Review – Paganism & Christianity – A Resource for Wiccans, Witches and Pagans by Gavin Andrew

This e-book is published under the auspices of the Pagan Awareness Network Incorporated (PAN) in Australia. Since I had just written about this exact subject, I was excited to find this publication and eagerly downloaded it.

Despite going against the grain of the reviews I have seen, I am not universally impressed with this short book. It has a wonderful amount of secondary research, and the author obviously has read widely and makes some very good connections. However, I feel there is still an implicit misunderstanding of the diversity and subtleties of Christianity that mars the author’s intentions. At times it seems covertly hostile to what the author thinks is Christianity.

I cannot help wondering what this book would have been like with Christian input or co-authoring; if Mr Andrew had sat down with Christians to discuss each of the topics raised. There are good examples of inter-faith dialogues, such as Beyond the Burning Times. See also the recent podcast with the Pagan Federation’s Mike Stygal and John W Morehead. Everyone should really access these resources 🙂

I am not sure however, that such open dialogue was the intention of this book. The subtitle clearly states its audience is Pagan. So it seems its aims of education and information are all implicitly meant to be Pagan views on Christianity and Pagan-Christian interaction. The book  achieves that aim in a limited sense and while it will mostly reinforce already existing Pagan views on Christianity, it will also provide new information and links. As an accurate reflection of the diversity of the Christian experience and its interconnections with Paganism, I do feel the book falls short.

As I read through the book I was delighted to discover some solid and deep reading, often linking through references to books and sources of high repute. Pagans and Christians will be enriched reading the references and links made by Mr Andrew.

Problems though are also apparent, starting with this definition of a Christian as someone who believes the following:

  • That there is one god who is absolutely good and perfect
  • That human beings are born flawed, sinful or evil, and are therefore incapable of having a direct, personal relationship with god
  • That Jesus  of Nazareth died to pay the price of all human sin; that he arose from the dead; and that through belief in him a personal relationship with God becomes possible. (there is no pagination in any e-version I downloaded).

This is a succinct exoteric definition but fails to take into account the subtlety of progressive Christianity or depth of esoteric Christianity that Mr Andrew must have been exposed to in researching this book. Nor does it actually address the diversity of regular Christian thought in the real world. Eastern Orthodox theology has a different take on the myth of the Fall, the source of the second point, and therefore a much more nuanced view on human nature. When I quoted this definition on the Facebook page for the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, John W. Moorehead kindly pointed out that some evangelical Christians believe that humans can, from their own side, form a relationship with God. So the actual reality of Christian thought is far more complex than how Mr Andrew presents it. I did not know the latter fact, and John’s kind clarification of it is the sort of thing that happens when inter-religious conversations occur. In fact, it is well worth looking at this Facebook group for all sorts of things.

Mr Andrew’s discussion on the Trinity again displays a Pagan understanding of what Christians believe, a belief which he describes as “nominally” monotheistic on the account of the presence of three persons. The mystery of the Trinity as monotheism has been described so many times I find it hard to believe anyone of any reading would consider it only nominally monotheistic. From a hard polytheist perspective sure, but not from a Christian viewpoint. And this is where a lot of the problem with the book lies; Pagan interpretation on but a narrow slice of the Christian experience, rather than at attempt to let a diverse Christianity speak for itself.

The author’s intention to critique Christianity leads him to make a few errors. For example, he refers to views expressed in a personal interview with the Vatican exorcist as ‘established Catholic doctrine’ when of course they are simply views of one priest, not doctrinal statements. The fact that the interview concerns itself largely with how the exorcist is at odds with the Vatican over the new Rite of Exorcism, should be indication enough of the difference between an interview and official doctrine.

Mr Andrew spends a couple of pages early in the book recounting some truly awful actions and attitudes against Pagans by what Mr Andrew calls ‘hot temperature’ Christians; fundamentalists evangelicals and others. He does not however clearly spell out that these views and actions are not those of the majority of Christians, despite himself describing one of the Pastors involved as ‘controversial’.

Mr Andrew concludes this recount with the question, “What conclusions can be drawn from the evidence so far?” In his answer he states that ‘high-temperature’ Christians are “very likely to view pagans, especially Wiccans and witches, as spiritual enemies in a dangerously literal sense.” And maybe this is so, from the ‘evidence’ presented so far, but Mr Andrew goes on to opine that:

At the other end of the spectrum, Christians from more moderate denominations (Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran or Presbyterian, for example, and moderate elements within Catholicism) can be less overtly hostile, but still view pagan spirituality as flawed, lacking theological depth, or an imperfect reflection of what Christianity embodies. This assessment is often based upon false assumptions and a lack of awareness of the growing field of pagan academic scholarship.

This is despite not even once discussing these Christians from ‘moderate denominations’ or their organisational viewpoints. Clearly then this is assumption on behalf of Mr Andrew, not evidence. Now he may be accurate in his assumptions, or he may not, but badly declaring the views of several Christian denominations in such a way is hardly likely to endear a Christian reader to his viewpoint, or further inter-faith understanding.

