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:
- In the Bible we find the church as Christ and the Apostles intended it;
- Alas, over the centuries, paganism has a nefarious impact on the church;
- The church reaches its nadir with “Medieval Catholicism” (oh! The horror!);
- The reformers make a nice try attempting to clean up the pagan/Catholic mess, but leave the job unfinished;
- 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 myth — a 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.