You know, I think I finally nailed where I part ways with Frank Viola on “Pagan Christianity”. It came out in conversation.
I was discussing the book with a friend on Sunday, who, like me, liked the book but had a few misgivings. And I said, “Apart from the euphemistic way he uses the word ‘Pagan’, which really grates with Pagans, what’s most problematic for me is that he shows insufficient appreciation for just how unessential many first century Christian practices actually were.”
What I mean is this, I think Viola is unquestionably correct in identifying many contemporary Christian practices as noncore, nonChristian even, and thus nonessential. Where I think he errs is, in insisting there’s a pristine Christianity waiting to be restored.
Consider, a huge chunk of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters to various Christian communities. And a huge chunk of that consists of Paul castigating Hebrew Christians for pushing nonessential Hebrew practices onto Gentile Christians. But does Paul ever castigate Hebrew Christians for practicing circumcision and kosher diets amongst themselves? No. Curiously, no.
What this suggests is, Paul was keen to differentiate between what was essential and what was not, but he regarded what was not as culturally “optional” rather than intrinsically anti-Christian. What this suggests in turn is, neither should we assume that everything which is “Pagan” is intrinsically anti-Christian. We need to look deeper before we decide that, before we write off Gentile (that is, Pagan) Christianity altogether.
Thus, though I agree buildings and podiums and pews and ordination ceremonies and Christmas celebrations have nonChristian origins, I disagree that Christian communities are less than authentic when they don’t ditch everything, at least not automatically. Instead I would say, let’s look at this through the lens of critical contextualisation. It may be that we can use some of these things redemptively. Then again, maybe not. I may still land in the same place as Viola when its all said and done!
But the difference is, I tend to stress “essentials first” rather than “essentials only”. Though I can appreciate the value of microchurch, I am not so keen on saying there is a biblically mandated size restriction; and though I can see the pitfalls of ceremonialism, I am not so keen on poo pooing symbolic expression and embracing iconoclasm. I think, so long as it’s helpful, everything is permissible.