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Archive for the tag “church history”

Dissolution: how revolutions consume their own children

Dissolution (Shardlake Series)Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Historical novels are not my favourite genre, as I tend to spend too much time looking for anachronisms, but C.J. Sansom seems to get around that. I first read his Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War, and then [boo:Dominion], which is a kind of “what if” novel — what if the UK had surrendered to Germany after the fall of France in 1940?

Dissolution is set in the period of the English Reformation in the 1530s, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and is a combination of historical novel and whodunit, a genre popularised by Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose.

Ruins of an English monastery

Ruins of an English monastery

In Dissolution Thomas Cromwell, who masterminded the English Reformation, sends a commissioner to the monastery of St Donatus at Scarnsea on the Sussex coast to arrange for its dissolution and surrender. The commissioner is murdered, so Cromwell sends another, Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, to continue the work of the first one and also to investigate the murder.

I ought to know something about the English Reformation, but I don’t know as much as I should. When I studied church history at St Chad’s College, Durham, in the 1960s, it formed quite a large part of the syllabus, but it was not a period that particularly interested me. I was more interested in the missionary period, which, where historical novels are concerned, is covered by Melvyn Bragg‘s Credo. I suppose that’s why I became a missiologist rather than a church historian.

Reading Dissolution reminded me of why I did not much like reading about that period of history, whether church or secular history. There is no doubt that the English Church wanted reforming, but the cure was worse than the disease, and C.J. Sansom brings this out clearly in his novel. None of the characters is particularly admirable. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, suffers from a physical deformity, which seems to reflect a spiritual deformity as well; he is naive and ambitious. He does have a sense of justice, but when push comes to shove, it makes way for ambition and political correctness every time.

Destruction_of_icons_in_Zurich_1524One of the things I did know about Thomas Cromwell was that he ordered the clergy to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which I have found useful for family history, among other things, but most of what he did seems to have been bad, and motivated by greed and ambition. I have little reason to suppose that C.J. Sansom got his character very wrong. So the book gives something of the flavour of the times, even if the actual events it describes are fictitious.

But like much historical writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, it also carries “the burden of the present”. George Orwell‘s Animal Farm is an allegory, a parable about how revolutions consume their own children. It is set in a differnt period, and uses different literary techniques, but the same message comes through. The dissolution in the title of the book is not merely about the dissolution of the monasteries as institutions, but the dissolution of the people whose lives are disrupted in the process, and the dissolution of the English Reformation into a cesspool of corruption and greed.

The Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace

There was a protest against the dissolution of the monasteries, called The Pilgrimage of Grace, which tunred into a rebellion. It was defeated after its leaders were given a safe conduct to travel to London to negotiate, and were then brutally murdered.

And so there is much in it that reminds me of the dissolution of South African democracy, twenty years after its inauguration, where the high ideals with which we began have dissolved into patronage, greed and corruption. Apartheid was South Africa’s Lent, 1994 was its Easter, the following 7 years were its Bright Week, and now it is winding down.

The character in the book for whom I felt most sympathy was the exiled Carthusian, Jerome, who was regarded as mad and dangerous, but retained something of the original monastic ideals, and his integrity.

For more on this, and its relevance to our times, see Notes from a Common-place Book: Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic

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Historical revisionism on the First Crusade

As a student I must have had to write at least six essays on the First Crusade — in Hitory I and History I, in Church History I and Church History II and in several other courses. It seemed to be a favourite topic with lecturers, and now along comes a historian who seems to be telling them that they all got it all wrong. Hat-tip, once again, to The Pittsford Perennialist: Crusade Revisionism

Historian Peter Frankopan is challenging a millennium of scholarship in his view of the First Crusade | The Australian:

FOR a thousand years the idea of the crusade has defined nations and empires, justified wars and acts of terrorism and inspired everyone from medieval minstrels to Ridley Scott.

But is all that potency built on a misunderstanding? New historical research suggests that the campaign that became known as the First Crusade was not a religious war, was not started by the Pope, was not really about regaining Jerusalem and was actually a direct result of a little local difficulty in modern day Turkey [sic].

The Ancient Catholic Church (of Clapton)

I’ve long been interested in African Independent Churches, and have been collecting information about them in a database, but European Independent Churches can be just as interesting.

For those interested in the byways of ecclesiastical history, someone posted on a Usenet newsgroup a reference to the chancery case of Kings v Bultitude, which contains the fascinating story of the Ancient Catholic Church (of Clapton), which died with its priestess.

