Book Review of Pagan Christianity

Pagan Christianity, Frank Viola & George Barna, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 2008, 291 pages.

Rating: star_fullstar_fullstar_emptystar_emptystar_empty (2/5)

I started reading this book with great anticipation. Not only am I already extremely interested in the historical relation between ancient paganism and contemporary Christianity, but the very name “George Barna” (founder of the Barna Group) fairly drips with credibility, particularly on just such subjects. So I anticipated a book filled with deep insight, solid academic research, and rigorously-drawn conclusions.

Imagine my surprise to find a volume based upon a very contentious bias, surprisingly lightweight research, questionable Biblical interpretation, and conclusions that are at best only more or less plausible.

The conclusions drawn by the book emerge from both its stated and non-stated goals. To see the arguments presented in the book for what they really are, it is important that you understand both the stated and non-stated goals. So, let’s begin there.

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Conflicting Goals

In the Acknowledgements, Viola writes: “For years I tried to get my hands on a documented book that traced the origin of every nonbiblical practice we Christians observe every week. I searched scores of bibliographies and card catalogs. I also contacted a raft of historians and scholars, asking they knew of such a work. My quest yielded one consistent answer: No such book had ever been penned. So in a moment of insanity, I decided to put my hand to the plow.”

So, from the very start of the volume, Viola establishes the primary goal to be that of documenting the history of how Christian worship practices have emerged. And the idea that many/most of Christian practices have not emerged from the Bible is plainly stated from the outset. This goal is what I believed the book would achieve: documentation and demonstration of extra-biblical origins for contemporary church practices. What a worthy and intriguing goal indeed!

However, by the Preface (also by Viola) a few pages later, the more background, subtle (and actually much more driving) goal begins to surface. Viola writes: “History is repeating itself today. Contemporary Christianity has fallen into the errors of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. First, contemporary Christianity is guilty of the error of the Pharisees. That is, it has added a raft of humanly devised traditions that have suppressed the living, breathing, functional headship of Jesus Christ in His church. Second, in the tradition of the Sadducees, the great bulk of New Testament practices have been removed from the Christian landscape. Thankfully, such practices are presently being restored on a small scale by those daring souls who have taken the terrifying step of leaving the safe camp of institutional Christianity.”

And there it is. The goal that it turns out really drives the “research” and conclusions of the book has little to do with the first, stated, goal; it turns out that the two goals prove to be incompatible! The really driving goal is to distinguish between an “organic” church and an “institutional” church, argue that the organic church is good because it is Biblical and apostolic, argue that the institutional church is bad because it is pagan and keeps Jesus from being the Head of His body, and then conclude that “pagan Christianity” just is the institutional church. Along the way, we will get exposure to “organic” churches in which Viola has participated. The vast shortcomings and outright distortions of such assemblies will be minimized, and the “headship of Jesus” will be maximized. This bias (presumably primarily from Viola) literally drives and motivates the book, and the “research” is carefully cast to sustain this bias.

For example, in footnote 5, on page xviii, Viola writes: “Interestingly, an organic church will have problems identical to those in the first-century church. On the other hand, the institutional church faces a completely different set of problems, which have no biblical antidote since its structure is so distinct from the New Testament church. For instance, in an institutional church the laity may not like their preacher so they fire him. This never would have happened in the first century because there was no such thing as a hired pastor.”

Thus, Viola glosses over the first-century church’s problems: “That’s not to say the early church didn’t have problems–Paul’s epistles make clear that it did.” The tone is set from the first pages of the book, and everything in the book is bent to serve this goal: Organic church: good; institutional church: bad.

As a treatise to argue for such a conclusion, such a book would be fine. The problem is that this book is advertised as a historically rigorous, researched documentary on the emergence of pagan practices in the Christian church. However, that first, stated, goal plays distant second fiddle to the subtler, unstated, goal of the book throughout. And the research (and credibility) suffers accordingly.

For me, as an academic, the research matters.

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The Main Points

The main points the book attempts to establish follow the chapter headings pretty closely.

