A Pagan Christian’s Almost Review

kinnon —  January 11, 2008 — 14 Comments


I read Pagan Christianity over the Christmas Holidays. I’ve been struggling to write a review since then. This is not a normal problem for me. So let me see if I can unpack it.

Last April, I wrote a post called The People Formerly Known as the Congregation. It was a polemic and as such it created a lot of reaction. For some folk, it was like permission had been granted to unlock their own pain from the Institutional/Consumerist Church. A wonderful number of writers participated in the meme (there are links in the right sidebar to a few of them). For others, primarily church leaders, it was seen as a direct attack and elicited questions of my character, my maturity and my poor understanding of "authority" to name but a few of the negative responses. (Sheep need to be lead, you know.) Oddly enough, the substance of my polemic was rarely addressed by the critics.

If you’ve read TPFKATC, then you would be right in thinking that a positive review from me on Viola and Barna’s Pagan Christianity would be logical. It would be. So why is it so hard for me to write a glowing review?

Let me say that I think PC is an important book. I think it’s an important book that you should read. If you are a church leader, and blog reactions are accurate (other than perhaps the ever gracious Triple D), it might make you very angry. Read it anyway. If you are a reader happy in the plush comfort of your megachurch, read the book. If you’re "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" when it comes to the Institutional/Consumerist Church, read the book. If you’re a Christian who lives in the Rodney King world of "why can’t we all just get along", read the book. But let me suggest a few caveats.

I was introduced to Frank Viola’s writings in the late ’90’s by Lloyd, a white South African friend who was pastoring a fast growing mixed race church in Johannesburg. He was captivated by Viola’s house church descriptions and in the midst of apparent success as a pastor, was longing for the fellowship he felt Viola described. (I should note that my friend is no longer a full time pastor and does not attend a fast growing church – but nor has he found the elusive life of wonderful fellowship in a house church.)

I didn’t respond to Frank’s writing the same way as Lloyd. Some of it may have been that at that time, I was flirting with the US megachurch world as a communications consultant. And I was being courted to join the staff of a particular megachurch (which I never joined). But my reaction was also a response to Frank’s writing style. He writes as a "true believer." The house church movement is the "right way" to do church and everything else is the wrong way. Let me be blunt. I find the writing style grating and arrogant. And even after losing my affection for the megachurch world a number of years ago, I still found Frank’s style off-putting. That style is alive and well in PC.

I’m reminded of this quote from Tim Keller (via Triple D’s blog) – I believe Tim is responding to the pugnacious nature of some of our reformed brethern,

We can’t avoid drawing boundaries. Everyone does it, and if they say you’re not doing it, then you’re drawing a boundary by saying you’re not doing it. But what matters is how we treat the people on the other side of the boundary. We’re going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious and the most kind and the least self-righteous in controversy toward people on the other side of the boundary.

I’m not the most gracious person on the block. It’s not my strong suit – and perhaps I respond to the lack of graciousness in Viola’s writings because of my own failings in that area. But I strongly believe that had an irenic spirit infused PC – starting perhaps with its title – then the many important points the book makes, and the questions it asks about the present shape of the church as we know it, may have been more easily received.

We are at a liminal point in the life of the church. I believe that profound change is taking place. There are those folk who want to hang on to the post-war CEO-driven church model, others who firmly have their feet planted in Calvin’s Geneva, others who think the only truth can be found in the magisterium and are madly swimming the Tiber and still others who want to throw it all away and return to the glorious church of the 1st Century. (Corinth? Galatia? Ephesus?)

It is a time when we need to be infused with the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ for each other and for the broken world around us.

Let me end this feeble attempt of a review by recommending you read PC. But also read the equally important book by David Fitch, The Great Giveaway. Read Paul Metzger’s Consuming Jesus . And download and read Wolfgang Simson’s Starfish Manifesto. Not one of them is remotely perfect but each is a piece of the puzzle for me of this liminal space we find ourselves in. Perhaps they will be for you as well.

You might also find the voices of The People Formerly Known as meme interesting and instructive as well. Grace, one of the key writers in that series is doing an excellent and grace-filled review of PC.

You can download a chapter of Viola and Barna’s Pagan Christianity here. Read Frank’s response to objections here.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

14 responses to A Pagan Christian’s Almost Review

  1. I awoke this morning thinking of the debate around this book. I remember a friend telling me, graciously, but bluntly, about twenty years ago after I had confronted our pastor about something. “YOu know Len, sometimes when you are right.. you’re DEAD right.” Ouch. I’ve also wondered about one of the meanings oJesus little saying about the kingdom, “They will say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ but don’t believe them, for I have come.”

