Cross and Pentacle: Two religions at the crossroads

I was a Jesus Freak, a passionate theologian, and a Southern Baptist minister. I worked hard to convert pagans. The pagans won.

Discovering magic as a witch with an intimate knowledge of western christianity I explore the juxtaposition of these two faiths. Christianity and paganism alike are undergoing dramatic changes with parallel trends, conflicting challenges, and a growing concern for interfaith dialogue.

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An Open Letter to Teo Bishop

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Dear Teo, 

like so many other Pagans I was moved when I read your Disruptive and Inconvenient Realization. As a recent convert from Christianity to Paganism your honest confession stirred up emotions for me. 

Many Pagans are former Christians. Those of us who converted from Christianity generally have Christian friends and family praying that we will "repent" and "come back." We're seen as prodigals on the wrong path who will realize our error and return to the Christian church. Sometimes the pressure is tremendous, especially where family is involved. We find strength in our Pagan community. We sometimes deal with the pressure by feeding our own us-vs-them mentality. We tell each other how much better our new path is and how glad we are to be done with Christianity. And then one of our own leaves our ranks and does exactly what we vowed we'd never do: "coming back" to Christianity. 

You express concern that some will see journey as a betrayal. If Teo Bishop goes back to Jesus, does that mean I will some day return as well? Will I lose my community? Will I lose the freedom I have gained? What if my struggle and all of the work of rebuilding my life after my conversion was for nothing? What if "they" were right and everything I have come to treasure is the lie they keep saying it is?

Those are scary thoughts and most of us are no strangers to doubt and worry. I couldn't help but think some of those thoughts when I first read your blog. I remembered all of the bad times, the oppression, the abuse, and I pictured myself back in the midst of it all. But then I took a step back and disentangled your story from my own. 

Isn't it funny how easily we confuse someone else's journey with the stories woven by our own fears? You are returning to your roots and moving forward on your own path. Sometimes we need to focus on our roots so we can continue to grow. Returning to your roots for the purpose of growth is not going backwards. 

But you say you were never fully committed to your path with ADF. It makes me wonder, should we measure commitment by how we follow one particular path? Most Pagans are converts, clearly we were not overly committed to our previous religions. Instead we were committed to our values. Wanting to grow brought us to a different path. Wasn't it our commitment to integrity that gave us the strength to leave our former religion and explore Paganism?

Jason Mankey writes "There’s no betrayal when someone leaves the Pagan fold. We don’t renounce any gods before stepping onto the path and don’t pledge eternal loyalty to any gods when we step on it." Paganism is a pluralistic path. We don't bat an eye when  someone decides to follow a Greek pantheon instead of the Celtic Gods. So why would following Jesus and the Christian God be so different?

Maybe our problem is our narrow understanding of Christianity. The claim to exclusivity, absolute truth, and the condemnation of all other Gods certainly sets Evangelical Christianity at odds with Paganism. But you never signed up for the Christian Right. "I’ve come to recognize, even more so than I already believed, that there are many, many ways for people to live out a meaningful spiritual life." If more people like you join Christian churches, it's a win for us all. 

As a Pagan I value pluralism. I value diversity. I believe that divinity is expressed in many forms and that we all understand Spirit differently. We have hard polytheists, monists, pantheists, syncretists, and atheists in our midst. We have endless debates on who is a "real" Pagan and who isn't, and in the end we still find ourselves under the same umbrella. The Christo-Pagan debate has been getting old for a while now and yet the movement continues to grow. Are we really afraid of Christianity or are we worried about exclusivity? Are we so worried about exclusivity that we exclude Christians from the interfaith table because we fear they might be exclusive? Do we recognize irony when it slaps us in the face? 

Pluralism is one of the values that drew me to Paganism. I love my new path and I cannot see myself ever returning to Christianity. Then again, not too long ago I couldn't see myself ever becoming a Pagan. My commitment first and foremost is to live a life of honesty, integrity, love, compassion, and devotion to Deity. That commitment has taken me from one religion into another and as unlikely as it seems now, it could do that again.

Some have accused you for taking the easy route by returning to a majority religion. In my opinion you have chosen the hard road. Being a progressive Christian in the US is hard. Sure, there's a certain privilege that comes with Christianity, period. But being progressive and Christian means you are at odds with the loudest expression of Christianity and you'll be certain to have your path decried and profaned by others who call themselves Christians. And when non-Christian progressives hear you identify as Christian, you'll get written off as "one of those."

I tried to be a progressive Christian but being shot at from both sides while walking a tightrope was too difficult for me. Being a Pagan is easier; I feel like I fit and am no longer straddling the gap between two chairs. Honestly, I admire those who can walk the path of a progressive Christian. I admire those who have left and return to be met with suspicion by Christians and Pagans alike. And even more so, I admire those who do so publicly. 

