Iron Fist: The Follow-up

(NOTE: I realized when I reread this on the livejournal feed that I had not attributed “Witches Are Real People Too.” It is by a Phil Wyman. This has also been corrected in the text.)

When I wrote about my skepticism concerning “Beyond the Burning Times,” I didn’t expect much of a response. Mine is an irregularly updated blog that usually contains essays on whatever arcana happen to be swirling around my disordered mind at the time, and occasional items that could be considered “political” or “issue oriented.”

I appreciate the comments, especially those from the Evangelicals. But here’s the thing that keeps catching in my mind: in any dialogue between say, myself and a hypothetical Evangelical interlocutor, I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the background of said’s consciousness is the thought that “this person whom I am speaking to will suffer for an eternity in a lake of burning sulfur if they keep believing as they do.”

For my part, this looks like fairly poor psychic hygiene (for both of us!) and a bit of a buzz kill in terms of mutual understanding. I also know of no way to interpret the Christian narrative literally that does not include this fate for the “unbelieving.” So I’m a bit stuck as to the motive behind an invitation to a dialogue with someone who, I have every reason to assume, thinks this or something so close to it that the details are hardly important. The key theme being “suffering for eternity.”

Really, I’m confused. What would a person who believes that a fellow human is going to endure pain and agony for aeons and aeons and then a couple more for bad behavior because they haven’t taken a simple step toward Christ possibly hope to gain from talking to me other than conversion? I apologize, but I sometimes write fiction, and if I were to create a character with a deep, compelling reason to take a particular course of action and then have them not take that action, I don’t think I could sell it. The context would have to be fairly elaborate, bordering on the kind of thought experiment I hate. (The Saw movies? Can’t stand them. Turned the first one off because it was contrived and I just didn’t care what happened to these unrealistic people in this unbelievable situation.)

Well, after reading John Morehead’s response, I found my interest pinged by this statement (emphasis mine):

And we are not attempting to understand just enough of Paganism to combine it with a nicer approach in order to convert people. Yes, we feel an obligation to be obedient to Jesus’ command to “make disciples,” and in so doing share the pathway of Jesus when it is appropriate and desired, but we do not view people as mere objects for evangelism. There is a far broader agenda at work here. To assume otherwise perpetuates the stereotypes we desperately need to move beyond.

I poked around the links on his blog, trying to get some idea of what the agenda he speaks of might be. This is, after all, a strain of Evangelical Christianity that I’m unaware of, so it seemed appropriate to try to find out something about it.

The first article that seemed appropriate and Mission Statement-like is by Mr. Morehead and is entitled “Ministry to New Religions in Religiously Plural America: Moving Beyond Refuting ‘Cults.'” I am afraid this did not allay my concerns. The overall idea seems to be that Evangelicals should approach “New Religious Movements” in the same way they approach other cultures with their own religion and worldviews. Which is an improvement over outright apologetics and arguing over which religion is better at the outset. But the goal is still to make new Christians out of say, Hindus or Muslims. The person’s native belief still sounds like a problem to be solved. What changes is that the Christian worldview is framed in culturally relevant terms.

Especially problematic for me was this recommendation:

4.Create formal relationships between missions and “counter-cult” organizations. Missions and counter-cult organizations might explore the establishment of formal relationships that will result in a number of helpful endeavors, including the creation of cooperative internships. Missions organizations can have their staff trained in mission to new religions in preparation for the mission field, and in turn, “counter-cult” ministers can be given internships in a missions organization to incorporate missions principles into “counter-cult” ministry. These relationships will not only benefit missionaries in training and “counter-cult” ministers, but can also serve as a channel for retired missionaries to focus their energies in meaningful ways.

So, are Pagans considered a “cult” to be “countered” here? If the intent here is just to have a conversation, why do I encounter this sort of item. Am I missing something, or just being paranoid. (“Just because you’re paranoid…” yeah I know. They haven’t been after me for years and I wish they’d let up.)

The second article I found is a series called “Witches Are Real People Too,” by a Phil Wyman. First, I realize it wasn’t meant this way, but the title feels quite condescending. It sounds a lot like the “Blacks are just as good a White people” sort of thing you ran into in the late fifties when the mainstream was just starting to get the idea that racism might be, ya’ know, kinda bad. Section 4 is the one that particularly worried me. It basically details the manner in which to minister to Pagans. One is supposed to adapt their presentation to Pagan cultural tendencies. Suggestions include using myths (contrasting them with the Bible) and keeping groups small, leaving plenty of time for discussion. (Yep, we Pagans do like to hear ourselves talk. This post is approaching a thousand words, for instance. There has been much cutting along the way. I will leave to the imagination of the reader how many of those cuts were remove classical vituperatives.)

Again, maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there is a substantive difference between “objects of conversion” and a “missional” field. My reality tunnel is as narrow as anyone’s, and may simply be having trouble adapting to new information. But to me this still sounds like nice ways to tell people that they are committing an error of cosmic proportions and they must mend their ways or suffer for eternity.

Well, the hour grows late and this is just a blog post. Next time I’ll probably have to talk about the “not all Evangelicals are Dominionists” objection. If I haven’t gotten bored with this whole mess yet.

  1. Thank you for raising this additional concern about Pagan-Christian dialogue, in particular as it relates to my views as expressed in my writings. One of the issues that concerns Pagans (but not all among whom I have spoken) is the idea that if a Christian is committed to making disciples to the pathway of Jesus that this invalidates genuine dialogue. I disagree with this idea and suggest a few thoughts for consideration and our continued dialogue.

