, I’m not entirely agreed with the “let’s get back to the early church” mentality. There are habits and practices that need to be recovered and some that need to be discarded, but using the church of the first century as the sole model is to my mind an overidealization of the churth at that time, often combined with a failure to appreciate the changing context in which the Church finds herself.
3. Church and Culture. George’s preface makes quite plain that first century church praxis is not an absolute model. He writes, “Social and cultural shifts over the last two thousand years have made it impossible to imitate some of the lifestyle and religious efforts of the early church…. Therefore, adhering to the principles of the New Testament does not mean re-enacting the events of the first-century church.” (p.xxix) Very importantly, he adds,
Also, just because a practice is picked up from culture does not make it wrong in and of itself, though we must be discerning. As author Frank Senn notes, “We cannot avoid bringing our culture to church with us; it is a part of our very being. But in the light of tradition we need to sort out those cultural influences that contribute to the integrity of Christian worship from those that detract from it.”
I say “very importantly,” because as I moved past the introductory material and into chapter two, I did not find the same sentiment expressed. I rather imagine Frank would agree with it, but such agreement is not readily apparent in much of the language used.
4. “Pagan” and other Language. The first chapter attempts to explain: “While today we often use the word pagan to describe those who claim no religion whatsoever, to the early Christians, pagans were those polytheists who followed the gods of the Roman Empire.” (p.6) I tend to think that “pagan” may sometimes find its way into the book in a less technical sense, which renders it with simple pejorative effect. In these cases, I wish the word “secular” could have been (more correctly) used. I do not have an issue with the book’s title nor the technical use of the word as described… but the more the word appears, the more pejorative it becomes, and that is ultimately not helpful to the acceptance of the argument being built. Similarly, the book argues against referring to a building as “church” based on the meaning of the Greek word ekklesia. This is of course correct, but in the English language, the word “church” refers to a certain type of building, which is a simple and practical fact. Although correct, I wouldn’t put too fine a point on it. In defining “liturgy,” the Greek etymology is cited as one who performs a public task. (p.48), while those in the churches today who observe a formal liturgy will cite the definition, “the work of the people,” viz., worship. I myself can be a stickler for language, but in general I wouldn’t make a big issue of these matters except that here they are being offered up as part of the issue. In more than one case, it seemed somewhat to me that the Roman Catholic Church was being lumped under the heading of “pagan” — probably not what they intended. At least, I hope not: last time I checked, Rome was still monotheistic. In addition to the gratuitous use of the exclamation point, the book has a common habit of prefacing statements of fact with words like “tragically” and “regrettably”, which aren’t huge things until you add them up over the entire work and realize that a lot of these instances tend to characterize how you’re supposed to react to a piece of evidence upon which you haven’t yet made up your mind. In some ways, it’s a stylistic characteristic of Frank Viola in particular, and though I believe they aren’t supposed to be manipulative jabs, these are the sort of thing that tend to put me off in a way that the same things in verbal communication don’t tend to. (See Frank Viola meets Drew Marshall; Frank will comment on some of this in our interview on Friday.)
The Good Stuff. The book is well-researched and displays a wealth of footnotes for those who wish to pursue further some of the material being presented. Personally, I love a book with footnotes and a good index. In this case, I found myself wishing there were more content footnotes rather than just the citations, but publishers can be down on very many footnotes in general. I noted one omission I felt was glaring (which we’ll get to). In lieu of an index, the book has a list of significant figures in church history and a summary of origins for each chapter, stating the origin of each church practice discussed in that chapter. As I’ve already stated, this book challenges many of the practices which I myself have challenged in the virtual pages of this blog, and so I found an immediate sympathy in the objections being raised to many of the practices under examination.
Summary: Prolegomena. These first four points give a sense of my first objection to the book. It’s difficult to read certain parts of it when you feel as if you’re being drawn along to a conclusion you yourself haven’t reached. I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that it’s malicious, or even intentional, but the work does seems to use weasel words, the most obvious of course being the one in the title. The book’s presupposition that first century Christianity is the most “pure” form of Christian practice threatens its thesis for lack of defense. That said, the book does call into question many of our common practices today, and whether or not the first century church is idealized, today’s practices bear some scrutiny. Further discussion relative to the mutual influence between church and culture, or to skip to the appropriate ten-dollar term, the church and its Sitz im Leben, would be valuable. Here again, the lack of this material is an early threat to the book’s thesis, especially as much of the Biblical text from which conclusions are drawn will rely on narrative theology based, as we shall see, not only on the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles, but also on the practices of the church at various points in time through the centuries. Lastly, the book continually points out practices which are “unbiblical.” The question to ponder as we move through the rest of the material is this: is “unbiblical” the same as “anti-biblical”? That is, an automobile could be (and has been, by some) said to be “unbiblical” …but it is “anti-biblical” in any way?
Next: tomorrow’s installment is “Buildings & What Happens Inside.” As we begin digging into the specifics of the book, I will in large part be presenting a list of my discomforts with it, but also making an attempt to address in some small way a few of the church practices the book touches on which I feel need further scrutiny. Out of that, I hope we can have some good discussion in the comments section. In the meantime, what say you about the introductory material?