Kings v Bultitude & Anor [2010] EWHC 1795 (Ch) (15 July 2010):

The Church was founded by one Harold Nicholson. By the 1940s there were several movements, schismatic from Rome, some of which were comprised in the Catholic Apostolic Church, known as the Catholicate of the West.

Mr Nicholson had begun a house church movement in Clapton in the 1930s, moved to Thornton Heath and in 1943 was ordained a priest into the Catholic Apostolic Church.

After the Second World War Mr Nicholson’s movement acquired a bomb-damaged former Baptist Chapel in Lower Sloane Street Chelsea, restored it in a high Catholic tradition and opened it as the Church of the Good Shepherd in 1947. In 1949, Mr Nicholson resigned from the ministry of the Catholicate of the West, although he maintained close links with the Patriarch. On 27th May 1950, at a service in Chelsea, the Patriarch issued a charter to the Church, creating it as an independent and autocephalus tropus of the Catholicate of the West and consecrating Nicholson as its first Primate.

The Church left the Catholicate of the West in about 1955, shortly before the Catholicate itself was dissolved. In December 1956 the Church moved to Clapton, where Mr Nicholson had started out, to premises in Rookwood Road which had been used as a church for the Agapemonites but had been disused for over fifty years. The move was as a result of the death (the funeral was conducted by Mr Nicholson) of Ruth Preece, the so-called “spiritual bride” of J H Smyth-Pigott, the “Clapton Messiah”, leader of the Agapemonite sect.

Perhaps we also need a database of European Independent Churches.

Missions pioneer Ralph Winter dies :

I never met Ralph Winter, the missiologist who died last week, but through his writing and speaking and ideas he changed my life.

A few days ago I wrote a blog post in which I mentioned Ralph Winter, and the next day I learned that he had died.

News Headlines – Missions pioneer Ralph Winter dies :

Ralph Winter a veteran missiologist who 35 years ago sparked an emphasis on unreached people groups worldwide died at his home in Pasadena Calif. May 20 after a struggle with cancer. He was 84. In 2005 Time magazine listed Winter as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America noting that in 1974 at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne Switzerland Winter revolutionized missionary work overseas by calling Christians to look beyond national borders and serve the world’s ‘unreached people.’

Winter’s influence on me began when I attended SACLA, the South African Christian Leadership Assembly, in 1979.

There was a hall there where various Christian groups and NGOs were displaying their wares, and among them were many mission societies. It took me back to my schooldays when we had had speakers many of from some these mission societies, and I was rather surprised to find that they still existed. I collected their leaflets: the Sudan Interior Mission, the Sudan United Mission, the Leprosy Mission (formerly Mission to Lepers), and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (formerly the China Inland Mission).

I remembered the last one well. A former missionary called Melsopp came to speak to us at school on several occasions, and he showed us Chinese dress, and spoke about Chinese culture, and emphasised the efforts of the missionaries of the China Inland Mission to identify with Chinese culture. Along with other Western missionaries, he had been kicked out of China in 1950 after the communist revolution there.

But there was one stall that had something new and different. It was about “Unreached Peoples”, and it was manned by Debbie Bliss. I talked to her for quite a while, and she explained to me Ralph Winter’s concept of “unreached peoples”, and gave me more literature, which I read.

I was studying for History Honours at the University of South Africa (Unisa), and had done the first two Honours papers, but when I came to the last three the university put the fees up so that I could no longer afford them (I later worked for Unisa, and was able to complete the degree ten years later, with the help of a staff discount). But to continue studying I registered for a second bachelors degree, a B.Th., majoring in missiology — a choice influenced by Ralph Winter’s thought. At that time the B.Th. course was divided into 30 modules, which were cheaper than the postgraduate honours papers, so I could afford them.

At that time I was Director of Training for Ministries for the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, and my main work was training self-supporting priests and deacons. An influential section of the church-supported clergy were opposed to self-supporting ministry, and introduced rules and regulations designed to make it more difficult for people to join the training programme, so I left to become Director of Mission and Evangelism in the Anglican Diocese of Pretoria, and one of the things we did there was hold an “Institute of International Studies”, with the help of David Bliss (husband of the aforementioned Debbie Bliss). The course was based on a book edited by Ralph Winter, Perspectives on the world Christian movement, a collection of essays on various missiological topics. The essays in the book were a mixed bag, but the ones that impressed me most were two by Winter himself — The kingdom strikes back and The two structures of God’s redemptive mission.

