What a disappointment! I got up early this morning to read Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity. Len Sweet had raved about it on one of his recent Napkin Scribble podcasts and, based on that, I’d hoped there would be some material I could use in the theology section of my dissertation. I would have done better to continue sleeping.
The intention of Viola’s book – to show how the institutional church and denominationalism has moved away from the organic approach to faith that Jesus and his early followers took and how we need to regain much of what’s been lost—was a good one. Viola’s analysis of first century Christianity—much of which I got the impression was a paraphrase of an earlier book he wrote with George Barna – seems fairly accurate and is clear. But, although Viola presents himself as having moved outside of any institutional trappings, his work is steeped in conservative evangelicalism. Pastors are always ‘he’, two chapters are devoted to issues of congregational and denominational ‘covering’, and Viola clearly privileges first century Christianity as normative for all later centuries. If the Bible doesn’t know of it, then it shouldn’t be is Viola’s implication in chapter after chapter. I have great respect for first century Christianity and believes that there are things to be learned by reexamining premodern approaches to faith but I also realize that we live surrounded by a different, postmodern worldview and so have to respond to God’s call in ways that differ from those of early Christians.
Should Christians move beyond denominationalism and modern institutionalism? Probably we should and actually, if statistics are accurate, we’re already beginning to do so. Are there practices from preConstantinian Christianity that we should reexamine and rebuild into our lives? Of course there are. But we need to do so in new, creative ways, ways that folks like Shane Claiborne seem to know much more about than Frank Viola ever will