Have we Really Been Doing It by the Book? — In a nutshell, no!

The Church Building — We shouldn’t be worshiping in dedicated church structures

The Order of Worship — We shouldn’t have a formalized, structured order of worship

The Sermon — The whole idea of a “pastor” is malformed, and what contemporary pastors do in “preaching” is not what Christ intended

The Pastor — There should be no pastors in the contemporary sense

Sunday Morning Costumes — We shouldn’t dress up for church

Ministers of Music — Just as with the pastor, the minister of music is a formalized, nonbiblical position that keeps Christ from being the Head of His church during worship

Tithing and Clergy Salaries — Tithing is not for the New Testament church, and there should be no formal, paid clergy

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper — Baptism as widely practiced bears little resemblance to what motivated it in the first-century church, and the Lord’s Supper should be a sit-down, get-together meal that happens at most/all Christian gatherings

Christian Education — Formalized, academic training is not Christ’s educational model, and there shouldn’t be a formal, paid clergy anyway

Reapproaching the New Testament — The New Testament church was “organic” rather than institutional and formalized, and this is the only model of church in which Christ can truly be Head of His church

A Second Glance at the Savior — Christ as the true Head of His (organic) church

Contrast these main points with what one would expect.

For example, where is the chapter about Christmas? Where is the chapter about Easter and sunrise services? Where is the chapter about the change from Sabbath to Sunday worship? These and many other topics are the bases of the most sweeping and pervasive paganism in Christianity (the stated title and goal of the book). But, while the authors briefly mention some of these topics (the origin of the Eucharist, for example), they are so careful to not alienate Catholics from the ranks of Evangelical Christianity that they simply cannot do what the book was ostensibly written to accomplish: document how little contemporary Christianity resembles Biblical Christianity and how much it instead resembles ancient paganism.

The primary goal of the book is summarized: “We pray that this book will help you to do your part in straightening out the crooked path of the contemporary church” (p. xxx). But there are more or less crooked paths. There are more or less egregious errors in the church. There are more or less clearly-demonstrated pagan rituals and perspectives in the church. And the authors decided to spend their time with relative minutia rather than the most crooked paths.

Perhaps the authors believed that they could subtly address such subjects as the pervasive paganism of Catholicism (and its lasting effect even on Protestantism) via small, non-offensive segues. But their approach leaves much of Catholicism (and evangelical) practices untouched, while the “organic church” goal remains neither clearly established nor rigorously researched. And the research does matter!

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Lightweight and Slanted Research

There are countless examples of appeal to non-primary sources to ground contentious statements. Perhaps this fact would be less problematical if it were not for the overarching purpose of the book (as mentioned above). Viola and Barna are attempting to demonstrate that contemporary church practices are not only not grounded in the Bible (which would be a valuable enough goal for the book), but also that contemporary church practices are not actually good, that contemporary church practices do not actually promote the very reasons for “doing church” in the first place, and that only an “organic” rather than “institutional” church really has Jesus as Head.

There are literally countless examples like the following, but I have singled out a few to demonstrate how contentious statements are “supported” by poor argumentation and secondary sources.

Church Buildings are Bad!

In their attempt to establish that there is no justification for a dedicated church building, the authors argue as follows: “Ancient Judaism was centered on three elements: the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifice. When Jesus came, He ended all three, fulfilling them in Himself. He is the temple who embodies a new and living house made of living stones–“without hands.” He is the priest who has established a new priesthood. And He is the perfect and finished sacrifice.1 Consequently, the Temple, the professional priesthood, and the sacrifice of Judaism all passed away with the coming of Jesus Christ.2 Christ is the fulfillment and the reality of it all3” (pp. 10-11). So, in this context, a tremendous amount of weight is placed on the claim that the Temple (and with it all purpose for a dedicated building) passed away in Christ.

