Christmas Tree Rant II

I hope you are not tired of hearing me rant about pagan cultures and why Christians should not think of pagan cultural practices a contaminating substance. This topic may be starting to seem as if it’s relevant only to anthropology geeks like myself, who use their spare time to write anthropology-heavy novels about people who were pagan by default because they lived in a time when there was no other way to be.

But, on the contrary, I think it is very relevant to everyone. There are modern-day tribal people who would like to follow Christ without giving up their entire cultural identity. There are neo-pagans who, living in our technological, post-Christian world, turn to the religions of their ancestors (or a personalized version thereof) because they are looking for something that it appears neither secularism nor the modern evangelical church can offer.

There are Christians who, because of an incomplete understanding of these issues, put stumbling blocks in the path of both the aforesaid groups and in the path of their fellow believers who would like to have a whole, rounded culture. And finally, there are enemies of Christ who would like nothing better than to portray His followers as puritanical, culturally vacuous, colonizing Western imperialists. And who knows, perhaps they actually believe that they are.

All of these people could benefit from a deeper understanding of how formerly pagan practices carry meaning in the modern day. That’s why I have said that, although Christmas trees are not actually pagan, I would still have one if they were. And I will go farther. My kids and I make jack-o-lanterns too. Call, and raise you Hallowe’en. Also, I bake Christmas cookies, hide Easter eggs (!), say “bless you” when someone sneezes, and had bridesmaids at my wedding.

The following is a re-working of a book review I once wrote, which I hope will help to clarify some of the issues. Enjoy! Then go out and kiss under the mistletoe!

Review of Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices

by Frank Viola and George Barna, BarnaBooks/Tyndale, 2008

This book examines a variety of common church practices. It really needs to be reviewed chapter by chapter, because some of the chapters raise good questions about complex topics (for example the one about baptism), while others are just laughable (for example the one about why it’s a sin to dress up for church). But lacking the space for such a detailed approach, I would like to focus on a particular assumption that underlies this book and its scare-mongering cover: the idea that anything that started out as a pagan practice is unlawful for Christians. (The key word here is “started out.”)

In the acknowledgements, Frank Viola tells us the origin of this book: “I left the institutional church … I sought to understand how the Christian church ended up in its present state. For years I tried to get my hands on a documented book that traced the origin of every nonbiblical practice we Christians observe every week.” (xiii) Notice, Viola had already decided that institutional Christianity was thoroughly broken. He “knew” that most things most churches were doing, were unbiblical (they may be too, but not in the way Voila thinks). If these practices did not originate in the Bible, they must have come from somewhere else. Since Viola could not find the book he was looking for, he researched and wrote it himself. To his credit, he acknowledges the limits of his research and hopes that true scholars will pick up where he left off.

Viola’s experience is re-created within each chapter. First, we are told that whatever practice the chapter is treating (church buildings, sermons, etc.) is unbiblical. Then, there follows a brief historical survey of how such a practice developed from paganism. Then, we are given the real reasons the authors dislike the practice: arguments that it is undemocratic, unbiblical, or both. These later arguments are real arguments and deserve to be answered. But they are irrelevant to whether a given practice is pagan. If Jesus commands us to do something that the pagans also do (e.g., be shrewd in dealing with people – Luke 16:8 – 9), then that practice is biblical, right? A practice should stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of what it resembles or what it developed from. But in the authors’ minds, if they can show that something developed from a similar thing that was pagan, they have got at least halfway to proving it is unbiblical. And I fear that many American Christians would agree with them.

Interestingly, modern neopagans share this assumption. (You can find their articles on the Internet.) They delight in pointing out the similarities between Christian and pagan practices, and especially the borrowings. They assume that by pointing these out, they have proved that Christianity is not unique.

G.K. Chesterton, in his book The Everlasting Man, has blown this argument apart. He argues that human beings were created by God to do certain things. Human beings, wherever they live and whatever their religion, will do these things. They will have festivals and parties at certain times of the year. They will pray. They will make beautiful clothes and dress up sometimes. When circumstances permit, they will bake cakes. All this is part of the creation order and the cultural mandate, in addition to being lots of fun. The tragedy of pagans, Chesterton continues, is that they do not really have anything or anyone to do these things to or about. They are forever in search of an entity and an event that matches their huge, God-given, distinctively human capacity for celebration and worship. Eventually, it all falls through and degenerates into violence, or superstitious fear, or a sexual free for all.