At the “Perspectives” course we also had a video of Ralph Winter speaking about “The Kingdom strikes back”, and that was even more impressive than it was on paper. It changed the way I looked at church and mission history.

One of the points that Winter makes is in the section on “No saints in the middle?”:

It is wise to interrupt the story here. If you haven’t heard this story before you may confront a psychological problem. In church circles today we have fled, feared or forgot- these ten middle centuries. Hopefully, fewer and fewer of us will continue to think in terms of what may be called a fairly extreme form of the “BOBO” theory—that the Christian faith somehow “Blinked Out” after the Apostles and “Blinked On” again in our time, or whenever our modern “prophets” arose, be they Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Joseph Smith, Ellen White or John Wimber. The result of this kind of BOBO approach is that you have “early” saints and “latter-day” saints, but no saints in the middle.

Thus, many Evangelicals are not much interested in what happened prior to the Protestant Reformation. They have the vague impression that the Church was apostate before Luther and Calvin, and whatever there was of real Christianity consisted of a few persecuted individuals here and there. For example, in the multi-volume Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, only half of the first volume is devoted to the first 15 centuries! In evangelical Sunday Schools, children are busy as beavers with the story of God’s work from Genesis to Revelation, from Adam to the Apostles—and their Sunday School publishers may even boast about their “all-Bible curriculum.” But this only really means that these children do not get exposed to all the incredible things God did with that Bible between the times of the Apostles and the Reformers, a period which is staggering proof of the unique power of the Bible! To many people, it is as if there were “no saints in the middle.”

And I discovered that the Missiology Department at Unisa also operated on that assumption. After a look at the “Biblical basis of mission” they would jump straight to Western missionary movements after the Renaissance — there were no saints in the middle.

I remember in one essay I mentioned St Boniface, the English apostle to the Germans. I noted that since the English had immigrated to Britain from Germany in the preceding centuries, Boniface would probably not have had as many language difficulties as missionaries going from other places. Prof. David Bosch, who marked my essay, was quite incredulous. The idea had never occurred to him. Western missiologists, with one notable exception, simply ignored anything that happened in that period. The exception was Ralph D. Winter.

So when I came to do my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods I modelled it, in part, on Ralph Winter’s The Kingdom strikes back. Winter’s account of ten epochs of redemptive history mainly followed Western mission, but I thought the same could, and should be done for Orthodox mission, to highlight the “saints in the middle”. Some warned that this was far too broad for a doctoral thesis, which should be on a very narrow topic. But I thought that Western missiology was far too narrow-minded, and that something broader was needed. And Ralph D. Winter provided the inspiration to broaden it.

Thirty years ago the focus of my life switched to mission and missiology, and in that switch the thought of Ralph D. Winter played no small part.

So that’s how Ralph Winter influenced me. He influenced many other people, in many different ways. You can read about how he influenced Tall Skinny Kiwi here, for example.

More on child witches in Africa

The UK Channel 4 programme on child “witches” in Africa broadcast last week has reignited debate on the topic. I keep a database of African independent churches and church leaders, to try to build up a coherent picture of African Christianity, but the media reports on this phenomenon, which has been reported mainly from Nigeria, the DRC and Angola, usually raise more questions than they answer.

According to Tracy McVeigh of “The Guardian” (9-Dec-2007) “it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs”.

What I would like to know is which American and Scottish missionaries these were. What are their names, their background? Who sent them to Nigeria, and when? Which denominaations and mission agencies sponsored them? What was the source of their teaching, and how did they influence those who are propagating these beliefs in Nigeria today?

These seem to me to be very important questions for missiologists and church historians to be asking. We have international academic discussion forums for researchers on African Independent Churches and New Religious Movements, but if anyone is doing research into those topics they aren’t saying. Possibly some sociologists have been doing research into it, but if they have, I haven’t heard of it. An interdisciplinary study would be useful.

In the absence of such studies, all one can do is try to read between the lines of the newspaper reports and try to guess what is going on.

According to some reports this phenomenon — accusing children of being witches — did not exist in Congo (DRC) in 1994, but it was common in 1999.

One of the denominations reported to be most active in witch hunting is the Liberty Gospel Church, founded in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria in 1992 by Helen Ukpabio, a former nurse.

