“Pagan Week” carries on — this week I’m working through Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. If you’ve been following along, I know that you’ll be expecting to be reading an interview with Frank Viola in this space today, but I’m changing things up just a bit — Pagan Week is going to be held over. The conversation I had with Frank was excellent, and he provided a lot of material in his responses… good stuff, clarifying stuff. I didn’t want to cut anything, so the conversation will be split over a couple of posts… and it didn’t seem right to have a whole weekend between parts one and two, so the conversation will be posted starting Monday. In the meantime, we’re going to look today at three parts of the book I hadn’t planned on covering because they’re not part of the book. But in a sense, they are.
11. Four Dimensions of the Church. The Pagan Christianity Website offers a downloadable bonus chapter on the church, in which Frank Viola explains that the church should be functioning in each of four dimensions, communion, corporate display, community life, and commission. Only three of these align directly with Rick Warren’s five purposes of the church; Warren omits corporate display and has instead discipleship and service. To a large degree, these differences hinge on the two authors’ differing view of church praxis, with Viola proposing what he terms “organic” or open-participatory gatherings rather than the traditional format of church meetings we have inherited. In addition, it may be further noted that whether one distills the “purpose” of the church down to three or six or some other multiple, the short descriptions most often differ simply by categorization. For example, is spiritual formation covered under the heading of “communion” or under “discipleship”? Then too, there are other approaches that distill the church’s purpose down to a single element… I like how Mark Allan Powell put it, “The mission of the church is to love Jesus. Everything else is just strategy.” The bonus chapter is quite brief and knowingly represents only an introduction to a much larger topic — but it does provide some further thoughts on a subject that the book as released brushes up against, but really cannot delve into in any great detail. As can be inferred from the book, the headship of Christ and the priesthood of all believers feature as prominant themes in this chapter.
12. Discussion Guide. The Pagan Christianity Website also makes a discussion guide available for download. If there’s one thing that Pagan Christianity is good at, it’s starting a discussion. Some of those have been less than civil, less than focused, and less than helpful, but that aside, the discussion guide is a good idea for group use. The guide offers between three and six questions for each chapter, each designed to get people thinking through some of the questions the book will spark. Certain questions may not elicit much discussion in some groups, while others may draw participants into extended discussions as they consider them and defend or deconstruct current practices… or reimagine what those could be, and why. Anyone planning to use the book in a group context should obtain the discussion questions — 5 pages, and free.
13. “Answers.” Frank Viola is answering questions and objections to the book. This page is also a repository of links to other reviews and interviews should anyone want to find further discussion and opinion on the book. Understandably (and I didn’t check all the links) I think most of the linked reviews tend to be balanced or positive rather than negative… at least, the comments from Bob Hyatt’s series and Michael Spencer’s humour or Robbymac’s review and hockey fight comments aren’t on the list, nor is Darryl Dash’s review for Next-Wave. These sources will provide an overview of some of the criticism of the book, though Darryl Dash’s article is the least inflamatory negative review I’ve seen. I would almost not call it a negative review, as he writes, “This book threatens a lot that pastors and churches hold dear. But that shouldn’t scare us. If they’re right, it doesn’t matter what it threatens. This book has to be evaluated on the evidence and the strength of its arguments, not on how much it will cost us if they’re right.” He goes on to offer a series of questions that he would prefer have been asked along the same themes… in other words, regardless of whether Viola and Barna make their case convincingly in this book or whether the language is too harsh, the discussion itself is valid. It’s just that it should be a slightly broader discussion than has been inferred by many who have read the book. For my part, I inferred the same thing — but I don’t think it’s what the authors intended. I touched on some of that yesterday and it’ll come up in my conversation with Frank next week.
As for the rest of the “answers” page, a lot of the questions relate to matters which people are commonly raising in response to the book, and some of my own objections ore questions, like the word “unbiblical” and the charge that they have used overstatements. Frank also addresses the impression that he is the only one “doing church right” and the understanding that anything of non-biblical (pagan) origin is inherently bad. A number of other questions are addressed, and in many of these cases the objections represent reactions to something that the authors are not saying, or didn’t mean to say… certainly to views they apparently don’t hold. More than anything else, I think this underscores the statement I made earlier in this series that the book is very prone to being misunderstood.
Whether it’s through writing style or simply related to the fact that most of us have some emotional investment in the subject matter at hand (or both), the point is that they aren’t saying most of the things that draw the strongest reactions. They are often misunderstood. I began to see this in glancing through the questions and answers earlier and in another interview I heard with Frank. I have to say, I have had more than my own fair share of being misuderstood — a 20-year friend told my wife not long ago that I was, in fact, prone to being misunderstood, and a lot of people do misunderstand me. As frustrating as that is, maybe some of us are just like that. This realization in no small part made me want to engage with Frank directly and have a conversation about some of these matters. I thought I would put some of my questions and objections to him directly, and also just see where the conversation took us so that I could understand his heart a bit better and see if it aligned with the impression that the book left. And I have to say, I appreciate Frank more following the conversation than when it began — and you’ll all get to eavesdrop starting Monday.
In the meantime, what do you think about the mixed reactions and alternate reviews that are out there? I’ve got friends on both sides of this one, but the biggest thing I might say at the moment is to direct people to the explanatory statements that Frank makes on his answers page (and in our conversation) when they hit some of the objectionable material in the book. What say you all?