Monday, October 29, 2012

Yes, It's Pagan (and why that shouldn't scare you)

We may not realize it, but pagan roots are all around us. If we look at Western culture alone, the ancient Greeks have claimed nearly every tree, plant, and fruit as the symbol of some god or other. For example, the apple was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of love. (Is anyone going to give up apple pie?) Easter eggs and wedding rings are pagan. Pagans have baby dedications, harvest feasts, weddings, and coming-of-age ceremonies. They wear jewelry. They wear their hair short – or long. They dress up on special occasions. The problem for consciencious Christians is that because pagans are human beings, they do all the things that human beings were created to do. All lawful human activities were first done by pagans. And there are a limited number of ways to do some of these things. So we should examine our assumption that it is always a sin to do anything the way pagans used to do it. If we carry this principle to its logical conclusion, we will soon find it difficult to engage in any activity at all. Of course, that is only half an argument. “This will make life nearly impossible for us” is not a good enough reason to resist a genuine command of God. God sometimes does expect His saints to suffer severe difficulties and privation for Him. For example, in Rev. 13:16 – 17 and 14:9 - 12, God clearly expects His people to starve rather than receive the mark of the Beast (no one could buy or sell without the mark on their hand or forehead). I would like to tentatively suggest two concepts that might help us navigate this question: meaning in context and loyalty. Let’s apply them to the situation in Revelation. Have you ever had a mark put on your hand? Probably, if you’ve ever been to a concert or a fair. In that context, what did the mark mean? It meant only that you had paid to be admitted to the event. But in the situation in Revelation, the mark on the hand means something very different. Taking the mark is a sign of loyalty to the Beast. I suggest that loyalty is also the central concern in Paul’s discussion (in I Cor. 10:14 – 33) of whether Christians may eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. It may seem strange that Paul instructs us not to eat the meat if our host says, “This has been sacrificed to an idol,” yet we may eat the same meat if we buy it from the market – even though we know it has probably been so sacrificed. In the second situation, are we pretending we don’t know? Is this culpable ignorance? But Paul’s concern is not whether someone has at some point offered this meat to an idol. His concern is what we are saying with our actions, and this depends on the context. When we buy meat in the market, we are not declaring our loyalty to an idol. We are declaring that we want some meat. But if we are at someone’s house and he serves us a roast, saying “This has been offered to Zeus,” he has created a situation where by eating we would be declaring our loyalty to Zeus. By eating at our pagan friend’s house we are having fellowship with him – which is fine with Pastor Paul, unless the pagan announces “If you want me ya gotta take Zeus too.” Note that Paul is not worried that demonic influences can adhere to an inanimate object such as meat. Paul clearly identifies the pagan gods with demons, and their sacrifices are “the sacrifices of demons” (verses 20 – 21). Yet even if meat has been in such a demonic ceremony, probably only a couple of hours before we buy it in the market, it is perfectly safe and legitimate to eat. We do not need to worry that by eating we will incur a demonically caused sickness or a spiritual curse. We do not even need to worry that we are accidentally sinning. Paul has told us that it is not a sin. This may seem shocking. Someone may say, “You don’t understand the reality of the spirit world.” Those demons are powerful! Yes, they are. Paul understood that, and he was writing to people who understood that, people who had recently been converted from paganism and probably were still afraid of the pagan gods (I Cor. 8:7 – 9). In fact, Paul urged his baby churches to engage in spiritual warfare. But here, he is urging them not to engage in it in a pagan manner – being afraid of unseen influences that might adhere to objects, come into your home, and get you. Christians know that the devil works not primarily in these magical ways, but rather by trying to lure our loyalty away from God by working on our minds – “arguments, pretensions, and anything that sets itself up against the living God,” and “doctrines of demons.” In some places the devil does manifest himself by causing sickness, pain, and possession. The point of these manifestations is to cause fear, in our minds, to lure us away from God. “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world” (I Cor. 8:4). If we become superstitious in an attempt to avoid paganism, we are thinking like pagans. Of course there may be objects that are never used for anything but pagan worship. (Amulets, pentagrams, skulls.) It would be very difficult for a Christian to use one of these without declaring his loyalty to pagan gods. On the other end of the spectrum, there are practices that were once pagan, but their origins have faded so far into the past that their use is now no declaration of loyalty at all. (Certain hairstyles, the use of red and green at Christmas, having bridesmaids at weddings.) And then there is a lot of stuff in the middle, such as tattoos; dressing up for Halloween; or objects which are symbols of cultural heritage but whose pagan roots are not completely forgotten. These are judgment calls, matters for discussion, but of course not for blaming and accusing each other. Paganism is spooky and it tends to scare us and cause us to react emotionally. But we should not forget that although our own culture is not pagan, neither is it neutral. It is secular, humanist and consumerist – in other words, Americans don’t worship pagan gods, they worship themselves. Just as scary! We too make “loyalty calls” every day. But we have the Holy Spirit. By God’s grace we can navigate our secular culture, just as by God’s grace our brothers and sisters overseas can navigate their pagan ones.