She has apparently said that if children cry a lot and are fretful it is a sign that they are witches. Now I’m not a fundi on Nigerian witchcraft beliefs, but I do know that in most parts of Africa if a child is ill and feverish and cries a lot people may suspect that the child has been bewitched. Witchcraft has often been seen as a cause of illness. But it seems that Ukpabio has reversed this, and instead of seeing these as symptoms that a child is a victim, she teaches that it a sign that the child is a perpetator of witchcraft.

Maybe there is some precedent for this kind of thing in Nigerian culture — if there is, I hope someone will enlighten me. But it seems to me like a new twist on the “blame the victim” game.

And if Helen Ukpabio and others like her really got their theology from American and Scottish pentecostal and evangelical missionaries, it might be quite important to know which ones. I think it may, however, be a bit more complex than this.

In Central and West Africa there seems to be a growing interest in exorcism; though such beliefs may have been around for a long time they seem to be growing stronger. Many clergy seem to have specialised in it. I met a student at the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi who had been a Roman Catholic and gathered a congregation of about 500 people in Douala, Cameroun, who had mainly been attracted by his ministry of exorcism. He became Orthodox when the Roman Catholic bishop sought to inhibit his ministry of exorcism, which he continued with the blessing of the local Orthodox bishop.

Another student at the seminary, who was from the English-speaking northern part of Cameroun, had become a Rosicrucian at the age of 16, and had tried an amazing number of religions, including Wicca and Ekankar, before settling on Hinduism, which he studied for some time under a guru in India. On returning to Cameroun he was told by his spirit guides to worship the Triune God, and walked into town and the first Christian Church he came across was the Orthodox Cathedral, so he decided to join the Orthodox Church. But at the seminary he believed that the teaching staff were withholding important information from the students, such as which variety of incense was best for driving out which kinds of demons.

But there is also the possibility that the excesses of people like Helen Ukpabio could actually kill off African witchcraft beliefs altogether.

Something similar happened in the great European witch craze in the 16th and 17th centuries. In early modern Europe there was, in some places, a great increase in witchhunting and witchcraft accusations. As time passed, however, the accusations and the beliefs about witchcraft became more and more bizarre and over-the-top, until people could simply no longer believe them, and eventually the entire belief system crumbled under its own weight. Perhaps Ukpabio’s teachings are a sign that this is beginning to happen in Africa.

Witchcraft accusations and exorcisms in DRC

BBC News | AFRICA | Congo witch-hunt’s child victims:

Congolese children are being accused of witchcraft and made scapegoats for the country’s many ills. Jeremy Vine reports from Kinshasa on the gruesome business of exorcism.

The sect – run by a free-thinking Congolese Bible teacher called Prophet Onokoko – has 230 children on its books. All are accused of witchcraft. Many have been thrown out of their family homes. All will have to undergo some kind of ritual exorcism to expunge the evil spirits.

I have a database of African Independent Churches (AICs) and would be interested in more information on this one, and on Prophet Onokoko. Does anyone have any more information on the history of this church, and its theology?

Celtic spirituality

At various times I have come across and even got involved in discussions about Celtic spirituality and the Celtic Church, topics that seem to be very popular in certain circles.

One of the things that surprised me was the misinformation and disinformation circulating about the topic. People expressed interest in the Celtic Church, but when they came to give reasons for their interest, the reasons were often spurious, and their understanding of the Celtic Church was often completely a-historical.

Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for giving a pointer to this article, which gives a good historical summary: Celtic Spirituality: Just what does it mean? [Thinking Faith – the online journal of the British Jesuits]

But what would St Patrick – arguably the most famous Celtic saint – make of the practices and beliefs called ‘Celtic Spirituality’ today? Liam Tracey OSM examines whether the Celtic church was really anything like the romantic picture often painted of it.

Tracey says of this phenomenon:

What is so attractive about these long forgotten figures and cultures? Why has there been such a remarkable renaissance in interest in what ultimately is a small windswept island on the Western fringes of Europe? It’s hard to know and one sometimes gets the impression in looking at the phenomenon that is called ‘Celtic Spirituality,’ that what you are encountering is a screen on which is projected many contemporary desires, anxieties and preoccupations, little to do with the past and more especially with the past of these islands. Of course, one of the major problems with many of these treatments of things ‘Celtic’ is the lack of historical awareness that groups all manner of practices and writings together, with little reference to the social, religious and political context of the past and a failure to note that the same thing, seen as ‘Celtic’ was happening right throughout Western Christianity.