    I think at times we make a list of the ideal presentation of ekklesial reality. If you only had these things, and not those things, WOW.. we would really see the kingdom of God take shape. But it just don’t work that way. God remains sovereign and free. Maybe we can learn from quantum physics. YOu can only know ONE thing about a particle at any point in time: size or velocity. You choose. ANd as for predictions – actually, particles only have TENDENCIES to exist. There is no formula that guarantees when and where one will show up.

    So it is with the kingdom of God..

  2. Bill,
    Excellent review. My biggest disappointment is that discussion of the issues in the book has been lost among the snarkiness on both sides.

  3. “Madly swimming the Tiber.” I like that. I hope you don’t mind if I steal your phrase.

    I was very turned off by Barna’s Revolution. I can’t even say why other than I don’t think you can toss out all of the current Christian practice at one time. There does need to be some serious changes in the church and I believe you are correct in saying they are happening.

    Also, I know exactly what you mean about Viola’s attitude. No room for discussion. You either agree completely or you are part of the problem. It’s too bad they take this approach since it stifles badly needed dialogue by making readers instantly defensive and authors above any legitimate criticism of their work. Seems to be the trend in much of the church nowadays.

  4. This post taps into something that I’ve got brewing in my head about how we’re still just skimming the surface of change. I think the deeper problems have yet to burble to the top. One of those deeper issues is that we still want a king. This issue has been around since the Old Testament times … now it is fleshed out in Willow Creek and rock stadiums. But we’re still wanting someone else to take responsibility for being the leader, to stand in the gap between us and God. So we find the latest book or other hot commodity and chase after that wind. Well … I’ll have to think about this some more and see what bubbles up.

  5. Thanks Bill. I’m a few days behind in reading and posting… so goes my life, I guess! But your summation is right on. So many people in the Viola house-church movement come off smug and arrogant. (Makes me wonder why I’m not in it; I’d fit right in!) But there continues a deep cry for relational Christianity from so many quarters. The need to know and be known continues.

    And Sonja, you are profound! We continue to abdicate responsiblity as Jesus-followers, to follow Jesus on our own. We continue to look for a leader (pastor/preacher/apostle/prophet) who can show us the way.

  6. Len,
    Well said – and you’ve prompted more thought and another post that riffs off this one.

    I think we are all afraid in this crazy time we find ourselves in – we hold to certain propositions that we think are concrete answers – and seem willing to defend them at what ever cost. Real dialogue with active listening is hard but necessary. (And I am the chief amongst sinners in this area.)

    Conibear Trapp,
    What a fabulous moniker! Steal away – though I do hope you won’t con anyone into a bear trap. (It took my wife to point out the fun in the moniker – I just went with presenting and thought it was for real. Yes, I can be thick as a brick.)

    You’ve also prompted another post with this. The 1 Samuel 8 passage rings loudly in my ears too. The sin of leadership in the ecclesia is that of the people – crowning a teacher or preacher or pastor or apostle as King. And we get the results that the Lord speaks of to Samuel.

    And Glenn,
    You too have prompted my next post. I think what we miss in all of this discussion is that we are wired for relationship – and the hunger in all of us is to be a part of a Christ-centred community. Too often those communities are leader centred.

  7. Regarding Pagan Christianity: Some say they find Viola’s writing to be blunt and arrogant. I, on the other hand, find his writing style to be refreshing, vibrant and insightful. It’s true, some of the things he says are hard for many traditional pastors to swallow, but I think it’s time for an honest, candid look at what the church has become. “I’m OK – You’re OK” just won’t cut it anymore. Church is supposed to be “life-giving” but all too often it just sucks the life out of people with a smorgasbord of age-specific programs where affection, guilt and fear are used to manipulate people into loyalty and devotion. Frankly, I’m sick of it.

  8. Hi, an excellent alternative to Viola’s book is “The Ancient Church As Family” by Dr. Joe Hellerman. His work is well researched and addresses many of the “pagan” influences on our faith. Dr. Hellerman’s contribution is a blend of good history AND respectful discourse.

  9. I do recommend this book, if not for it’s conclusions and presuppositions at least for it’s information and challenges to “religion”. It will be discussed and cannot be dismissed all that easily. Some of the negative reviews posted ironically have not come from mainstream church structure and minsitry, but from “emerging” blogs. How odd, as I am certain I have read huge amounts of posts on those same blogs saying many of the same things. Maybe not as emphatically. You would expect scathing critiques from the relgious status quo folks and we know more or less who they are.

