By Marcos D. Torres | 20 December 2019 |
It’s the most wonderful time of year.
For others, it’s the most evil time of the year. And you know because they make sure you know. Their social media news feeds are loaded with memes and videos about the true pagan roots of Christmas and they are not afraid to confront you about it and even cause some drama at church because, hey – someone has to stand up to these abominations in the house of God, right?
Most of us get mad at them and ignore their fanatical rants. But what if I told you that even those who are OK with celebrating Christmas tend to have the same false premise as the anti-Christmas crowd when it comes to other things? And what if I told you that this premise is at the root of why our church struggles to connect with the surrounding culture?
I suppose by now you are curious and want to know what this supposed premise is. I’m getting to that.
First, I want you to think back to the time God created humanity in his own image. He made us free, relational, and creative. Art, music, stories, traditions, games – all man-made creations which reflect what it means to be made in the image of the Creator. We ponder meaning, which leads us to ask questions, which leads us to seek answers. That abstract existential quest is then translated into poetry, paintings, literature, sculptures and other permanent works of art. But it’s also translated into customs and ceremonies that we repeat and adapt over time. Through these we, as Joseph Campbell put it, “tell stories to try to come to terms with the world, to harmonize our lives with reality…”1
So the first thing to understand before I expose that premise most of us share with the anti-Christmas crowd is this: human beings create and we create because we were created to create. This is part of what it means to be in the image of God.
Allow me now to expose the critics’ ideological undercurrent that then leads them to reject Christmas altogether (the premise that we share in common with them but ignore when convenient). The undercurrent is this: God is holy. Paganism is unholy. Therefore, anything remotely rooted in paganism must be rejected because it can never be compatible with a holy God.
That is the bottom line right there. And while I respect those who believe this, here is why I disagree. The above belief ignores one simple thing that changes the entire nature of the conversation and it’s this: Pagans are people first and pagans second.
In other words, when a pagan creates a work of art, a ritual or a tradition they are first and foremost expressing their creativity which is theirs by virtue of the way God created them. God created us to be creative. Creativity is part of God’s image in us. So when a pagan creates, he acts out the very image of God within. Consequently, the resulting work of art is a mixture of God’s image and the pagan’s search for meaning. So it has both redeeming qualities and those that need to be held to scrutiny. To oversimplify this by saying “pagan bad” is both dehumanizing to the pagan and intellectually dishonest.
And the truth is no one lives this way consistently, including the anti-Christmas crowd. Every time we use a calendar we interact with vestiges of pagan influence (days of the week, months of the year). Wedding traditions, honeymoons, musical instruments (including the organ, which originated as a theatrical instrument2 and features in many horror films for its eerie, ghostlike hums; violins which were historically regarded as a demonic instrument3 and appeared in many paintings being played by demonic creatures; and flutes which featured in orgies4 and were used by snake charmers for their mystical performances) spires, steeples, and our church architecture as a whole.5 It is also of interest that the very concept of hymnology, or “hymns,” also has a pagan origin in Greek worship.6 One could even make the case that Sabbath School is pagan because the format was copied from Sunday Schools, which are connected to Sunday worship which is connected to Sun worship. These and countless other activities of modern daily life and fashion find their root in ancient pagan cultures. In fact, even the handshake is not immune to this. The earliest recorded instance of shaking hands goes back to Egypt, where the pharaoh would shake the hand of worshipers to transfer the power of the gods from himself onto them (sound familiar?).7 If we were to live consistent with the “pagan bad” ideology we would find modern life almost impossible to navigate.
However, we don’t have to live this way because pagans are people first and pagans second. They create because they are made in the image of God. They tell stories, mold rituals and express themselves in literature, music and architecture because that is how God made us. So the real problem with the anti-Christmas crowd is the a priori belief that anything pagan is automatically and thoroughly evil. But this is not the case. The pagans valued family, love and meaning. They created instruments, poetry and architecture to communicate these values and did their best to express their journey toward the divine in these. As a result, when we sing hymns, play the organ or violin, attend Sabbath school and shake hands we are not honoring paganism but simply enjoying the fruits of a cultures creativity that just happens to have been pagan.
None of us seriously think that saying “Monday” is an offense to God because the day is named after some moon god. None of us seriously think that going to Sabbath School is an affront to God because we copied the format from Sunday Schools. Instead, we enjoy a good format created by a creative person who just happened to worship on Sunday and not Sabbath. In short, we all live this way already – with the recognition that a pagan origin is not a proper motive for rejecting anything because we all recognize that regardless of the origin, when something is good, beautiful and useful it’s good, beautiful and useful, regardless if its origin was steeped in ritual prostitution or mystical spirits.
This is why Paul, rather than disregarding and condemning the pagan Greeks on Mars Hill, made use of their own poetry and mythology to communicate the gospel to them. He didn’t say “Your gods are all false demonic spirits” and proceed to condemn their heritage. Rather, he celebrated the beauty their art was communicating. He praised their religious hunger and then took the altar to the unknown god and declared, “It is Jesus!” (Acts 17:23). Paul was able to see that, despite the confusion expressed in Greek art, there was also redemptive beauty. Humanity was there. The image of God was there. He didn’t have to condemn them. He simply had to help them see that God was not unknown. And he used their own poetry and mythology to accomplish this.
