Pagans and Jesus

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I’m in the process of reading two very different books about modern Pagans, and how they encounter Jesus, the central (and salvic) figure in Christian religion. The nature of the dialog found in these works point to the centrality and cultural power Christianity possesses, despite claims that this dominant monotheism is endangered in any meaningful way. Perhaps there are works underway about how Christians encounter Dionysis, or how best to explain Hekate to Jesus-followers, and I just haven’t heard about them yet? In any case, I think both tomes are revealing and worth examination for anyone interested in how Pagans exist and adapt into a religious world where Jesus is ever-present, and how more sensitive and thoughtful missional Christians consider modern Pagan religions.

The first book is “Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths” by Paul Louis Metzger, Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah University. Readers of my blog may find that name familiar because he co-wrote a guest post here, repudiating a harmful article conflating modern Paganism with witchcraft killings, and aruging that “Christians must learn to show respect for other belief and praxis systems by substantiating our claims and criticisms and arguing for the cogency of our own convictions on level ground also occupied by others.” This is essentially, what “Connecting Christ” does, it discusses Christianity’s relationship to other faiths on “level ground.”

“This book promotes evangelism and dialogue, not one to the exclusion of the other. And as such it also promotes the need for thoughtful, sensitive communication during a time when our nation is reeling from the onslaught of the culture wars. The problem has not been our God or the Bible, but our approach to God and the Bible. As a result of our inauthentic witness, our God has looked all too common rather than as the uncommon God revealed as Jesus Christ. In light of this spiritual and biblical gut check, our witness in the twenty-first century will likely look very different.”

Make no mistake, this is a book where all faiths are ultimately found lacking or incomplete in comparison to Christianity, but Metzger at least engages with what he sees as  positive manifestations of each religion he looks at, and argues that Christians should repent for the sins of the Church. Further, he actually lets representatives from each faith tradition he writes about get the last word. So Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell responds on behalf of her church, Prema Raghunath speaks for Hinduism, and Gus diZerega gives a Pagan perspective.

“As we respect and honor Christians who grow from their encounters with their sacred literature and their God, so we request a similar respect in our religions with our text and our Gods.”

“Connecting Christ” is convinced that Christ is the way, but it advocates a far more humble method of spreading the gospel message, one in stark contrast to the ugly smears and triumphal gloating we see from most missionary efforts. The next book begins with a quotation from diZerega, but it’s a very different work, one written by a former Anglican clergyman turned Christian-Druid. “Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ” by Reverend Mark Townsend flips the script to explore how Pagans encounter, work with, think about, honor, and grapple with the figure of Jesus in their lives.

“Reverend Mark Townsend’s remarkable book is truly unlike any other, a thoughtful and deeply moving collection of more than two dozen stories, essays, and interviews about Jesus from today’s most respected Wiccan and Druidic leaders. Contributors such as Maxine Sanders, Christopher Penczak, Janet Farrar, Diana Paxson, Philip Carr-Gomm, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, and Raven Grimassi explore the historical figure of Jesus in relation to witchcraft, the tarot, goddess worship, and shamanism—while illustrating how this god of the Christian church blesses and inspires many who cannot or will not be part of his “official” family.”

If “Connecting Christ” is important for how it tries to change the way Christians encounter non-Christian faiths in a pluralistic world, “Jesus through Pagan Eyes” may actually be more vital for Christians who seek to understand how our diverse community views their savior. For any orthodox Christian this work will be full of heresies, but it is also paints a portrait of why Christians find it so difficult to “reach” us. Simply put, we encounter Jesus in sometimes radically different ways than they do.

“I see him as a teacher, prophet, miracle worker, and valid deity of the Christian pantheon. Who am I to deny the Christ’s validity?  Although, having known many magicians, Jesus strikes me as far more secure in his being than those magicians.”

The above quote is from Alexandrian Elder Maxine Sanders, who, I feel, encapsulates an important point about both of these books. Townsend asks Sanders what she feels Christians can learn from Pagans, and she replies, “unless they want to, nothing.” I see in these books, an opportunity and a challenge. If Christians want to understand us, and to understand how we view Christians, they have to truly want it first. So many books, with an occasional exception, are essentially lectures by Christians to other Christians about what they believe our religions are about. It’s clear they went in to whatever research or interviews they did wearing blinders, and never took them off. I sense in Metzger a willingness to seriously consider the worldview of other faiths instead of simply knocking down a straw man, and with the release of Townsend’s book, we have a extended meditation from Pagans on the very figure “Connecting Christ” wants us to experience.

I think the two books being released so close together is a kind of kismet, and those invested in a conversation between Pagans and Christians should pick up both and read them together. For my part, I’m trying to arrange a podcast interview with Townsend and Metzger to discuss Jesus, Pagans, and Christianity, and what the path forward from here may be. For the foreseeable future Pagans live in a world dominated by Jesus, while Christians have to increasingly deal with rising religious minorities no longer content to stay on the sidelines, who demand the rights of a pluralistic society. How we converse and understand one another will be vital, and I’m optimistic at the potential dialog created by these two books.