This book - a reworking of Viola’s earlier Pagan Christianity - was always going to be controversial. It is essentially an exploration of the origins of numerous contemporary church practices, along with mostly unfavourable conclusions. However, we're not just talking about pews and power-point here. Barna and Viola strike at the heart of many cherished and central church practices.
The preface by Viola sets the tone for what's to come:
"Contemporary Christianity has fallen into the errors of both the Pharisees and the Saducees. ... We break the Scripture just as much by burying it under a mountain of human tradition as by ignoring its principles."
Predictably, not everyone has responded well to such assertions! My assessment of the negative reactions would suggest that the most vocal opponents of the book (huge numbers of whom seem never to have read it!) come from the ranks of church leaders. This should come as no surprise really, as they have the most to lose if Barna and Viola are correct. However, the strength of feeling in some of the responses has been surprising. I responded to a largely negative review on the Out of Ur blog here, but you can see more of what I'm talking about with Bob Hyatt's annoyed (and somewhat patronising) responses to Viola.
But, here's the funny thing, I can't find one thought in the book that is new. That's not to say that their thoughts are as well-made or nuanced as those of earlier writers. For example, I'm not sure that the preface serves the book well with statements like 'the church, in its contemporary, institutional form, has neither a biblical nor a historical right to exist.' However, anyone who's read any anabaptist theology, or picked up anything by Dunn, Moltmann, Snyder, Barth, Jon Zens or Wolfgang Simson (quite a mix there!) on local church life, won't be too surprised by what they read. I suspect that what angers people about Pagan Christianity is its thoroughness. It pulls no punches and provides no wiggle-room. It also provides few alternative, constructive, ideas, but we'll come back to that.
So, what do the authors actually say?