Scottish Presbyterians, have, of course, long been interested in Celtic Christianity, and may have been partly responsible for the popularity of the topic, because it was Irish missionaries who first took Christianity to Scotland, and in fact the Scots were originally immigrants to Scotland from Ireland, displacing the native Picts. Calvinists are not usually given to naming churches after saints, but Celtic saints, like St Columba and St Mungo are exceptions, and one sometimes finds Presbyterian churches named for these saints.

Anglo-Catholics, too, have sometimes stressed the role of the Celtic Church in evangelising the heathen Anglo-Saxon invaders, to diminish the idea of the Church of England’s dependence on Rome. The Roman mission to Kent, led by St Augustine of Canterbury, cannot be denied, but it was mostly Celtic missionaries who evangelised the northern English.

All this is interesting from the point of view of church history, especially if one lives in the British Isles, or is a member of a Christian denomination that had its origins there. It has even been made the subject of a popular historical novel, Credo by Melvyn Bragg.

But it is also interesting missiologically.

An interesting book to read is The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England by Henry Mayr-Harting (London, Batsford, 1991). ISBN: 0-7134-6589-1. It gives a good example of premodern mission methods, and the differences and similarities between the methods used by Celtic and Roman missionaries. They were far more similar to each other than either were to modern mission.

As with Kievan Rus some centuries later, mission began with royal courts. It was King Oswald, who had just united Deira and Bernicia into the kingdom of Northumbria who asked for a missionary. He had become a Christian before he had become king, while he was living among the Irish. The first missionary proved unsuitable, so Oswald chose another, Aidan, who established a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Though he was bishop of the Northumbrians, he appointed an abbot to rule the monastery to whom he himself, as a monk, was subject. This was a characteristic of Celtic Christianity that has often been distorted in modern telling.

Both the Irish and English societies, like that of Kievan Rus, were warrior and tribal societies, with economies based partly on trade, and partly on conquest and looting. In such a society a “royal mission” can seem almost a contradiction in terms. The kings in such a society were warlords whose authority in the eyes of their followers was based, at least in part, on their success in conquest. After a war raid, the warriors would return with their booty and have a feasts to celebrate. The generosity of kings in giving such feasts for their victorious followers was what cemented the bonds between leader and followers. Today we would call it “organised crime”.

Christianity, with its ethic of love and meekness, hardly seemed calculated to appeal to such people. Yet it did appeal, and, once accepted, it transformed the societies into something else. Prince Vladimir of Rus, for example, abolished capital punishment, and though he still gave feasts and banquets, he invited the poor and weak, and not just the strong, the warriors.

The contrast between the royal courts and monasteries was perhaps significant in this. Many of the monks, including the abbots of important monasteries, refused to ride horses, but rode donkeys. Monasticism was thus a counterbalance to royal power. And several kings in that era retired to monasteries in their old age.

Monastic missionaries in the medieval period seemed to use similar methods, from the forests of northern Russia to the British Isles, and south into the mountains of Ethiopia. The monastic missionary was

  • the exorcist, delivering people from the power of evil spirits
  • the angel, living the angelic life, constant in prayer
  • the healer, taking no money
  • the lion tamer, protecting people from dangerous wild animals

And, unlike modern medical missionaries, they did not heal by building clinics; they healed through prayer, fasting, the sign of the cross, holy water, saliva and miracle-working ikons.

I’ve sometimes wondered what might have happened if the court of King Shaka in Zululand had he had a missionary like St Aidan in Oswald’s court, rather than the post-Enlightenment missionaries with their many words and rationalising arguments.

Pagans and Neopagans

In a comment on another post Yvonne Aburrow writes:

Small grumble… why do Christians (even lovely ones such as your good self) always insist on the “Neo-” prefix? Is it to emphasise that you don’t believe we have continuity with pagans of the past? Sure, we don’t have the equivalent of apostolic succession (we call it initiatory lineage), but there is a continuity of ideas via the Western Mystery Tradition, and many another strand of thought and feeling. Also, the pagans of the classical world didn’t call themselves Pagans, so I don’t give them a capital P – but I do give it to modern Pagans because they identify as such.

Of course, given that you belong to a tradition with unbroken apostolic succession, maybe you should call all other forms of Christianity Neo-Christian…

This post is an attempt to respond to that.

I should say right at the start that in addition to being a Christian I am a curmudgeonly language pedant. I tend to be fussy about language and usage, and distinctions between the meanings of words that some might think hair splitting.