But God does not command us to stop doing legitimate and lawful things when we leave the pagan gods to worship Christ. He redeems these things! For the first time, we do them for a good reason. So once, we baked hot cross buns unto the Spring Equinox. Now, we bake them unto Christ, and eat with even more joy in our hearts. Once we sang songs and made art unto our pagan gods. Now we sing and make them unto Christ!

Let me hasten to add that of course some pagan practices cannot be carried over into the Christian life. Worshipping other gods is out. So is temple prostitution, consulting the dead, divination, practicing magic, and making images to be worshipped. All of these are explicitly forbidden in the Bible, so we do not need to discuss their origins to see that they are unbiblical. Oh, and don’t let me forget a really big one: sacrificing our children to our gods, whatever those gods might be.

But there are a host of human activities that are not unlawful in themselves, are not condemned in Scripture, yet were certainly done by pagans before they were done by Christians (or even Jews). What I think the authors fail to realize (and what many of us in this modern age fail to realize) is that every human activity, good or bad, was originally done by pagans. Think about the wide range of things this encompasses. It includes cooking, medicine, self-defense, pregnancy and childbirth, coming of age, wedding ceremonies, engineering and construction. It is going to be awfully difficult to find one of these life passages that is not marked by practices that were once pagan.

Pagans are human beings, and they do everything that human beings do. So, art, formal clothing, dancing, and yes, sacred buildings, priests, and sermons are not necessarily forbidden to us just because pagans do them. We will have to find stronger arguments if we want to get rid of these things. What we cannot do is strengthen a weak argument against a practice by tacking the word “pagan” on it. This is dishonest, and frankly it is unfair to pagans. Why blame them for the fact that you don’t like liturgical robes?

10 thoughts on “Christmas Tree Rant II

  1. Chris Schallert, Idea Engine

    Man, I can’t even do paganism right. My best man has absolutely no sword skills.

    A professor or theologian I read once said (badly paraphrased), “Christianity is big enough to include meats dedicated to idols without including the idols.” He or she went on to say that Christianity only being the required pieces to a culture, those being the Word, Baptism, and Holy Communion, and that leaves much room for taking old pagan traditions and stripping the pagan from them. I know C. S. Lewis was big on this, too. So while, with Paul, I will “avoid meats” for the sake of the truly weak or young Christians, I also “don’t call dirty what God has called clean” with Peter.

    Good article, and Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, that passage in St. Paul about eating meat sacrificed to idols is truly amazing in this context. He tells people who have recently come out of paganism to go ahead and eat it unless their host specifically makes an issue out of it. In other words, what’s all-important is not where the meat has been, but whether you are eating as a declaration of loyalty.

      Hopefully, sword skills will not be needed at your wedding. But you never know!

      Merry Christmas to you too!

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      1. One other note. I don’t disagree with the substance of your comment, but I myself would probably not use the phrase “stripping the pagan from the [practices].” That makes it sound as if the practice is being gutted or having some sort of violence done to it, when in fact from our point of view, it was already deformed by being done in the service of a false god, and has now come in to its true purpose, and so presumably will be even more satisfying to engage in, because there is no longer the niggling knowledge that it is sort of made up.

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    1. Some evangelicals are easily frightened by the word “pagan,” such that they can be rattled by claims that they are actually doing something pagan when they do innocuous things like have a Christmas tree, use holly as a decoration, or a million other things. This can make highly pietistic churches attractive to them and even leave them open to cults (ironically) that claim to get back to the “original” teaching and worship of the church as it was before it was “corrupted.”

      It also makes it hard for them to strike up friendships with people in our modern society who identify as pagan (and yes, they do exist).

      Many educated, secularist people in the United States see no difference between paganism and the Judeo-Christian religions (it’s all superstition, after all), and any borrowings, poorly understood, serve to strengthen this impression.

      That’s the relevance here in the U.S.

      Overseas, I have known Christians who still have relatives who were original pagans, as you might say, and have to struggle with questions like the following: Do I do a “traditional” wedding ceremony in addition to a “Christian” one when I get married? Can I keep in my house family heirlooms that as recently as a generation ago were associated with spirits? If I want to do a thanksgiving ceremony, can I incorporate traditional symbols but use them in a Christian way? In these same places, there are die-hard practitioners of the old ways who see conversion to Christianity as an assault on their very cultural identity, not realizing that Christ can accommodate — and redeem — any culture. So yes, these things are still highly relevant.

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