Reviewing the Reviewers, June 20, 2008
What I would like to offer, therefore, is less of a review of the book than a review of the reviewers. Clearly, if this were some kind of an election, the “pro” side would be landslide winners. That fact by itself, of course, does not prove that Pagan Christianiy is a paradigm of insight and truth. There are many books on the market today that are awash with rave reviews that I wouldn’t waste either my money to purchase or my time to read or the space on my bookshelves to display. But I did invest in a copy of Pagan Christianty, I have taken the time to carefully read it – more than once – and I will definitely assign it a prominent place on my bookshelves with other esteemed writings that I consult frequently. By the way, as a writer myself, and as a copy editor for a Christian magazine, I must add that from a style perspective alone, Pagan Christianity is a literary masterpiece. About the only criticism I can offer is that the tiny font size chosen for the footnotes is a challenge for my 73 year old eyes.
As of today (6/20/08), 138 others have already written a review of Pagan Christianity. I read all of them – carefully – before venturing to add the 139th. Admittedly, there is little helpful analysis that I can add, since just about everything that can be said about this excellent and challenging book has already been provided for you in the reviews that precede mine. In fact, if you simply take the time to carefully read the reviews by David Flowers, William Dahl, John White, Jon Zens, Jill Scales, N Demaray, Clark Wade and James Miller, I can only add one word. Amen!
Now, what about the other reviews? I’ve already betrayed my favorable bias toward Pagan Christianity, so other than recommending that you read the reviewers I’ve listed above, I can do little more than to endorse their analyses. But I do have some reactions to those who have commented unfavorably about the book. Some allege, for example, that the research is flawed. As one who majored in Church History, however, I would observe that few authors today have consulted so wide a wealth of original resources or so accurately summarized their findings. “The rub,” to quote Shakespeare, does not lie in the historical data unearthed by Viola/Barna, but rather in the widespread contemporary revisionistic interpretations of that data by defenders of church status quo.
Another recurring criticism of Pagan Christianity is the allegation that its call to return to early church values and practices fails to allow for natural progress and infringes on NT freedom. That the NT does not dictate precise forms for body life, but allows for considerable freedom is certainly true. But it does provide many inviolable principles that must govern and shape whatever practices and forms we may adopt to facilitate that body life. The point of Pagan Christianity is not to interfere with the liberty for local assemblies to be creative in how they facilitate body life, but to point to Pagan practices and forms that have subtly intruded into church life over the centuries at the expense of some of those very inviolable principles. Just one case in point: the CEO “Pastor.” Perhaps we have the liberty to recognize one individual in the assembly as particularly gifted in leadership and training. Perhaps we have the liberty to give that one person the title, “Pastor” (even though there is virtually no NT justification for doing so). But when that one person becomes the focal point of all gatherings; the only one authorized to exegete God’s Word; the final authority on all matters of doctrine and practice; the only one “ordained” to “minister,” etc., etc., liberty to choose forms and practices has crossed the line and transgressed the inviolable principles of “one another” ministry so clearly set forth in at least 58 distinct NT passages.
I must confess that I was surprised to find several reviewers who seemed to say, “So what” to the main premise of the book – the Pagan roots for so many of the trappings and practices of today’s institutional church. I would certainly agree that the mere fact that the origin of some church practice or tradition can be traced to Pagan roots does not – by itself – make that practice or tradition evil. Believers often benefit from the scientific and cultural advances of the unbelieving world in which they live. But that is not what the authors of Pagan Christianity are decrying. In every case where they trace a contemporary church practice to Pagan roots, they also provide clear evidence to show that adopting that specific Pagan practice creates a situation that runs totally counter to everything the NT teaches about body life. In every one of the many imported church practices and traditions examined by the authors, having Pagan roots does matter!
This is a great book – a few negative reviews notwithstanding. Read it carefully. Then read it again. Then read the entire NT afresh to determine “whether these things are so.”