And for me, “pagan” is a general term, whereas “neopagan” is a more specific one.

“Pagan” started off as Christian slang for non-Christians. As the historian Robin Lane Fox puts it in his book Pagans and Christians:

In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani… In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians’ usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians’ view of life.

“Pagan” continued to be used as Christian slang for non-Christians right up to the middle of the 20th century. Paganism was not a religion. It was the state of not being a Christian. In Europe, perceptions of religion began to change with the growth of modernity. I don’t want to go into that in too much detail here, but should just point out that modernity gave rise to the modern conception of “religion” and “religions”, and the idea that Christianity was one instance of something that belonged to a wider category, one religion among many. Such a notion would probably never have occurred to anyone before the 17th century. What it led to was a notion among some people that the term “pagans” applied to adherents of non-monotheistic religions, so that anyone who was not a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim was a pagan. But still, no one was a self-described pagan.

In the 19th century, though, some people did begin to describe themselves as pagans. They accepted the Christian understanding, with an extension. Not only were they not Christian, they were not religious. Those who accepted “pagan” as a self-description were secular humanists.

An example of this usage can be seen in a book by Rosalind Murray, The Good Pagan’s failure. It was a book of Christian apologetics written by one who had been a Good Pagan, but had become a Christian. I used to have a copy, but can’t find it. The following excerpt from a review, however, should make it clear what the book is about, and how the word “pagan” is used in it.

The Good Pagan’s Failure. By Rosalind Murray. (Longmans, Green, 7s. 6d. net.)

Miss ROSALIND MURRAY has attempted to interpret liberal humanism to the Christian, and Christianity to the humanist, to examine the misunderstandings which inevitably arise between the supernatural outlook of the “totalitarian” Christian, and the cultivated, “moderate”, humanitarian worldliness of the Good Pagan. Miss Murray is singularly equipped to make this attempt, having known both worlds, and she has achieved a work of immediate value.

At its best (and Miss Murray knew it at its best) that humanism possessed qualities of culture, moral refinement, honour, and humane sensibility which were remarkable; today its essential weaknesses have worked themselves out, and the Good Pagan stands back in hurt surprise at the sight of a world in ruins. His intentions were so good, his heart so kind; what has gone wrong? Miss Murray examines his failure with intelligence and sympathetic insight, and shows how by his exclusive preoccupation with this world, his confidence that with bread (and kindness) alone man could be happy, the Good Pagan was forced to shut his eyes to the world’s imperfections, to the facts of suffering, poverty and sin. But “by excluding Heaven we have not abolished Hell, by denying redemption we have not been redeemed, the sinner is still there, in the world and in ourselves”.

Rosalind Murray, as the reviewer points out, was a member of both worlds. Her father, Gilbert Murray, was a well-known advocate of secular humanism. And Rosalind Murray’s use of the term “pagan” was fairly widespread and well understood for the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

When I was teaching in the theology faculty of the University of South Africa (Unisa) in the 1990s, the faculty issued formal tutorial letters to students to say that they should not use words like “non-Christian” and “pagan”. Their intentions were good. The people who compiled the letters thought that these terms were insulting, and that it was not good to be rude to people. The problem was that they were a little naive, and did not see how their own prohibition was actually a manifestation of an attitude of superiority. If it is bad to call someone a pagan or a non-Christian, that implies that one thinks that Christians are superior to non-Christians, the therefore it is rude to imply that a person is so inferior as not to be a Christian. I doubt that many pagans would be fooled by this disingenuousness. It actually patronising condescension at its worst.

At the same time, and especially since the mid-1960s, many people were happy to call themselves pagans, not because they were irreligious, but because they were religious. Many of them were consciously trying to revive the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe. But even in this sense, “paganism” did not refer to a single religion, but to a group of religions, some of which had their own names. Asatru, for example, as the revival of ancient Norse religions, Hellenism was the revival of the pre-Christian religion of the Olympian gods. There were new composite religions like Wicca.

Yvonne objects to the term on the grounds that it implies a lack of continuity, and in a sense it does: Asatru is not a continuation of ancient Norse religion. Hellenism is not a continuation of ancient Greek religion. They are revivals. The term “paganism” also covers what some have called “paleopaganism”, which includes not only the ancient religions of Greece and Rome, but also religions that are still practised at the present day, including African and American traditional religions. And many modern pagans themselves have come up with, and are happy to use, terms like “neopaganism” and “paleopaganism” and indeed have helped to define them. While I don’t agree with everything in that article, I think it does help to clarify the definitions of the terms.