Mr Andrew tackles John 14:6:  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

He sees this passage as implying a belief in a strict-parent figure and asserts “Christians use this passage to state clearly and unequivocally that their religion is the only true religion; and that all others are false, or at the very least imperfect.” Now all of this is very true of some Christians, but Mr Andrew seems ignorant of both progressive Christianity and general-in-the-Church viewpoints.

Aslan’s Dad

My last blog post featured Marcus Borg speaking on this very topic. Have a look there or here on the video from 40 minutes onward. Clearly there is a lot of different understanding of John 14:6 within the Christian community.  And we are not talking about fringe or esoteric Christianity; Borg is a traditional Episcopalian theologian of impeccable background and credentials. Even the establishment Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, arguably the most influential Christian thinker of the 20th century, had inclusive views on the subject.

…the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people [non Christians] are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” Mere Christianity:

This is subtle, deep and complex and unless we think Christians view “God” as an old man in the sky, we become aware of a viewpoint where Christians can hold the tenants of John 14:6 and be open to other religions. Such a view opens a vista of possibilities for genuine inter-faith dialogue and understanding that could have been explored by Mr Andrew had he stepped beyond a narrow interpretation of scripture that few within the Christian community invest with any serious depth. Most Christian churches and those within the churches are concerned with their own faith, and are quite happy to leave the quality of the faith of others, or not, to God. The majority of Christians, like the majority of Pagans, are simply getting on with things.

Mr Andrew spends a chapter examining Christian scripture and what it has to say ‘about Pagans’ and concludes:

A cursory examination of the Bible reveals that Christian doctrine is fundamentally, completely and irrevocably opposed to paganism, Wicca or witchcraft in any form, and anyone who practices them. It is also important to note that Christians tend to view polytheism as a kind of spiritual adultery or prostitution – a concept which has its origin in a literary metaphor employed nearly three thousand years ago by a cuckolded Hebrew writer.

Once again, there are misunderstandings here. The Bible, let alone personal interpretation, is not Christian doctrine so this statement is incorrect. Doctrines vary from church to church, some are more Biblically based and some include extra-Biblical traditions. The final sentence I think would also not reflect many Christian’s views on polytheism, since many are trying hard to love first and foremost, including polytheists. Many Christians I know would find this view both inaccurate and offensive.

Mr Andrew often reproduces common views within the Pagan community concerning Christianity without unpacking or critiquing them. An example is the view that “early Christianity plagiarized ancient pagan spirituality.” I have heard this a lot, and it is really a very limited notion as plagiarism implies a conscious theft, imitation or appropriation. In terms of any religion’s development, they nearly always build upon and interact with the existing religious forms.

For plagiarism to occur ‘the early Christians’ would not only have to been a discreet, unified body, which they were not, but also a self-identified, self conscious religion already, who then chose to take from existing Pagan religions. They were not and did not . Christianity was formed within a cultural and religious environment that we now call Pagan and was influenced by this environment, though it is of course arguable it was more influenced by its Jewish parent. In any case, plagiarism does not come into it.

Mr Andrew’s review of both the early modern witch hunts and the history of modern Neo-Paganism is very good, and he has engaged well with modern research and academic views. He traces the history well, and there is little to fault here. The only issues I think are his wording, when he talks of “witchcraft indigenous to Europe and the Middle East”. There was no religious Witchcraft indigenous to Europe. There were a few surviving medieval Pagan remnants, the stereotypical image of the diabolical witch placed over fears of witchcraft (which exists worldwide) and folk magical practices, often called ‘cunning craft’.

We cannot retroactively combine these factors and place over them our conception of modern religious Neo-Pagan Witchcraft. Nor can we, as Mr Andrew seems to do, rely on the influence of cunning craft on contemporary Paganisms and the assumed ‘shamanic’ practices within records of a few witch trials to provide a solid lineage in anything other than folk and/or high magical practice.

As Professor Hutton as described, Wicca’s lineage is magical, not religious; the religious components being the truly modern and revolutionary aspects. He describes how modern Paganism came about by the ‘filtering out of non-Christian elements’ within ‘streams of heritage’ that had preserved or adopted Pagan elements. This included cunning craft where the practitioners often saw themselves in opposition to the evils of witchcraft and which was, according to Hutton, the least relevant of factors in the development of modern Witchcraft.

Mr Andrew’s misunderstanding of, if not antipathy towards Christianity comes out in these words:

The concern over the state of one’s relationship with God lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Despite the very many altruistic (and noble) statements about love, charity and forgiveness in the New Testament, Christianity would seem to be at its core a self centered religion: the point of faith, of repentance of one’s sins, of obedience to God’s sovereignty, is to achieve eternal life in the presence of God.

This ignores countless acts of selfless love, charity and dedication shown each day by thousands of Christians. It makes a mockery of an ex-colleague of mine, a nun, who for years risked her life helping the poor and oppressed in Latin America. It also shows a complete misunderstanding of the salvific action of Christ; once we are in relationship with him, saved by him, our only task is to maintain relationship with him. We do not have to ‘do’ anything else; we do not need to purify ourselves, transform ourselves, only be open to his love and direction.

