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Jesus in Paganland

Patheos has been in a bit of a kerfluffle this past week -- or, at least the Pagan Channel has been. It all started with Catholic blogger Mark Shea's post of his views on small-p paganism and neo-paganism. Patheos bloggers Star Foster and Jason Mankey counter-responded, and there were lots and lots of comments below each of those posts, ranging from the thoughtful to the angry to the wtf??

Considering the focus of this blog, and in the interests of interfaith dialogue (or, at least, interfaith not-screaming-past-one-another), a few literary suggestions. Each of these books in some way addresses the relationships between Jesus, the Christianities that rose out of his teachings, the ancient Paganisms, and modern Paganism. Hopefully, they will open a few eyes, broaden a few horizons, and allow for clearer dialogue.

(And, yes, I do mean Christianities, plural. Considering the vast theological differences between Catholicism, Mormonism, Unitarian Universalism, Valentinianism, the Cathars, and et cetera and so on, Christianity is as much an umbrella term as Pagan. Thus, Christianities.)

So, first, a little historical context. Christianity did not arise in a vacuum, and it is important to understand the religious milieux of that age. Theoilogically, there was a heck of a lot going on. Four sources that I highly recommend are The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, edited by Marvin Meyer (it's full of primary source goodness); Ancient Religions, edited by Sarah Iles Johnston (which is organized by topic, rather than religion); The Cults of the Roman Empire by Robert Turcan (easy to follow overview); and Ross Shepard Kraemer's Her Share of the Blessings: Women's Religions Among Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman World.

Nascent Christianity took a few centuries to really take hold; it did not just step in and fill in a "spiritual hole" that wasn't even there. Contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not convert until his deathbed -- and, even then, the indigenous Paganisms of the Near East, Mediterranean, and Europe stubbornly hung on for several centuries more; it actually took a series of Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries to convert the Baltic region. (I have heard it argued that native Egyptian Paganism survived until the conquest of that land by Islam in the seventh century of the common era, but I have no sources to cite. If anyone knows any, please ping me.)

So, for an eye-opening trek through religious history, track down a copy of A Chronicle of the Last Pagans by Pierre Chuvin and/or Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries by Ramsey MacMullen. Also, R. Joseph Hoffman's translation of Celsus' On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians and Adrian Murdoch's The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World. There are plenty of examples in these pages of proud, dignified Pagans unwilling to abandon the faiths of their ancestors.

Even after the triumph of Christianity, indigenous Paganisms never completely died out, of course. Folk beliefs and practices and the teachings of the dominant Church(es) carried bits and pieces of Paganism forward. See, for example, The Survival of the Pagan Gods by Jean Seznec; Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead and The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, both by Claude Lecouteux; and The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods by Malcolm Bull. Plenty of pretty pictures in that last one. 

Now today, with the rebirth of (neo)Paganism comes the question: does Jesus have a place in those traditions?* Can one, should one, separate the Jewish carpenter from the institutions and traditions that rose out of his teachings? For some Pagans, the answer seems to be "it's up to the individual" while for others the answer is a flat "no, never." One of the best books on this topic is Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging NeoPagan Perspectives With a Progressive Vision of Christ, edited by Mark Townsend. The many essayists who contributed to the anthology offer a wide variety of opinions and insights; even when I disagreed with any particular contributor, I still came away more thoughtful and better informed.

As Paganism continues to evolve and spread and become more noticeable to the mainstream, I have no doubt that we will see more posts like that of Mark Shea. And then there will be responses from the Pagan community, and counter-responses, and counter-counter-responses, and so on. Consider this your opportunity to pick up a good book, and educate yourself and others.

*I can't speak to any of the ChristoPagan books currently available, as I have not had the chance to read any. If anyone out there has done so, please let me know what you thought.  

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

Comments

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Wednesday, 08 August 2012

    I have come to realize I have a problem with Christianity being brought into Paganism, but I'm fine with Jesus being brought into Paganism. He's amongst good company with all other Gods and Goddesses brought into it.

    I have expressed this opinion before and gotten a lot of flack for it because apparently you 'can't worship Jesus without embracing Christianity'*. I don't understand this; we do it all the time in Paganism, with every God and Goddess who isn't worshipped in a Recon manner. I guess some think these situations are different because those religions fell to the background while Christianity still thrives. I don't agree.

    Thank you for this post. Very informative! I'll be adding some books to my reading list.

    * Direct quote from a person I spoke with about this.

  • Brian Shea
    Brian Shea Wednesday, 05 September 2012

    Are you familiar with God Against The Gods by Jonathan Kirsch?

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Wednesday, 05 September 2012

    @Brian: yep. :) An interesting enough book, but I found it to be rather repetitive. It read like an essay that had been padded out to make a full length book.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Tuesday, 17 September 2013

    Even though it's a novel, anybody interested in this subject will greatly appreciate Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson's "Priestess of Avalon." The research is impeccable, and of course their writing is sublime.

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