Pagan Christianity?

Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
Revised and Updated
By Frank Viola and George Barna
Carol Stream, IL: Barna (An Imprint of Tyndale House Publishers), 2008
Review by Carl McColman

For years now, Neopagans have been joking (and griping) about how Christianity often appears as little more than a pagan ripoff. To find support for this claim, one need look no further than the marked similarity between many Catholic saints and pre-Christian deities (such as the Celtic goddess Brigit and her Irish namesake, St. Brigid) or indeed the uncanny correlation between the liturgical year and ancient pagan holidays (for example, Christmas corresponds with the Roman Saturnalia; Candlemas and All Saints with the Gaelic festivals of Imbolc and Samhain, etc.).

Of course, part of the joke (or frustration) in the minds of many Neopagans has been how willfully blind Christians seem to be in regard to the pagan influence on their faith. “We know that Easter is really a festival in honor of the spring goddess Eostara, no matter what the Christians might think or say” is practically a proverbial saying among pagans, who go on to note that colored eggs and rabbits were particularly sacred to this Germanic deity!

Now along comes Frank Viola, a leader in the burgeoning house church movement, who has teamed up with evangelical marketing guru George Barna to educate Christians on just how “pagan” their religion really is. Reading Pagan Christianity? is certainly an eye-opener; the authors don’t even bother with such issues as saints or holy days (although they never explicitly say so, it’s clear that they are writing for evangelical Protestants and certainly not for Catholics). Rather, they go after a number of issues that even Neopagans don’t typically concern themselves with: public church buildings, professional clergy, clergy vestments, professional music directors and choirs, even the ordinary order of worship (whether in the Catholic mass or the Protestant service) — these, and other, commonplace aspects of contemporary mainstream Christianity are all dissected, one by one, with virtually always the same verdict: these practices are rooted in Greek, Roman, or other pagan cultures, with little or no support in the Bible or the earliest Christian writings. The others go on to editorialize about how all these unscriptural, “pagan” practices are in their opinion harmful to the Body of Christ.

Needless to say, I have profoundly mixed feelings about this book.

On the positive side, I think it’s good to acknowledge the rich and splendid contribution that non-Christian culture has made to the evolution of the church. Many Christians have a sort of knee-jerk hostility to anything regarded as “non-Christian” or “unscriptural” with a particular aversion to anything that smacks of “paganism.” And this, in fact, leads directly to my chief complaint about this book. Barna and Viola, far from trying to be objective in their treatment of paganism, stoop to exploiting the ordinary Christian’s xenophobia in regard to paganism in order to drive home their argument that all these unscriptural accretions to the faith are, well, bad. Naturally, they exploit anti-Catholicism in a similar way. Their basic argument, repeated in a number of different contexts, runs along these lines:

  1. In the Bible we find the church as Christ and the Apostles intended it;
  2. Alas, over the centuries, paganism has a nefarious impact on the church;
  3. The church reaches its nadir with “Medieval Catholicism” (oh! The horror!);
  4. The reformers make a nice try attempting to clean up the pagan/Catholic mess, but leave the job unfinished;
  5. Therefore, modern Protestantism (except for house churches) is almost as bad as those terrible medieval Catholics.

Anyone can see why a book that relies so heavily on this line of reasoning would not be written for Catholic readers. Basically, for Catholics the entire argument is ludicrous, based not on holiness but on mere fear of the outsider. By contrast, consider this definition of “paganism” as found in A Catholic Dictionary:

In paganism … the Church has always recognized the existence of natural goodness and truth, the seeds of which the Fathers declare are to be found everywhere. All that is wise and true in the philosophies of antiquity, of Plato, of Plotinus, especially of Aristotle, has been incorporated into the Catholic system; all that is good and beautiful in their literature, arts and culture, whether of Hellas or Honolulu, is welcome to the Catholic mind.

For Catholics, just because something has its roots in paganism — or any other non-Christian tradition — does not make it wrong. Something is only wrong when it fails to be wise and true or good and beautiful.

Most Catholic readers would not only scratch their heads at the authors’ antipathy toward paganism, but would find their amateurish misrepresentation of Catholicism to be truly egregious. For example, they keep referring to the mood of the Holy Eucharist as “glum.” As a practicing Catholic, I can assure you that the Eucharist may be solemn and reverent, but it is never glum. In my experience reception of the Blessed Sacrament is moving, joyful, and filled with loving peace. Other instances of factual errors (for example, the authors call the Syrian Christian writer Pseudo-Dionysius a “pagan philosopher,” presumably because he was influenced by Neoplatonism) leave me wondering just how much of this book can I really trust.

