Christian mission in a pagan culture

some sources and brief quotations

'I have been forced to recognise that the most difficult missionary frontier in the contemporary world is the one of which the churches have been - on the whole - so little conscious, the frontier that divides the world of biblical faith from the world whose values and beliefs are ceaselessly fed into every home on the television screen. Like others I had been accustomed, especially in the 1960's, to speak of England as a secular society. I have now come to realise that I was the easy victim of an illusion from which my reading of the Gospels should have saved me. No room remains empty for long. If God is driven out, the gods come trooping in. England is a pagan society and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church.' (Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography 2nd ed., 1993, p.236.)

Calling English culture 'pagan', Lesslie Newbigin challenged the assumption that it is either 'Christian' or 'secular' : 'We have learned, I think, that what has come into being is not a secular society but a pagan society, not a society devoid of public images but a society which worships gods which are not God.' (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.220; see also 1 below). This insight is echoed by many other writers (including Henri De Lubac and Karl Barth: see 2 and 3 below)

We have to take seriously the paganism of our culture as the context of Christian mission in our time. Talk of paganism in this broad sense corresponds more or less with talk of modern 'idolatry', of the hidden 'religions' of a society supposedly irreligious, and of what is secretly held 'sacred' in our 'secular' culture (thus Jacques Ellul: see 4 below).

Such paganism, then, is a much wider affair than that practiced consciously by Wiccans etc. or less consciously by the many who (for example) read horoscopes. It extends to those idolatries which are implicitly present, for example, where religious meaning is invested in acts of consumption or in political ideologies.

The paganism we have to engage is also a wider affair wider than our heritage, from ancient Greece and Rome, of classical paganism in both its philosophical and its popular aspects - with which Christianity and Western culture have been intertwined historically since the beginnings of the church. Nevertheless, our discussion may be illuminated by reference to figures within classical paganism such as Dionysius and Apollos (Angela Tilby, Rene Girard: see 5,6 below) and features within classical paganism such as gnosticism (P. T. Forsyth: see 7 below) and a tragic sense of life (G. K. Chesterton and Hay & Hunt: see 8, 9 below).

A valuable introduction to contemporary paganism and its relation to classical paganism is offered by W. Visser 't Hooft in his article 'Evangelism among Europe's Neo-Pagans', which can be found among the Choice articles on this website. General Secretary of the World Council of Churches from its formation until 1960, the author's choice of title for his much earlier 1937 book None Other Gods recalls the summons of the first of the Ten Commandments: 'You must have no other gods beside me'

See also, among such Choice articles, Angela Tilby's 'Like the appearance of lamps...'




We (must) identify and name the idolatries, the false gods that our society worships. I was reading again recently Dennis Munby’s book ‘The Idea of a Secular Society’. Munby in the 1960’s advised us that a secular society was what a Christian ought to work for, and that one of its marks was that ‘there is no publicly accepted image of the good life’. If that is so, ours is certainly not a secular society. How absurd it would be to make such a claim when (according to published statistics) something like 90% of the population spends at least three-quarters of its free time glued to the television screen, hooked inseparably to those pictures of the good life which are being ceaselessly pumped into every living room in the country, the advertisements and the soap operas which provide an image of the good life more powerful than anything Islam or mediaeval Christendom every managed to fasten on an entire population. Ours is not a secular society, but a society which worships false gods.

Lesslie Newbigin, England as a foreign mission field, 1986


There have been tyrannical gods - and there is the God who makes us free.

Tyrant gods, nowadays, do not, as a rule, assume the names of gods. They prefer pseudonyms. But their tyranny remains the same.

You reject faith in God as an intolerable 'theocracy'? Yet with every day that goes by it is surely increasingly obvious that this could only favour a 'mythocracy' more terrible still. Empty the heavens and they are once occupied by an army of myths more compelling than hunger, more despotic than the worst despot…

Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God, 1956

One must 'reject the gods', a certain writer says, 'all the gods'. That is precisely what the disciples of Jesus taught us to do from the beginning. If they were taken for atheists, it was not because they were making the banal claim to have discovered another god, who would simply have been one among many, but because they proclaimed him who is totally different from the gods, and who frees us from their tyranny. They denied everything that the men around them took for the divine - everything that man, at every epoch, tends to deify in order to adore himself and tyrannise over himself, in and through his gods.

The Gospel is the only 'twilight of the gods'.

Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God, 1956



. …. Society is now really ruled by its own logos; say rather by a whole pantheon of its own hypostases and powers… we are beginning to suspect that the idols are vain, but their demonic influence upon our lives is not thereby allayed. For it is one thing to entertain critical doubts regarding the god of this world, and another thing to perceive the dunamis, the meaning and might of the living God who is building a new world.'

Karl Barth, The Christian's Place in Society, 1919


(idolatry) has not disappeared, far from it… there is a need to give the word "God" meaning, by denunciation, challenge, and accusation against the veiled, hidden, and secret gods, who besiege and seduce all the more effectively because they do not openly declare themselves as gods…

It is clear that the task facing Christians and the church differs entirely according to whether we think of ourselves as being in a secularised, social, lay, and grown-up world which is ready to hear a demythologised, rationalised, explicated, and humanised gospel - the world and the gospel being in full and spontaneous harmony because both want to be religionless - or whether we think of ourselves as being in a world inhabited by hidden gods, a world haunted by myths and dreams, throbbing with irrational impulses, swaying from mystique to mystique, a world to which the Christian revelation has once again to play the role of liberator and destroyer of the sacred obsessions in order to liberate man and bring him, not to the self his demons are making him want to be, but to the self his Father wills him to be.'

