Projecting Christianity onto other religions

David Forsmark makes a point made by our own loyal reader, author, and Nordic expert Lars Walker, speaking of the Norse deities.  Forsmark writes:

Americans have a naïve view of religion. The religious freedom that is so ingrained in our tradition — and our Constitution — has morphed beyond tolerance to a sort of anthropomorphic acceptance of pretty much anything.

In other words, in order to prove how tolerant we are, we take our basically Judeo-Christian view of what religion and God should be, and assume all other religions share the same goals, have the same values, and are just differing manifestation of the same loving and just God.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the God of the Bible is unique in the history of the world’s religions. From Baal to Zeus, from Jupiter to Allah and Odin, the gods of paganism are capricious masters, not loving fathers. Control is their goal — when they think of humans at all — not justice or peace.

But saying so is sooooo judgmental!

Marvel Comics master storyteller Stan Lee took the most interesting of the Norse gods, Thor, the God of Thunder, and made him a crusader for truth, justice, and maybe even the American Way… or at least Western values.

But think of it from the view of the Vikings — what could be more capricious and destructive than the god of the weather?

But of course, a self-centered destructive superhero who loves war and longs to be worshiped would make for a crappy comic book.

On the serious side, though, a misunderstanding of a leading world religion has serious implications for most of the current world conflicts.

Even George W. Bush mouthed the diplomatically convenient canard “Islam means peace.” Yes, and Pravda means “truth.”

A non-rebellious slave is at “peace” with his master, too.

As Nonie Darwish writes in her seminal books Now They Call me Infidel and Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law, the notion of a loving Father God who oversees a brotherhood of men is something she never encountered until she immigrated to the West. It is a Christian concept that Muslims adopt when living in Western cultures in order to fit in, or because they aren’t particularly informed about their religion in the first place (and want to fit in).

Perhaps because the Quran gives lip service to Jesus, or because of its Middle East origins, or because, quite coincidentally, the main ethnic group that follows Islam is also descended from Abraham, many act as though Islam is somehow related to the Judeo/Christian tradition, however distantly.

But Allah is much more like every other pagan deity… no matter how far flung.

via PJ Lifestyle » Allah, Odin, and Thor: Mythical Gods of War, Not of Love.

Forsmark goes on to illustrate his point through a discussion of a new book on the Norse gods.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Grace

    There are those who do project Christianity into, and unto other religions. However, if they choose to do so, it won’t stand up to HOLY Scripture.

    Anyone who knows what the Bible says, understands the Trinity, the Cross, Salvation, faith – is not able, if they believe the Bible to “project” anything other than the God of the Bible, which does not encompass any other god, nor does it mean that we share their beliefs, or they share ours.

    I accept that those who really believe in Christ as Savior, the only Savior, and sacrifice for our sins, is becoming scarce.

    Have we not read in Revelation 1 through 3, the seven churches? If you have, then you understand.

    Did Jesus not state clearly the way was “narrow”? – and “few there be that find it” ?

    Then turning back to Jesus Christ’s words in Matthew:

    13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

    14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

    15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

    Matthew 7

    We need to step back and read carefully, what Jesus spoke clearly. This is the problem, many people are shocked at the events we see today in the church. Yes we are shocked, but the Bible tells us that “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

    FEW THAT BE THAT FIND IT – that’s the “LEADETH into LIFE” part – which a great many people dismiss.

  • Nils

    There’s actually some good evidence, in the case of Odin/Woden, that Christianity actually influenced Odinic worship and his cult. Apparently, he was not considered the chief god of the north Germanic/Scandinavian pantheon until after the rise of Christianity, and parallels are plenty; the biggest being that in the Hávamál, he sacrifices himself to himself in order to have the runic Futhark revealed to him. How does he do this? He transfixes himself on the World Tree, Yggdrasil, with his spear, Gungnir; a scene not at all unlike Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Granted, the reasoning is different–Odin wants runic power, whereas Christ is dying to redeem the sins of mankind–but it is an interesting parallel.

  • tODD

    The point is likely fair enough as it goes — especially with respect to pagan dieties of long ago.

    However, I couldn’t help notice that the author makes the same error he lambasts in others — in this article. Did you see it?

    Twice he refers to “Judeo-Christian” traditions or views (though he can’t seem to decide how to punctuate it). As if Christians and Jews share a similar concept of God.

    Hate to break it to Pajamas Media, but they don’t.

    But then, Pajamas, like many right-wingers, propagates the notion of “Judeo-Christianity” more as a convenient political fiction than a sincere theological thesis. Heck, if you read just a chunk of that remarkably digressive article, you quickly see how religion — or, at least the handful of modern ones — is just being used as a geopolitical referent.

