Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Pagan Christianity

Seems like I am writing my blogs these days on the fly, and this one is no exception. I stumbled across a book at one of the major book chains titled 'Pagan Christianity'. I only had time to just peruse it, so I didn't get chance to really dig in to find out what this author is trying to accomplish. If you know more about this, please add comments, but here is what I gleened.

At first, I expected the book to be an attack on the so-called pagan practices of Roman Catholicism/Orthodoxy (rituals, symbols, praying to saints, etc.). Instead, it seemed to be attacking nearly every major tradition of orthodox (little 'o') Christianity. He did, of course, mention what I mentioned above, but he also attacked the practice of building churches with steeples and the long tradition of giving a sermon at a church service. He said sermons are a carryover from the Greek orator days when sophists spent a great deal of time perfecting their speeches.

I thought that if he is classifying the sermon as a pagan practice, that would pretty much mean all of Christianity is pagan. At this point, I turned to the back cover to see why he wrote this book. Apparently, he is trying to get back to the 'biblical roots' of church emphasizing the 'house church'. Like I said, I am writing this on the fly, and I have not really read the book, but can we really say that the entire church tradition has been wrong all these years? Of course, Orthodox Christians do not believe so, but instead, we emphasize preserving the ancient traditions.

To say they incorporated pagan practices I think misses the point entirely of God revealing Himself to mankind. Didn't pagans have human sacrifices and drink the blood of their victims? Was Jesus instituting paganism into traditional Jewish beliefs by saying we should drink His blood and eat His flesh? Didn't pagans have beliefs about virgin births and the gods becoming men? Maybe he should have said the New Testament is itself a pagan document since it has such 'pagan' things in it.

The truth of the matter is that Christianity brought to light the Truth of God in the world and revealed how pagan beliefs and practices were often a distortion of the ultimate Truth. It explains why the pagan world identified with Christianity so willingly. It was as if the pagans were in the dark, 'feeling' their way through life and someone suddenly turned the light on to reveal what they were 'feeling'. Their descriptions and understanding of what they were 'feeling' changed after the light came on and they saw things as they really were.

Is it anti-biblical to build a church over a holy place, such as where Jesus was born or where a Saint is buried as his book states? The Bible states the Israelites built things where God had done something, such as the memorial built in the Jordan river where the ark of God had been (Joshua 4). It also states in the book of Revelation that the souls of the saints are under the altar in heaven. If the Israelites patterned their worhip after the heavenly model (as God commanded), how much more so should we who have been given the fullness of the faith?

Those are my knee-jerk reactions to my scant perusal of this book. I would be interested to hear from others who may have read this book or heard other such attacks against church traditions.


Donald said...

Your review made me think of this video.

Nicodemus said...

Donald - that video is a great spoof. Sadly, though, if you read a book like this which basically says that the majority of all Christian denominations and churches have it wrong, then it very well could drive someone to the point of giving up on it all. What church could they ever trust? The author's? He's figured out 2,000 years later?

Donald said...

I read the book, and your questions are answered in it. You should read the book carefully and with an open heart, then you'll be asking the right questions.

Laura Francabandera said...

I think that was a good "rebuttal", if you will, about the stones of remembrance in Joshua. I haven't read the book, but I, like you, flipped through it in the bookstore. I inevitably bought "UnChristian" instead, because "Pagan" seemed a little too muckraking to me.

I mean, sure, I understand that for Easter, it coincided with Pagan fertility rites so now we have eggs and rabbits and green things. And Christmas is coincidental with winter solstice celebrations. Sure. But while it may have originally been why the celebration was moved to that date, it has no bearing on my spirituality and my relationship with God.

As long as that is in place, I don't really think the origin of our practices makes any difference. Human is human, after all.

Donald said...

Laura, this is a good example of the myths that surround the book. Nothing in it about easter or christmas. the subject matter is much deeper. It essentially shows historically that what the traditional church does is not at all what Jesus or the apostles had in mind. The book actually shows how all of this has everything to do with our relationship to God. here's an audio interview with the authors that you can listen to. I bought the book after hearing it and I'm glad I did. my life has been changed.

Nicodemus said...

Laura - thanks for your comments. Donald makes a good point that because we haven't read the book, then we are making assumptions about what is in the book.

Since I probably won't buy a copy, and it may be a while before I can get one from the library, I want to comment on Donald's statement:

"It essentially shows historically that what the traditional church does is not at all what Jesus or the apostles had in mind."

My questions are these: When did the church 'go wrong'? Was the Holy Spirit dead and not in control of the Body of Christ? Was the 'real' church only a small, unknown pocket of believers who have somehow been lost to history and only now are we discovering the truth? Did the apostles and their disciples not take seriously their directive to guard and keep the teachings and traditions of Jesus and his followers and to pass them on to faithful men? Is everything that Jesus and the apostles taught and practiced in the Bible? How can we truly know what the 'biblical' way of doing church is when the apostles and their churches didn't even have a Bible for which to model their churches after?

It seems to me that the only model we have of church in the Bible is what we find in the OT - they modeled it after the temple in heaven. In the same way, and I am only speaking of the Orthodox Christian tradition, our churches are patterned after St. John's vision of heaven in Revelation. This vision includes Christ seated on His throne in glory, saints and angels all around, incense offered up with prayers, nonstop prayer and worship, the Lamb of God Who was slain (the Eucharist) - basically, a participation of what is literally going on in heaven. The book of Hebrews also offers a glimpse in chapter 12.

