Pagan Christianity: You can’t judge a book by its reviews


Yesterday my copy of Pagan Christianity came in the mail.  I’ve read a couple of chapters and I have a very different take on the book than many reviewers.   To illustrate I’d like to bring up some of what Bob Hyatt has written in his review of the chapter on Buildings.  Keep in mind I haven’t read the whole the book and I have the final version rather than the review copy.

Bob writes "But as is quickly being seen here as SOP (standard operating procedure) he buries all the good points he makes under an almost intolerable load of garbage- overstatements, mis-implications and outright non sequiturs."

I disagree strongly with this assessment.  While the authors say some things stronger than I would and use less precision than I would I don’t believe these things come anywhere close to a "intolerable load of garbage."

Bob writes

"The basic premise of the chapter is this: ‘Meeting in homes was a conscious choice of the early Christians.’
Well, sure. But so was meeting in the synagogue (Acts 9:2) and at the Temple (Acts 2:46). Right?  At least up and until they were thrown out, just as Jesus said would happen."

The church didn’t meet in a synagogue, there were Christians in the synagogue because Christianity was still considered a path or a sect within the Jewish religion.  The church hadn’t really been fully born yet.  The same is true of Christians meeting in the temple. At this point people have very little understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus as his church.   Bob is splitting hairs over a point that has no relevance on the strength’s of Viola/Barna’s argument.  Viola rightly points out that homes were the clear choice of the early church.

Bob writes "Apparently, us worshiping on Sunday is a result of  Constantine’s decree (no mention of  Acts 20:7, 1 Cor  16:1-2) or that Justin Martyr (AD 100-162) said a couple of hundred years before Constantine "We hold our common assembly on the Sun’s day."

Actually Viola/Barna don’t say this at all.  On page 19 Viola/Barna writes that Constantine was so mired in pagan thought he declared Sunday to be a day of rest to honor the sun god.  Unless Bob’s point comes from somewhere else in the book this assertion is pure fiction.

"Now, there are two unstated assumptions all through this chapter.

1. No church community up until the time of Constantine had ever erected a building or met in a dedicated space that wasn’t (at least originally) a home. This isn’t true.
2. And even if it was, the assumption is that if Pagan Constantine hadn’t gotten us "off track", we’d most likely STILL be meeting in homes.

The whole assumption here is that if the Apostle Paul or Jesus Himself were asked if Christian communities should ever build/own a building they would have declared an emphatic "NO" and that without the influence of a Pagan like Constantine with political motives, it never would have occurred to growing communities of Christians that a space larger than a living room was an option for their public worship.
And that’s a pretty big assumption."

I think points 1 and 2 here are pretty sketchy in that they argue against the unstated assumptions he claims the author has without providing any evidence.  In the course of any fair debate you have to argue with the points the authors make not the ones they don’t.  Arguing against unstated assumptions sounds a lot more like erecting straw men.  Furthermore I don’t believe the authors hold to the unstated assumptions Bob claims the authors have.

The chapter is a historical examination of the use of church buildings.  The book is accurate in that it identifies Constantine as the father of the church building in a broad historical sense.  There were times and places where the church was relatively free from persecution and could have erected a building but the evidence indicates they did not.  There were a smattering of buildings used by Christians half way through the 3rd century but they were just a blip.

On page 44 Viola/Barna state there isn’t anything in scripture that prohibits the body of Christ from meeting in a dedicated building.  They would probably argue that if the church maintained it’s earlier ideals it would meet in places and in ways that didn’t divide "clergy" from "laity" or hinder the relational dynamics of the church.  They admit that at least one meeting place had a wall knocked out and was "a space larger than a living room."

I agree with Bob in that some of Viola/Barna points seem to have more emotional force than would be necessary.  At one point Viola/Barna rant about the message of church steeples.  I understand the influence of neo-platonic thought on church architecture and the intention to communicate certain things with things like lights, colour and steeples.  I’m not sure that steeples communicate what they were originally intended to with a modern audience.  (Although lots of things in our church structures do communicate lots to us.)  I would have left that mini-rant out.  I think any author has to make a choice as to whether they are doing to risk distracting people from the main point of their message but delving in to something that could easily be misunderstood or taken the wrong way.  I don’t think Viola/Barna are erring on the side of caution with that.  However I don’t believe these things obscure the hard hitting nature of the evidence they present.

Those who might in anyway feel threatened by what is presented in the book need to keep themselves from focusing on the minor overstatements that would conveniently distract them from some very applicable truths in their situation.  I don’t think this book is going to be accepted well by your typical emergent/postmodern because the authors are closer to an absolutist view of truth than a relative one.  They believe that through careful and honest research tied in diligent scriptural study one can make sweeping judgments about theecclesiology held by hundreds of millions of people.  I think it is good.  For too long the church has held to what amounts to a "anything goes" approach to church and an honest examination of history and scripture reveals us that some things truly are universal about the church and some of our long held traditions in church run against them.

I’m not claiming that any specific reviewer is skewed because they are threatened or more "postmodern" than the authors.  I don’t claim to know whatany one’s motives are but I do know that an earnest seeker of the truth will have an understanding of where their biases lie.  This is also true of those who would cheer lead the authors efforts because they have serious emotional issues with Christian institutions.

As we search for truth together it is important to remember that apply the most scrutiny to someones main point and the main evidence they use to get to that main point.  It is easy to focus on small things that we find absurd or contradictory.  It is an easy way to let ourselves off the hook from a difficult truth we would rather not deal with.

  1. #1 by Bill Lollar on February 27, 2008 - 11:52 am

    Hi. Found your review at the Pagan Christianity website. Just thought you and your readers might enjoy reading a new interview with George Barna and Frank Viola. I just posted it today: “The Thin Edge hosts joint interview with Barna & Viola.”

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