Pagan Symbols in Christian Fiction

Written by Jeri Massi

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One item that Christian readers express concern about is the use of so-called "pagan" symbols in stories that are currently popular.

Undoubtedly, the New Age movement has produced a lot of mystical nonsense by the cheap and sentimental use of dreams, crystals, spells, men and/or women heavily veiled and perfumed, etc. to further their stories and give them some sense of awe or atmosphere.

But what about CS Lewis? Or Tolkien? What about MacDonald's original Wise Woman stories?

The question of what a symbol is comes into play. Can a symbol be inherently pagan? Can an element of a story be inherently pagan? Many Christians worry that the mix of satyrs, fauns, nyads, etc are somehow diluting Lewis' supposed Christian content.

Well, if we look at English literature, we will discover that the same symbols that Lewis uses: the unicorns, satyrs, nymphs, etc, went through their own metamorphosis several times. In pagan literature, a nymph was probably a nymph. In other words, there was no symbolism involved. The Greek and Roman stories that have survived (and admittedly we don't have much) depict these beings with no symbolic meaning behind them. The nymph is a minor supernatural creature--lovely but not human. We can read of the gods of the lakes, the gods of the rivers, the spirits of the trees (nyads, I think).

Some of these elements were picked up by the Church and found their way in heavily symbolized form into the somewhat stilted and overdrawn allegories and fables favored in the medieval storytelling style: For example, the unicorn becomes the symbol of Christ in protection of His church (the virgin who alone can call the unicorn to herself). But overall, serious study of past literature was not encouraged by the medieval Church.

Then came the Reformation, and the study of Greek. Suddenly, scholars were turning to the Protestant Reformation; they were learning Greek; they were translating the Bible from the Greek text into the native tongues of people in every European country. Therefore, the knowledge of Greek became imperative, and scholars trained themselves in Greek language by reading whatever Greek plays and Greek stories had been re-discovered. The established church at that time condemned them for this, and one complaint was that Greek is a pagan language and is filled with pagan images.

To counter this charge, scholars who were both Reformers (Protestant) and Renaissance men, developed a brand new Christian mythos--in which every single pagan element from the old Greek literature was given a Christian meaning. Encyclopedias of emblems and symbols were written to help struggling poets find the very thing they needed.

This move of transforming literature was NOT purely arbitrary. The Renaissance men reasoned that the Greeks were among those who knew or saw shadows of the truth but not the whole truth. After all, the oldest myths do teach truths, and the extolling of virtue was one of Aristotle's prime goals for literature. So the Reformed and Renaissance writers viewed their transformation of Greek literature as an enlightening process, adding a supplement to the literature to at last give it its full weight.

Who relied on these symbols? Edmund Spenser, a godly man who gave England her first epic, The Faerie Queen, which is both political and Christian allegory. How about the Puritan John Milton, the author of England's most reknowned epic, Paradise Lost? Take a look at Milton's poem, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," when he calls upon the various symbolic characters from Greek and Roman mythology to fall before the new-born Christ. John Bunyan, the Christian's favorite (who wrote Pilgrim's Progress) also was not above including giants, hooded men, and shining beings in his epic.

So a look at history shows us that the use of old pagan elements to symbolize Christian truth was a long accepted and even encouraged practice.

But further, there is a problem of the reader thinking that a symbol always means the same thing in whatever context it appears. This is not a valid approach to literature.

A symbol only has the meaning that the writer attaches to it in the context of the writing. So when Lewis takes a lion and makes it the symbol of our Lord, the Lion is a Christian symbol. When somebody else makes that lion a symbol of something pagan, it becomes a pagan symbol. When Lewis takes Mr. Tumnus, the faun, and makes him a symbol of a repentent Christian, he becomes a Christian symbol.

By definition, the import of a symbol is not itself, but rather the thing that it stands for. Therefore, no symbol can be inherently pagan or demonic. As an example of this, consider the cross. If you look through the records of history, you will see that the Christian use of the cross is not universal. The cross has been used as a phallic ornament to symbolize fertility; It has also represented wind (the changing nature of life)--and more recently--Nazi power. You know what it means from the context in which you see it.

Mere Morality: The Problem of "Wholesome" Christian Fiction
Reactionism and Reductionism in Christian Thought
The Use of "Pagan" Symbols in Fiction
The Broadly Educated Christian
The Bible and Fiction

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