Jesus did the same thing. His parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the best example. In this parable, Jesus borrows the pagan Greek idea of the immortal soul to teach a particular lesson. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is an idea that originated exclusively in pagan thought and has led to some of the most egregious doctrines in the world. And yet, Jesus made use of this pagan idea to communicate something of value and truth. And it doesn’t stop there. In his senior research project at Southern Adventist University, Daniel L. Gonzalez identified the source of Jesus’ words when he said to Saul, “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks” (Acts 26:14). According to Gonzalez, the phrase is a Greek proverb that originates in the Osteria, a non-biblical source that “provides the foundation for the use of the jury system in Ancient Greece” and which makes heavy “references to the gods and other supernatural beings.”8 According to Gonzalez, the use of the Osteria is purposeful in that it addresses many of the same themes as the book of Acts. Jesus, like Paul, makes use of the beauty inherent in a pagan idea to accomplish his task.
The balanced approach of recognizing redemptive beauty in pagan art is the proper way to approach the Christmas conversation. When we do, we realize that the many traditions and mythologies that surround it are not to be regarded as inherently evil but as the creative expression of beings made in the image of God. The colors, lights, songs and rituals thus emerge as beautiful artistic expressions of life, family and community. Take the time to listen to the most popular Christmas hits and you will find an overwhelming celebration of love, companionship and familial longings. The entire tradition is a beautiful work of art attempting to communicate something of worth. For Christians it has become a stunning visual and experiential celebration that allows our minds to grasp – ever so slightly – the mystery of the incarnation.
And what of the endless theories about what each of the symbols represents and their supposed demonic origins? Putting their historical reliability aside, these simply don’t matter because even if there were a smidgen of truth to any of this, traditions are fluid works of art that can be reinterpreted through filters and given new meaning. This is why Ellen White herself celebrated Christmas, encouraged the church to have Christmas trees and even enjoyed Willie White dressing as Santa Claus and handing out gifts – an act she referred to as a “harmless tradition.”9 When asked if having a Christmas tree in the church would make us like the world, Ellen White replied, “You can make it like the world if you have a disposition to do so, or you can make it as unlike the world as possible.”10 In other words, the worldliness associated with the Christmas tree is not inherent in the tree itself but in what she went on to describe as “the motive which prompts the actions.”11 In these counsels, Ellen White has demonstrated that art is fluid and its meaning can change and adapt to different people. Simply citing its pagan history is irrelevant because the custom itself carries what she explained as “no particular sin.”12
Critics of Ellen White have used this as leverage to attack her credibility. I believe it is, at most, evidence of a balanced, practical Christian who understood that pagan is not always bad. There is a lot of beauty there because pagans are people first and pagans second. And God made people with the gift of creativity.
But here is the real issue: when it comes to other cultural traditions and expressions most of us are suspicious and often times reject them altogether. We invest time and energy into attacking the culture, keeping our kids away from the culture and, if need be, demonizing the culture because regardless of the core values and truths it is attempting to express we are already convinced of its decadence. Thus entire ministries exist that have one focus: to tell us how bad the culture and all of its music, literature, film really is. We soak this stuff up all year long and tell our young people to be “separate” from the world and not participate in its customs. Then, come Christmas, we embrace the pagan. And the anti-Christmas crowd is rightly confused. Why are we so against culture the rest of the year and then bringing pagan culture into the church and our homes? In short, our tragedy is that we share the same premise with the anti-Christmas crowd for 11 months of the year and then come December, we switch our stance long enough to put up the tree and crank out some Tony Bennett Christmas songs.
So here is my point: we need to change our stance on culture. Rather than the suspicious-distant approach, I invite Adventists to approach culture with what Tim Keller refers to as “cautious enjoyment.”13 That is, we recognize like Paul and Jesus, that pagan culture is both redemptive and confused. This is true not only of non-industrial societies but of our own European heritage as well. By placing all cultures on a level playing field we can evaluate all of them with caution and enjoyment at the same time. Consequently, rather than painting all things pagan as inherently evil, we learn how to think and reason through different works of art and traditions and come to healthy, balanced conclusions that honor the beauty and creativity in paganism while rejecting the elements that are anti-gospel. We already do it with Christmas, so I propose we pursue a little more consistency the rest of the year.
The end result of this approach I believe to be a generation of Adventists emotionally and psychologically prepared to explore faith and meaning with a diversity of worldviews. It will strengthen our ability to connect with others different from ourselves and to appreciate the beauty in their worldviews while simultaneously pointing them to the one they aim to reflect with every stroke of the brush, strum of the strings and decoration on their tree. By recognizing that people are people first and [insert other label here] second we can approach them with a greater degree of appreciation, admiration and grace as we seek to fulfill the great commission.
1. Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth, [Kindle ed., p.2]
2. Classichistory.net. “The History of the Pipe Organ,” [Web: http://www.classichistory.net/archives/organ]
3. Addison Nugent. “Why the Devil Plays the Fiddle,” [Web: https://www.ozy.com/flashback/why-the-devil-plays-the-fiddle/87458]
4. See: Hyun-Ah Kim. The Renaissance Ethics of Music: Singing, Contemplation and Musica Humana, 2015, Pickering & Chatto Limited.
5. See: Frank Viola & George Barna. Pagan Christianity?, 2012, Tyndale House Publishers.
6. See: David W Music. A Survey of Christian Hymnody, 1999, Hope Publishing Company.
7. Charles Panati. “Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,” 1987, Harper & Row.
8. Gonzalez. Daniel L. “’To Kick Against the Pricks:’ An Examination of the Oresteia and the Acts of the Apostles,” [Web: https://knowledge.e.southern.edu/senior_research/177]
9. Sanders, Robert K. “Santa Claus and Ellen G. White,” [Web: http://www.truthorfables.com/EGW_Santa.htm]
10. Ellen White. Review and Herald, December 11, 1879.
13. Timothy Keller. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, 2012, Zondervan.
Originally from New Jersey, Marcos Torres is now a pastor in Perth, Western Australia where he lives with his wife and two sons. His biggest passion is connecting the gospel with secular, post-church culture. He is also the host of thestorychurchproject.com.