Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices “Pagan Week” continues — this week I’m working through Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. If you want to see what you missed, you can catch up with the prolegomena followed by and yesterday’s installment, Pagan Christianity III: Pastors, Tithes, & Sacraments. Today we wrap up the direct interaction with the book as we deal with Christian Education, the New Testament, & Pagan Conclusions.

9. Christian Education (Chapter Ten) & Reapproaching the New Testament (Chapter Eleven). In a section on the youth pastor, the origin of the term “teenager” is given as the 1940s and credited for creating a distinct youth subculture.

Today, youth pastors are part of the professional clergy. Their position is built on the contemporary church’s misguided choice to honor a division that was born in secular culture less than a century ago—namely, the division between teenager and everyone else. Put another way, the youth pastor did not exist until a separate demographic group called teenagers emerged. In so doing, we created a problem that never before existed—what to do for (and with) the young people. (p.214-215)

No discussion is given of the alternate conclusion that the term and the resulting response to this demographic group is merely a recognition of the distinct needs of young people transitioning from youth into adulthood… a transition whose nature has unarguably changed over time, specifically before and after the Second World War, as noted in the book. In other words, recognizing and naming is not the same as creating the distinction. Once identified, it is common missiological practice today to identify a people group born in secular culture and reach into it with the Gospel message, contextualizing as may need be. On this basis, one response has been the advent of the “youth pastor.” In this case, despite the secular (not necessarily pagan) origin of the term “teenager,” the youth pastor is merely a practical response.

Plato and Aristotle are called “the fathers of contemporary Christian education” because Christian education is “built on the Platonic idea that knowledge is the equivalent of moral character” (p.215). The thought is continued with “a biblical metaphor” that Christian education is serving food from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than the tree of life, again citing Watchman Nee for support in a footnote (p.216). Much criticism is made of education by knowledge transfer as being a model born of secular culture, with an argument for the model of Jesus… though he in fact made use of the common model of his day without apparent regard to its origins. Here again, in my mind the origins are of less concern than the fact that the educational model may be lacking — indeed, I agree that knowledge impartation should certainly be second to genuine spiritual formation, and that in many cases, we settle for the former in the absence of the latter.

In discussing what is referred to as a “clipboard” approach to the New Testament, it is noted that Jesus did not “send” the apostles in the great commission, which is viewed as a prophecy and not a command. (p.236-7) The authors write, “The net effect of the clipboard approach is tragic. It has produced a raft of present-day churches that have no scriptural basis upon which to exist. (We speak of the institutional church as we know it today.) But more, it has generated scores of mechanical pro forma ‘house churches’ that are lifeless, colorless, and sterile.” Here is an interesting turn, where house churches are also drawn into the circle of critique as well as the institutional church. It is well to level the charge widely, as none are immune to certain of these criticisms. As well, it is important to note that in this it can be suggested that the authors are not arguing for a specific form of church practice as protecting from all ills.

On the subject of church planting, “If you count all the churches mentioned in the New Testament, you’ll find about thirty-five. Every one of them was either planted or aided by a traveling church planter who preached only Christ. There are no exceptions. The church was raised up as a result of the apostolic presentation of Jesus Christ.” (p.238) “The pattern of extra-local workers planting and helping a church pervades the entire New Testament. And it is one that is deeply rooted in divine principle.” (p.239) This is in fact an argument from silence: the New Testament talks about the churches planted by the central figures in the New Testament — the apostles. Unless one were to assert that every church which existed in the first century is in fact named in the New Testament, the “no exception” is an argument from silence, and therefore has no weight. We simply don’t have a comprehensive data set. On this point, it would seem that it does make a difference in the practical outworking of the principles being drawn.

10. Concluding Sections. The reason for the book is stated plainly near the end: “In short, it is because of our love for the church and our desire to see God’s people set free that we have written this book. And it is our hope that God will use it to help change the course of church history.” (p.251). I don’t doubt the former, but the latter is a pretty tall order for any book. The ultimate intentions of the author are important to bear in mind, so hold that thought while we finish up with the material in the book.

