Friday, March 27, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: The Pagans Weigh In

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

You don’t have to spend much time in the company of Christians today before you start to hear questions like these:

“Wasn’t Easter a pagan holiday?”
“Isn’t the concept of a Christmas tree based on Odin’s sacred oak?”
“I read that the wedding ring originated in an old pagan superstition intended to protect a relationship from evil spirits. Should Christians really wear those sorts of symbols?”

Tom: Some of these concerns turn out to be baseless. Other accusations that a particular Christian symbol, practice or holiday actually had its origin in paganism are quite legitimate.

Where Does Christian Culture Come From?

To what extent should we be concerned where our Christian culture comes from, Immanuel Can? Can something with a secular or pagan origin be “Christianized” and redeemed, or should we distance ourselves from any such association? What about Christians who are obsessed with finding the “hidden meanings” of Christian symbols and practices: should we encourage or discourage them? Are there any potential negatives in being just a little more alert to how we came to do the things we do?

Immanuel Can: That’s a whole raft of questions, Tom. Where shall we start?

Tom: Okay, let’s start with this: you are probably well aware that although circumcision is a well-known custom very much identified with Jews, circumcision did not originate with that particular people group. When God prescribed the rite of circumcision for Abraham and his children, other nations were already doing it. That much seems to be well established by historians, and finding it out is interesting but not particularly daunting to Christian faith. The fact is that in Israel, circumcision meant something unique, holy and divinely ordained.

The same is true of animal sacrifice, baptism, priesthood, priestly garments, anointing, ceremonial washing, tithing, altars, temples and a whole bunch of other very “sacred” symbols and practices we find in our Old and New Testaments: they all had pagan precedents of one sort or another. What seems to have happened is that God took a bunch of things that pagan men and women of their day were already doing, absolutely forbade some of them, and made others into sacred, symbolic rituals that expressly spoke to humanity of who he is, what he values, and what he would do for us one day in the future. Those pagan acts came to evoke precious, timeless truth. So there is a long history of non-Christian symbols coming to mean something better than they originally meant.

IC: Wow. That’s a lot to say.

Well, there’s also this: that when the word of God was sent to us, it was sent in languages everybody spoke: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Now Greek is particularly interesting because it was a language that already had its fill of pagan idioms and words that meant something different from the biblical usages, in some cases.

The Purposes of God

Tom: The word ekklēsia comes to mind. But I think hades is another Greek concept our scriptures appropriate.

IC: Right. These Greek words were taken (or co-opted, as the postmodernists say today) and given a specific theological context and meaning for Christian purposes. And the pagan or polytheistic origins and idioms of the language do not seem to have destroyed the utility of the language for divine purposes. The Lord seems to have cleared it up and made it serviceable for his purposes, too.

Tom: I absolutely agree. I suppose that when God deigned to communicate with man, he could potentially have formulated a new, perfectly spiritual language, then forced into our limited, created minds all kinds of concepts we are not naturally inclined to entertain. He’s God, after all; he can do whatever he pleases. But that doesn’t seem to have been the way he elected to go.

Instead, God seems to take up those things we have already developed or created, then sanctify them, redefine them, and set them to work accomplishing his own sovereign purposes. Would that be a fair characterization, IC?

IC: I think so. I can’t say that I know that, say, Christmas can be similarly redeemed — in the case of the Greek language it was God, after all, who did the sorting out of that, and in the case of Christmas it was merely human tradition that took over, it seems. But I do think it cautions us against getting too wound up over the observation that these things were once pagan. Maybe that tells against them, but maybe it doesn’t.

Fake Plastic Trees

Tom: Fair enough. But if it is even possible — and I think it is — for symbols, practices and conventions with pagan origins to be sanctified and serve the purposes of Christ, perhaps that’s enough to start with. The question then becomes this: If practices that originated in paganism can indeed be made useful to God, should we be running to distance ourselves from prior associations someone has dug up from the internet, even when they seem quite likely to be true? After all, if historically God has redeemed and sanctified pagan institutions like priesthood, is he likely to have trouble making something good out of your four-foot tall, plastic Christmas tree? I’m thinking he might have that covered already.

IC: Well, if the plastic tree is imperiling your eternal soul, I’m not sure how. I think it might be quite a benign thing, even if not strictly speaking capable of the religious baggage sometimes attached to it.

Tom: I doubt the complainers are all that concerned about the imperilment of their own souls. More likely, to put the very best possible spin on it, they are reluctant to incur judgment for the sort of thing they approve. To put the worst spin on it, they are purity-spiraling; calling everyone in Christendom to subject themselves to the unique peculiarities of their own consciences before God. This is not something the apostles endorsed.

Too Much Time on My Hands

IC: I have always felt that people who make a point of criticizing things like Christmas have got way too much time on their hands. Is there not something more important to think about in their whole Christian lives than whether or not Easter eggs were once fertility symbols?

Tom: Quite so. But there is certain sort of person whose natural disposition almost demands it. We might call them pedants or literalists or hobby-horse riders or even people who strain at gnats and swallow camels, but they do make up a non-trivial percentage of Christians.

IC: Well, the “gnats and camels” allusion is an important one. It is not a sign of higher spirituality when we love niggling at tiny, unimportant points; it’s a sign we want nobody to notice our more significant spiritual failures. So if somebody gets all their “camels” sorted out, I would say maybe they’ve got time to pick at such “gnats”. But if not, then their focus on such trivia would imply a bigger spiritual problem on their part.

But I notice that people who love to talk about this sort of stuff always insist that these issues are not “gnats”, and they want to say you’re naive or disingenuous if you characterize their pet issue that way.