    I mean, anyone who can seriously refer to “our basically Judeo-Christian view of what religion and God should be” and then follow it up immediately by decrying those who “assume all other religions share the same goals, have the same values, and are just differing manifestation of the same loving and just God” really, really hasn’t thought through the implications of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” that he literally just used earlier in the same sentence.

  • SKPeterson

    Todd @ 3 – There is something even problematic in your quote above: “our basically Judeo-Christian view of what religion and God should be.” It is rather American to define God ourselves, rather than taking God as He has revealed Himself. There is just one step from PM’s characterization of a “basically Judeo-Christian” God, to a “the God I worship would never do x” post-modern, hyper-individualist religion that is indicative of what observers have called moralistic therapeutic deism – the true American civil religion.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Leave it to ToaDD to miss the point of this very well done piece by Lars Walker.

  • SKPeterson

    Pr. McCain – the author of the article is not Lars.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Of course, we are not the only ones projecting. On what basis can we say that projection of what we think God must be has not always been happening? Just to stir the pot.

  • Cincinnatus

    KK@7,

    Sure, but that rather misses the point. In my generation especially (i.e., Millennials), there is a tendency to suppose that all religions, if observed “authentically,” teach the same essential message and serve the same essential social (and personal) goods: be nice to yourself and be nice to other people. And yes, I use “nice” in its most banal sense. Acceptance, tolerance, love, self-confidence–this is what all religions are about at root.

    In short, all religions supposedly advance an attenuated version of the Golden Rule. And I’m not just referring to high school students here. Look at almost any accounts of religion in journalism: “true” religions just want us to be nice to each other; insofar as various religious groups fail to adhere to this vision–Westboro Baptist Church, Wahhabi Muslims, conservative Catholics–they are not “true” Christianity or Islam but misguided fanatics.

    Of course, this is wrong, wrong, wrong. Homeric Greek religion couldn’t have been any more opposed to anything like a Golden Rule. The same goes for most brands of Islam, most tribal religions, and so on. This isn’t to say that any of those religions are good or bad, but our quasi-Christian universalism leads to a distorted sociology and anthropology–and theology.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    It’s nice to be cited, anyway. Mr. Forsmark makes some similar points to those I made in reviewing “Thor” some time back, at my own blog and at The American Culture. But the ideas are obvious enough that I’d never accuse him of borrowing. I enjoyed his article.

    I find myself in a strange position here, actually. I’m currently in the process of translating a history book on the Viking Age for a Norwegian publisher, and one of its central arguments is that the “9-11″ attack on Lindisfarne was not an act of aggression, but a reprisal and a preemption, intended to send a message to Charlemagne, who had a few years earlier massacred perhaps as many as 4,500 Saxons at Verden, after baptizing them by force. The argument in our book is (partly) that it was Charlemagne who was acting like a jihadist at that point, and Vikings who were defending freedom. This is a somewhat awkward position for a Christian like me, but I believe that truth comes first, and it works out with time into the concepts of Christian freedom that I celebrate in my Erling Skjalgsson novels.

  • mikeb

    Grace @ 1

    I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

    “There are those who do project Christianity into, and unto other religions. However, if they choose to do so, it won’t stand up to HOLY Scripture.”

    They are not saying that salvation or Truth are found in those religions but that the so-called Judeo-Christian society can only understand them through our own lens, our own ideas about what religion is and its goals are and who God is or has done.

    I’d argue that there is some truth to that and that its also true among those of us Christians. How often do we on this blog fail to understand someone else’s point because we connotate different meanings to the word, phrase, or concept? (e.g. We all come to the conversation with myriad understandings of sin and repentance, justification, and faith.)

  • Steve Bauer

    I am reminded of my stint serving a congregation in western Minnesota. The Women of the ELCA invited the ladies of our congregation to a service celebrating the Mayan religion (an attempted “outreach” to people from Central America in the area). I refrained from asking if they had found a volunteer for the sacrifice yet.

    As far as “projecting” is concerned. Yes. we are projecting our image on God all the time. That is what original sin is. But when we hear the Word, our projection is destroyed and the true image of God is gained. Of course, this is a ongoing experience of “putting off the old nature and putting on the new nature.”

  • SKPeterson

    I would like to add that everyone should order and read Lars’ book(s) on Erling Skjalgsson. West Oversea is a really good and interesting book.

    Here is one thing, from a Christian standpoint. If these religions are all so equal and good, what could Christianity ever have offered to the Norse or the Germans or the Slavs or the Celts or the Romans or the Greeks or the …? Or even to the Jews? If our defining religious values are “basically Judeo-Christian” , how Jewish are they and how Christian? Much of Jesus’ earthly ministry was showing the Jews how they’d missed most of the point of the Old Testament, a series of errors which the Jews of the medieval and later periods codified in the Talmud, Mishnah and Midrash.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I might take this opportunity to mention that Baen Books is planning to re-publish “The Year of the Warrior” and “Wolf Time,” in e-book form alone. Look for them soon.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Cincinnatus, there is also something like negative projection. He beloieves different, therefore he is …

    Interesting that you should mention the “Golden Rule”. While some religions are demonstratably brutish (Aztec religion, for instance), Golden Rule – like pronouncements are not unknown in more “Axial” religions:

    Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
    The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?”