As I read Pagan Christianity?, I kept asking myself, “Why is this such a big deal?” alternated with “Why do these guys hate Catholics and pagans so much?” Because, frankly, the book comes across as much more about what the authors hate than what they love. The answer appears toward the end of the book, when they recount the story of the death of Uzzah, who was killed when he accidentally touched the Ark of the Covenant (II Samuel 6). Viola and Barna read into this story a notion that God gets enraged when he is worshiped improperly, and extrapolate from that a belief that God is furious about pagan-influenced Christianity. Frankly, it appears to me that these guys are trying to please a wrathful god who condemns even the slightest mistake. No wonder their book comes across as fear-based (in defiance of Jesus’ command to “be not afraid”). It’s a shame, really; this could have been a wonderful book challenging Christians to stop hating pagans so much by acknowledging how much pagan influence has shaped Christian identity. But instead, the authors pander to such hatred in their thinly veiled attempt to market the house church movement as a more “pure” (read: non-pagan) Christianity.

Ironically, I think some of the points the authors are trying to make are points well worth considering. Catholic as I am, I must admit that their criticism of clergy authority makes a lot of sense to me. I’m very much a product of American culture, where I have been conditioned to be suspicious of hierarchy and to think egalitarianism is next to Godliness. I agree with the authors that a professional clergy creates a two-tiered culture within Christianity, encouraging passivity and docility among the laity (whose job is basically to “pray, pay and obey”), and that this is hardly what “the imitation of Christ” ought to look like. Of course, I think it has its roots in Gnosticism more than paganism, but I suppose I’ll leave that issue for the historians to quibble over. But I also need to say that I’ve had enough bad experiences (within the Neopagan community, ironically enough) with the chaos and power-tripping that lurks beneath the surface of organizations that proclaim “we’re all equal here” that I’m not yet sold on the idea, central to this book, that a church without clergy is a church closer to the will of God. Alas, these authors spend so much time attacking what they dislike in mainstream Christianity that they barely even try to make a case for their own vision of the church.

This brings me to my final critique of this book: it comes across as emotionally overwrought and rather manipulative of its intended readership. I know the authors are trying to disseminate little-known facts from ancient history to a wide readership, which is certainly a challenging task for any writer. But ultimately, not only do I think they’re unfair in their treatment of Catholics and pagans, they’re also disrespectful even of their target Protestant audience. Despite its plethora of footnotes (relying mostly not on primary sources, but on interpretive historians like Will Durant), Pagan Christianity? seems less a book of thoughtful analysis than simply an emotional screed. It’s only going to inspire people who basically already agree with the authors’ positions, while those who don’t will find it rather offensive. In that sense, I think the book ultimately sabotages itself. I consider myself to be an open-minded Catholic who is deeply committed to ecumenicism and is very interested in the house church movement as a viable and Godly expression of Christian community. But this book’s arrogant and divisive tone actually makes me less interested in participating in a house church.

Let me close with one final comment on this whole question of the pagan influence on Christianity. Few Christians are aware of this, but many Neopagans believe that the myth of a dying and resurrected god, which has its origins in more than one pagan culture, is directly responsible for the central drama of the Gospels. Scholars of religion have long recognized that pagan myths have their “precursors” of Christ; but are Christians ready to consider the Neopagan contention that Christ himself is nothing more than a pagan mytha sacrificial god refashioned into a monotheistic form for the benefit of the growing number of non-Jewish monotheists in antiquity? Non-Christian writers like Earl Doherty or Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy have written fascinating books considering this explosive claim. Mind you, I’m not endorsing this idea: but it’s out there, and many people do buy into it. Yet it seems that this particular alleged pagan influence on Christianity appears to be too hot for Viola and Barna to touch.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat Chapin-Bishop

    “are Christians ready to consider the Neopagan contention that Christ himself is nothing more than a pagan myth — a sacrificial god refashioned into a monotheistic form for the benefit of the growing number of non-Jewish monotheists in antiquity?”

    As a Pagan, I would caution that even those Pagans who hold that opinion–and I suppose I’m one of them, though I don’t doubt the historical existence of Jesus–would define the word “myth” in a way fairly different from the way many Christians might.

    For a Pagan, the word “myth” is not defined as “false belief”, but rather as a story whose truth is not merely in its factuality (or lack of it). Myth is sacred truth, encoded in story; myth is “poetry plus” as Marcus Borg keeps putting it in Reading the Bible Again For the First Time, not “factuality minus.”