Gnats and Camels

How would you respond to that, Tom?

Tom: Well, maybe that’s a fair criticism ... however, let’s say this: the spirit of Christian freedom is very much in opposition to the spirit of legalism. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” My question for Christians who want to make Christmas trees or Easter eggs an article of faith is simply this: If you meet a fellow believer who feels differently about Easter eggs than you do, do you classify him as a brother in Christ who could do with some teaching, or do you call him a heretic and refuse to acknowledge him as your brother? If it is the latter, then you are making gnats into camels. If it is the former, I can happily agree to debate your point at some future date as we worship the Lord Jesus together.

IC: So you would suggest this is a kind of “meat sacrificed to idols” situation, perhaps?

Tom: I think so. Salvation does not turn on it. “The faith” is not negated or confirmed by anyone’s convictions about it. It’s a matter of personal opinion and your beliefs about secular history.

Let’s consider the second question: What about Christians who are obsessed with finding the “hidden meanings” of Christian symbols and practices: should we encourage or discourage them? Is there value — or, conversely, is there harm — in being alert to the secular or pagan origins of our Christian practices?

‘Resurrection’ Sunday

IC: Maybe an example would be in order here. People might wonder what you mean.

Tom: Sure. Recently, a commenter at a website said Easter was really a pagan holiday, then added, “I’ve started to say ‘Resurrection Sunday’ at church” ... and later, “People ignore me.” Er ... big surprise there. Perhaps he had been reading about a possible etymological link to the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre, and was concerned that Christians might have absorbed a pagan influence which he didn’t want to promote. Good intentions, but very off-putting to the majority of his fellow believers.

IC: Yeah, I’m not thinking that that’s what most people think of Easter. I’ve seen a lot of Easter programs at churches, and none of them ever failed to give due attention to the resurrection, so far as I can recall. It really seems to me the wrong battle to fight. If this person were really concerned about the resurrection not getting due place in our thinking, it’s in the secular arena that the problem most pressingly exists.

Tom: Right. There is a sort of Christian — and I have no doubt you meet one occasionally — who is very intelligent, very well-read, and very insistent that in order to be on the right side of the battle for truth, his fellow believers should buy into everything he sees as important. That may or may not be the case. Sometimes such a person is genuinely concerned with trying to help. On other occasions, and much more often, he is merely a pedant, wanting to be affirmed by getting his fellow believers to fall in line with his personal preferences.

Concern Troll is Concerned

So, okay, you want to help a person who is in this “deeply concerned” category even if he is just purity-spiraling. How do you cope with that?

IC: You’re going to have to help me here, Tom. I haven’t met that kind of person. Every time I’ve met someone who is on one of these weird special-interest issues, it’s been somebody who wanted attention. Now, I have met people who dropped a kind of, “By the way, did you know that Christmas trees ... etc.,” and then went on with real business; but somebody who’s camped out on one of these issues?

Tom: Camped out like a social media concern troll ...

IC: Honestly, I can’t remember a case where they weren’t trying to position themselves as a sort of under-appreciated genius ... or weren’t clearly suffering from some other unfortunate obsession. Thank the Lord, they’ve also been rare.

Tom: Funny you should mention that. Maybe I’m being too polite or giving credit where no credit ought to be given. What you describe is precisely the sort of person I’m referring to: the “unappreciated theological genius”. How do you handle someone who is deeply, deeply concerned that his local church just does not understand how very important his issue is?

IC: Well, with the “unappreciated theological genius”, there’s often another reason he’s unappreciated. I’ve found he may well be an awkward or prickly character whose conversation tends to track to uncomfortable pet projects like this. Often, he doesn’t negotiate conversations; he imposes them. And for that reason, many of the people who know him keep their distance or, more kindly, listen to him with benign tolerance but don’t act on his urgings.

The One Thing That Really Matters

As insensitive as he may be, he still manages to realize on some level that he’s being patronized, and ramps up his rhetoric, which further alienates people … and, well, you get the cycle. At some point, people just stop trying to change him; but since they don’t agree with him and see that he won’t endure their saying so, they withdraw to keep their own counsel and to avoid enraging him … which enrages him.

What he needs to do is settle down, focus on just one thing that really matters, and speak with people, instead of at people, about how to proceed. Unfortunately, the type of character that settles on these “gnat” issues tends to be the type that is really no good at listening and negotiation. He (or she) tends to be of the “my way or the highway” type.

So what’s really behind all this concern about Christmas trees and Easter bunnies? I suspect it’s not really trees and bunnies. It’s something more basic. And that’s what the poor guy needs to get to.


  1. Hmm, I see an opportunity here to get across one of my pet peeves. No one in my family supports me on this (since they do not have to do the grunt work) and I think they should in order to lighten everyone's burden. To me the ideal christmas tree is a 2 to 3 foot tall table top plastic model, nicely decorated. At the end of Christmas put a tall plastic bag over it and store it in the basement. Now, if you insist, next Christmas bring it upstairs, take off the bag and voila you got a fully decorated tree without having to invest the effort of cutting, transporting, decorating, undecorating, etc ., etc.. It would be even nicer if one were satisfied with using just a pretty small creche that can be stored in a box until next Christmas. It is just unfortunate that very few are able to resist the commercial steam rollers looking to have you get out the money in your pocket. There is no reason why the birth of Christ cannot be celebrated in a more sensible manner, sparing all those young trees and my valuable time.

    1. I have a fake plastic three-footer myself. We put the decorations on and take them off every year to have an excuse to do a "traditional family event" together, but that's the only reason.