Perhaps, as a postscript, I should say a little more about the question of “superiority”, as manifested in both the Unisa tutorial letters and in the article referred to in the previous paragraph. After all, I remain a Christian — doesn’t that mean that I regard myself as superior to pagans, whether neo-, meso- or paleo-?

And the answer for me, at least, is no.

Someone once likened Christian evangelism to “one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread”.

It’s a good analogy. A beggar who finds bread is not necessarily better than one who has not. He may be “better off“, but he is not “better”. That is the point of the discussion of the Good Pagan’s failure. Why the epithet “good”? The point is that the failure is not necessarily a failure of ethics or morality. Many pagans live better and more moral lives than many Christians, and some indeed have higher ethical and moral standards than some Christians. The moment that Christians assume that they are morally superior to others simply because they are Christians, they’ve lost the plot. And, as Isaac Bonewits points out in his article cited above, that has happened quite often, There is nothing in the Christian faith to justify such attitudes of moral superiority. And when we do adopt those attitudes, we simply show how much we are still sinners.

The real origins of Christmas

At this time of the year one finds all sorts of fluff pieces in newspapers and in the blogosphere and on the web about the origins of Christmas. Most of them are not worth the effort to read, because they are so full of vague speculations and over generalisations as to be almost completely worthless.

Adventus evidently feels the same way as I do about them, and writes:

If you wade through that (as you should, if you want to know something verifiable about history), you reach this conclusion:

The present writer in inclined to think that, be the origin of the feast in East or West, and though the abundance of analogous midwinter festivals may indefinitely have helped the choice of the December date, the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.

Some years ago I had the job of marking some student assignments on this very topic. The assignment was part of a missiology course at the University of South Africa. It had not been set by me, so I had to read everything on the reading list to make sure I knew where the students would be coming from. Most of the reading was articles in various respectable (peer-reviewed) theological journals. I was rather surprised to see how many unsubstantiated assertions there were in these articles, and decided to do a bit of research on my own and tried to find out when Christians began to observe the Feast of the Nativity of Christ from contemporary sources, and why they did so. And what struck me was the remarkable absence of contemporary sources.

nativitySome of the assertions were based on wild assumptions and speculations made by 19th century scholars. Or, more often, some historian had made a tentative hypothesis, and those who cited him did so as if it had become and absolute certainty.

Eventually, in marking the assignment, I found that most of my comments to students were simply urging the students to use their sources critically. It appeared that many missiologists are given to speculation, and are not familiar with church history, or even secular history. And church historians are very often not aware of the missiological implications of the matter they deal with. In the matter of Christmas, many of the assertions are based on huge anachronisms, which even an elementary knowledge of history would enable people to see through.

Anyway, Adventus also seems to have got sick of these muddled speculations and has taken some pains to set the record straight, or at least straighter. It’s worth reading.

And, since everyone seems happy to put forward their own speculations on the origins of Christmas, here are mine: The origin of Christmas. In that article I put forward the hypothesis that the popularity of the celebration of Christmas grew in the 4th century as a means to counter Arianism. I think that is as as valid as most of the other speculations.

See also: Urban legends about Christmas.

Easter – Christian or pagan?

It has often been claimed in some circles that Christians “stole” Easter from pagans. The claim has been repeated so often that it has become a factoid (a piece of unreliable information believed to be true because of the way it is presented or repeated in print).

I was prompted to write about it because in this month’s synchroblog Julie Clawson mentions it in onehandclapping: Rejection, redemption and roots. Since it is not central to the main point of her article (which is very good) I thought it was worth discussing separately.

I first came across this idea in The golden bough by Sir James Frazer, which I read when I was in high school. As the Wikipedia summary puts it:

Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king. This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies. The germ for Frazer’s thesis was the pre-Roman priest-king at the fane of Nemi, who was ritually murdered by his successor

This implies that the disciples of Jesus, some time between his death and the writing of the gospels, decided to apply this myth to Jesus, and to proclaim him as such a dying-and-rising king. The problem of the argument that Christians “stole” it from pagans, however, is that Frazer claims that it is universal to all religions. So if Frazer’s argument is true, they all stole it, or at least all but the first one to come up with it, and it is very difficult to know which that one is.

