Friday, March 06, 2009

Raining on Frank Viola's Parade

A Book Review
Title: Reimagining Church
Author: Frank Viola

In his book, Frank Viola does present a serious thesis that should be given attention. In fact, it's so serious that all the pastors in America need to put their heads together and come up with some kind of irrefragable rebuttal, because in effect Viola is saying that the entire raison d'ĂȘtre for their salaried positions is built on nothing but air.

But his book did have my attention, and very much so because at one time in my life I watched first hand the effects of what happens when a pastorship degenerates into a personality cult. Let me just say that it was very destructive. Therefore, it gave me pause to consider whether Viola might have a point.

However, my one criticism is that Viola tends to diminish the impact of what he is saying by trying to cover too many topics in one book, and sometimes he covers them in a manner that is not as convincing as he imagines. For example, I thought Viola's chapter on "apostolic tradition" ended up being a silly straw-man exercise. He set up a straw man which he calls "biblical blueprintism," knocked it down, and then proceeded to set up in its place what really amounts to assent to the authority of Scriptures. But what is the point? No conservative evangelical would dispute that. And the chapter ended up being a pointless detour over terminology and words. When some people say "blueprint," they are merely using a building contractor metaphor for the authority of Scriptures. And the Scriptures are the only way we have functional access to the Apostolic tradition by which we are to be guided, a "blueprint" as it were—unless you want to add to the picture Papalism. Of course Viola is not advocating Papalism, but this chapter should have been cut out of the book as fluff, as a mistaken attempt to say nothing particularly illuminating, even if it may have been a confused effort to try to prove his viewpoint as being more "apostolic" than everybody elses. But this is a good example of an ongoing problem with Viola's writing: after he makes a good point, he doesn't know when to shut up and consequently over-extends himself.

I also thought his previous book, Pagan Christianity, also had much the same problem in that Viola tended to fall down various rabbit-holes into subjects that were quite frivolous, and that some of his treatment of church history veered into the over-simplistic.¹ My other criticism of Reimagining Church is that he overuses the "organic" label. Just slapping the word "organic" on everything does not constitute an adequate explanation and it tended to get tiresome, sounding more like verbal foofaraw about not using artificial fertilizers, insecticides, or food preservatives.

In my opinion, Viola needed to keep the book's focus on his two main points and hammer them with everything he's got: (1) why the whole clergy-laity dichotomy must be discarded now, and (2) how a "house church" can be made to function in practice in the real world — not to mention the messy transition period wherein a lot of ex-pastors will be out looking for paying jobs as plumbers and bakers and candlestick makers, and also all those mortgages for the church buildings that will need to be paid off, and … I think we get the picture.

And very importantly, he needed to explain how it can function without necessarily tying things in some manner to organizations that are connected to or recommended by himself. The big question, that he never really explains in any detail, is just exactly where do these organic "church planters" or "apostolic workers" come from? Who are they? Who picks them? Who trains them? Do they draw a salaries or make tents? Who decides? Or do they just sprout from the ground like mushrooms?

This issue is left dangling mid-air with no real explanations. Pardon me, but I detect a chicken-or-egg problem here. Viola never goes beyond just pointing readers to his recommended web sites. This is especially irksome to me because when I go there, one of them is compiling a database of names and addresses. Why do I have to provide this kind of information just to get an answer on what "house churches" exist in my vicinity? For me it makes it look as if, lurking behind the scenes somewhere, this is just another organization out pushing its own agenda. And what is so "organic" about that? Somebody is paying for these web sites. Why should I give any of Viola's recommended outfits primacy? Maybe if one of these "apostolic workers" showed up in my town and was doing works of a true apostle with "upmost patience and signs and wonders and mighty works,"² I might have reason to stand up and pay attention.

I think that Viola makes the schoolish mistake that supposes the way to solve a problem in the Church is to write yet another book with footnotes and a bibliography and toss it out there. I hate to rain on Frank Viola's parade, but I don't think this is what is needed. If the Church really is a spiritual organism, then another book publishing venture is not going to change things, no more than another book on astronomy will alter the motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars. If the Church was created by the Power of God, then it's going to take the operation of that same Power to alter and mold and correct it.

By the way, if there are any genuine, bona-fide, "organic" house churches here in Land-In-Between, they have done an excellent job of keeping their existence and whereabouts more secret than even the CIA's Black Ops Budget. So if I am going to associate with the xtian community, I am stuck with what I can actually find around here, even if it's still that bad old un-organic evangelical pastor-congregation paradigm that Viola says the New Testament doesn't really sanction.

You have to fight the war with the army you got, not the one you wish you had.

¹ See my brief review of his book Pagan Christianity.

² See 2 Corinthians 12:12 (ESV)