Beyond the Burning Times Part Whatever: Praise for Gus DiZerega, Not So Much for Philip Johnson

One reason my posts on this topic have been somewhat sparse (apart from the fact that I don’t update very often anyway) is that I was trying to find something positive to say about this book. The main thing that stands out after a couple of reads is the openness and clarity with which Gus DiZerega describes his beliefs. If this book accomplishes nothing else, it will have made it intellectually untenable for any Christian who reads it to claim that Wiccans, or other Pagans, are devil worshipping psychopaths. Of course, the sane Christians should have picked up on that by now anyway. Still, Beyond the Burning Times will probably be seen as a watershed book in terms of Christians actually knowing what it is Pagans believe in.

I only wish Philip Johnson had reciprocated in terms of openness as to agenda. He starts off well enough. His description of his spiritual praxis in the first discussion has a number of Pagan-esque overtones. There is talk of “in between zones” and a love of animals.

After that section, the honeymoon pretty much ends. It becomes fairly clear, if one has seen Witches Are Real People Too by Phil Wyman that Johnson is employing that document’s suggested tactics. That is, he’s using DiZerega’s beliefs as a way to argue the superiority of Christian doctrine. When he compares, it is never “oh, we look at it this way instead of that.” It’s “your heart is in the right place, but if we take this fringe interpretation of the Bible you can still almost believe that and be Christian.”

I say “fringe” because the Christian theologians Johnson references, such as John Drane are part of something called the “Emerging Church” movement. This is nothing like a majority view of Christianity. It employs deconstruction and other post-modern methods. Contrasting this with DiZerega’s basically mainstream Pagan views is a little dicey. It’s like comparing the Nyingma School of Vajrayana Buddhism and the beliefs of Mainline Evangelicalss and saying the former “is” the most common form of Buddhism. It would be one thing if Johnson made a point of saying “this is how the Emerging Church views these questions,” but I had to google “John Drane” to even get to the “Emerging Church.”

I wanted to stop short of claiming at least an unconscious intellectual dishonesty on the part of Johnson. When I got to the section on “The Culture Wars,” I pretty much gave up on that. The question of whether or not homophobia is acceptable to Johnson is dodged completely. Instead, we get a “some Pagans are homophobic too” sort of statement concerning a particular Asatru Kindred and their refusal to accept homosexuals. Considering the fact that one of my favorite people in the world is both Gay and Asatru, I took umbrage.

This is not a small issue. According to a recent Barna survey 91% of young churchgoers and 80% of non-Christians viewed Christianity as “anti-homosexual.” So, the almost complete evasion of the topic on Johnson’s part is a little odd at best. One would think, if he were trying to counteract a “stereotype” (someone gag me) he would at least try to make some effort to address the most common form of bigotry associated with modern Christianity. But there’s just that evasive comparison with an unrepresentative splinter of a splinter of Neopaganism.

One really has to give DiZerega a lot of credit for planting the flag in this territory. This book should open the door for other, less agenda driven Christian authors, should such an animal be found to exist. One only hopes they can put their superiority complex aside and actually talk to us.

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1 comment
  1. sphinxwords said:

    I’ve been enjoying your posts about this book. My primary complaint about it was similar to what you give voice to here — that Johnson’s arguments seemed out of line with the “typical” Christian viewpoint, at least the ones I find prevalent here in the US. Because of that, I feel the book falls far short of actually engaging the primary obstacles in Pagan-Christian dialogue. (In a previous post, you mentioned Lainie Peterson’s complaint in her follow-up chapter about Gus DiZerega “rais[ing] the spector of Falwell and Robertson” — that comment further enforced my feeling of disengagement.)

    But I agree that DiZerega’s chapters in the book do lay out a large slice of Wiccan beliefs quite nicely. In fact, although I am not Wiccan myself, I found very little to disagree with.

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. 🙂

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