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A Review of Three Radical Books: Overcoming Evil; Re: Mission & Pagan Christianity

While at the Sopron Conference I read a number of interesting books. Here’s a brief review of the three I found most interesting.

1. Stephen Russell: Overcoming Evil God’s Way. I earlier blogged on Russell’s understanding of why God commanded violence in the OT while prohibiting it in the NT. I finished this book on the plane to Sopron and I heartily recommend it as a first rate defense of the centrality of Jesus’ call for followers to live non-violently. Russell also includes excellent material on the non-violent stance of the early church and how this stance was quickly reversed with the rise of Constantinian Christianity. He provides a succinct overview of how this “church militant and triumphant” stance has been passed down through history. Check it out.

2. Andrew Perriman, Re: Mission: Biblical Mission For a Post-Biblical Church. Andrew is a missionary with Christian Associates International and one of its sharpest and most radical thinkers. He gave me a copy of his most recent book (Re:Mission) and asked me to give him feedback on it, so I did. This well-written, thoroughly researched, short exegetical book packs an incredible punch. It is, honestly, the most succinct and most effective defense of a strongly preterist reading of the New Testament I’ve ever encountered. (For various reasons, Andrew doesn’t like the term “preterist,” but I don’t know how else to label it).

While Andrew holds that there is a final victory over evil and redemption of creation that still lies in the future, he argues that much of the New Testament’s apocalyptic imagery is to be understood as referring either to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A. D or to the victory of the suffering community over pagan imperialism.  The central thrust of this book is that the eschatology of the New Testament is creation-oriented, not escapist-oriented (as, for example,  in “rapture” theologies).  I disagree with some of Andrew’s conclusions, but I was very impressed with the exegetical and logical force of his arguments. He does an outstanding job with helping readers enter into the all-important exegetical question — how would the original author and his audience have understood this passage?  I encourage you to give this book a serious read — especially if you’re inclined to embrace the very-modern eschatology of those who are waiting to be “raptured” from a coming “tribulation period” while wondering who “the Anti-Christ” might be.

3. Frank Viola & George Barna, Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. I’ve received numerous questions about this book, so I thought it was about time I read it. This book doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said many times before about how New Testament Christianity has been corrupted by paganism throughout the centuries. It breaks no new ground. What it does, however, is pull all of these previously made observations and arguments together into one book. While the book is quite repetitive (it could be trimmed by a third just by cutting out the repetitions), and while Viola and Barna rely far too much on secondary sources, the cumulative case they make for how thoroughly paganized the Jesus movement has become is valuable.

In a nutshell, Viola and Barna attempt to show that the following aspects of traditional Christianity originated in paganism:

* the idea that the church is a building

* the standard “order of worship” churches follow

* the idea that each church service needs a sermon delivered by a specialist

* the idea that the church should have professional clergy and professional ministers of music

* the assumption that people should dress up to go to church

* the idea that Christians are supposed to tithe

* many aspects of our theology and practice of “the Lord’s supper,” “baptism” and Christian education

I found the history that Viola and Barna provide to prove the pagan origin of these ideas and practices to be interesting and mostly (but not entirely) persuasive. The most significant criticism I’d make is that Viola and Barna tend to assume that the form and practice of the church in the first century should be authoritative for the church throughout time. There simply is nothing in Scripture that warrants this assumption. (Thankfully, otherwise we’d still have to be prohibiting women from ministry, for example).

I of course agree that when there are key kingdom principles that are compromised by the form and practice of the traditional church today, these forms and practices should be abandoned. Viola and Barna do an excellent job of pointing these out. For example, their argument that the traditional and contemporary church tends to create passive spectators rather than active participants in the Kingdom is right on! But where the traditional and/or contemporary form and practice of church is neutral or even advantageous to building the Kingdom today, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be embraced — even if they’re absent from the first century church, and even if they originated in paganism.

For example, Frank and Barna argue against paid clergy (except for itinerant preachers, for the New Testament explicitly allows for this). Yet, it may at times be advantageous for a church body to free up other pastors, teachers and laborers to devote themselves full time to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4). Why should Paul’s teaching that ministers deserve to be supported (I Cor. 9: 1-14) be restricted to evangelists? Similarly, while there’s no question but that the early church consisted of small groups of people meeting in houses, I don’t see why this would preclude also having larger meetings, if in a certain cultural context it’s deemed advantageous to advancing the Kingdom.

The truth is that, while the New Testament gives us a host of principles that apply to all times and all places, it doesn’t give us an inspired blueprint of what precisely church is to look like in all times and places. What works in one cultural context may not work in another.

That being said, Pagan Christianity is an interesting book that will be eye-opening to many and that confronts head-on many unscriptural, unhelpful, pagan aspects of traditional Christianity. At a time when God is clearly “shaking the foundations” of the way many think about the church, this book is timely and helpful. For this reason I heartily recommend it.

Keeping thinking and loving!



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