I refuse to close with "I wish you well" sentiments because this is not a farewell. Your path might lead you into new communities and you might write on different platforms. But if I were forced to create circles of "us" and "them" I would not base them on religious labels. I would base them on values. And as much as you value integrity, honesty, compassion, and love for Deity, I can't help but think we'll be in the same tribe no matter what religious paths we travel. 
 

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As unlikely as it sounds, I was born and raised in an evangelical Christian family in Germany. Everyone knew me as a Jesus Freak. No one was very surprised when I went to the US at age 19 and came back a tattooed and pierced fundamentalist Christian, betrothed to a Chrispie (a Christian hippie, that is). I was a virgin the day we married. Five years later I graduated bible college in highest honors, with academic awards and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I took my theology and trauma on the road and deepened both by traveling the country in a  yellow school bus. For three years I lived as a nomad, playing music at festivals, teaching seminars at conferences, and bringing my expanding understanding of Christianity to churches from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. I learned that Christianity in America is as diverse as the Amish exorcising school busses and catholic priests breaking into government buildings - I saw Jesus in the oddest places. And then everything changed and I ended up a polyamorous witch owning a chocolate factory in California.

Comments

  • Julie Rogers
    Julie Rogers Thursday, 07 November 2013

    1st, I meant to give this a 5 star rating, not a 4 (darn touchscreens). This a beautiful letter, full of love, honesty and truth. Like a petition, I want to add my name to it because it is an important message...we CANNOT condemn someone just because their path is Christianity. For me, one of the basic beliefs of my faith is the truth of many paths...many EQUAL paths that lead to the same destination; some are easier, some are harder, but as long as there are no absolute right or wrong paths. If we condemn Teo for being true to his calling and himself, then we are just as bad as those that did & do the same to each of us when we chose our path. Now is a time for the pagan community to step up to the plate and show the truth of that many path bedrock. Teo has not left us, he is still a part of our community...he is just switching from one of the many paths to another. I look forward to hearing from a Christian voice that does not condemn those that believe differently but rather states, shows, and lives that acceptance of others and values all of our many paths. Thank you, Annika, for expressing the sentiments that were in my own heart when I read Teo's realization. I hope to see many other signatures added to this wonderful letter!

  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan Monday, 11 November 2013

    Thank you, Julie, for your kind words.

  • Jeanine Byers
    Jeanine Byers Thursday, 07 November 2013

    Beautiful letter!! I am a former Christian, too, who went from conservative Christian to progressive Christian to Unitarian to pagan Unitarian. So I read Teo's post, and his posts about his recent return to Christianity, with some disquiet. Is that going to happen to me, too? Is it like the Eagles song where you can check out but you can never leave? But as you have done, I am trying to keep his story separate from mine and I appreciate the encouragement of this post!

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Thursday, 07 November 2013

    This is so beautiful and well-reasoned, Annika. I'm a former Christian minister (trained in theology--once, a practicing ordained minister)--who also sees truth in other religions. Yet, I've never felt comfortable calling myself a Pagan because I don't "worship" anything, nor do I pray (specifically) or perform rituals (something I'm allergic to).

    Both Teo's blog post and your letter shows how an individual can have room for other spiritual perspectives/practices, yet still find primary (for them) meaning in the mystical, symbolic and/or practical teachings of the Divine as expressed through Jesus Christ (NOT the religious right, who have hijacked his name).

    Thank you both!

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Monday, 11 November 2013

    I've seen a lot of reactions to the negative reactions to Mr Bishop's post . . . but I haven't actually read any negative reactions myself. It seems that he is getting support from this community, as well as no small amount of hope that his renewed Christianity will not cause him to leave this community behind. Time will tell.

  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan Monday, 11 November 2013

    I have also been encouraged by how many positive reaction there have been.

  • Christopher Blackwell
    Christopher Blackwell Monday, 11 November 2013

    I as a Wiccan and a Pagan see no way that I can follow my path and then condemn anyone for changing their path. After all I certainly changed my path from evangelical Buddhism, Nichiren Shoshu, to Pan, to Wicca and then Alexandrian Tradition. As you pointed out many of us were Christian, so those have changed their path as well.

    So I think most of us should well understand the trepidation of considering changing religion ad yet the pain of remaining in one that one no longer believes.

    I had a high priest in my tradition who being Italian and Pueblo Indian began to have doubts an decided to go back to the Catholic church. I sent him a letter saying congratulation, for if the Church was truly his path, he would be a much stronger Catholic than those who practiced their religion out of habit and family tradition because this time it would be a conscious choice on his part.

    Again having changed religion myself to be where I am today, I suspected just what he might be feeling and also the loss of support he might have from some in my tradition. Therefor it was important to give him the support when needed. To not do so would have increased the harm on that person, and I for one would not do that.

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