Tuesday, September 25, 2007,12:23 AM
Rejection, Redemption, and Roots
The topic for this month's SynchroBlog is Christianity and Paganism. I had a hard time narrowing down what I wanted to say about the topic because I've been struggling recently with the paradigms for how one interacts with other belief systems. So I decided to just write about that struggle and give my opinion of three of the most common approaches Christians have in interacting with Paganism. There are of course various other approaches and this is not at all an in depth (or coherent) look at any of these, just what has been floating through my head recently.

1. Rejection - This is the approach I grew up with and which I see displayed most commonly in Christian circles. The idea is that since the other cultures are not explicitly Christian, they cannot contain truth or that which is good and therefore must be rejected. Other cultures are devoid of God and are places of darkness. If we interact with those cultures we could be tainted or wooed into the darkness. This approach leads to such common cultural practices as banning books like Harry Potter, not participating in Halloween (and sometimes even Christmas), and freaking out about stuff like yoga. Growing up I wasn't allowed to read fantasy books (other than Narnia) and while we were allowed to go trick-or-treating, Halloween was downplayed and we often attended church Harvest Fests dressed as Bible characters. The yoga issue has recently come up once again in the conversation in the recent Pagitt/MacArthur interview on the subject. MacArthur summed up the whole rejection mindset with his statement, "Why would Christians want to borrow an expression from a false religion?" If there is nothing good there, no truth there - why bother interacting? They say the Christian response should be rejection and not embrace.

My issue with the rejection mentality is the limits it places on God. It claims that God can only work in a very small segment of the population and is not big enough to be found in other cultures and religions. But even the Bible shows that Christians can engage with other cultures and find truth there. Just take the Acts 17 account of Paul at Mars Hill to see that he quotes "pagan" philosophers as containing truth about God. So obviously if the Bible displays engagement as opposed to rejection, it cannot be the best approach to the issue. As C.S.Lewis wrote, "if you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all other religions are simply wrong all through ... you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of truth." This isn't about all religions being equally true, its about letting truth be truth wherever it is found. Which leads us to...

2. Redemption - For Christians who choose to see God's truth all around us, a common approach to interacting with other cultures and religions is to redeem the good that is in them. One lays claim to truth (or beauty or the good) in other cultures and "baptizes" it for Christian usage. This is a process that St. Augustine referred to as the Egyptian Gold principle. When the Israelites fled Egypt the Bible tells us they "plundered the Egyptians," taking much gold (in the form of idols) with them into the wilderness. The gold eventually came to be used in the Tabernacle - the very dwelling place of God. Its pagan associations were erased and it was redeemed for usage in worshiping God. This principle has been used by Christians throughout the ages to justify our involvement in pagan practices. Our holidays with pagan roots (Christmas, Easter, and occasionally Halloween) were all, over time, shaped into celebrations central to the Christian belief system. These holidays are now so Christian that many people are unaware of the pagan connections at all. This approached has also been applied (with lesser degrees of success) to practices like yoga. The idea is to take something you like from another culture, change some aspects of it to give it a Christian feel, and then feel complete freedom to engage with it. (and before you go there I am not in any way talking about cultural practices that are sins).

My issue with this approach is how oppressive and imperialistic it is. Essentially it chooses to steal what it likes from other cultures and write the rest of it off as worthless. The things that get "redeemed" are warped into mere shadows of what they were originally intended to be. There has been enough imperialism and rape of other cultures associated with Christianity, that to continue to discuss the interaction with other cultures in this language is generally demeaning and offensive. But the voices from the margins - those who have been oppressed and demeaned - is generally not heard or respected in Western Christian circles. With our imperialistic cultural values we really don't care about how we are perceived by others or what damage we do along the way. We often think that Jesus being the end justifies whatever means we employ to get to him. That said, I don't think the answer is then to resort back to rejection or cultural isolation.

3. Roots - I am currently exploring this approach not as the best answer out there but to understand a different way of interacting. This method seeks to understand the origins, or roots, of various cultural beliefs and practices. By seeing the history of something, one can see how it can evolve and grow. This is not about changing something through forms of violence, but learning to love and appreciate that which is other. I am all for admitting and discovering the pagan roots for things like Christmas and Easter. For all that Christians talk about getting back to the "true meaning" of those holidays, we forget the long history they represent. I want to affirm that history and respect that something I hold as dear to my beliefs has roots in the beliefs of others. I want to explore how the theology I hold to has been shaped by interactions with other cultures. How the Jews were influenced by the Zoroastrians in Persia or how prevailing political agendas influenced the popularity of various theories of the atonement. Everything has a history, everything is connected. Theology, culture, religion - they all grew out of something and fed off of each other as they grew. So as a Christian interacting with other cultures and beliefs, I want to learn from what they are offering to teach me and enter into a dialogue with them. I want to help give those on the margins a voice - the voice that has often been denied them in the name of Christianity. In being with dialogue with them I will of course take away parts of their culture and who they are. But I hope that I will be accepting a gift instead of violently acquiring. And I know that that dialogue will change the culture and change me - that is how cultures and people grow.