There is a  footnote, number 2, associated with that weighty claim. It reads: “Stephen’s message in Acts 7 indicates that ‘the temple was merely a man-made house originating with Solomon; it had no connection with the tent of meeting that Moses had been commanded to set up on a Divinely revealed pattern and that had continued until David’s time.” And then an article by Harold W. Turner is referenced: From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship.

So, let’s carefully examine that footnote, which is the scholarly approach to supporting a claim… in this case, namely the contentious claim that church buildings are not a proper element of Christian practice. We are asked to either accept Turner’s statement on faith, as Viola and Barna quote him as a secondary source; or we are expected to read Turner’s article and see for ourselves if Turner’s quoted passage in context makes the point that Viola and Barna take it to make and if Turner’s own research on that topic is sound.

But the problem with the contentious claim is worse than that it is supported only by reference to a single secondary source. The bigger problem is that the brief argument that is quoted is itself faulty. Viola and Barna, qua Turner, argue that the Temple had no relevant connection to the tent of meeting, and thus it was “merely a man-made house” with no special significance in the sight of God. So, the argument apparently goes: The tent of meeting was the only man-made structure that God designed; the Temple was not the tent of meeting and had no God-honored connection to the tent of meeting; that edifice honored the construction of man rather than the design of God; and even that building lost its last shred of significance when it was destroyed (first by the coming of Christ that rendered its services obsolete, and second by the Romans); thus, there is no purpose for “temples” in Christianity, as all Christians are “living stones” that make up the true Christian “temple.” But this argument is profoundly faulty.

First, it is false that the Temple in Christ’s time was “merely a man-made house” having no connection with the tent of meeting. The Temple of Solomon was profoundly honored by God, evidenced by the shekinah glory that dwelt therein. Upon its destruction and later rebuilding, God specifically honored that new building by the promise that the glory of the later house would be greater than that of the former (namely that it would be honored by the physical presence of Christ Himself). Christ cleansed that second Temple twice and quoted the scripture “Zeal for thy house hath consumed me,” clearly calling that Temple “God’s house.” So, by the time of Christ, there was ample evidence that the Temple was viewed by God Himself as more than a “mere man-made house.” Finally, upon the death of Christ, the veil in the Temple was torn from top to bottom, signifying that God Himself considered that veil to be a significant symbol that needed a literal fulfillment. Even minute details such as that veil had Divine rather than “merely man-made” significance!

Second, the idea that the “man-made” aspect of the Temple (not by specific Divine design, as was the tent of meeting) was some sort of strike against it, and hence against all “merely man-made” symbols and/or “temples” actually strikes against Viola’s and Barna’s intended argument. As the foregoing paragraph indicates, clearly God Himself honored that “merely man-made” building in numerous ways. So, the fact that the Temple was not the tent of meeting had no bearing whatsoever upon the fact that God honored it, used it, held to its symbolism, called it His house, and met with His people there. Thus, the idea that God “is not a temple dweller!” is either trivially true (as the whole created universe cannot contain Him), or it is demonstrably false (as the foregoing paragraphs have indicated).

Finally, and most significantly, it is not at all clear how the contentious claim about Christian churches follows from the premises about the ancient Temple! Even if every statement that Viola, Barna, and Turner made were entirely sustainable, nothing follows from them regarding Christian churches or the “temple made without hands.” It is claimed that each Christian contributes to “the temple” that is Christianity, but that claim is not argued for; it is presumed. And even if that were true, it says nothing against the erection and dedication of Christian churches.

Was God Himself contained in the shekinah glory in the tent of meeting or Solomon’s Temple? Was the meeting of a sinner and a priest before the alter a necessary condition for salvation, I mean in that very place? The questions just keep coming, and the answer to all of them is that God has ever employed symbols and representations to point to higher realities, yet the higher realities do not “invalidate” or render obsolete the symbols “merely” because the symbols are “man-made.”