    That’s a very important distinction, in my mind, and makes it a bit easier to understand how those of us who are really Pagan (as opposed to those just not doing Christianity “right” for Viola and Barna) can find nourishment in stories that are clearly not factual ones. (At least, I don’t think we’re going to find an eight-legged horse for the Norse god Odin to ride on, roaming around next to a fjord somewhere, like some kind of Scandinavian Bigfoot!)

    And it should also help defend Paganism from the perennial accusation of being “anti-Christian.” To recognize a myth in the Christ story is not to attack Christianity. From a Pagan perspective, it is rather to honor it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    You’re right, Cat, and I fear that my wording was not particularly sensitive to that understanding of myth. So thanks for the clarification. Earl Doherty (who I believe is an atheist, certainly not a Neopagan) is an example of someone who insists that Jesus never even existed. So for him, Jesus-as-myth really does equal Jesus-as-fiction. I’m much more comfortable with the understanding of myth that you describe here in your comment; I think it is an understanding of myth where both Neopagans and Christians of good will can find common ground.

  • Shadwynn

    Carl, I thought your review was pointedly fair and accurate. (I also agree with Cat, too. For me, to say that something is “mythic” is to pay it a high honor; at the same time it should also be a clue to the reader/hearer that the object of such an adjective is worthy of further study and contemplation for the extraction of those hidden gems of oral and cultural tradition which lurk in so many religious stories from our collective past.)

    As one who vacillates between your categories of “Christian-leaning Pagan” and “Pagan-leaning Christian”, I see the surest way to illumined truth to be an approach which rejoices in spiritual insight wherever it may be found welling up from the artesian undercurrents of Spirit in varied religious geographies. Objective assimilation of such wisdom can only hasten our eventual arrival in a homecoming to the Holy.

    I thoroughly agree with you about the attitude of the authors. This seems to be part of the superiority complex and legalistic baggage often carried around by even well-meaning evangelicals whose theological outlook has been so saturated over the years with a literalistic “my way or the highway” attitude. It’s hard to reform a Pharisee (just think of what it took to get Paul to have a change in religious perspective!)

    Finally, what amazes me about many evangelicals’ “pagan-phobia” is that they are criticizing the very things which give Christianity its beautiful sensuality: liturgy and symbology. All those dreaded “pagan” trappings of church worship from the “smells and bells” of the Mass to the greening of the church at Christmas to colored eggs at Easter are revered ways of seducing all our senses with the beauty and allure of Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in all her guises. Why else do so many Catholics who have “lapsed” often find themselves at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or the Easter Vigil in the spring? Symbols intertwined in poweful liturgies can make worship an indelible memory upon the soul through the piecing scent of incense, the singular Pascal candle lighting a darkened sanctuary with the bold and burning proclamation that the Light cannot be forever quenched. Choirs, vestments, votives flickering their prayerful intercessions; the list of pagan contributions which have only served to accentuate the abiding truths of the Christ Event is long and influential in the formation of church structure and tradition. How could I be hostile to that which has contributed so much beauty to our beliefs?

    In contrast, much of the evangelical Protestant mindset seems to be so steeped in the chapter-and-verse mentality that it is like a structural framework deprived of the architectural adornments which make a building aesthetically pleasing to the eye. I contend that those adornments are the very pagan contributions to historical and traditional Christianity against which the authors of this book have so adamantly raved. Maybe we should all light a candle for them (taking advantage of another pagan practice for the illumination of their soul!) :-)

  • Jeanette

    Here are some other reviews on the book by folks like Alan Hirsch, Andrew Jones, Michael Kruse and many others. http://www.paganchristianity.org/reviews.htm

    Frank Viola is also answering questions and objections to the book over at http://www.ptmin.org/answers.htm

  • Pingback: Pagan Christianity? : The River Lethe

  • http://maritzia.consecrated-life.org Maritzia

    Like Shadwynn, I sort of lean back and forth between pagan leaning and catholic leaning. My past Catholicism certainly had a profound effect on the shaping of my personal belief systems. For me, I still believe that Jesus was incarnate of God, however, I don’t believe that Jesus was the only time in eternity that the Divine incarnated itself among us. Hence my separation from Catholicism. Yet I still find much beauty and truth in Catholic theology and ritual.

    I think for myself, the biggest issue has always been the hierarchy of the Church. While I’m not a particular believer in the no hierarchy idea (after all, there are people in the world who are natural leaders and natural followers), however I’m not really fond of the idea of a divinely appointed leader who is always right. I think there needs to be some accountability on the part of the leader to those who are led. Hence, again, my separation from Catholicism.

