Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book Snap: Frank Viola's "Reimagining Church"

From the October 2009 E-Block.

**

Some time ago I reviewed Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity (PC) in some depth, and so comparisons are inevitable for a review of the newer Reimagining Church (RC). In fact they'd be inevitable anyway. In terms of content, PC and RC are mainly different in terms of balance: Whereas PC was weighted 75-25 in favor of "what the church is doing wrong" versus "what we need to do right," RC is balanced in the opposite equation. 

Nevertheless, Viola is still perpetrating the same errors as are found in PC -- in the main, unpersuasively (and may we suggest, childishly) claiming that modern church authority, liturgy, and other structures are to blame for our spiritual malaise. 

Blame the person in the mirror? As before, perish the thought. And as before, Viola's answer is that we need to get back to "organic" church (which he now more brazenly indicates means "house church"), in spite of the fact that he admits that he can find some of those that are in bad shape too (68), even some that are "elitist and sectarian" (267), and also admits that a house church movement in the 1970s failed because of bad teaching about spiritual authority. (205) Yet as before, the contradiction doesn't occur to him, and he still doesn't see that people, not institutions, are the problem.

And of course, the major sociological error is repeatedly made: Viola is manifestly unaware of the collectivist nature of the ancient world, and its inherent structures of authority that underlie the NT. And so on. The errors are all listed in the prior review, and overall appear again here, so there's no need to go over them again.

And since, indeed, Viola's errors are virtually the same (though there are fewer of them per page, pro rata) there's really not much more to add; here are a few comments on what stood out as unique compared to the prior book.
  • I noted in the prior review that Viola appealed to the erroneous work of Kevin Giles, and linked to a response to Giles by our guest writer. Viola once again appeals to Giles to deny that functional subordination exists within the Godhead (37, 295-6). The contrivance is offered that passages which indicate Jesus' submission to the Father "refer to His temporal relationship as a human being who voluntarily submitted Himself to His Father's will." (295) This is merely pulled out of thin air; there is nothing that indicates that Jesus' submission to the Father was restricted to his time as a human, and indeed, such a temporary transition would be nonsensical: What about becoming human changed this? Despite Giles, Scriptures does indicate an eternal hierarchy in the very identity-markers of the two members of the Trinity (Word, Spirit) who are hypostatic entities, which are, in essence, tools of the Father.
  • Viola offers a rather creative midrash on Numbers 11:26-29:
    But there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp. And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his young men, answered and said, My lord Moses, forbid them. And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD'S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!
    For some reason Viola fails to mention that is is Joshua who asks for the forbiddance; he just says that it is a "young zealot" who says this. (66) But the midrash is that he reads this as saying that it is the first instance of "clericalism" in the Bible, and supposes that Moses endorses the idea that "all God's people should receive the Spirit and prophesy."
    Really? If that's the case, then why didn't they? What Viola neglects here is that Moses may well be expressing an ideal, but it is obviously not one that Israel was in any condition to have enacted. So likewise the church today is not, though it is Viola's rather jaded perception that it is. If he does indeed think so, how about we apply the Deuteronomic prophet test to some of Viola's "prophesying" and see how well he does?
  • Practically none of the problems I noted in PC receive a treatment here, but this one does: "In an answer to an objection to how the NT church used facilities, mention of Paul's use of the lecture hall of Tyrannus seems notably absent." Viola now briefly deals with this issue (95), and the explanation is rather contrived: He argues that Paul was holding "apostolic" meetings that were "temporary" and "designed to evangelize, plant a church, and train Christian workers (Acts 19:9-10)" as though they were like modern "special seminars, workshops, and conference of our day." Sadly, that's impossible to read out of Acts 19:9-10 except with a highly fertile imagination. Paul went to the lecture hall as a substitute for the synagogue, when the atmosphere at the synagogue became too hostile. The point is that Viola cannot have his cake and eat it too. If we need to be in a house church to have that "organic" experience, then why are we denying that "organic" experience to people just because they are attending a special seminar, workshop, or conference? Viola needs to come up with an internally consistent rationale for his arguments on these points, and he has patently failed to do so. Indeed it seems rather convenient that Viola, who does his own "special seminars, workshops, and conferences" has come up with this contrivance to explain away Paul's use of a lecture hall. Doesn't the Holy Spirit also operate during "special seminars, workshops, and conferences"?
  • Sympomatic of Viola's tendency to blame institutions rather than persons is an extended section in which he contrives a forced dichotomy between position and function (154-7) when it comes to persons who are bishops, pastors, etc. Such a dichotomy is artificial, in the same way we have discussed here, and amounts to a naive conception that there is a huge difference once we add a piece of paper certifying someone as a bishop, deacon, etc. If indeed there is, it lies in the person, not in the paper or the "office" as Viola puts it. Having the office does not stop "mutual responsibility and collegial interplay" -- the person's own decisions do. 
  • I'd like to add something also based on a posting at TheologyWeb regarding PC.
    I had taken notes from an excellent book titled Proclaiming the Gospel by Whitney Shiner. It is a superb treatment of how NT material – particularly Mark – was designed for oral performances, and it discusses in depth how speakers would use things like inflection and gesture in their performances. Shiner's book was very useful for some chapters in Trusting the New Testament, but I also found out three applications for Viola's claims.
    1. Viola wants to be able to interrupt speakers at church services under interrupting speakers with your reactions like that was a pagan practice. Shiner notes that it would be customary for people to interrupt public readings of any material to criticize anything and everything – errors of fact, grammar, even inflection. By this reckoning, then, we ought to be free to stand up and disrupt even Viola's "special seminars, workshops, and conferences."
    2. Viola wants us all to meet in houses like the early church, but meeting in houses to listen to a speaker was a pagan practice. Shiner notes that speakers used houses for literary readings and recitations, lectures, etc. The church met in houses because that was where people normally met – unless they could afford a lecture hall (as Paul, or someone else, could use Tyrannus').
    3. Viola doesn’t like the use of rhetoric in sermons. But the NT material (notably Mark, as Shiner shows) was designed so that a speaker could properly use the normal tools of a pagan orator – inspiring emotion and reaction, and even applause.
    Of course much of this last has obviously been somewhat tongue in cheek. But the bottom line is that it is the failure of Viola to find problems in circumstance rather than people, where the real problem is. It also is that some of Viola's most dearly-wished-for "returns" to early Christianity reflect pagan practices, which makes hash of his attempt to paint current church practices with a broad pagan brush.

    In close, a comment on what I find most objectionable not about this book, but about Viola himself -- and it is a trait he shares with many "emergent" authors: Viola offers a pretense of humility and "well I could be wrong" commentary which he layers throughout the text, which is transparently not reflective of how he views himself. It is clear, rather, that he thinks himself a persecuted revolutionary standing against the church in the manner of an Athanasius (indeed, he implicitly compares himself to Copernicus -- 16), and that he uses self-deprecation as a cloak to mask his arrogance. Pretended humility such as Viola's is worse than arrogance alone, for it implies a desire to deceive -- in this case, I'd suggest, because Viola knows he is not equipped to truly understand his subject.

    As regular readers know, I am far from unsympathetic with many of Viola's objections to how churches are run today. However, Viola's own "cures" are only symptoms of the same disorder.
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