Furthermore, Viola and Barna refer to early-century practice as normative, when in fact in this case it was a merely functional necessity: “… Clement’s reference to ‘going to church’ is not a reference to attending a special building for worship. It rather refers to a private home that the second-century Christians used for their meetings.11 Christians did not erect special buildings for worship until the Constantinian era in the fourth century” (p. 12). Viola and Barna here argue that because the early Christians did not have dedicated houses of worship, neither should we. But the fly in this ointment is that prior to Constantine, Christianity was literally an underground religion! It is no surprise that with the legalization and establishment of Christianity under Constantine, Christianity came out from underground, and they immediately erected dedicated “houses” of worship.

So, what Viola and Barna need to establish their claim about the “badness” of church buildings is some clear Biblical reference to the effect that Christians should not have church buildings or to the effect that the “temple made without hands” refers exclusively to the body of Christ and that any symbolic representation of that “temple” is forbidden. But, of course, no such passage(s) will be forthcoming. And the strained argument about the Temple “being fulfilled in Christ” does not work, because there is no indication in the Bible itself that houses of meeting were rendered obsolete (or verboten) by the emerging body of Christ. In fact, early Christians had “houses of worship” from the beginning; these houses were literally houses, as Christianity was an underground religion; and just as soon as they practically could, Christians started building dedicated “houses of worship.”

Viola and Barna offer other arguments against dedicated church buildings, but they are all of comparable quality to this argument. Bad argumentation, questionable Biblical interpretation, and the quoting of secondary sources do not a compelling conclusion make! And the authors simply fail to convince on the supposed “badness” of church buildings.

In the end it turns out that church buildings actually are “bad” (according to the authors) entirely because they functionally encourage a form of Christian gathering the the authors (at least, clearly Viola) eschew. Their arguments against that form of worship are as strained as their arguments against the building itself. So the overarching perspective against church buildings remains unmotivated and unconvincing.

Sermons are Bad

Again, Viola and Barna argue against a form of worship that they consider “pagan” and “institutionalized” rather than “organic.” And, again, the argumentation is faulty and the research is light.

Contemporary sermons are supposedly bad because they are not of the Biblical form, which was earmarked by:

* Active participation and interruptions by the audience.3

So, the footnote 3 references Norrington, To Preach or Not. Again, this is a secondary source, and Viola and Barna simply regurgitate the perspective of another author who happens to agree with them. But reviews of Norrington’s book repeatedly complain about the same problems with it: “unbalanced,” “poorly researched,” and “opts for his own perspective without strong enough basis.” Thus, Viola and Barna simply adopt as their own the poor research of another author in the form of a secondary source. And, in fact, it is entirely unclear how much audience participation and/or “feedback” there was during early-century preaching. So, the contention that audience participation rather than “passive listening” is an earmark of “good” preaching is simply unfounded.

* Prophets and priests spoke extemporaneously and out of a present burden, rather than from a set script.

Well, actually, there are many evidences that this was not generally, certainly not universally, the case. By the time of Christ, there as a clear order of worship in the synagogues. When Christ “rose to speak” and selected out of Isaiah to read, He was doing the “correct” thing for that point of the service. And His “preaching” out of a selected passage of scripture was the norm rather than some odd exception. So, again, Viola and Barna oversimplify a particular subset of behaviors into a normative generalization.

And there are other points in the list, but they follow the same pattern of generalizing in a normative way from a small subset of behaviors.

A major problem that the authors face in this context is the Jesus Himself did a very, very great deal of what we would call “preaching” today! Recognizing the problem, they try to minimize it as follows: “Come now to the New Testament. The Lord Jesus did not preach a regular sermon to the same audience6” (p. 87). And that footnote 6 refers to the fact that the “Sermon on the Mount” was not called that by name until it was so called by Augustine. The authors then go on to state that the “style and rhetoric” of the Sermon on the Mount was “quite different” from what is called “preaching” today.

It virtually goes without saying how weak this line of argument is! To focus on “style” is to focus on cultural expectations rather than normative substance. To focus on “rhetoric” is to miss the substantive points that utterly undermine the author’s perspective.