It is not that I am open to reading his book, it is just that I have a hard time with people who say everyone else has done it wrong and now they have 'discovered' the right way. It reminds me of those who find 'lost' gospel books to prove that we have been kept from the truth of Christianity all these years because these books have been kept from us. Do we have no confidence in the sincere and devoted Christian leaders and disciples of our past who fought and died for the faith and preserved it intact as a well-trodden and trustworthy path on which we too can be transformed in Christ?

Donald said...

Listen to the radio interview. They quote many scholars, theologians, from the past and present. They aren't the only ones who have been addressing the issues. here's another goog place to look. look at the endorsements and reviews.

John said...

Nicodemus, the points you raise arethe very ones that need to be addressed. (Of course, you haven't listened to the radio interview--in which actual scholars AND theologians are cited!)

I am familiar with the hype surrounding this book--the latest new thing. I got into a discussion a few weeks back about this book, but I cannot now remember which blog it was on. I have read many reviews, pro and con (and I have listened to the audio), but I make no pretense of planning to read the book. This is not from close-mindedness on my part, it is just not the best use of my reading time.

Supporters of this book make extravagent claims for it--some outright gush about it. But next year, there'll be another book, with another slant. For this is nothing new. This is classic restorationism: the church went bad early on, much of what we do is based on wrong-headed tradition, and we just need to go back and really read the Bible in the right way to restore what was initially intended. Lucky for us, ___________________ (fill in the blank) has done just that and has pointed out the way. I spent 25 years in a restorationist church--I recognize the arguments and I know where it all eventually leads. Our guy (in my former church) figured it all out and pointed the way for us about 200 years ago. (In fact, many of the items these authors address were the very concerns voiced when my group started off in the very early 1800s.) The fact that these authors have rounded up a number of scholars and theologians to agree with them makes it somehow even less convincing. A committee of scholars and theologians has been behind nearly every major abandonment of faith in the last century or so, IMHO.

The real story here is not the specifics of the "Pagan Christianity" agenda, but how much this sort of thing resonates in our American culture. The success of the book is an indication of the very real hunger in our society for something more--a knawing realization that our faith, as generally practiced, is sorely inadequate. Unfortunately, all these attempts at restoration (of that which was never actually lost) use the same paradigm and ultimately yield the same result.

Sorry to be so long-winded, and I apologize to Donald and others who are keen on the book--I realize my comments may came across as a little harsh. And I don't want to discount the effect this book may have had on your spiritual growth. I know that there are books which are life-changing. For me, it was the letters of St. Ignatius, written in AD 107. But my point with "Pagan Christianity" is that there is really nothing new here; it has all been done before and regretably, will be done time and time again.

Nicodemus said...


Thanks for chiming in on this. I am glad to hear your perspective since you came out of a similar church. I think you are right, this rhetoric will continue to perpetuate until...well, until those writing and reading such books are no longer looking for the 'right' way to do church. And I think we both know, as well as others out there know, there is a right way to do church - the way Jesus taught His disciples, and the way the disciples taught their disciples. The Holy Spirit dwelling among them assured that the preservation of this way was passed down faithfully so we could all continue in the tried and true path. Just like the Holy Spirit assured the preservation of the Scriptures, He also preserved His Church as well.

Grace said...

I'm with you and John. It sounds crazy for one person to make the claim that 99.9% of the Christian world has been pagan for the majority of its history. I actually think house churches can be a good thing, but how in the world a person decides that they're the only credible expression is beyond me. House churches were the necessity of persecuted Christians. If they'd have stayed in these micro-cliques, the world never would've been Christianized.

The author may get some good sales out of this. There may even be a mini-movement started. But I doubt if anyone will give this a thought two years from now.

William said...

One of the things that gets me is how these sorts of authors/books are promoted with statements about the general lack of historical perspective found among most Christians. But, if one delves into original Christian documents and so gains a historical perspective, one would more easily be able to see through restorationist claims. For instance, reading the Didache and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and others, reveal a sort of church praxis than is consonant with "traditional" Christianity and dissonant with the apparent aims of many restorationists.

Sure, one can say that these early Christian writers represent the beginnings of a trend away from New Testament praxis. But to do so is to entirely undermine any confidence in any Christian praxis. Turning to the pages of the New Testament for clues about right praxis won't solve the problem, either, as is revealed by the wide variety found among those who claim that their praxis is entirely Bible based. Also, to make the claim that traditional Christianity started going astray even a single generation removed from the apostles is perhaps approaching blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, who guides men in the truth and preserves the Church of Christ. This is not to say that heresy didn't originate right in the midst of the New Testament Church -- it did -- but the Holy Spirit preserves the Church. There are no "alternative" early Church Fathers to point to that would suggest any other nonheretical stream of "pure" Christianity other than those whom the Church has always upheld. If one were to say that the "pure" Christians did not respond in writing to the supposed encroachment of paganism into Christianity, then one should say that such "pure" Christians were grossly irresponsible in their New Testament mandate to champion the truth in all circumstances.

Also, I don't know whether this particular book makes the all-too-frequent claims about Easter and Christmas being established to compete with pagan festivals, but it needs to be said that Christian holidays were NOT devised to usurp pagan ones. Easter is only coincidental with any pagan fertility dates that might have existed, but its dating has traditionally been based on Jewish Passover, just as Christ's death and resurrection happened during the time of passover. "Pascha" means Passover. And Christmas was based on Pascha. It was dated nine months after what was considered to be the date of the Christ's death, the original Pascha. Jesus was thought to be conceived on the same date that he died, and Christmas, the date of his birth, was figured as being nine months after the original Pascha.

You can read about this in Fr. John Behr's "The Mystery of Christ" and at

Jilliefl1 said...
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