    From the Middle Kingdom age in Egypt comes the following: “Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you.”

    There are also examples in Greek philosophy, Hindu writings etc.
    Even the law code of Hammurabi.

    Furthermore, witness the follwing text from later on in Egyp’s history, when their theology had moved from traditional polytheism to a proto-monotheism, with one creator god, Amun, who creaeted everything, including the other gods:

    “Praisegiving to Amun !
    I make hymns in his name.
    I give to him praise :
    to the height of heaven,
    and the breadth of the earth.
    I tell his might to him who sails down-stream,
    and to him who sails up-stream.

    Beware of him !
    Repeat it to son and daughter,
    to great and small.
    Herald him to the generations not yet born.
    Herald him to the fishes in the deep,
    and to the birds in the sky.
    Repeat it to him who knows it not,
    and to him who knows.
    Beware of him !

    You are Amun, the Lord of the silent.
    Who comes at the cry of the poor.
    When I call to you in my distress,
    You come to rescue me.
    Give breath to him who is wretched.
    Rescue me from bondage.

    You are Amun-Re, Lord of Thebes,
    Who rescues him who is in the netherworld ;
    For you are he who is [merciful],
    When one appeals to you.
    You are he who comes from afar.”

    This is significantly removed fron the brutish, bloody gods of earlier times, as well as from the fluidity of primitive pantheism/shamanism.

    What I am saying is that one should enquire and establish the facts, and their nuances, before projecting and judging.

  • Phyllis

    Leave it to “reverend”Paul McCain to put down those with whom he disagrees.

  • tODD

    Paul (@5), if you want to convince us that you’ve read enough of the piece to conclude that it is “very well done”, it might help if you could also read enough of it to notice that Lars neither wrote it, nor was mentioned in it — only Veith did that.

    I admire your desire to stick up for Lars. Heck, I admire Lars.

    But isn’t there a point when a pastor and CPH publisher says to himself, maybe this won’t reflect too well on me or the entities for which I am an ambassador, and don’t you think it should be before you click submit on a comment in which you stoop to first-grade name-rewriting tactics? (I mean, truly, I think that was the last time someone tried to hurt my feelings by noting the similarity between my given name and the word “toad”. I’m pretty certain I laughed at the pathetic attempt back then, as well.)

    This is made all the more ironic, given that it was only yesterday that you decided to publicly criticize “Carl Vehse”, who of course engages in the same type of juvenile name-calling as you have done here.

    I would have written this to you privately, Paul, but we both know you’ve done everything possible to keep from having to hear my opinions sully your precious eyes. Would that you’d shown the wisdom to simply ignore me here, as well, if you cannot write anything accurate, intelligent, or that even contributes to the topic.

  • tODD

    Lars (@9), why would that history be awkward for you?

    SK (@12), yes, Christianity offers something different than what all other religions offer — God’s grace through our Savior’s work, and not because of our own.

    But that doesn’t mean that all other religions are therefore equally bereft of the morals that Christians hold to. Obviously, our moral system has a great deal in common with that of the Jews. And with a number of other faiths, as well.

    Which is to say, if we’re only limiting ourselves to standards of human behavior, it’s not clear that Christianity is going to be unique among other religions. As such, it may not be entirely wrong to “project” our morals onto them.

    What I see in this article (and Lars said it better on this blog a while back) is that such a projection won’t always work. I don’t know a lot about the old Norse religion, but it seems that holds up a moral system that you and I would not totally subscribe to.

    But, again, that doesn’t mean that other religions aren’t morally similar to us, as Klasie has shown (@14). Fortunately, we don’t believe that Christianity merely offers a superior moral system. That’s not the point of Christianity at all.

  • kerner

    Actually, Rev. McCain @8:

    I think tODD’s point injects some further clarification into the point of the article. In my opinion Christians DO ascribe to Judaism characteristics that are not really there, because those characteristics exist in Christianity, and a lot of Christians are rightly ashamed of bad treatment of Jews at various points in history.

    On the other hand, saying “Judeo-Christian” always strikes me the same way as when Lutherans call themselves “catholic” or even “orthodox”. Those words are, today, the names of Christian denominations that espouse some doctrines that Lutherans do not hold, and some which we strongly condemn, but we hate to give up the use of the words.

  • fjsteve

    kerner,

    Nor should we give up a term that we confess in our creeds just because it’s being used by denominations with often very different theologies. Just like we shouldn’t give up the use of the term “democratic” just because it’s been twisted into the official name of some of the most undemocratic countries in the world.