In fact, Jesus often “preached,” and often lengthy sermons. The author’s lame claim that these sermons were not “weekly” nor to “the same audience” entirely misses the purpose and function of preaching as Christ Himself employed it. In fact, Christ’s preaching did not have any of the supposed earmarks of “Biblical preaching” the authors list. Christ did preach to a passive audience. He typically stood in front of a gathered group, and He spoke while they listened, gathered in front of Him. His “script” was indeed “set,” as with each sermon He had a particular topic and expounded with examples and scriptures intentionally designed to elucidate His perspective on that topic. Even his “eat my flesh” sermon was intentionally designed to thwart the machinations of the people who had just been miraculously fed and wanted to make Him an earthly king; He revealed their misunderstanding via “difficult” doctrine, and many ceased to walk with Him from that day.

Even the fact that many ceased to walk with Him after that sermon indicates that Jesus did have a large group of “regulars” to which He preached, which gives the lie to Viola’s and Barna’s claim that Jesus didn’t preach to “the same audience.” In fact, He almost certainly did, even if not “weekly.”

Paul often preached in much the same way we think of it today, and we have Biblical evidence of that fact. Indeed, he once preached so long a sermon that the Bible explicitly says that he preached through the night until a “young man” literally fell asleep and out of a window to his death. Pretty “captive audience” with exactly zero evidence of “active participation” or “interruptions” by the audience! The only “interruption” that is recorded in that sermon was the accident.

Again, this entire chapter is driven by a “form of worship” issue rather than by actual research and demonstrations of sermonizing being inherently pagan in either origin or form. The authors don’t like a form of worship in which an “authority” preaches to a “passive” audience. Thus, this “badness” just must be “pagan,” and the (light) research sure enough bears this out. Except that it really doesn’t.

Organic vs. Institutional

In a summary beginning on page 243, the authors explain why “organic” is good and “institutional” is bad. Again and again they fall into the trap of projecting particular early-church practices into the normative realm: Early Christians did such and such; therefore we should do such and such. But such and such argumentation is always suspect, as it is extremely difficult to tease out what motivates particular practices. And, as I’ve said, the actual research into pagan origins is usually very weak through this book. So, we get arguments like these:

* “Christianity was the first and only religion the world has ever known that was void of ritual, clergy, and sacred buildings. For the first 300 years of the church’s existence, Christians gathered in homes.” Well, yes, because Christianity was an underground religion for its first 300 years! They met in homes for practical reasons, and nothing normative can be derived from that fact. Regarding the “clergy” and “structure,” the early church did indeed have “elevated men” in the form of deacons, elders, apostles, and even the council of Jerusalem (to which Paul himself “submitted” his doctrine). The idea proposed by the authors that the early church was just groups of individuals, each one a “priest,” that met in homes willy-nilly at no particular times, and all such meetings were entirely impromptu as “led by the Spirit,” is a flagrant oversimplification.

* “The New Testament church was organic, not organizational. It was not welded together by putting people into offices, creating programs, constructing rituals, and developing a top-down hierarchy or chain-of-command structure. The church was a living, breathing organism.” What a hodge-podge of truth and falsity this statement is! First, the existence of an organization or “hierarchy” is not necessarily “welded together.” The apostles were indeed Christ’s representatives on earth after His ascension. The council of Jerusalem was considered doctrinally authoritative. The apostles did single out particular individuals to elevate into authoritative roles in the local churches. Even the notion of a “bishop” is distinguished by role from other roles, and it is an “honorable” that required a more rigorous commitment to Christian service than that of the everyday “lay person.” None of this was “welded together,” but it was designed by the Spirit for the very purpose of organization.

Indeed, when Saul was converted to Paul, his blindness was healed in due time… not by special action directly by God, but by directed action of a known church representative! The idea that the early church had no “hierarchy” nor “leaders,” but that it was instead solely and entirely a peer-related “priesthood of every believer” is, flatly, ridiculous in the face of the overwhelming evidences of the New Testament.