    First, I do not consider Paganism or any other new religious movement or minority religion in the West to be a “cult” to be countered. The article referenced above was written years ago to evangelicals in a community who identify themselves as “counter-cult” order to persuade them to move beyond pejorative labels and confrontational conceptions of and relations with NRMs as cults and instead to consider them religious or spiritual cultures.

    Second, Christians seek to be true to their religious tradition and the one upon whom it is based, and this means accepting the responsibility of communicating the gospel and making disciples as Jesus taught. Of course, this is not all Jesus called us to do, and it must be balanced with loving our neighbors as ourselves, but if we are to be true to the teachings of Jesus we cannot avoid this area of our spirituality. Even so, this need not mean we view people as mere objects to be converted, or that we cannot have a dialogical agenda broader than evangelism. Recall that in Jason Pitzl-Waters post on this topic at The Wildhunt that he called a handful of colleagues and I “missional Christians.” I have never hidden or denied by efforts at sharing Jesus’ message with others, but I try to do so as part of an overall part of my Christian life that need not conflict with important things like Pagan-Christian dialogue.

    Third, consider that the adherents of most religions are evangelistic in the sense that they share their religion and want to see others adopt it, even though they go about this practice in very different ways. It is not only the monotheistic religions that hold this view, but religions like Buddhism do as well, again, in very different ways. There is a history of Buddhist-Christian dialogue which has recognized the missionary impulse of both religious traditions but which accounts for this in the dialogue process so that respectful and genuinely two-way dialogue can take place so that dialogue is not merely a front for evangelism, a problem that I readily acknowledge often takes place when evangelicals engage in the process. I submit that if a missionary component of these two religions does not invalidate genuine dialogue then the argument that a missionary commitment invalidates genuine dialogue is inaccurate. It may not be appropriate for *some* Pagans who find it problematic, but those who do not it is theoretically possible, as demonstrated in the different religious context of Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

    Whatever our views on this issue, I think it demonstrates that we have a range of issues we need to discuss, and even though we will disagree at the end of the day it is better to build our relationships and discuss them rather than ignore each other or continue to be defensive about each other.

  2. skylark said:

    First, my gratitude to Mr. French for this blog and the deep quality of his thinking and writing. Having now discovered it, it’s going to take me a good while to catch up. Second, my apologies to both Mr. French and Mr. Morehead for the failings of brevity which I am about to expose. The length, care and nuance of their writing deserve a fuller response than I find I have the skill or stamina for these days.

    That said, I believe that Mr. Morehead contradicts himself. While he goes to some pains to soften the motivation and worldview of evangelism – and while I am certainly prepared to take him at his word first, that he and his compatriots do not see non-christians as “objects” of any kind and second, that conversion is not the sole intent of any dialogue – that it remains an important and final goal of such dialogue is confirmed by his own statement that “Christians seek to be true to their religious tradition and the one upon whom it is based, and this means accepting the responsibility of communicating the gospel and making disciples as Jesus taught.” From this I must conclude that Mr. French’s suspicions are well-founded.

    Further, in seeking to allay those suspicions, Mr. Morehead takes a “well, they do it too” sort of approach, using Buddhism as his prime example.

    First, very few pagans of my acquaintance have any interest in pagan evangelism whatsoever. While one likes to have fellow travelers, many pagans “find” paganism in a process very different from the osmosis by which Christianity seems to embed itself in a Western mind by virtue of its cultural ubuiquity. Pagans are largely self-made – in effect, they evangelize *themselves* rather than others.

    Second, Buddhism is a poor example of “pagan” relationships to anything, and its selection reveals an awkwardly blunt categorical thinking on Mr. Morehead’s part. Buddhism is Buddhism, not Paganism in its modern sense, regardless of the derivation of the term.

    Third, while some Christian thinkers or leaders may have agreed with some Buddhist thinkers or leaders that both religions share an evangelical urge, I have to say that I’ve seen none of it among practicing American Buddhists. Unless one considers the simple act of saying “this is how I see it, and by the way have some tea” to be itself an act of conversion.

    This is how I see it, and by the way have some mead.

  3. James,

    Notice the slippery rhetoric in Morehead’s response: the assumption that “we have a range of issues that we need to discuss.”

    We do? Says who? When was this decided? The assumption is that “dialog is good,” but might one also argue that “dialog is irrelevant”? Who is served by this “dialog”?

    Lots of assumptions in his writing …

    Also, the idea that “most religions'” adherents are evangelistic is a bit slippery too. His only other example is Buddhism, which *was* somewhat evangelistic in its early centuries. But tribal religions? Shinto? Taoism? When was the last time you had missionaries from the Native American Church at your door?

    Are the average adherents of most religions driven to “share”?

  4. Chas, I share your concerns. I really do. (That being the red flag that I’m about to contradict one or more of your statements, of course. My apologies in advance.)

    Morehead is precisely what modern Pagans need: a person who is willing to look and capable of thinking beyond the evangelism tenet of Christianity. It is there, it is the shadow waiting in the wings, and there need not be anything slippery about his shining a light on it, acknowledging it, and offering to move on from there. I agree that some cynicism is appropriate there. I don’t agree that we should prejudge him with it.

    I have a matching agenda, which he will see here or will see if he responds to my post on his blog: I work for the day when evangelism becomes a practice rather than a requirement of faith, and is no longer the threat that you and I clearly see in it. We can’t do it from the outside by ourselves. We must have a cooperative spirit from inside.

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