Monday, November 17, 2008

Review of Pagan Christianity

The history of Christian doctrine and ecclesial practice has long been a passion of mine. There is something distinctly unsettling about the way and the why of our corporate actions. Too many doctrines that ignore or downplay passages of Scripture that don't seem to fit. Too many practices that seem well and good, but were added by the powerful to either protect the regular Joe Churchgoer (positively) or to keep the regular from becoming the powerful (negatively). The question that Viola and Barna explore in this small tome (with powerfully small-type footnotes) is "Are we doing Church 'by the book'?" Their answer: no. Unsettling? Yes. Completely convincing? No, but mostly because of internal faults, not faults of evidence.

At the start, Viola and Barna (and the main author seems to be Viola, with Barna there for his research clout--henceforth I'll refer to both of them as "Viola") set a polemic, rather than a neutral tone. A neutral tone would convey something more like an academic feel, which Viola makes clear is not his intention. Such a book would "be read by a few people" (xx). An academic writing style does not necessarily a dull book make, however. Viola often descends into quite harsh and inflated polemic, which is often contracted and softened in the "Delving Deeper" sections that end each chapter. However, rhetoric aside, the writing style betrays an underlying anti-intellectualism that pervades Viola's vision of the Church. He speaks often of how the institutional church of Protestantism depends so much on the intellectual sermon to build spirituality in its listeners--a practice that he and I would both agree has negatively affected the church. He also lambasts seminaries as being too academic (my experience with seminaries, interestingly enough, has tended towards the opposite direction)--opting for what he calls "Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and non-hierarchical leadership" in the church: non-ordained, non-theologically trained leadership in the Church. I actually don't disagree with him, at least superficially, but I am concerned that a voice of studied reason within one of these meetings would be marginalized as not partaking enough of the "Spirit", where everyone brings a message, a psalm, and whatnot. While it seems that this was Paul's practice, as per the Corinthian correspondence, the first generation believers, even the Gentiles, had a greater grasp and understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures than most church members do today. I've heard highly educated people say some stupid things in church, but that doesn't mean theological education is a bad thing--it needs heavy reform. His system of apprenticeship (the "elders" teaching the youngin's of the congregation) would work as long as the "elders" were properly educated themselves--something he leaves up to the post of the "church-planter apostle" who gets trained by? The answer is unclear, but Viola presupposes some sort of "apostolic succession" (as all Christians do, whether they realize it or not), especially as he says that the ekklesia shouldn't follow the ways of the historical Church, but should follow its teachings (262). Here, though, is where the anti-intellectual bent of the book becomes positively schizophrenic. Viola, for all his historical research, has not combined the historical practice of the church with its historical beliefs. Would the Church have called synods, councils, creedal assemblies without the rise of the one-bishop rule, the college of bishops, and the institution of a clergy-laity system? Would our historical, creedal doctrines have taken the shape they did without the influence of the church-state marriage (both Arianism and Nicene orthodoxy were heavily politicized doctrines which gave the Caesar power of the decisions of the church--an outcome that was quickly regretted, but never alleviated by rethinking the doctrines outside of a pagan, Greco-Roman philosophical milieu)? Probably not. However, he says "the historic creeds can be helpful guideposts to keep a church on track when it comes to the essential teachings of the faith" (262). The problem is that with one goes the other: you cannot reject the teachings of ecclesial practice without calling into question the doctrines that gave rise to them. If one wants cake, one must eat it as well.

The Viola concept of worship also has some issues to be dealt with. Once again, the issue isn't necessarily evidence, but the way it is presented. Peppered throughout the book is that phrase already mentioned: "Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and non-hierarchical leadership". The problem here is that Viola never really defines what that means. To figure it out, as footnote readers will quickly become weary and wary of, you must read some other book he has written. This tactic is less about saving space as it is about making money: to figure out how Church should really be, you must buy another book. To figure out God's "eternal purpose" other than "saving souls", you must buy another book. Not to mention that Viola never mentions any other books, by scholars perhaps?, that back up his view of the Church or God's eternal purpose. Only his own get highlighted. Of course, theology should never be dictated by the more learned, eh?

The "non-hierarchichal leadership" clause, repeated over and over again to provoke Pavlovian egalitarians to drool, is suspect. He speaks of "informal" elders and leadership, which is what I take his meaning behind "non-hierarchical" to mean, however any sort of leadership, no matter how fluid, is hierarchical. The family is made up of husband-wife-children hierarchy that is, yes, mutually submitting to one another (at least as Paul conceives it). Just because there is mutual submission does not take away that there is hierarchy. God-Jesus-Church also exhibits the same qualities ("God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of the Church; etc"). Once again, just because Jesus submitted himself to die for the Church does not make an egalitarian situation: he is Lord Messiah, we are his ruling council (a meaning for ekklesia that Viola ignores). The problem he has, as readers of the book no doubt notice, is with a static leadership that creates passivity among the regular Joe Churchgoer (to borrow from the recent pagan presidential race). Fair enough, but the language used to describe what the Church should be needs to be precise and accurate. There is leadership in the people of God and it is hierarchical, just not rigidly so. The orthodox Jewish community, interestingly enough, gives some creedence to this view. The older members (dare we call them elders?) teach the younger members who will take their place in business, religious training, and social activity: it isn't rigid, even the rabbi has an outside job to support himself and he is always teaching other members of the community how to rightly exegete the Scripture and Talmudic tradition. Protestantism could learn a lot from this system, but hierarchy is still there. The question isn't hierarchy or no hierarchy, but which hierarchy?

So far, this has been a fairly negative review. However, I did appreciate the historical research and the clarifications that the book offered. If it were rewritten, it could be a major catalyst for change in the Christian world. However, as it stands, it is self-defeating and will only cause disappointment in the authors and in the lives of those who take up their style of polemic and ambiguous definitions.


Jilliefl1 said...

The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at .
It’s also available on Frank is also blogging now at .

Rich: said...


Thanks for taking the time to write a balanced and thoughtful review of Pagan Christianity. I have been involved in a couple of conversations with those in ministry who have read the book. In reverential tones they share with me where they think the church should now head, given their reading... I like Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne is a well intentioned guy, misguided theologically and I have enjoyed very much some of the writings of Hirsch...

The problem in part, I think, is that we all have strong areas of discontent in our relationship and perspective of the church, so we read... and when someone comes along that articulates something that ends up somewhere, remotely on the outer perimeter, from the epicenter of our universe-of-ideological-concern... we mate hastily with them intellectually. Surely the idea of perspective is more disciplined than that...

I am sometimes troubled when qualifications like "was never meant to be a stand alone book...". In other words, it is like they are saying:

"we want you to take seriously what we are discussing, but we don't want to be responsible for conveying any hard and fast conclusions that should become a rubric for everyone..."

The problems of the modern day contemporary church are legion... but strident voices that offer false panaceas, originating from a limited, indigenous and intellectual locale, are rarely helpful...