  • http://travisisthatguy.com TDoig

    @kerner #18
    We still use “catholic” and “orthodox” as Lutherans because we are part of the one true church Scripture describes and follow orthodox teaching (To the pastors and more learned theologians who follow this blog: did I say that right?). The Big “C” Catholic and Big “O”Orthodox actually designate those denominations we have theological differences with. I am therefore having a hard time seeing an issue with Lutherans using “catholic” and “orthodox” to refer to their church and their teaching.

  • TDoig

    And now I just noticed fjsteve said the same thing I did in a much more concise manner.

  • kerner

    I know, I know…I’m arguing with myself again. :P

    Seriously though, if catholic means “of the whole”, does anybody really believe that what Lutherans teach about, oh say, the Lord’s Supper, is a doctrine “of the whole” Christian Church today?

    If Lutheran doctrine concerning the Lord’s Supper were a doctrine “of the whole” Church, we wouldn’t need closed communion. But of course we do.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Judeo-Christian, there is a sense in which we share a similar ethic, both influenced heavily by the ten commandments. The problem with the term applied to religion rather than an ethic is it makes a further western enlightenment assumption that religion is about morals and nothing else.

  • Grace

    The word “Catholic” brings an instant ring to most ears, and a definition which can be found in the dictionary.

    Catholic – definition

    Christianity

    1. (Christianity / Roman Catholic Church) denoting or relating to the entire body of Christians, esp to the Church before separation into the Greek or Eastern and Latin or Western Churches
    2. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) denoting or relating to the Latin or Western Church after this separation
    3. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) denoting or relating to the Roman Catholic Church
    4. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) denoting or relating to any church, belief, etc., that claims continuity with or originates in the ancient undivided Church

    (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) a member of any of the Churches regarded as Catholic, esp the Roman Catholic Church

    I’ve heard a number of remarks, comments and sermons regarding the word “Catholic” – but it always, is the same. It is to many, a Roman Catholic term to define who they are, and what they believe. Yes, I know all the different variations, that one can use regarding “catholic” – I don’t care for the term to describe my belief in the LORD Jesus Christ. I’m Born Again, I see no other way to describe myself, other than that, found in John 3.

  • Grace

    Nils @ 2

    Nils, I don’t see your name very often. My parents had friends of whom the husband’s name was Nils. He was from Norway or Sweden, his wife was born in Norway. They were our dear parents friends, ours too – I loved them dearly, they are now with the LORD. They always wanted children, but had none – but they had us, and we loved them, as we would aunt’s and uncles.

    We watched a lovely travel log this evening, about Stockholm. All the churches, including the one in Stockholm, that is Lutheran. It brought back many memories of all my friends of childhood, all the lovely food – church gatherings, and most of all my parents, my father being a pastor (most all the congregants being Swedish or Norwegian) I’m not a Lutheran, but I certainly understand much of the Scandinavian way of life, and the best, best food ever. My mother was the chief of chefs in the kitchen, we were the helpers. LOL, and I do mean helpers.

    I miss the days when we ate together, laughed and enjoyed the simple things.

    Hope those on the thread aren’t annoyed with my remarks.

  • Nils

    Grace @ 25

    I don’t see my name very often, either, especially in the States (of which I am a native son)! I had the good fortune of going to Norway for a few days several years ago, and really enjoyed the experience, regardless of its brevity. The folks were nice, the climate was perfect (it was summer, and I would give anything to have 60 degree high temperatures here in the South!), food was good. I wish I’d had more time to explore. One of these days I’ll go back.

    Thinking about other weird, potential influences Christianity had on pagan Scandinavian religion is the depiction of Thor’s hammer. It looks suspiciously cruciform in some of these Thor statues: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Reykjavik_-_Thor-Figur_1.jpg/220px-Reykjavik_-_Thor-Figur_1.jpg. Does anybody know of a connection?

  • Grace

    Nils @ 26

    Strange image. I know of no connection.

    I hope you will return to Norway.

    You state: “I would give anything to have 60 degree high temperatures here in the South!”

    You’re a true Scandinavian. I too love the cooler temps. I used to love the sun, sailing all weekend, (my fav) and tanning – but the weather now, is much warmer in Southern CA, and the humidity it right up there as well.

  • Nils

    Grace @ 27: Thanks for the compliment! Funnily enough, I really don’t have much in the way of Scandinavian ancestors, to my knowledge (there are a few Danes in there, but I think they were probably from the area close to Schleswig-Holstein). I’m pretty much a straight-up mix of Germans, Dutchmen, and Scots-Irish. But I guess my genes are meant for northern Europe, and they felt at home for those 60 hours in Oslo.

  • helen

    Dublin, a thousand years ago, was a Danish Kingdom.
    Perhaps your “Scots-Irish” encompasses more of the North than you know. :)

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