Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review Reimagining Church by Frank Viola

One of my longest standing friends from college recently persuaded me and a group of our friends to take a dive into Frank Viola’s book on ‘organic Christianity’ called ReimaginingChurch. Some people consider it a sequel to the book he co-authored with George Barna, Pagan Christianity. At my friend’s request, I read the latter book a few years ago, but only recently read the “sequel.”

The book starts off with a very clearly projected agenda of where individuals will probably land by its end. Either, the reader will strongly oppose the statements made in the book about various forms of contemporary church structure and governance, or, he/she will emerge as an advocate of Organic Christianity. And from what the pages of the book lay out, organic Christianity takes the form of what would be called a ‘house church’ with governance and direction coming from an external practitioner whose purpose is to travel from house church to house church to correct and encourage.  The author, although he doesn’t cite Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods, I believe would find himself highly appreciative of the work. (Side note: I first discovered Roland Allen through taking a couple classes under Graham Tomlin a few years ago.)

The book builds a case for a different form of church practice to address multiple problems seen in the contemporary church (from abusive leadership to passive membership). While I do empathize with the problems the author points out and attempts to address through putting forth a different form for church practice, I can’t help but think that any form of any type of community (be it faith community or other) could easily fall prey to similar problems and challenges to address.

That being said, I found that while the book made for an interesting read, I could not find myself coming to either of the conclusive positions that the author suggested for me as a reader at the beginning of the book. What I believe may have been the actual purpose of the author in writing the book was something different than a landing place in either of the two camps outlined above, but rather a means for individuals and communities a little more ‘traditional’ in their practice to consider house churches as a viable alternative and within the realm of orthodoxy.

For me, I have no problem considering various forms of gathering and leadership as legitimate. I understand that some structures according to Viola seem to be more prone to abuse and passivity, but I can’t help but think that this results from a lack of humility in individuals who serve as leaders and a lack of discipline on the part of members of faith communities. In many ways, the challenge isn’t the structure itself as much as it is a matter of overcoming the human condition and tendency toward selfishness, laziness, pride and more.

Viola is also unabashedly biased in his presentation of organic Christianity. In spite of these biases, I believe that the book is born from a place of encouraging the modern community of faith to closely examine our lives and practices and ask hard questions about whether our practices are best serving the end of helping us to grow in our love for God and others.  And, I’m extremely grateful to my friend for encouraging me to read this book, and question my own biases as well. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Pagan Christianity by George Barna and Frank Viola

It’s been a few years since I read Pagan Christianity, but, since I had recently finished the sequel to this book and I as planning on writing a review of it, I thought it might not be a bad idea to write a review of this one as well. 

One of the greatest strengths of the book is the credibility of George Barna. Barna has been a well respected researcher of trends in society, culture, and the church for many years, and I can’t help but wonder if the reason he chose to co-author the book, aside from his own conviction regarding church history, may be that the statistics show that ‘the way we do church in the West’ may not be leading to the results we would either like or expect.

Aside from the credibility of Barna, Viola himself establishes a level of credibility by including hundreds of footnotes for the case he makes for how much of what we deem as ‘normal’ in our Christian faith gatherings may not as rooted in biblical tradition as we have been led to believe.  Chapter after chapter, Viola and Barna offer an informed critique of these practices that they believe have stronger roots in Roman cultural traditions than they do in the scriptures themselves.

The book is definitely not a ‘light’ read, as no book with tons of footnotes could be considered light. It is also a book that I do not imagine many in the church will sit comfortably with. While it doesn’t outright condemn practices in the church, it does lead the reader to question “why?”, when it comes to the practice of our faith in the contemporary church, that we insist on certain trappings and practices.

As I read, it didn’t make me broad stroke question practices and structures in the contemporary church as much as it made me start to think about whether or not there may be better ways for the Church of Jesus Christ to help individuals grow in their love of God and humanity than the systems that are in place. It also left me thinking back to the times and communities in which I experienced my deepest growth, and ways that some of those structures and practices might better cultivate the growth of others in their faith.

One criticism I had of the book was that it didn’t really present a viable alternative. I was told that the alternative that Viola had in mind can be found in his book ReimaginingChurch.  A review of that book will follow in the weeks ahead.

I believe that there is something to be said for traditions that have stood the test of time, in spite of the counterpoints brought up in the book. I do believe that one should regularly practice healthy scrutiny and criticism of one’s practices, but that it does not necessarily mean that the entirety of tradition should be jettisoned to pursue a new path.  That being said, if you are interested in exploring church traditions and history, or you are interested in pursuing a different way of expressing faith in community, the book may provide some good food for thought.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Review: Leap Over a Wall by Eugene Peterson

I had initially purchased this book in the summer of 2005 with the best of intentions for reading it. I had grown fond of Eugene Peterson after one of my longtime friends and another mentor of sorts, Pavi Thomas had recommended that I read the book UnderThe Unpredictable Plant. I was in Orlando, Florida helping to run a summer long character based leadership program for college students and I found the book for three dollars in a used book store.

Yet another close friend, Doug Scott, had told me about how the book was shaping him as he read it during winter 2011. That, in turn, led me to making this book among the first I read after getting married to my wonderful wife Jamie. It isn’t a book about marriage but rather a book to encourage finding God in the daily experience of life. Because of my respect for both Doug and Pavi, and my growing enjoyment of Peterson’s writings, I thought it might be a good way to enter into this new phase of my life.

The book is a series of reflections on the life of David taken from 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings as well as snippets of the book of Psalms. It carries the subtitle of Earthly Spirituality For Everyday Christians.  I think that is a great outline of this book as well as virtually any that Peterson writes. One of his great strengths as a writer is that he insists that if anything, our approach to the biblical text should be rooted in the world in which we live and not in some form of ethereal other-worldliness. Leap Over A Wall, is a series of reminders that our life in God should be rooted in the world in which we live. It should be rooted in marriages, funerals, birthdays, as well as our daily experience in the office, in traffic, and in encounters with others on the journey of life.

Peterson, as much as he is a respected theologian, is also a gifted story-teller. In my opinion, our contemporary world has lost a knack of telling good stories. And Leap Over A Wall serves as a tribute to the power of story. The stories of the life of David are filled with earthly realities lived out in light of eternal truths. God meets David in the wilderness, in giant-slaying, and even in David’s sin, and God engages with David in each of these environments partially because David stays rooted in the reality of the every day while at the same time seeing the realities of God breaking through into these environments.

If you have never read a book by Eugene Peterson (or even if you have read several), I highly recommend leap over a wall. The book takes the spiritual and places is square in the middle of our human existence by looking through the lens of David’s life.  It is not so much a book about David and God as it is a book about you and I and God. It’s a book about how one person’s life has much to say about our own lives and our own stories that are forming as we go through the daily exercise of our own earthly spirituality rooted in loving God and others.