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Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity and the obsession with perfection
Hey! For the first time ever, someone famous commented on my blog. One of the authors of the book, Frank Viola, clarified some things that I now include in the post.
I’m looking forward to the start of seminary this fall. I got accepted to Palmer Theological Seminary and I am looking to earn a Master of Divinity. I feel blessed and fortunate at the chance to do it. It will be a serious commitment—my goal is to take about two classes a semester. We’ll see if that’s even possible! But one thing is for sure, couples with the courses and the reading and homework, my time for personal reading will be limited. But as Rod often points out to me, “leaders are readers.” So I want to keep my nose in a book all the time.
The pile of books on my desk seems to be getting longer, so as of late, I’ve decided to spent some time knocking a few out. The first one? Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna. I’m about halfway through the book as we speak and I might be ready to put it down.
The book’s premise is basic: leaders in the Church often say they are doing everything “by the Book.” That is, we want our actions to be Biblical, explicitly rooted in the Bible. This is the Evangelical mantra. I’m unsure that that statement, by itself, is even “by the Book.” Nevertheless, Viola and Barna present argument after argument as to why the modern church isn’t remotely Biblical and that the majority of the customs and traditions we’ve established are the result of outside cultural influence. The duo doesn’t leave any stoned unturned: the church building, the order of worship, the sermon, the pastor, music, tithing, salaries, baptism, seminaries, and so on. All of those topics are deconstructed, and an alternative that conforms to their fundamental premise dominates. A better question is whether such deconstruction is Biblical at all. Whether bibliolatry is something Jesus wants us to do. I'm not sure Barna and Viola are bibliolatrists necessarily--since theyossilates between things being "Biblical" (whether they are in the text of the Bible) or "Christian" (presumably, whether Jesus taught them or they are in the New Testament, depending on what matches his argument). I don't mind determining what is best, and I don't think we should be following rules to do that, but the premise is based on some modernistic rationality, and because of that, it is less convincing when he goes off that path.
I think we need to be wary of the negative influence the culture has on us, but I think an extensive effort to deconstruct what’s become the modern church is a little self-involved. The pair have good points and research their material well, that’s for sure. But the idea that "organic expression of the church" does it right, and the rest are doing it wrong, is the mess that got us into this in the first place. Everybody thinks they are doing it the right way. The examples the authors use are also limited to suburban Protestantism; in almost every case, I know of many churches, Circle of Hope included, that do it alternatively. I suppose the point of the book is to expose the truth that not everything in the Western Protestant Church is "neutral" or explicitly "by the Book." That's a noble endeavor, but I think the text overreached. Frank told me that the book wasn't supposed to offer solutions, and a better book that does that is Reimagining Church.
Using the premise, let’s ponder whether it is fundamentally wrong to be influenced by something other than the Bible? I’m not so sure. Paul tells us simply to be all things to all people. Although I’m not sure the so-called pagan influence of the Church occurred to reach out to those who were used to that culture, it wouldn’t be so bad if that were a reason. We need to adapt to our culture in order to help people follow Jesus.
I hope that is the reason behind everything that we do in the church. The idea is that there is an ideal standard that we need to conform to is just too perfectionistic for me. If we all we do is deconstruct, what will we build up? I want to change the world, not just navel gaze all day.
Sure the first, second, and third-century Christians did it in one way. It’s important to read the Bible through first-century eyes. But why ignore the positive influence of cultures that have come after that one? Especially for mission?
For one thing, Jesus didn’t write anything down. So why is Viola? Second, there is a lot of progress that has occurred since the Bible was written. We should incorporate all that’s good. All that builds up. Not all that conforms to some standard that may not even be Biblical by itself.
I might be defensive when I read the text because Viola and Barnra are criticizing many of things that I strategically use. With that said, I’m not sure they are building up so much (the follow up to the book apparently does this better). With that said, the book is a valuable read if you think anything that we do today in the church is “sacred.” There are numerous problems with how we do church including glorifying the sermon, over-burdening the pastor (the pastor often does this to herself), over-emphasizing our buildings and how we dress, too much importance placed on higher education. All of these things need to be considered, retooled, and made into something new. That is for sure.
Ultimately, I want to be ready to do what’s next, not argue about what was. There are many things that the Ancient Church did that I don't want to copy! Ultimately, and I think the authors would agree with me, I want to do the most effective thing to help people follow Jesus today. That means, inevitably, incorporating what Christians have done before me, even if they were influenced by their godless culture.