As of the time of this writing, there haven’t been an abundance of comments to my recent review on Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna. (I recognize I’m a bit behind many other bloggers in my review, and many have already moved on from this conversation.) However, of the four comments I’ve had so far, three have sided in favor of the book. Their thoughtful remarks, and reading some of the follow-up content on Frank Viola’s website, have prompted me to follow up a bit as to why I reviewed the book the way I did, and where I was coming from.
I’d like to submit the following for your consideration.
I actually read the book. 🙂
I say this because there is a sort of joke going around about how many people have sided against the book but have never read it. And in reading the authors’ replies to several of the challenges presented to them, there is a common thread that says, essentially, “That’s not what we said; if you actually read the book, you would know we didn’t say that.” Well, and good; but I did read the book, and can present quotes from it, if necessary, to back up my points.
I am a house church leader, and outside the institutional church. This is important to note because although the book did effectively challenge some of my existing ideas, I did not approach this book defensively, as having a particular church form or structure that I was trying to protect.
My initial bias when approaching the book was very positive.
I was not one of these folks who picked up the book with the intent of picking it apart. From the moment I read the title, I could not wait to get my hands on it. Plus, I had read Barna’s book Revolution, and another book he helped publish, Jim and Casper Go to Church, and I loved them both. I did not know who Viola was, but Barna’s name on the project was enough to convince me to read it. So you need to know that I went into this reading fully prepared to agree with it, and was disappointed on several fronts.
My review is of the book itself, not of the authors’ character or ministry, or of anything they have said before or after publishing the book.
No one has suggested otherwise, but just for clarity–I am not in judgment of either of the authors’ lives, character, or body of ministry. In fact, in my opinion, from what I know of them, both have a history and a sense of scholarship that is highly commendable, and deserves respect. However, on some of their conclusions I must respectfully disagree. Also, in following up on Viola’s website and in reading several interviews given after the book was published (such as on J.R. Miller’s blog), I have found a lot to agree with them about, and they have done a lot of clarifying of their intentions that have truly “softened the blow” as far as the book goes. I greatly appreciate, for example, that they have clarified that they do not believe there is one “right” method for church. However, I need to make this statement: If you have to do so much “clarifying” after you write something this provocative, you have to consider whether you communicated your points well enough in the first place. A well-written book, for the most part, should stand on its own without a lot of extra explanations. Hence, the negative review of the book–not of the authors themselves.
My primary complaint of the book is concerning the opinionated tone and apparent conclusions of the book, rather than the information presented.
Probably the best example of what I’m talking about is in the question of whether Viola and Barna have presented a narrow view of true Biblical Christianity in this book. In my review, I said that they had done so, despite their own claims in the book that they were not doing so. Some of the commentors have said that they don’t feel the authors intended this. But I’d like to submit the following passage from the book:
“What do we mean by a first-century-styled church? It is a group of people who know how to experience Jesus Christ and express Him in a meeting without any human officiation. Such a group of people can function organically together as a body when they are left on their own after the church planter leaves them. (This does not mean that church planters never return…but after planting a church, church planters should be absent more than they are present.)
“The one who plants a first-century-styled church leaves that church without a pastor, elders, a music leader, a Bible facilitator, or a Bible teacher. If that church is planted well, those believers will know how to sense and follow the living, breathing headship of Jesus Christ in a meeting. They will know how to let Him invisibly lead their gatherings….”
Now, there is nothing inherently un-Biblical about these statements, neither does it specifically state that a “first-century-styled church” is the only correct “style”. But how something is said is often more telling than what is said. When you take this and other statements in the context of the overall tone of the book, it is very easy to interpret it as suggesting that this is the right way, and all other forms are the wrong way. Some might not see it that way; but taking into account a lot of other reviews, it is apparent that I’m not the only one who took it this way. So if that is not what the authors intended, I must conclude that this could have been communicated much better than it was. Again–hence, the negative review.
My intent in giving a negative review was to help refine the conversation.
What I mean by this is that I definitely think books like this one are timely, and much of what they are saying needs to be said. All of this–the books like Pagan Christianity?, the many blogs like this one (and the comments left on them)–all of these are part of a very necessary conversation. Because of this, I think it’s important for us to refine and re-work and re-tool and re-think, to constantly be looking for the best ways to convey the truths we are learning. I honestly felt that this book had a lot of good things to say, but shot itself in the foot in the way it said them. And my hope in bringing this opinion to the table was that in doing so, we would all try to consider how we can “say it” better in the future.
I am looking forward to reading the sequel. 🙂
And I’ll be changing the subject in my next post. 🙂
ADDENDUM: For an additional perspective on this book, Ben Witherington has written a review recently as well. While I can’t say I agree on every point he makes, I particularly like his comments about how P.C. trivializes the theology of worship and the mystery of God. This was a point on which I also disagreed with the book.