The Return to Paganism

I used to be a pagan. Not a neo-pagan with phony stilted semi-Tolkienesque speech ("Bright blessings! Merry meet!" "An it harme noone do as thou wilt,"). Nor was I an adherent of some recently minted group of Gaia-worshippers playing dress-up in their Society for Creative Anachronism costumes and pretending they are living by Ye Olde Religion like somebody from The Da Vinci Code's central casting department.

No. I was a real pagan, which is to say, I was like jillions of other kids raised in American suburbia in the 60s and 70s, so remote from God that I didn't even know it was God I was seeking.

I was not baptized as a child. My religious formation consisted of a couple of trips to Sunday school. Mine was on the Air Force base where I spent my very early childhood. There, I learned that Jesus was a strange man with long hair and (for some reason) I became convinced that you weren’t supposed to say his name. Beyond that, I knew nothing except that I vaguely associated him with organ music I disliked and pictures from dreary nursing homes. It gave me an aversion to religiosity which I retain to this day.

To the rigorous spiritual formation I got in that long-ago Sunday school was added A Charlie Brown Christmas, some excitingly lurid Chick Tracts at Halloween, a lot of science fiction and fantasy (notably the Twilight Zone and Star Trek), a stab at reading the Bible when I was thirteen (I started at Genesis 1 and plowed on through till I made it to Genesis 3), and various dabblings in the occult as a teen. I darkened the door of a church perhaps ten times in my life, usually because that's where the PTA meeting was and my Mom dragged me along. Once, I went to a Catholic Church with a friend on Good Friday—the weirdest possible day to encounter Catholics in their natural habitat.

My moral and intellectual formation consisted more or less of TV, plus things I'd read in Omni magazine and the speculations on ghosts, UFOs, and "spirituality" that I picked up from my friends. I declared myself a disbeliever in "organized religion" in an oh-so-crushing tone of voice when I was a sophomore in high school. And shared the general media contempt for Christian hypocrites (a redundant term, I assumed) typified by Frank Burns on MASH.

I was never an atheist because I didn't have enough faith for it. I considered myself “spiritual” but had not the vaguest idea how to articulate what that meant. I carried around a burning sense of deep, inarticulate longing for I knew not what and a strange, haunting sense that there was something Behind things, like that odd Twilight Zone episode where the little girl falls into another dimension. I couldn't look at the world and attribute it to Nothing. And I couldn’t look at the world for long and not feel an intense sense of desire for… I knew not what.

I mention all this autobiography not in a fit of narcissism, but because it’s a glimpse into where I think a great many of our neighbors live as well. C.S. Lewis once remarked that he was a converted pagan living in a nation of apostate Puritans. To a very large extent, that is the situation in which American Christians find themselves now. For all the fooferah about the terrible imminent theocracy from the secularist media and all the brazen boasting from some Evangelicals about the supposed Reconstructionist Reconquista of America, the reality is that American culture is looking less and less Christian with the passing years. Catholics live in an American culture that was never Catholic, which once was Protestant, and which now is effectively post-Christian.

To see the rot on the political front, we need look no further than the GOP, where conservative Christians have been skillfully transformed from players into suckers and pawns who are commanded to support Rudy McRomney’s Big Tent of Abortion and Torture or expect no further empty promises on those “life issues” we’ve been banging on about for 25 years with minimal success. To see the rot on the cultural front, just turn on your television and try telling yourself this culture is more Christian than ever. And since the de-Christianization of our culture is not coinciding with a massive uptick in the number of Jewish and Muslim converts, the conclusion I reach is that more and more Americans (particularly the young ones) are becoming (or never ceasing since birth to be) pagans.

If that is so, it is probably a good idea to ask what a pagan is and how we might proclaim the gospel to him. In my next column, we will.

Copyright 2008 - Mark P. Shea