    Thank you for another very thoughtful and thought provoking post. In the month or two that I’ve been following your blog, you have given me a wealth to think about and meditate on.

  • http://www.michaelnoyes.com Michael Noyes

    Thanks Carl for another insightful perspective. As a recovering fundamentalist myself, I appreciate your pointing out the authors’ obvious bigotry toward any idea/practice that differs from their own. They are afraid to step outside the small circle they have drawn, a circle that includes only themselves and necessarily a very small god. I remember those days, but thankfully at one point I screwed up the courage to explore outside the walls of my own prejudice. Guess what I found – it’s a wild and wonderful world out there! Hallelujah!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Indeed it is.

  • http://www.morethancake.org Joe Miller

    Hi, an excellent alternative to Viola’s book is “The Ancient Church As Family” by Dr. Joe Hellerman. His work is well researched and addresses many of the “pagan” influences on our faith. Dr. Hellerman’s contribution is a blend of good history AND respectful discourse.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Joe, that book looks wonderful.

  • Phil

    Such a knee-jerk reaction to this book is hardly unexpected. I must say that it has taken time to process it all myself. What can we say, people? Until Christ comes again, there will be bitter dialogue (AKA – strife and discord) concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. There are several key passages of the Bible – God’s Word – that speak of the division that is caused between those that reject Christ and those that follow Him completely. (Matthew 10:32-39 is a good place to start). How do we reject Him? (Later in the same Matthew passage – verse 40 – one of many places that say that to accept Jesus – God’s Son – is to know and accept God Himself, because Jesus is God). I mean, hey – I love the guy and most of His teachings, right? He’s all or nothing, that’s what the post-modern culture can’t stand about Him. Our culture wants it all – we want a “buffet-style” religion that parades itself as accepting of all beliefs – except genuine belief in Jesus Christ. Post-modern thinking pukes when it tries to comsume John 14:6 “Jesus said: I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Me.” I ashamedly admit that all that has been done in the name of Christianity hasn’t been pretty, to say the least. And, unfortunately, the world will continually seek to find excuses to not accept Christ as Lord and Savior – they will continue to try to find it out on their own what it means to have life to the fullest. Hey, I can’t answer for why some “Christians” have done what they have done, and you know what – I don’t have to. We will all stand before God someday to answer either for our sins (those that reject God’s Son – Jesus Christ) or for those things that we have done to make Christ known to the world – good deeds done by the power of the Holy Spirit for Jesus’ glory (for those that accept Christ personally). These men that have written this book, while still men that may not have it all together (niether do you or I), have given us food for thought that maybe what this world needs is to actually see genuine Christian faith lived out in the community that God designed it for – free from worldly inlfuence – so that they can understand what it is that the world lacks – Jesus Christ Himself.

  • http://www.myspace.com/daviddflowers David D. Flowers

    If you would like a different approach to the book… read my review at Amazon.

    I encourage you to check out more on the subject at: http://www.myspace.com/daviddflowers

    I welcome honest and respectful dialogue.

    Peace.
    David D. Flowers

  • http://hamradiohome.us Raynard Merritt

    The book is about “Pagan Christianity” not so much about the House Church Movement. If you want their ideas about “The Church” then pick up “Rethinking the Wineskin” by Viola.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Pagan Christianity is very much about the House Church Movement. The book’s consistent message is this: “Since institutional Christianity is so infected by pagan practices, the best way to be faithful to the New Testament vision of the church is by joining a House Church.” Never mind that I consider Viola’s and Barne’s reading of New Testament ecclesiology to be narrow, flawed, and intolerant, but I find the book’s arrogant claim that once one is aware of the pagan influences in Christianity one is morally obligated to leave the institutional church to be offensive and insulting. Pagan Christianity is a classic bait and switch product: it purports to be a survey of pagan influence on the church, but its real agenda is to use that topic only for the purpose of manipulating people into becoming house church followers — not a very admirable marketing campaign for a community that claims to be the true embodiment of the priesthood of all believers.

  • http://www.myspace.com/daviddflowers David D. Flowers

    I must respectfully disagree with you Mr. McColman. I think you should look deeper into the things Viola and Barna are saying… instead of getting caught up on the idea that we are talking about trading one way of “doing” church for another. There seems to be a lot of drama surrounding the practice of the church today that is unnecessary to say the least. We have lost sight of what is important: Christ!

