Thursday, February 05, 2009

Pagan Christianity 2

Last Thursday we began looking at Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity. For today I read through George Barna's Introduction and Viola's first chapter. So much build up... sorry I'm not to the concrete controversy yet! Someone complained last week that I reviewed the Preface.

So Barna's introduction is more build up. There is a great sense of foreboding. The "institutional" church is in great crisis. It is like a plane that got slightly of course and has been flying for so long that it's way off course. It's like a cow that zig zagged, then a dog followed, then sheep, then horses, then people, then roads were built and cities and we're wasting thousands of miles of travel because we're stuck in that cow's rut.

What horrible shape we must be in! Sounds like Viola and Barna are the Luther and Calvin of the day, here to bring about a new Reformation!

Let me say, for all my tongue and cheek above, that their goal is great, to "get in touch with both the Word of God and the history of the church" (xxvii). "Our goal is to be true to His plan so that we may become the people He desires us to be and that the church may be all she is called to be" (xxix).

And let me also say that their definitions of things like "Pagan," "Pagan Christianity," and "Biblical" are carefully worded not to be simply dismissive of everything that had its origins in secular culture.

Chapter 1: Have We Really Been Doing It By the Book
The opening illustration is a guy who yells at his family trying to get them ready for church. They get to church late. Then they all have to smile and pretend they're happy while listening to a boring sermon about how "We at First Bible New Testament Community Church do everything by this book! Everything!" (3).

I'm assuming this image will resonate with a lot of American Christians? I certainly get the morning get to church panic. Actually, it applies in my family more in relation to getting to school. Obviously a pagan rather than a Christian problem. The problem--the institutional church! Naw, I don't think so. The problem--take a chill pill Dad and take a class in family management.

I do remember churches where what you wear and being on time is all important. Maybe they are the vast majority. The take away--Down with the institutional church! Naw, I don't think so. The take away is for a whole lot of people to get their priorities straight.

Sorry, my church isn't like that. People wear jeans and shorts and T-shirts if they want to. Those for whom dressing up is a (cultural) expression of God's holiness dress up--and shame on anyone who tells them they can't do this.

Are there people who look askance at the Schenck family if they're late? Probably. Maybe I need to pray about my attitude toward them because my thought is usually, you shallow loser for thinking that matters one iota. The institutional church the problem? Naw, I don't think so.

More importantly, Viola assumes throughout that the pastor is right about doing it solely by the book. He thinks the problem is that the pastor is not doing it by the book. Again, this pastor (and therefore Viola) at least borders on being the ignorant one.

When we look at the addresses on the Bible is says it was written to someone called (ancient) Israel and someone called "the churches of Galatia" and "to those who are at Rome." No one alive today is the actual audience of these books. And guess what, they were people embedded in a culture. It is impossible to extract yourself from culture, from "paganism." Paganism as Viola defines it will always, of necessity, of the nature of the case, always be inextricably intertwined with the business of being Christian, even of being an "organic" Christian.

So the biblical message is already thoroughly "pagan" in his sense, culturally embedded. And we don't go strictly "by the Book" because the living out of the gospel in their cultures (plural) has to be translated into living out the gospel in our cultures (plural).

Certainly Viola recognizes this to some extent. He says things a little like this in his notes. But the premise of the book seems to deny his acknowledgement as it gets into the details.

We'll see.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yesterday's talk at IWU on genetic engineering was right along this line, in regards to 'translating" the gospel within a different language, a scientific one.

More about it on

Bill said...

Thanks, Ken. Overall, a fair review. A few thoughts:

First, I think the book actually agrees with your "naw" comments. I've been amazed at how people elevate petty complaints about church, but I've also seen it give them permission to begin asking more critical questions, which the Ch.1 Q&A says was the point. (p.8)

Far more important, of course, is this tension between Frank's criticism of biblicalism and his own [generally inferred and ocassionally broadcasted] degree of holding to it under a different lens. The question of whether we *should* do church "by the book" is an important discussion I would love to see held more openly. My feelings are here.

However, the thesis of the book, strictly speaking, is that most churches today - whether they claim to follow the NT or not - actually don't. Aside from where we all fall in those praxis debates, it would be nice to hear more honesty and accuracy about just how "Biblical" our practices are or aren't. Do you agree?

On that note - not to beat a dead horse - I'm honestly unclear on what you mean by "premise" in the last paragraph. Do you still disagree as to the book's actual thesis, or were you referring to the underlying assumption of biblicalism?

Thanks for pacing these reviews, Ken. Looking forward to next Thursday already.

Ken Schenck said...

Bill, I certainly don't want to misrepresent Viola, but every vibe I'm getting is that he and Barna are anti-institutional church.

There is a disclaimer paragraph about not having the spirit of rebelling against the church, about not being with such people. But, right or wrong, my Biblehead head immediately thought, "This reads like a later interpolation into the text." I immediately pictured a scenario where 1) on a later rereading or 2) more likely, another reader, editor, or publisher, suggests that Viola might want to clarify that he is not plotting an uprising.

The vibe I'm getting, though, is "The Reformer doth protest too much methinks." I am very open to being corrected as I (thankfully and finally) get into the actual substance of the book yet to come...

Keep me honest!

Bill said...

Ken, of course the tone is very negative - the thesis is a "not" statement - but I'd say the vibe is something extra. You're also right about there being an earlier edition with fewer clarifications.

Maybe all I'm suggesting is that the content of the book contains substantial arguments as well as, ah, let's call it "flair". Whatever we do with the flair, and the clarifications about the flair, I believe the central arguments are both valid and sound.

Personally, I appreciate much of Frank's commentary, and I do believe he agrees with the clarifications to the letter. But the part I wish all christians knew more about is the arguments.

Keep at it, sir. :)

Keith Drury said...

Thanks for this Ken. Loan the book to me when you've "finished" with it OK?