Pagan Symbols and the Coming Christianity


Cromwell or: How are they gonna keep ’em away from the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?

Philip Jenkins of Baylor U is probably our most perceptive commentator on religion.  His views are almost always even-handed, even if he’s describing trends he’s not quite comfortable with.  One cannot help but be extremely impressed when reading The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

There he described, in the first edition of 2002, an ineluctable shift of Christianity south of the equator, long before it was popular to say so, long before Bergoglio became Francis.

What’s impressive about his writing is that according to him–even though Jenkins himself appears to be a very mildly liberal Episcopalian, even though he seems to be squirming in his seat as he writes the words–Christianity will become much more “conservative and supernaturalist” than comfortable for First World Christians.  What’s more, he predicts a shift of focus away from petty First World bickering to real Third World problems.

Great read and a must read.

Great read and a must read.

A recent article of his,“Farewell, Old Pagan World,” is presently making its rounds through social media.  In it Jenkins goes through several examples of how Christianity supplanted paganism in the Western imagination.  He points out how several cultural artifacts, which were taken to be pagan by most moderns, have time and again proven to either be saturated by Christian redactions or totally fabricated by Christians.  The most amusing example, at least to my mind, is the striking Cerne Abbas pictured above.  There is a certain relish to what Jenkins says about it:

“Scholar Ronald Hutton points out that the figure is not even referred to before the late 17th century, unlike other authentic monuments like Stonehenge, which had intrigued travelers through the Middle Ages. By far the most likely conclusion is that this impressive figure, with his giant phallus and club, is meant to depict not Hercules but… Oliver Cromwell. The local landowner in the 1650s was a Royalist Anglican who loathed Cromwell’s Puritan regime. In internal exile on his estate, he whiled away his time ordering the construction of a savage chalk-cut cartoon of the dictator, with the large club indicating the regime’s total lack of legitimacy.  Cerne Abbas isn’t a pagan idol, it’s a dirty joke.”

He deconstructs Beowulf much in the same way.  The ultimate takeaway is that:

“In modern times, books by authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have inspired hugely successful popular culture treatments, although they are sometimes accused of imposing their Christian interpretations on the older mythologies. In reality, it is very hard indeed to excavate through those medieval Christian layers to find Europe’s pagan roots. Never underestimate just how thoroughly and totally the Christian church penetrated the European mind.”

Much to my chagrin, Jenkins seems to come too close to something like an anti-pagan supersessionism when he ignores how the penetration goes both ways.

The Rick Perry episode I mentioned here is an example of what I’m talking about.  The governor thinks the secularists are persecuting Christians when “They can come in very large ways like the war on terror or our freedoms can be taken away in small ways like the removal of a Christmas tree from a classroom.”  The mention of the Christmas tree is peculiar because, as any pedantic village atheist will tell you, it’s (GASP!) a (spoiler alert!) pagan symbol.

I believe the Cambridge theologian Catherine Pickstock does a much better job of capturing this double-penetration and some of its anthropological and political implications in the article “Liturgy and Modernity” in Telos (113):

“Catholicism much more tolerant than [classical] liberalism [/capitalism/globalism]. In this schema, each difference is fully tolerated precisely because it is more than tolerated, since each difference is a figural repetition of the other differences. Thus, Catholicism has allowed many local rites and variations, and has sheltered much traditional folk narrative and practice. It has been able to reconstrue pre-Christian myths and rituals as figurative anticipations of Catholicism. This may seem like an imperialist gesture, but this figurative reading enriches the sense of Catholicism. Thus, in the legends of the Holy Grail, Celtic ideas of inspirational cauldrons are read eucharistically. This also discloses new dimensions in eucharistic understanding.”

This should give pause to those who are worried about the leveling and cultural destruction globalism leaves in its wake.  Why imprison oneself in hegemony-envy of the Catholics like Gramsci?  Why wish for a St. Francis to radicalize the multitudes like Hardt and Negri?  Why, when there’s pope Francis and the hybrid God and the hybrid institution he represents?

He’s also from the Global South.

new pope woody allen


9 thoughts on “Pagan Symbols and the Coming Christianity

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  2. Artur, you asked me to develop some thoughts from a fbook conversation we had yesterday. Not sure that I’m able to do that right now, but thought I’d vaguely gesture in the meantime:

    I wonder if Pickstock has the matter of anticipation half-right. Yes the pre-salutary is reading Christological, Eucharistically, etc… Christians do look back on pre-christological phenom as not exactly pointing toward, but rather captured in a proleptic tractor beam by an event yet to happen. Pickstock, I think, would have to say that without the Christ event, these prolepsis don’t yet “mean” what they will mean post-passion. As such, they have yet to be penetrated until Christ.

    But there’s also a sense in which the Eucharist is not possible without the yeast. That is, Pickstock’s (and Augustine’s) Christological/spiritual reading of the OT (and by extension, pagan phenom) is spectacularly supercessionistic. That is, not only are these events just vague gestures toward the Christ event that is yet to come; they merely enrich. They don’t make the Christ event itself mean, because they rely on it for their meaning.

    On the other hand, a more robust notion of salvation economy reads these events as part of the fabric or recipe of salvation. Without these ingredients, salvation looks and tastes like something much different. Bonaventure reads this issue, I think, as the sublimity of creation as establishing the ground for the salutary to begin with. This avoids the supercessionism you note in your post precisely because nothing’s being superceded when we’re talking about necessary ingredients.

    • Isn’t it possible to have both Pickstock and Bonaventure?

      They appear to be describing the same phenomenon within different abschattungen. Of course Bonaventure is right in tapping into the long tradition of propadeutic theology, although there’s no way to learn the lesson without the Augustinian rupture of being taken to school by the second person of the Trinity.

      What’s more, my reading of supersessionism is perhaps more ambivalent than I made apparent.

      The following post

      made the point that both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism are mild forms of Jewish supersessionism with regard to Second Temple practices.

      It’s all pretty mixed up, isn’t it?

      • It can get mixed up, but it need not be. There’s supersessionism and there’s supersessionism.
        I think you’re using “supersessionism” in a non-theological way. Or at least, I don’t quite recognize the way you’re using it, so I’m going to ignore it.

        The supersessionism I’m addressing her is not simply about reinterpreting the events of the OT (or pagan past) in light of MORE revelation. Rather, supersessionism disregards the work of the covenant with Abraham, and in the process disregards Romans 11:17ff.

        The idea that we need Augustine here (and I have nothing but love for the Hippo) misses the fact that Paul is already dealing with the core theological problem, which Augustine – like you above – obscures. Jews can not be supersessionistic unless they chuck the covenant. I think you, and perhaps Neuhaus, are confusing development for supersessionism. Christ does not reflect something quite so simple as a disruption and reinterpretation of the work of the covenant. He’s the fulfillment of it. But this doesn’t obviate the people of the covenant. Rather, they are the root, and Gentiles are grafted onto them – developments in rabbinical theology after the second temple notwithstanding.

        On the other hand, I might be forcing a technicality on the term that reflects more modern trends.

        In any case, I don’t think that it’s quite as easy as suggesting Pickstock reflects a different abschattungen to my earlier point. But as soon as you start using German jargon, all I can think about is octoberfest.

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