Pagan Christianity: Exploring Roots of our Church Practices

Article by   March 2008

This is a profoundly misleading and disappointing book. Or maybe you want to know what I really think!

The title, Pagan Christianity, is misleading, even if the subtitle is clear. I was doubtless asked to review this book because of the many years I have spent studying ancient and modern paganism. Great, therefore, was my surprise to discover the absence of any definition of the term. I exaggerate; there is one line: "pagans were those polytheists who followed the gods of the Roman empire" (p.6). That's it, for a book of 295 pages on "pagan Christianity," which uses the term to analyze what is wrong with virtually everything to do with today's Church. One unexamined one-liner about Roman polytheism is all we get by way of definition. Absent is any theological analysis of the general pagan worldview that constitutes all man-made religion. Absent also is any reference to the rise of paganism in our contemporary world, either of the Deepak Chopra/Oprah Winfrey/New Spirituality variety, or of the variety popular in some parts of the liberal wing of the Emergent Movement, which is driving great swathes of Evangelicalism into the arms of "progressive Christian" liberalism. Thus trivialized, the term "pagan" merely functions as a slam against anything in the present church of which Viola disapproves, like dressing up on Sunday (145ff) or Sunday school programs (212). (I say Viola because manifestly Barna is only named as co-author for the six-page preface he writes and the promotional heft he brings to the project).

The book first finds paganism in the church as the result of the adoption of Christianity by the pagan emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD. The book implies that this period in Church history doubtless explains many of the deviations from biblical orthodoxy in what became known as Catholicism. From that time we observe the mystification of the mass, the development of a priestly, sacerdotal caste, and the development of an imperialistic, hierarchical ecclesiastical polity. Even here, however, one cannot draw a simple, straight line to paganism as a religious worldview. The priesthood is a defining Old Testament notion, and while one can certainly argue that the medieval Church misappropriated the Old Testament system, it is not necessarily for "pagan" reasons. In spite of what Viola claims, hierarchy is a perfectly biblical value, and what he finds as essential to the New Testament church, namely, egalitarianism, is in the final analysis, a much-vaunted pagan ideal.

This unexamined term is used as a whip to drive out of the present temple all the money-changers and their godless activities. In addition to "dressing up for church" and Sunday School ("swelling the cranium" 199), such pagan activities include: the notion of a "personal savior" (190); the liturgy (even the hymn-prayer-hymn sandwich); the sermon, the ordained, salaried ministry or "pastoral office" (136); robes; youth pastors; elder directed communities; baptism; the Lord's supper ("a strange pagan-like rite"197); taking an offering and tithing; denominations; Bible Colleges and seminaries; instruments; hymns and church buildings, and choirs. For its all-knowing pretentiousness, one statement is mind-boggling. (Alas, it characterizes so many of Viola's generalizations.) Dismissing the place of the sermon in Christian worship, Viola reveals: "...the truth is that the contemporary sermon preached every week...is often impractical...[and] has little power to equip God's people for spiritual service and functioning" (98-99). He also "knows" that "the Sunday morning service is shamefully boring" (76). How does he know? If these judgments have Barna polling data to support them, they are not mentioned!

Everything must change, so the whip in Viola's hand becomes a very broad brush, but, alas, not broad enough. When he cannot find a "pagan" cause, he will drag in the Old Testament. But of course, there is one thing that one can confidently say about the Old Testament--it is in no sense pagan.

Anything that does not fit with Viola's highly personal, non-theological, emotive notion of the true Church, gets the boot. This is the disappointing part. Such an important theological and exegetical subject is not seriously argued and depends to a great deal on Viola's subjective preferences for the exciting and the unexpected. It is useful to know that Viola is the author of So You Want to Start a House Church? First Century Styled Church Planting for Today (Jacksonville, Fl.: Present Testimony Ministry, 2003). As he himself says, this is the real agenda that drives the present book: "We have written this book for one reason...we believe this is God's vision for every church..." (250). What is that vision? "[E]lectric (79)...informal gatherings permeated with an atmosphere of freedom, spontaneity and joy...open participatory meetings"...with "no fixed order of worship..." Such "mutual, organic,...impromptu (88)...edification" has no place for "human officiation" (234), that is, sermons and preachers. Rather, "the Lord Jesus Christ...invisibly" (234), through "every member functioning of his body...[leads believers to experience] the beating heart of God" (246) in "a glorious dynamic" (167). All other types of church are boring and "pagan."

The one positive note I retain from this difficult read is the implicit reminder for all churches, in ways appropriate and inventive, to remember and practice the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. For instance, finding a place for personal testimony and for sermon response would be very practical ways of giving more than lip-service to this classic Reformational doctrine.

The apostle Paul gives the best definition of paganism (and do we ever need it in today's world!), namely, the worship and service of the creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). Here is an explicit comparison of biblical theism and pagan monism, of the truth and the lie, of the truth of the Creature/creature distinction and of the lie of the divinity of Nature preached by the prophets of the New Spirituality. Of this true paganism, Viola seems dreadfully or naively ignorant. What could have been a significant book, as the title ambiguously suggests, by containing a solemn warning about the inroads of neo-paganism into the culture and the Church today, will alas succeed in doing the very opposite. By evacuating from the term "pagan" any real theological content, and by failing to identify the re-emergence of ancient idolatry in the form of modern mystical spirituality, this book, with the name Barna emblazoned on the front cover, will simply ensure that many will be inoculated from seeing the real thing, namely, the invasion of real "Pagan Christianity," which, as the next great impending apostasy, will threaten the Church to its very roots. From that, Viola's "liver quiver" gatherings will not save us.

Frank Viola & George Barna / Barna/Tyndale, 2008
Review by Peter Jones, Executive Director of CWiPP


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