    The authors state their thesis very clearly. They are “making room” for the centrality, supremacy, and headship of Jesus in all things… particulalry in the church. Out of Christ comes an organic and natural Body life.

    The thesis you have stated does not reflect the one stated by the authors. So, it would appear that you believe they are purposely deceiving their readers and are liars… OR… you are not being honest and you are reacting too qucikly based on your own ideas of the church conversation today.

    Frankly, people are too fascinated with the church and seemingly disinterested in Jesus. I see something very disturbing in it all. Just my thoughts.

    Peace brother.

    David D. Flowers

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    David, thanks for your tone of respectful disagreement (I welcome alternative viewpoints on this blog, as long as they aren’t expressed in disrespectful ways). Having said that, I do think we’ll have to agree to disagree. All interpretation is context bound, and as Mike Morrell noted on his blog, I’m a “category breaker” when it comes to reading and reviewing this book: a Neopagan-friendly, House Church-friendly, interfaith minded Catholic (yes, there aren’t too many of us, which is why I take what I do so seriously!). Obviously, in my context, Viola and Barna’s agenda of attacking paganism — and by extension, Catholicism — overshadows what laudable efforts they may be making in calling the body of Christ to a more faithful form of church.

    I’m looking forward to reading other of Viola’s books that are more positive in their depiction of house churches. I think the Quakers had it right when they said, “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” As far as I’m concerned, every author is entitled to write a stinker or two — I know I have.

    I’m not calling these guys liars or even purposefully deceptive. I think they’re marketers. I think this book’s real agenda is to promote the house church movement but it has been beautifully packaged as an exposé of paganism within Christianity. Whether “clever marketing” amounts to lying, I will leave to my readers to decide. I do think that a title like “Why House Churches are More Faithful to New Testament Ecclesiology than Institutional Churches” would have been much more honest. But it also would have resulted in lower book sales.

  • http://www.gracegospelchurch.ca james parker

    Carl is right about “P.C.?” and Mr. Flowers is dead wrong; “P.C.?” is a work of “house-church” propaganda, no question. Why, even other “house-churches” are maligned and ridiculed, as they do not “line up” with the “Immaculate Conception” of Church, as imagined by Barna/Viola/Tyndale!

  • Jen

    I listented to these two interviews with Barna and Viola, and I really enjoyed them. They were really helpful.

    http://www.ptmin.org/barna_viola2.mp3
    http://www.ptmin.org/barna_viola.mp3

  • Peggy

    The so called House Church movement is not an innovative concept. And it’s stirring up dissension which right there clues me in that it has a dubious agenda. Books such as this one are also not new. They have the deleterious effect of confusing those who are seekers of the Jesus of the Gospels. This is why I like the catechumate process–it gives an inquirer the opportunity to dip into church history and practice and learn the how and why of Christianity as it is today in all its myriad forms. My favorite Saint is Patrick who in the bloodless, swordless voluntary conversion of the Irish brought the best of culture and practice of a “pagan” people into Christianity. And the Irish were true Pagans in that they were an agrarian folk and not cosmpolitan/city oriented as the larger Mediterrarean culture which looked down on farmers and hearders. Such “work ” was fit only for slaves. There was a bias then and there is a bias now. Again, whose agenda does such division serve?

  • Rachel

    I read a few of the above comments, enjoying in particular Shadwynn’s.

    But I have a question: is the “A Catholic Dictionary” you quoted the one by Attwater? Because I think I might buy it, just based off its lovely and oh-so-true definition for paganism. :)

    And also, on the pagan and varied “precursors” to Christ: might those have been just ways that God was leading them to Christ, to prepare them for Christ? By giving them some Truth, as in foreshadowing, they would be ready to hear Christ’s message, etc. Like how we believe that there is foreshadowing in the Bible, with oh, Melchizadek’s offering of bread and wine a foreshadowing of the Last Supper. (There are some actual terms for this, but I cannot for the life of me recall them. Meh. o_O)
    That’s how I see it. :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Yes, it’s the Attwater dictionary, you can buy it here. It’s pre-Vatican II, so in many ways it will be dated. But the definition of paganism is a keeper.

  • Linda Nicola

    “It’s a shame, really; this could have been a wonderful book challenging Christians to stop hating pagans so much by acknowledging how much pagan influence has shaped Christian identity. But instead, the authors pander to such hatred in their thinly veiled attempt to market the house church movement as a more “pure” (read: non-pagan) Christianity.”

    I think this is a book you should write.


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