And even the way the authors employ the phrase “priesthood of every believer” is oversimplified. This phrase (which, does not actually appear in the Bible in this form) in context (as stated by Peter) is strictly saying that we need no more intermediaries between us and God for the process of salvation; Christ and Christ alone is the mediator between us and God, and we each have direct access to Him on our own behalf! Peter is not arguing regarding church authority or organization.

However, the overarching point here is that this issue is contentious! It is not a “given” just from reading the New Testament that this or that organizational form was or was not in place. And the authors simply do not make a substantive case either by Biblical interpretation or by research about paganism that this or that organizational form was or was not the case in the early church. Finally, because the authors so frequently fall into the is/ought gap (actual practice does not demonstrate normative facts), their most common arguments fall flat and entirely fail to be compelling.

In summary, the authors appeal almost exclusively to secondary sources (sometimes even to their own other published works), which is the earmark of superficial research. There is a lot of “research” in the book! A lot. There are hundreds of footnotes, and there can be no doubt that the authors are widely read on the subjects they present! However, there is no indication that their reading ever went deeper than the secondary sources they cite. Consequently, as I’ve given examples of, they are often guilty of simply regurgitating the bad argumentation proffered by others. And piles and piles of bad argumentation does not magically get better in virtue of sheer volume. The “research” is superficial, clearly selected based upon agreement with the desired perspective, and assembled to sustain a bias or preference. The argumentation is superficial and often outright bad. And the Biblical interpretation is oversimplified and usually at best contentious. In short, the authors do not make a compelling case for any of their perspectives, and their perspectives do not emerge from the titled goal of the book; this book is not about “pagan Christianity.” This book is about the “goodness” of “organic churches” and the “badness” of “institutionalized churches.” But that “goodness” and “badness” does not neatly map onto “early church” and “pagan” lines, despite the efforts of the authors (and their secondary sources) to make that seem to be so.

 

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What This Book Could Have Been

In short, this book could have been true to its ostensive and stated goal. The fact that this books becomes an “organic church” treatise rather than a genuine research project about paganism in Christianity keeps it from satisfying its stated (and more worthy) goal.

Notice that there is no chapter devoted to the practices of Christmas, Easter, sunrise services, or any of a host of other demonstrably pagan practices in Christianity. Instead of focusing on issues of little merit (and based on scant and slanted research, as well as contentious Biblical interpretation), such as tithing, Viola and Barna could have revealed and documented the pressing truth: all of the truly substantive practices in Christianity today, from Sunday-keeping itself to every major Christian holiday, all derive from paganism rather than the Bible.

There are much bigger fish to fry than Viola and Barna ever throw into the skillet, and these are overlooked because this book is really not about how pervasive paganism is in Christianity; this book is about a relatively small subset of paganism in Christianity–the subset that corresponds to the authors’ contention with “institutionalized” Christianity.

Thus, this book is a great disappointment rather than the solidly-documented, historically-accurate revelation about the truly pervasive paganism in Christianity, which is, by the way, what the title of the book said it would be!

Sadly, Barna has lost a good deal of credibility in my mind as a result of his involvement as “co-author” of this volume. It is unclear what role Barna played as “co-author,” but the typical standard of careful research the Barna Group is known for is not evident here.

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Summary

This book is certainly not all bad. The authors do call attention to the fact that most of contemporary church practice is not grounded in the Bible. This is a positive in itself, as it can raise awareness and perhaps create in some readers a desire for additional (and much deeper) study.

However, the book is not true to its title or its explicitly-stated goal. It is instead a narrow treatise designed to reach contentious conclusions regarding denominationalism, institutionalism, formalism, and the particular ways that Christ leads in and is Head of His church. While discussion on these topics is useful and worthwhile, the authors draw their particular conclusions on the basis of superficial research and questionable interpretations of particular Bible passages. As a result, the authors succeed neither in the stated purpose for the book nor in making their conclusions seem particularly plausible.

The book is worth a read, but only if you keep firmly in mind a level of skepticism regarding the authors’ bias, a bias, by the way, that turns out to have little to do with the title of the book.