The issue with this - it's hard. It's hard to be invited to interact and learn. It's hard to dig through the layers of history to reclaim roots and celebrate growth. It is hard to convince most Christians that others deserve to have a voice and that they have something to offer. It's hard to remain in a church that cries "heretic" at those of us that seek the truth in these ways. It's really hard to love that which I don't yet understand.

Others offering reflections on Christianity and Paganism in this SynchroBlog -
Matthew Stone at Journeys in Between
Christianity, Paganism, and Literature at Notes from the Underground
John Smulo at JohnSmulo.com
Heathens and Pagans and Witches ... oh my! at Calacirian
Sam Norton at Elizaphanian
Erin Word at Decompressing Faith
Chasing the Wild Goose at Eternal Echoes
Visigoths Ahoy! at Mike's Musings
Belief and Being: The difficulty of communicating faith at Phil Wyman's Square No More
Steve Hollinghurst at On Earth as in Heaven
Undefined Desire at Igneous Quill
A Walk on the Wild Side at Out of the Cocoon
Observations on Magic in Western Religion at My Contemplations
Tim Abbott at Tim Abbott
Spirituality and the Zodiac: Stories in the Cosmos at Be the Revolution

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posted by Julie at 12:23 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 9/24/2007 10:50:00 PM, Blogger Pastor Phil


    Nice post. I was particularly challenged by your idetification of imperialistic redemption. Jeepers that made me think.

  • At 9/25/2007 01:00:00 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes

    I wonder whether you see any link between these three approaches and the ones I mentioned in my continuation of last month's synchroblog at Notes from underground: Theology of religions?

    Also, when you say that Christians "stole" things like Easter, how does that affect the Christian belief in Jesus rising from the dead? It is commonly secularists who have maintained this position -- that Christians simply stole the stories of dying and rising pagan gods, and made up a similar one about Jesus.

    Doesn't that make Christians just like Muslims, who say that Jesus never rose from the dead because he didn't die in the first place?

  • At 9/25/2007 07:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

    do you believe that there is any possibility to search for and embrace truth in other cultures and religions without that act being inherently imperialistic and "violent"? that seems like it puts us in a very difficult position. on the one hand we don't want to reject them outright, on the other hand, if we embrace the truth we see there, we risk becoming a cultural tyrant. that seems like a pretty hazardous tight rope to have to walk and may end up encouraging a lot of people to simply avoid other cultures entirely. not reject them, just hide from them. live in a Christian bubble and pretend nothing else exists.

  • At 9/25/2007 08:52:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    Steve - I do not deny the events of the resurrection. yes the story does echo myths from various cultures, but I generally have held to the idea that the death and resurrection of Jesus played out the way it did because it would connect with the visceral mythologies that everyone knew. I was making allusion more to how the religious celebration of our God rising from the dead came to be closely linked with Ishtar/Easter and the fertility rites of new life. It is a bit harder to tell is combining the two was a savvy political move on the part of the church or if it was a more organic development by those who worshiped the goddess. Admitting those roots doesn't deny its significance, just lets us see the bigger picture.

    jhimm - I think taking the posture of a student of other cultures that humble attempts to understand is a better position than trying to just take. Perhaps embracing those aspects should be done our of respect in order to honor the other instead of just for our personal benefit.

  • At 9/25/2007 10:28:00 AM, Anonymous Jarred

    This is a thoughtful analysis. Of the three approaches you mention, I agree that the third seems the most respectful.

  • At 9/25/2007 12:07:00 PM, Blogger Sally

    Julie I really appreciate this post, some excellent questions raised here...think I need to read through what you've said again... back soon with more comments!

  • At 9/25/2007 06:35:00 PM, Blogger Erin

    I can't help but wonder if many religious elements are interrelated more than we know. Great post, Julie.

  • At 9/26/2007 09:19:00 AM, Blogger MikeCamel

    An interesting post - thanks. As you consider the "roots" principle, it's probably worth trying to hold in mind the question of how revelation - personal and/or biblical - plays into this.

    I don't have the answer (!), but it might be an interesting tack.

  • At 9/27/2007 03:35:00 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes

    Just in case it doesn't show up in the "Links to this post", I've blogged separately about the Easter thing in my blog.

  • At 9/27/2007 06:30:00 AM, Anonymous Andy Ternay

    Julie, thank you for the beautiful post. As a Wiccan I have enjoyed visiting and reading each of these synchroblogs on Paganism/Christianity but what you had to say had a lot of meaning to me.

    Since it is a forum post, I don't know if it can be put in the links to this post, but I blogged on this at Street Prophets if you are curious.


  • At 9/28/2007 03:29:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    and Andy - thanks for the continued discussion.


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