    It is easy to find fault with the church and with the man centered religion it promotes in practice and teaching. Most pick off their own particular pet peeves as to why they dislike church. At least this book attempts to make some understanding of how we got ourselves to where we are today, and does it in a broad and consistent approach. It is the ultimate “outside the box” toolkit.

    This book may well become known as “The Trojan Horse” of christianity. Certainly Barna has been invited into countless sermons/conferences as the authoritative voice on church and culture today, as much as Francis Schaeffer may have been in the 70’s -80’s as the authoritative stamp on the christian right. Now that we have all come to value and respect highly his work, this book shows up with the potential to pose it’s troubling questions to those who last year were quite thrilled to have Barna on their side.

  10. I love what Sonja said – about us skimming the surface re: change.

    Change is difficult. I don’t mean quasi-change, or mini-change. That is easy. I mean – REAL change – Kingdom change. That is very, very difficult.

    To follow Christ – to really follow Him – is a lonely road. Folks from both sides of heaven and hell will reject, disdain and slandar. It happens. Something about brother being against father or some other nonsense from – oh, yeah – THE BIBLE!!

    I really, honestly, struggle with this. I want to live “The Kingdom” but I am more and more discovering that this is much more rare within THE CHURCH! For me, at least in recent years, “the Kingdom” has been realized OUTSIDE the walls of the church – where REAL humans exist – people who actually LIVE their pain, LIVE their fears, LIVE their doubts – people who ACCEPT love from a guy (me) just trying to do what Jesus called me to do. And I keep doing it – even when those INSIDE the church criticize me for my efforts!

    Nuts, huh?

    Welcome to “the church.”

  11. Yeah, I’m not so much into the ‘madly swimming the Tiber’ characterization.

    I think it was because my view of church was too small in the Evangelical world. When I burnt out…and was excommunicated!…while being a worship leader at a large EV church I thought I was burnt out on “Institutional Church”.

    And, after falling into the liturgical tradition I realized that what I was burnt out on was the radical individualism in the EV world.

    So, while I haven’t ‘swum’ the Tiber, I don’t think it’s made to do so. The Christians that have challenged me most in my faith recently have been either Roman Catholic or at least sympathetic (William Cavanaugh, Dorothy Day, CatholicAnarchy.org, Stanley Hauerwas).

    The problem with Frank’s book is that it criticizes the practices of the IC without having done the work of realizing that we are all subject to that critique. To me it seems like a new fundamentalism.

    The best book that I’ve read on the state of the church recently is Can These Bones Live? by Barry Harvey (a baptist!).

    And I’m looking to get a copy of Does God Need the Church? by Gerhard Lohfink.

  12. ‘mad to do so’ not ‘made’

  13. Frank Viola is a seemingly fresh voice in the whole debate but I agree that there is no form of ‘pure church’. Watchman Nee’s philosophy of church, which Frank draws upon sounds promising but ultimately fails to deliver. I was deep into these concepts as a zealous young believer but it eventually led me into an authoritarian Shepherding movement in the 70s and 80s from which I and many others are still recovering.You can read my story for free at The Prodigal Prophet at http://www.authonomy.com or follow my Prodigal Prophet blog at http://theprodigalprophet.wordpress.com After 16 years away from Christianity I’ve found a spiritual home in Christian Mysticism.I can thoroughly recommend such a take on your spiritual journey!

  14. I have rarely read such drivel disguised as a quasi-scholarly polemic. Their arguments are based on straw man, and they go so far as to give their scarecrows names–“Joe Housechurch,” ” Melvin Smerdly.” The whole tenor is one of disdain and puritanism–“I (Frank) have experienced churches which fit this bill.” Proof-texting is out; never mind that Jesus defeated the devil in the wilderness by thrice prooftexting him. Never mind that Peter wrestled Joel out of context on Pentecost. The authors seem to have a disdain of Bible study in general, though they provide more footnotes than the Scofield Bible. The authors would have us go back to the first century before there was a compiled New Testament, before the traditions of worship became corrupt. You would think, to this end, they would take a careful look at the book of Acts. Perhaps prooftexting? The one thing that the early church had, the one thing upon which their success depended is the one thing of which the authors are ignorant–the power of the Holy Spirit! Viola and Barna know nothing of prophecies and healings; they’re excited by a meeting where all the members take turns singing with no time lag in between. The whole thing smacks of Cambellism. May God help us with self-appointed reformers raising such a shrill cry.
    These guys would do well to read Watchman Nee. I don’t see the similarity.


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