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Pagan Christianity - A Book Review


By  Frank Viola & George Barna

Reviewed by 

  Geoffrey W. Sutton*

What would worship look like if you did not enter a church building, follow a typical liturgy,
listen to a sermon from a seminary-trained pastor, or listen to special music? 

Viola and Barna dedicated Pagan Christianity “to exposing the traditions that have been tacked onto God’s will for His Church (p. xx).” Further, “We are also making an outrageous proposal: that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does (p. xx).” 

Both authors are nationally known. Frank Viola, an active church planter, has written several books that challenge the traditional church. George Barna is the chair of Good News Holdings, a multimedia firm in Los Angeles and the founder and directing leader of a research firm, The Barna Group. 

Despite the bold title, the authors do not advocate the overthrow of existing church communities. They are not out to inspire rebellion. Rather, they want us to be aware of the humanly devised traditions that have come to mean church for so many contemporary believers. Once alerted to these issues, believers are encouraged to either leave quietly and find a New Testament church or live peacefully in their present faith community. 

After introductions, the authors reveal pagan traditions behind several aspects of modern church life in chapters two through ten. The next time you go to church, you might wonder when people began going to church. Given the extant information, it seems church buildings did not appear until about the year 300 CE. For more than two centuries, Christians worshiped in small groups. In time, the church, qua organized religion, began the construction of sacred buildings with special physical (pulpit, pews, balconies) and cultural trappings (special priests, choirs, incense). 

Aside from the unchristian origins of these developments, the authors punctuate their criticism by noting the high cost of such religious overhead. They estimated the value of church real estate as over $230 billion. Mortgages and maintenance requires a substantial portion of the $50 to $60 billion churches garner from tithes and offerings.

What makes their critique of the traditional Sunday morning worship sequence interesting is their review of the origins of the familiar service outline. Aside from the pagan origins, they note the missed opportunity for spiritual transformation that could occur in a more active and participative format.

The next pillar to fall is the holy sermon, which has its roots in Greek oratory. They note the limited examples of speeches in the Old Testament and New Testament before suggesting how the contemporary sermon hinders growth. They also point to research on the ineffectiveness of sermons (see page 104).

“Where did the pastor come from?” (p. 108). Not surprisingly, the notion of a professional clergy caste does not come from scripture. The authors advocate the priesthood of all believers and demonstrate the problems inherent in a pastor-driven church. Not only do pastors and their families suffer from the stress created by the contemporary position but talented believers also suffer from inhibited spiritual growth. Although the authors present some meritorious arguments for reforming church leadership, they do not suggest much in the way of developing capable leaders. Perhaps this must wait for a sequel.

For those who still hold to fundamentalist teaching about tithing, the chapter explaining the unchristian origins of the ancient Israelite income tax may prove enlightening. The authors not only expose this common misinterpretation of scripture but also go further to challenge the use of donations to support a paid clergy, which are beholden to their large donors. Instead, believers unburdened by such unnecessary personnel expenses, can freely give to those in need without fear of obligation or manipulation. 

There are more traditions for readers to discover. The authors strip away holy costumes, plumb the depths of baptism, and study contemporary Christian education. In the end, they call readers to consider what is left after extra-biblical traditions have been removed. They sketch the outlines of the primitive church in the new Testament and advocate house churches where believers actively participate in worship, employ their gifts, and share their resources.

My Comments

I believe these authors have been successful in exposing the roots of many favoured traditions within contemporary Christian churches. At the very least, they provide a trove of research to support the major themes. At times, I thought the authors over-reached. I had a so-what response to some exposures that regardless of the lack of foundation in scripture still serve a useful purpose. For example, I do not mind that there were no great painters or orchestras in the biblical book of Acts. I still appreciate the work of great artists to enhance spiritual experiences in paintings, architecture, and music.

Ironically, the authors point out some fundamentalist misinterpretations of the texts like tithing but present a fundamentalist approach to deciding what a Christian gathering ought to look like as if what might have happened in the early church is a God ordained rule for how to do church.

The financial costs of large churches and their raft of paid staff is worth considering. Such lavish expenditures are hardly scriptural yet, my cursory reading of the old Israelite Temple suggests it was a magnificent edifice. If the biblical story is correct, I thought it was ordered by God. My preference would be to share the beauty of grand worship places that can stand for centuries as in Europe with people of many faith traditions for centuries. This would of course mean Christians would have to lessen their divisions, which I doubt will happen.

I do get their message about focusing donations on people in need instead of a megacomplex with expensive staff. But with so many parachurch missions, it is a complex task to discover budget-conscious efforts that do not overlap with each other or with government programs. Visit any natural disaster and you will see a collection of government and religious organizations doing one thing or another with your taxes or donations. 

I think they make a good argument about sermons. Really, how many sermons can you remember? As a psychologist, I am keenly aware of the limitations of human memory. Now that literacy is widespread and teaching or inspirational messages can be presented in audio and video productions, the Sunday morning sermon may not be as useful as it was decades ago. Nevertheless, I support freedom of religion and see no reason to impose my views on others who prefer an oral sermon to a book.

Overall, I think Pagan Christianity is a useful read for people "hung up" on what church must be. The ideas might free some to think more broadly about Christian spirituality and how to invest their personal resources in the lives of the marginalized Jesus promoted in his ministry.

Worth Quoting

On reading the Bible-

“How We Approach the New Testament We Christians have been taught to approach the Bible in one of eight ways: • You look for verses that inspire you. Upon finding such verses, you either highlight, memorize, meditate upon, or put them on your refrigerator door. • You look for verses that tell you what God has promised so that you can confess it in faith and thereby obligate the Lord to do what you want. • You look for verses that tell you what God commands you to do. • You look for verses that you can quote to scare the devil out of his wits or resist him in the hour of temptation. • You look for verses that will prove your particular doctrine so that you can slice-and-dice your theological sparring partner into biblical ribbons. (Because of the proof-texting method, a vast wasteland of Christianity behaves as if the mere citation of some random, decontextualized verse of Scripture ends all discussion on virtually any subject.) • You look for verses in the Bible to control and/or correct others. • You look for verses that “preach” well and make good sermon material. (This is an ongoing addiction for many who preach and teach.) • You sometimes close your eyes, flip open the Bible randomly, stick your finger on a page, read what the text says, and then take what you have read as a personal “word” from the Lord. Now look at this list again. Which of these approaches have you used? Look again: Notice how each is highly individualistic. All of them put you, the individual Christian, at the center. Each approach ignores the fact that most of the New Testament was written to corporate bodies of people (churches), not to individuals.”

On sitting in the congregation

“The pew is perhaps the greatest inhibitor of face-to-face fellowship. It is a symbol of lethargy and passivity in the contemporary church and has made corporate worship a spectator sport.”

Viola, F. & Barna, G. (2010). Pagan Christianity? Exploring the roots of our church practices. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House.

* Note. This review is based on my academic review in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity.

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