The institutional church is likened to the carrying of the Ark of the Covenant on a wooden cart in 2 Samuel 6. David’s error it is explained, “was that they didn’t ‘inquire of him about how to [worship] in the prescribed way’ (1 Chronicles 15:13, NIV).” It is difficult to tell how far the indictment against the institutional church is to be carried, but it seems that it would not be out of line to infer that the authors are saying that its form fails to worship God as he has prescribed, and may therefore be in some manner outside of his grace and subject to judgment. Or we could be misreading…

This in fact brings us to one of the more significant observations about the book: I think it is in several ways overly prone to being misunderstood. Some see in it a call for radical reformation of a system of which they are a part, or in which they are deeply invested. In this sense, it’s a threat. It need not be assumed that the threat is the end of a pastoral salary; it may equally be a threat to perceived stability by a parishioner facing the upset of a familiar system. Calls for radical change will often be met with deeply emotional responses. The language used in the book can heighten this for some, while others may read the same words in a completely innocuous way. Knowing the authors’ intent is helpful in not misinterpreting the words or the tone. My review has been critical at points, yet I am aware that at some of these I may be misreading the authors’ intended message. At other points, I found it necessary to consider the matter from different angles to be certain I was gleaning what was intended rather than what I first understood was being said.

In particular, as I reviewed Frank Viola’s responses to some of the questions I posed during our interview, I saw a slightly different side. More casual perhaps, but we were able to address some of the points which I felt needed further clarification. In the dialogue of course, I gained a greater appreciation of Frank’s heart, which helped form a “lens” through which to view some of the statements in the book that seemed brash or overreaching or under-addressed. Initially, my main frustration with the book was with some of the language which seemed to be guiding my reactions. Later on, my main frustration became the fact that certain subjects weren’t developed further than they were in support of the thesis. Thinking through those points though, most of them represent issues that are at the periphery of the book’s main argument. In fact, even where stronger arguments exist for the re-examination of certain practices, it makes sense in this light that those are not developed if it is understood that the book’s thesis has to do with the origins of our Christian practices rather than with the argument that these all need to be changed. In the process of sticking to the book’s thesis, information is omitted that would help avert some of the misunderstanding, but on the other hand an overall maximum length must be established as a practicality of publishing.

One example would be the statement that God’s highest purpose is community, so mission exists for the church (p.81-82). I was ready at this point to simply say that the book is non-missional, but my conversation with Frank offered a further explanation of the purpose of the church that is more in line with missional theory. In my initial review post, I asked the question earlier whether “unbiblical” is the same as anti-biblical. In actual fact they are not — but the authors are not saying that they are. The point is that some of our practices are not entirely rooted in the Bible… and do with that information what you will, but don’t ascribe an origin that isn’t there. Are suspect origins beyond redemption? It is more likely that many of them are amoral and as such don’t need “redemption” in that sense.

So do the authors make their case? I would have to say that it is not convincingly made in all quarters, but overall it does present enough to shake loose some cobwebs and demand a closer look. As for the final verdict, I try to ask who I would recommend a book to rather than if I would recommend it. There are a few I wouldn’t recommend at all and some I would recommend to anyone, but it helps me to frame the question this way. I would not recommend Pagan Christianity to a Roman Catholic who was happy as a Roman Catholic. I would recommend it to someone beginning to question some of the practices of the church and where they came from, or to people in the midst of detox or just coming out of it. A caution for this latter group would be offered with my recommendation not to read some of the book’s language as an attack on the institutional church, but to try and simply look at the material being offered for evaluation. As an introductory look at the history of may of the practices of the evangelical church, i would say it hits its mark.

Tomorrow I will publish the first part of my interview with Frank Viola. As things turned out, the conversation was longer than a single post (even around here), and there’s enough good stuff that it didn’t seem right just to cut a big portion of it… so the interview will be in two or three parts. In the meantime, does my explanation of why the book is getting strong reactions strike a chord? I’ve got friends who are quite happy with the book and friends who are extremely unhappy with it… am I striking a balance, and is that even the right response?

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