Pagan Christianity

April 15, 2008 by

2008_04_07_paganchristianity%201.jpgGeorge Barna and Frank Viola are getting a lot of heat for Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Although I think that’s fairly inevitable when you use that title; probably even what they were aiming for. Tons of reviewers have lit up the blogosphere with their opinions on the book, spoof videos have been born and Frank Viola has answered questions and objections on his own site.

Now, I’m as big a fan of the local church as the next guy, if not a bigger fan. But I’m 100% all right with the house church movement and with progressive church models. I think megachurches and modern churches have some great things going for them, but I also think that they have some glaring holes. All that is a total disclaimer of where I stand going into Pagan Christianity.

As far as readability goes, the brainchild of Barna and Viola is hit or miss. It gets a little dry and a little lengthy. It’s not exactly a page-turner, but it’s also not mind-numbingly boring. The book takes a look at the church building, worship order, sermon, pastor, dress, music, tithing, sacraments and Christian education to examine whether they are really so biblical.

Not surprisingly, they believe most are unbiblical. Their arguments, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the conclusion, are often underdeveloped or simply weak. You won’t want to take some of these arguments to your local debate club. For example, they make much of the fact that we base things (sermons, buildings, etc.) on pagan culture. But in reality, if the pagan culture is doing something right, there is no reason the church should not learn from that and adapt.

The two authors, however, do a great job of adding in footnotes and citing reputable sources to lend credence to their arguments. So they get some extra points there for credibility. And what they’re doing–questioning tradition and pushing for progress–is infinitely valuable to the church at large. It’s always healthy to reexamine ourselves by the light of Scripture.

One of the biggest failures of Pagan Christianity is that it’s descriptive, rather than prescriptive. What I mean by that is this: You will walk away thinking some things have gone amiss in the church, but the book won’t give you any idea where on earth to go from there.

If you’re the rebellious type, you’ll probably get a good kick out of this book. If you’re the traditional type, you’ll probably kick this book to the curb. And no matter who you are, if you’re in church leadership, it’s worth the read to challenge your thinking and make you re-examine the ways you’re doing things.

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Joshua Cody

Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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12 Responses to “Pagan Christianity”

  • Nathan Youngman
    April 15, 2008

    I’ve not read the book, but I think there is value in distancing oneself from pagan practices, even if the action in itself isn’t wrong.
    One thing I’ve heard about the somewhat strange passage on head coverings (1 Cor 11) is that it was to not pray to God as the pagans of the time did (i.e. prophetesses with shaven heads).
    Or, for example, not to eat meat knowingly sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:20, elsewhere). Eating such meat is fine, God made the animals… but doing so makes a statement.
    “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.” Dt 12:4
    “You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God, for every abominable act which the LORD hates they have done for their gods…” Dt 12:31
    Now I’m curious as to just what this book is saying are pagan practices.

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  • Nathan Youngman
    April 15, 2008

    P.S. your “preview” page is missing the challenge/response and therefore post does not function from that page.

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  • Don
    April 15, 2008

    Good review. I just loved this book. The solution prescriptive part of the argument is supposed to be in the sequel this summer. I’m looking forward to reading it. I think its called Reimagining Church.

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  • James Parker
    May 4, 2008

    Re the “scholarship” of “Pagan Christianity”, it is not sound. It basically breaks down, as follows: one set of quotes are from Barna and Viola; another set are from their freinds/supporters/sycophants; a third set of quotes are from non-Christian apostates (eg. John A. T. Robinson, Edwin Hatch)who were anti-Christian, as well as anti-Church; and the last set of quotes are from legitimate sources (eg. Martin Luther, Kenneth Wuest) quoted out of context.

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  • Derek Iannelli-Smith
    May 8, 2008

    I thought your review was fair, concise and address the same issues I have found with the book as well. I especially liked your observation of it being “descriptive” vs. “prescriptive”. I would also have added that the book did not reflect any ‘churches’ that despite many of their ‘pagan’ practices are definitely making an impact in the culture around them. I think Mark Driscoll in my url attached to this message, makes some good points regarding some of the matters outlined in this book if someone is interested in pursuing this futher. What I also think was not addressed by many of the review I have read with this book is Viola tends to have an exclusivity/sectarian swaying at times that should also make us cautious. Ministry is not about shooting each other… I liked your comments on “rebellious” types etc… right on the mark… I found myself drifting through all those which also raised convicting flags…

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  • Jesse Phillips
    May 8, 2008

    I found this book to be very interesting, and right-on at parts. I also found it to be a little too aggressive and the arguments were not at all as convincing as he seems to think they are.
    I wrote a little bit on a similar topic here:
    I talk about buildings and stewardship and intimate gatherings.

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  • Don
    May 9, 2008

    I’ve read most of their stuff and neither Barna or Viola are sectarian at all. They are actually against that atittude. I was really blessed by reading this little book
    I keep hearing that Mark Driscoll is divisive, arrogant and condemns everyone who disagrees with him.

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  • Joe Miller
    June 15, 2008

    Interesting perspective considering your background. I will have to read more of your stuff. Meantime, if you are interested, I am posting a 5 part interview with both George Barna and Frank Viola. Please feel free to pass the word and share your thoughts.

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  • Jill
    August 3, 2008

    The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at
    It’s also available on Frank is also blogging now at

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  • les
    March 19, 2009

    I think this movement to denounce the Church of today and promote another is not very healthy ..
    Viola says that so much of what the NT church did .. we do not do .. and so much of what we do they did not do …And thats in a nutshell the basis of his book … OK following that premis .. Saw your Bible in half .. They did not have the NT … oh wait no books ..Scrolls They had no printing press ..And it better be in the original language. Not a pagan language like Englsh … No preaching ? What was Jesus doing ? What was Peter doing at Pentecost?? How did so many come to the Lord?
    Paul clear preached in lecture halls, synagogues and homes …
    Sure there are valid points to be made ..but methods, styles, big, small, whatever is not what is important .. God heals, blesses,
    uses, etc flawed people, denominations, House churches and home churches for His Glory … Mr Viola … you have websites, blogs, speak at conferences and
    I am sure make a pretty good living … A bit hypocritical don’t you think ??

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  • Keith Giles
    February 19, 2010

    Mark Driscoll recently attempted to review/rebut the PAGAN CHRISTIANITY book. Mainly by stealing all of his arguments from NT scholar Ben Witherington, whom Jon Zens already decimated over a year ago in his rebuttal.
    I’ve posted my reactions at my blog:

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  • Debra Toma
    July 30, 2014

    I read the book, but never finished it. Having recently realized the pagan roots of Christianity, I picked up the book eagerly. Even though it started slow, I kept with it hoping for more meat, but all I was hearing was promotion for home church. That’s good, I guess, but where was the heart of the matter? The idolatry of Christmas, Easter, and Sunday? For someone who has obviously done their research, the absence became more glaring as I got deeper into the book. I wondered, could the Viola be a participant himself? Why would he otherwise ignore it? Google found a quote of his- yes, he does celebrate Christmas. So disappointing. I can understand in the ignorant, but how can someone in the know, who is taking on a position of leadership, feign as if it’s harmless? Why even finish?

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