I don’t, at this point, want to discuss the historicity of the resurrection. That the resurrection of Jesus was a historic event is central to the Christian faith, but proving by historical methods that that event took place as described is a different matter. What we can discover using historical methods, however, is what Christians believed at various periods. And what we discover is that very early on Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and that this was linked to, and seen as the fulfilment of the Jewish Passover.

As one Easter hymn puts it:

This is the day of resurrection, let us be illumined, O people. Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord. For from death to life and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us, as we sing the song of victory: Christ is risen from the dead

This may be more familiar to Western Christians in J.M. Neale’s paraphrase:

The Day of Resurrection
Earth tell it out abroad
The Passover of gladness
The Passover of God
From death to life eternal
from earth unto the sky
Our Christ has brought us over
With songs of victory.

I’ve had several debates and even arguments about the topic previously, mainly with fundamentalist Christians who claim to have got the idea from a book called The two Babylons by Alexander Hislop. The first time this happened I could not find Hislop’s book, but I checked every historical reference I could find, and found the claim was without foundation. When, some years later, a friend lent me a copy of Hislop’s book, I found that Hislop didn’t claim it either, at least not in the form that the people who made the claim said he did. They played fast and loose with their own source, never mind any others.

Their argument (which, as I say, went considerably further than Hislop himself did) was based on the word “Easter” itself, and involved the most extraordinary historical distortions and anachronisms, not to mention fanciful etymology, and extraordinary debates about the translation of “Pascha” by “Easter” in Acts 12:4 of the King James English version of the Bible.

Their argument was that since the English word Easter was derived from the name of a pagan goddess, therefore the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ was a pagan one — which brings us right back to Sir James Frazer’s point, and the only conclusion of their argument that I could ever discover was that they were saying the Jesus never rose from the dead because the disciples nicked the story from some pagan source, but not even Hislop claims this.

The fact is, however, that Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ long before the word “Easter” was used, and the word they used for the celebration was Pascha, which is derived from and linked to the Jewish festival of Passover (as the above hymn shows).

So where did the word “Easter” come from?

It’s time for a lesson in Christian missionary history.

When part of Britain was ruled by the Roman empire, Christianity spread there, as it did to the other parts of the Roman empire and beyond. Romano-British Christians evangelised Ireland, and Irish Christians sent missionaries to northern Britain to evangelise there among the Picts. Roman Britain was multi-cultural and multi-religious. There were Christians and a variety of local and Roman cults, and mixtures of them. In the 4th and 5th centuries Germanic “barbarians” were invading the Roman empire from the East, and at the beginning of the 5th century Roman troops were being withdrawn from Britain to help defend Italy against the Visigoths. By 410 the withdrawal was complete, and the British were told that they were on their own. The Emperor wrote a letter to this effect to different cities, as there was no longer any central authority. The “barbarians”, Angles and Saxons from the continent, the ancestors of the English, arrived in Britain in increasing numbers. Sometimes they settled peacefully among the British, but at other times they embarked on violent conquest (this was the time of the legendary King Arthur), and by the middle of the 6th century they ruled most of what came to be called England, driving the Romano-British and the Celtic population to the north and west — Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria.

Christian missionaries then evangelised the English — Celtic missionaries from Ireland and Scotland in the north, and a Roman mission led by St Augustine of Canterbury in the south, which arrived in 597.

A couple of centuries later the English monastic historian Bede wrote his History of the English Church and people and other works on Christian festivals, about which there had been some contention. Among other things Bede tells us about the origin of the word “Easter”. The English word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the month of April, which was known as “Eostremonath” in the AngloSaxon tongue, and since Pascha was most often celebrated in Eostremonath, the English Christians began calling it “Easter”. Bede surmised that the month was named after a goddess Esostre (nothing to do with “Oestrus”, which has another derivation altogether), and there is also no demonstrable connection with “Ishtar”. Bede tells us very little about Eostre, and there is nothing about her in earlier or contemporary sources. Bede is the earliest reference.

English missionaries to other places, like Germany, took the term “Easter” with them, and so German Christians called it “Ostern”, but the rest of the Christian world called it Pascha, or derivatives thereof. So to claim that Passover/Pascha was “stolen” from pagans because the English called it “Easter” several centuries later is anachronistic nonsense.

Pagans might agree with James Frazer, and say that Christians “stole” the idea of a a dying-and-rising king from pagans, but if they do, perhaps they should stop and ask themselves where they themselves “stole” it from, because Frazer claims that it is universal.

But Christians who accept this factoid as a “fact” would do well to ponder St Paul’s words: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (I Cor 15:14).

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