Book Review: Pagan Christianity?

By | September 7, 2008

WARNING!: This is a most important book that most christians shouldn’t read. If you have your faith and beliefs all figured out, feel confident in the truth and enjoy being involved in your church, then don’t read this book! If you happen to be a pastor or on staff at a church and value your life, then definitely DON’T READ THIS BOOK!!! It’s not that you will be more in danger of being killed, but you will almost certainly have your conscious challenged and possibly have your life turned upside down because of it.

Seriously, I’m warning you. This is like Neo meeting Morpheus for the first time in The Matrix. This is a red pill vs. blue pill moment. If you have any doubts, stop reading this blog, don’t read this book, don’t read anything by Frank Viola—stay safe, take the blue pill and forget all about it.

If however, there’s something about church that bothers you, something you might not quite be able to understand or explain, then read on. If you have any questions or doubts about christianity and church, anything lurking in the back of your mind that you may only be vaguely aware of and trying to ignore, then read on. If there are things about the church that outright frustrate and bug you, then take the red pill—this truth may well set you free.

Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole

There, I’ve warned you. You now continue at your own risk. The authors themselves say, “Reading this book takes courage.” (p. 253). There is essentially one underlying belief behind this book, Pagan Christianity? That idea is that the biblical, God designed way to be the church is more organic, one in which everyone shares and is on the same level, and is centered on practice as opposed to knowledge. Conversely, the way we currently do church isn’t biblical, and is probably hindering people more than helping them.

The one complaint I might have of this book is that it seems to approach this primary point backwards throughout the book. The approach of the book is to take a specific church practice, trace it’s roots to pagan/secular culture, and therefore show that it is not biblical. That in itself is not necessarily a problem, but it is argued that these practices are in contrast to the biblical model for church, and actually hinder the way that the church is suppose to function. In other words, through the first 11 chapters of the book, the focus seems to be on attacking church practices, with the secondary point being that they aren’t biblical and the third point being to show the way church ought to be.

I personally feel that an clearer explanation of the goal at the beginning of the book would better set the context for the examining of church practices that takes up the majority of the book. For this reason, I suggest first reading the afterword, “The Next Step”, then reading chapter 12 (“A Second Glance at the Savior: Jesus the Revolutionary”), and finally going through and reading the remainder of the book. The book is such that each chapter essentially stands on it’s own, and could therefore be read out of order.

Pagan Christianity? was originally written by Frank Viola. George Barna read the book and felt that every Christian ought to read it as well. To this end, he and Viola collaborated on an updated version, which was published by a larger company than the first edition had been.


One aspect of church practice is examined in each of chapters two through ten, showing that the origins of these—or at least how they are practiced today—are pagan and/or secular. The point in doing so is to show that the origins aren’t in the bible as they must assume many christians believe they are (otherwise, why would they go to this trouble?). What follows from this is that there is another way of being the church which is more biblical and what God intended. I now offer here a brief overview of the book.

The first chapter is an introduction. In chapter two, the church building is shown to not have come into use until the time of Constantine, and that the idea came primarily from pagan temples, some being direct converted into churches. The problem is that they are generally designed so that there are a few people separated and placed above the majority, while the majority of people are situated as a passive audience. This greatly hinders the equality of all believers and prevents the participation of everyone.

Chapter three addresses the order of worship, showing that generally it is fixed and pretty inflexible, again not allowing for congregational participation. Chapter three demonstrates that the sermon is essential a form of the art of Greek rhetoric. Rhetoric was a form of entertainment, and a persons speaking and persuasion abilities were placed above accuracy or truth of content. Additionally, it once again has a single speaker with many un-participating listeners. Beyond this, the centrality of preaching in Protestantism puts emphasis on knowledge rather that practice, as is biblical.

Chapter five argues that the position of a professional pastor as we know it is unbiblical. The ridiculousness of all we expect a professional minister to be, a theologian, bible scholar, motivational speaker, teacher, leader, counselor, shepard, the one who visits all the sick, etc., is pointed out. By expecting a pastor to be all of these things, the rest of the body often isn’t fully using their gifts to minister to each other. And the nature of the position of pastor is such that it puts an unnatural and pathological burden on the person in that position.

Chapter six talks about the origins of “dressing up” for church (people were trying to show off their social/financial status). Music in church services and music ministers are discussed in Chapter seven, while tithing and financial support of the church institution is addresses in chapter eight. Chapter nine looks at baptism and communion, and in contrast to the other chapters up to this point, actually stresses their importance, and wants to see them practiced more Biblically than is sometimes the case today.

Chapter ten addresses some of the faults of the current state of christian education, specifically in the area of training leaders and clergy. Of course the idea of professional clergy has itself already been addressed in the book. The problems are that it perpetuates the idea of separation from average people and those who can do “God’s work”. It again places emphasis on knowledge, apparently assuming that if one is a bible scholar, then one is perfectly equipped to be a minister. The reality is this is not at all true, and the result is that we have many people in positions their supposedly qualified for, all the while they may have little idea how to handle it. It also perpetuates the system, by training future leaders in the traditional flawed ways of doing church. The point isn’t that knowledge and teaching are bad or that they don’t have their place, but that they aren’t supposed to be central to the gathering of believers.

Chapter eleven departs a bit from earlier chapters. It is taken from a lecture that Viola made. In it, he addresses our common approaches to scripture, specifically the new testament, and how they are significantly flawed, thereby allowing for all kinds of misunderstanding. This is obviously not a moot point. The final chapter serves as a summary, and begins to paint of vision of what the church ought to look like.


I feel that this is a book whose time has come. No doubt many will try and hold onto and defend the institutional church. I understand that most christians have been tied to and have a lot invested in the institutional church. Changing one’s beliefs about something which is deeply held onto is not easy nor does it come quickly. I feel that I had already come to most all of the conclusions that this book submits. Getting to that point has been a years long process.

Several years ago Barna wrote a book called Revolution. In it, he states his belief that there is a revolution coming and already in progress that will almost completely reshape the face of the church (I have not actually read the book, but this is my understanding of the content). Many will scoff at this—there are always people suggesting a revolution in this way or that. However I believe and have felt for years this same thing. It’s not that everything will be upset over night, but that in the course of the next several decades significant changes are likely to occur. There are many people out there who sense that something isn’t quite right with how christianity is typically practiced today. Pagan Christianity? is a great resource for understanding these problems and therefore the basis for understanding what to do differently.

Viola states that Pagan Christianity? was never a book meant to stand alone. He has authored another book titled Reimagining Church which is intended in part as a “what now? follow up to Pagan Christianity?. I have just ordered this book, and certainly am looking forward to reading it as well.

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