In short, we are saved by faith not works. Christianity, and every single Christian I have spoken to, does not see a ‘big brownie counter’ in the sky, where our good actions are counted up against our bad ones. This is a childish view of Christianity and Mr Andrew’s words are a classic example of the ideas that prompted C.S. Lewis’ famous remark that people as an adult often criticise Christianity based on what they learnt of it as a child, not as an adult.

My friend the nun did not need to do any of her dangerous actions on behalf of others; she was already in deep relationship with Christ. She did them out of love. And it is love which motivates countless acts of Christian compassion daily. Mr Andrew does not seem to understand this, nor that it is love which motivates many Christians in their evangelical work towards members of other faiths, or no faith. Again, I discuss this in my previous post.

Mr Andrew’s work is sadly sometimes marred by unfortunate skills in either presentation or logic. Take for example this paragraph which comes after the previous one:

The desire for eternal life implicitly suggests a terror of death, of darkness, of the chthonic. Jesus Christ is worshipped as the one who has ‘overcome’, ‘conquered’, ‘gained victory over’ these realms. To many pagans, this desire to triumph over mortality also implies repugnance towards organic, sexual, mortal life. Such deep-seated aversions may explain the Christian fear of witchcraft in particular, and its ancient associations both with life and fertility on one hand and with the chthonic, otherworldly realm of the dead on the other. Many traditions of pagan spirituality are underpinned by an awareness of mortality.

Aside from missing the point of Christ’s victory, the structure of this paragraph is worth examining. First we have an implication of a what eternal life means for Christians, an implication from Mr Andrew himself, without reference to sources. Next we have a Pagan response to that implication which introduces more implications on what Christians think and believe, again not based on any sources. Finally, all these introduced implications are used as a possible explanation for the Christian fear of witchcraft and the realms of the dead, whereas the fear of (and persecution of alleged) witchcraft and the realms of the dead are near universal phenomena, not solely Christian.

Fortunately, Mr Andrew finishes the book on a positive note describing some of the common ground between Christians and Pagans. However, overall the book has too much misunderstanding for it to be a real asset in Christian-Pagan dialogue. As an information source for Pagans on the Christian religions it has some merit, but really is too narrow and too uncritical to be of any use besides reinforcing already held ideas.

Paganism & Christianity – A Resource for Wiccans, Witches and Pagans by Gavin Andrew – links to book page on Smashwords.

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8 comments

  1. Josephine McCarthy · September 5, 2012

    Thankyou for such a thoughtful review. I was raised and educated in a convent school (run in the UK by an Irish order) and come from a family brimming with priests and nuns. There are some Christian ideologies that you quote from the book, and also author conclusions on Christianity, that are completely alien to me.
    I think besides the lack of deeper knowledge on Christianity and the various facets of different branches of Christianity, there may also be issues here regarding culture, generation and childhood environment. Modern Christianity has evolved in to very different creeds and factions very quickly in the last 60 years, particularly in the US as a result of media, money and a wider mixing of ideas and cultures (just as modern Paganism has). So it pays to be wary of stating a ‘truth’ about Christianity as first you have to ask ‘whose Christianity’?
    A more interesting book would have been a close and careful look at how humanity behaves, interacts and develops within its relationships with religion/belief, and how those interactions bring about factions, squabbles and messiahs. Each religion, each spiritual path has the same issues because they are all operated by humanity. If humans learn to get along in a mature intelligent way, there would be no need for books like this. Sadly I think the chances of that happening are about the same odds as finding God the father sat on a cloud, wearing a white frock and Birkenstocks.

  2. John W. Morehead · September 5, 2012

    Thank you for this review, and the kind mention of some of the work of colleagues and I that have tried to be fair in a Christian understanding of paganism, and in bringing our communities together for dialogue. I have linked to this elsewhere and hope that it pushes the discussion forward.

  3. Matt Baldwin-Ives · September 6, 2012

    Thank you Peregrin. Deeply thought provoking as always.

  4. MvdV · September 6, 2012

    I downloaded this book a while ago knowing I would be getting an Ipad from my work (and wold be able to read it). I was underwhelmed for most of the reasons you have detailed Peregrin.

    The diversity within the Christian faith community itself cannot be understated and rarely can be generalised. Much like the search for a definition that defines Pagan amongst practicers, Christianity is a trick one to pin down for all members of the Christian Faith community.

    The work of religious diplomacy continues!

  5. Pat zalewski · September 15, 2012

    I think the religious and magical influence often trip over each other. For example, just compare the four talismans of Ireland with the four grail hallows. Both are interwoven to a point where the point of separation and their origins are unclear.

  6. Peregrin · September 17, 2012

    Hi, Pat… yes, thanks for these comments. The collapsing of the boundaries between the religious have always been there. I think most scholars would say this has increased though since the mid 19th century and Levi, and particularly since Wicca came around. 🙂 Ta.

  7. Pingback: Pagan misunderstandings of Christianity (again) and a new WA Pagan Mag « Magic of the Ordinary
  8. Pingback: Response to Ronald Hutton – Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism « Magic of the Ordinary

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