Have you ever met a Pagan? No, I don’t mean someone who simply doesn’t go to church but someone who self-consciously identifies themselves as a Pagan. You may not know it, but you may have Pagan neighbours. What an opportunity for the gospel!
Modern Paganism is a collection of new religious movements. Though they are really only a few decades old, they claim a continuity with pre-Christian religions.
The word ‘Pagan’ comes from the Latin paganus referring to rustic peoples who lived in the villages. It was first used by early Christians to refer to the peoples of the Roman Empire who had not yet become Christian. Over time it took on a derogatory connotation and was often used to refer to anyone outside the Abrahamic religions.
Today’s Pagans have adopted the term for themselves, using it in a positive sense.
Pagans believe that they follow the oldest religion in the world and assert that they follow a non-dogmatic form of spirituality. Nevertheless, most pursue their religion within one of the various traditions of Paganism, including those that draw on the older pre-Christian religions of Northern Europe.
Generally, Pagans believe in many gods or they believe that all is god. They also believe in the worship of nature. Many worship goddesses and reject what they see as patriarchal monotheistic religions (as they view Christianity) as inherently oppressive.
In some circles it is common to identify Paganism with Satanism and the New Age Movement. Although there are some similarities and overlaps, Pagans themselves usually deny that the movements are identical.
In the West, Pagans seek to recover an older religion that was replaced with the advance of Christianity over the first millennium AD. As such, Pagans are often consciously rejecting Christianity. One group of Pagans, those of the ‘Northern Tradition’ often prefer to call themselves ‘Heathen’. Other popular traditions are Wicca and Druidry.
Modern Pagans are also disenchanted with modernity, with its rationalism and its emphasis on science and technology. In its place is a re-enchantment with the ‘Otherworld’: a world of spirits, such as elves and fairies. Pagans believe that there is constant communication between the natural world and the Otherworld. This can happen by going into a trance or by reading the runes (usually stones with symbols on them) or interpreting the patterns of tealeaves left in the cup.
Rituals and festivals
Pagan rituals include the offering of bread, milk or beer to images of gods, along with singing, chanting and the lighting of incense.
As a nature religion, seasonal festivals are significant, especially spring and harvest and the summer and winter solstices. Pagans gather at important sites such as Stonehenge to celebrate the turn of the sun’s course.
The appeal of power
Some Pagans view nature itself in a religious way. Many Wiccans, for example, are drawn to Wicca by the desire to practise magic (sometimes spelled magick) because it conveys a sense of power and because they are attracted to the idea of being initiated into secret knowledge. Magic (also called ‘witchcraft’, from Wicca) is generally accepted by Pagans as a valid activity, except where this is used as an attempt at unfair personal gain or to inflict harm on others.
- H. Partridge says this: ‘…the appeal of ancient, secret or occult knowledge, power and ritual is perennial. Particularly in an individualistic and selfish culture which engenders feelings of powerlessness and insignificance, the attraction of a small, closely knit group of people who claim to have access to such ancient power and knowledge is hard to overestimate.’
When that knowledge and power are situated in a story that has a primal feel that attraction is very strong. Although the author of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien, was a strong Roman Catholic Christian, it is interesting that the fantasy world that he created is not so very different from the cosmology of the Heathen tradition. Tolkien was drawing on Germanic myths and legends, originally in an attempt to create a full-fledged English mythology. The sense of place and its rootedness in the soil that are so important for the hobbits of the Shire resonate strongly with many younger people, especially in an age of globalized entertainment and commercialization that are so effectively carried by technology that they leave people feeling rootless.
Tips on sharing Jesus with Pagan neighbours
- Ask your friend questions. You will not be able to share your faith effectively if you take no interest in their life.
- Tell stories. Stories are important to Pagans, especially those that have an ancient feel to them. We have such stories in the Bible. It may be helpful to memorise Bible stories to retell to Pagan friends.
- Talk about your own spiritual experience. This may be very compelling. They can hardly say it is oppressive! What do you do in order to have fellowship with God? What is prayer to you? This may lead on to other opportunities to talk about the basis for such experiences and the guidance that the Bible gives us as we seek to know God.
- Seek to grow in maturity as a disciple of Jesus. How do you react when things don’t go as you planned? Do you fret or seek to step up your religious activity in order to get God to deliver? The peace of God should rule in our hearts (Phil. 4:6-7; Gal. 2:20). Refusing to try and manipulate God but being content to rest in his will is a tremendous witness to a Pagan. Rather than seeking power for personal gain the mature follower of Christ seeks to be faithful to him, whatever the cost to themselves.
- Introduce your friend to other followers of Christ. Pagans are attracted to a community in which people can be real with one another and help each other out.
- Demonstrate a care for the environment by careful living. This is an important aspect of Pagan spirituality; they may think that Christianity has done a lot of harm to the planet. The Bible, however, gives solid reasons for creation care; followers of Christ can rightly make much of this, not because Earth is a goddess, but because it was created by God himself and deserves our respect and nurture.
- Focus on the person of Jesus, rather than the Christian tradition. Pagans, like many others, see the institutional church as a major block to true spirituality. It would be difficult to disabuse such people of these prejudices. But the person of Christ, as we see him in the Bible, is always attractive.
- Pray for your friend. They may seem to be hopelessly far from Christ, but the Holy Spirit may be at work without you knowing. When the resurrected Lord Jesus met Paul the persecutor on the road to Damascus he said, ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (Acts 26:14). Who would have thought that this vicious man had been struggling with pangs of conscience? The Holy Spirit can use your witness, your life and words to lead your friend to Christ.