Jacques Ellul, The New Demons, (eng) 1975


the television world is a world alive to paganism. I don't mean the benign, liberal-minded paganism of so-called ecofeminists and post-Christians, who want to save the world by invoking the Great Goddess, but the paganism that resides in Western ways of seeing, in our visual culture, from Greek sculpture to Madonna. This paganism is part of our history. It is deeply interwined with Christianity, and cannot be separated from it. But whereas book culture and middle-ground speech radio are comfortable with Christian ideas and ethics, television culture is the culture of the theatre and the hippodrome. Television is where we play out our most potent fantasies of power, sex and violence.

Angela Tilby, ‘Like the Appearance of Lamps…’ Theology, 1994


Since the Renaissance, paganism has enjoyed among our intellectuals a reputation for transparency, sanity, and health that nothing can shake. Paganism is favourably perceived as always opposed to everything 'unhealthy' that Judaism and Christianity impose.

Up to and including Nazism, Judaism was the preferential victim of this scapegoat system. Christianity came only in second place. Since the Holocaust, however, it is no longer possible to blame Jews. The intellectuals and other cultural elites have promoted Christianity to the role of number one scapegoat.

Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 2001


And perhaps the Church has never, since (the time of Paul), been in a position with the world so crucial as it is at the present day. The old gnosis has never since risen in such critical and yet plausible antagonism to the Gospel till its recrudescence in our own time. The paganism of the Renaissance and its humanism was threatening enough; but it rested more on the classical scholarship and taste of a few than on the vague and romantic intuitions which, in the religious experiments of today, appeal to the general public, borrow the mantle of Christianity, and simulate the voice of the authentic Word…. They are more drawn to the gnosis of speculation, the occultism of science, the romance of the heart, the mysticism of imagination, than to the historical and ethical spirituality of the evangelical Christ the crucified…. The capture of the Western Church by classical philosophy in the shape of medieval scholasticism was very complete; but it was no comparable to what would have happened had Gnosticism got the upper hand in the first crisis. For Aristotle did not represent the religious element in paganism which Gnosticism exploited, the spiritual, imaginative, kindling, popular element.

P. T. Forsyth, The Preacher and the Age, 1907


George Steiner suggested in his book The Death of Tragedy (1961) that in the course of European history, the classical Greek sense of life as tragic was overcome by the advent of the fundamental optimism of the Judaeo-Christian belief system. We are wondering whether, forty years on from Steiner's analysis, after Auschwitz and after the many other atrocities of the 20th century, we see in post-Christian society the return of a tragic sense of life… If at the deepest level there is a conviction that life at depth is pitiless and utterly meaningless, then the optimism of Christianity become incredible. The people we spoke to were well aware of this, and it is an issue that church people need to face much more directly in their dialogue with secular culture.

David Hay and Kate Hunt, Understanding the Spirituality of People who don't go to Church, 2000


To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say "enlightened" they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian.

G K Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909


Hoekendijk… already noted in 1952 that there was not only a process of secularization, but also a process of sacralization, the growth of a mystical, diffused religiosity… European culture had become a debate between three forces: Christianity, scientific rationalism and neo-pagan vitalism. For a long time it has seemed that scientific rationalism would take the lead. But recently the picture has changed… Nietzsche has become again a favoured guide… The evangelism of Europe's neo-pagans is so urgent, so difficult that it ought to have the highest priority among the tasks of the church.

W. Visser 't Hooft, Evangelism Among Europe's Neo-pagans, International Review of Mission, 1977.


Certainly there is spiritual hunger, but in most cases it is unconscious. The conscious hunger is for a more untrammelled enjoyment of this life with all its possibilities, not necessarily in the bad sense but also in the nobler sense of the word. Of course there are ideals. The world bristles with idealisms, noble and ridiculous, pure and demonic, because man cannot live without them. He is an amazingly fertile creator of idealisms, for without them he starves and degenerates. Absolutes however there are not, only pseudo-absolutes. These pseudo-absolutes - race, nation, classless society, a "holy" or "eternal" country - clearly demonstrate that man cannot live on bread, on relativism, alone. When he has, consciously or unconsciously, abolished God, he makes another god, because the need for the divine "word" belongs to the essence of man's nature, for he was created by God and unto God. Notwithstanding that, the rule of the spirit of secularism and relativism is unbroken, the modern pseudo-absolutes are even the acme of this spirit, the most intense expression of it.

Hendrick Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 1938



A Christian society only becomes acceptable after you have fairly examined the alternatives. We might, of course, merely sink into an apathetic decline: without faith, and therefore without faith in ourselves; without a philosophy of life, either Christian or pagan; and without art. Or me might get a 'totalitarian democracy', different but having much in common with other pagan societies, because we shall have changed step by step in order to keep pace with them: a state of affairs in which we shall have regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul; the puritanism of hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency; uniformity of opinion through propaganda, and art only encouraged when it flatters the official doctrines of the time.

T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 1939