Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
House-church advocate Frank Viola and Christian pollster George Barna collaborated on this revised edition of Viola's original book by the same title, and the result is so controversial that publisher Tyndale issued a rare disclaimer in the form of a preface. "Tyndale does not necessarily agree with all of the authors' positions and realizes that some readers may not either," the preface reads in part. "At the same time, we stand united with Frank and George in our desire to see the church operate according to biblical principles and be a full expression of God's grace and truth."
The controversy stems from the authors' assertion, backed up by exhaustive research and more than a thousand footnotes, that most of the traditions, practices and rituals associated with what we call church are rooted in pagan culture. Viola and Barna document the non-biblical sources of nine specific aspects of church life --- buildings, the order of worship, sermons, the pastorate, vestments, music ministry, tithing and clergy salaries, baptism and the Lord's Supper, and Christian education --- as they challenge Christians to think long and hard about the familiar elements that most believers take for granted.
At the heart of the authors' argument is the misuse of the word "church" --- which, as I would hope most Christians know, refers to the corporate body of believers. Despite knowing that, many Christians continue to think of the word in terms of a building, diluting their understanding of Christian community and thereby giving rise to a host of other problems --- not the least of which is the very existence of church buildings. After meeting in private homes for several hundred years, Christians, who had in other ways begun to adopt the "magical thinking" of pagans, were ready to adopt the pagan notion of sacred spaces, and the church building was born. Viola and Barna devote considerable space to showing how the church's "edifice complex" has hindered rather than fostered genuine worship and Christian community.
One troubling aspect of the book is the occasional "Can you believe this???" tone that the writers take. They seem to assume that Christians believe the elements of church life are neatly laid out for us in the New Testament, and the authors are determined to prove that isn't so. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Bible knows that it does not address, say, the order of worship or the wearing of vestments; the authors do a disservice to their readers when they treat such things as shocking revelations. They do make a valid point, though, when they take to task those pastors who insist that everything they do is biblical when their own church life is anything but.
What will surprise many believers is the abundance of pagan-derived rituals and practices that are simply taken for granted, from the placement of the candles on the altar to the staging of the clergy and choir at the front of the sanctuary. Even less traditional churches --- to misuse that word again --- have unknowingly retained aspects of pagan culture.
Reading a brief synopsis such as this may have you asking, "So what?" If we aren't pagans ourselves, why would it matter if our practices stemmed from paganism hundreds and even thousands of years ago? Viola and Barna clearly and convincingly make the case that these things do matter and have a profound influence on the way we live out our faith in Christ.
Professional clergy and those invested in traditional church life will likely hate this book, because it threatens to shake up the status quo in such a compelling way that its readers will have a tough time walking away unscathed. Those most likely to love it are emergents, younger Christians who eschew traditional church anyway, '70s Jesus freaks who are all grown up but still dissatisfied with church as usual, believers of any age who wonder why on earth we do some of the things we do, and anyone who is bored with church but doesn't exactly know why. In between are those Christians who seldom give a thought to any of this --- and who would do well to start giving some thought to all of this.
Despite the wealth of research that went into the book, the authors present the material in an accessible and reader-friendly style, following up each chapter with a Q&A addressing potential objections to and misunderstandings of the findings. Viola and Barna also offer insights into what to do about "church" now that readers understand its roots. Several appendices offer helpful guides that summarize main points made in the book.
Whether you end up loving it or hating it --- or somehow remaining neutral to it --- PAGAN CHRISTIANITY? is among the few must-reads out there today.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on January 1, 2008