Imagine this. You’re a pastor, and one of your congregation comes in to see you: she wants you to read a letter she wrote, to see if it’s “all right.” And this is what you read.
“Dear Goddess Pele—I am so sorry I took that chunk of lava and brought it home with me as a souvenir! I should never have done it! Ever since, nothing has gone right for me and my family, we’ve had nothing but bad luck. My husband lost his job, I stepped into a bear trap and lost my foot, my brother’s wife ran off with the mayor of our town, who embezzled all that public money… Please, goddess, forgive me! Don’t curse me anymore! I am returning that piece of lava so it can be put back in your Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where it belongs, and I promise I will never offend you again!”
“What do you think, pastor?” asks the letter-writer. “Should I say Goddess Pele or Madame Pele?”
What does the pastor say? What would your pastor say? I think mine would be struck speechless.
The thing is, this happens. A lot. Tourists help themselves to pebbles, stones, and sand from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, paying no heed to the curse of the Volcano Goddess, Pele, which is said to fall on anyone who takes anything from the park. It’s against the rules to take stuff out of the park, so a park ranger made up the story of the curse, thinking it would deter lava-grabbers.
But people believe it. Coming as they do from mainland America, most of them are Christians. They go to church on Sundays. And yet they believe that a pagan volcano goddess in Hawaii has the power to reach all the way across the Pacific Ocean and zap them where they live, in Pennsylvania or Ohio.
How do we know they really believe that? Because they take the trouble to write abject letters of apology to the goddess, and, even more, they mail back to Hawaii the souvenirs that they took. It’s expensive to mail rocks to Hawaii. The park staff used to put some of the letters on display, but that has since been discontinued. Now they just throw the letters away and unpack the rocks so they can throw them away, too.
Would anyone ever write a letter of apology to the real God, having sinned against Him? Or do we just sin against Him every day and never give it a second thought? What kind of kook would write a letter to God?
But they write to a Hawaiian volcano goddess—who, it should be pointed out, does not exist. There is only one God, and He does not live in a volcano in Hawaii.
Here in my own home town—a little town, two miles across at the most, with eight churches in it—we have an annual “workshop” for getting people in touch with their “animal spirit guides.” It started in 2013 and has just kept going.
Here, college-educated Americans, most of them belonging to the upper middle class, turn to the spirits of dogs or gnus or hamsters for guidance in the knotty problems of life. I daresay the great majority of them have received Christian religious training of some sort. Some remarkably ineffective sort.
This little excursion into paganism is at least peaceful. Others are not. Last month in a nearby town, police arrested a woman for harassing her neighbor—with dolls. The dolls, said police, had “vulgar writings on them” and were planted “at or near the victim’s residence on three separate occasions.”
What business has a Christian with a pagan volcano goddess, séances involving parakeets or gerbils, or scary dolls intended to freak out your neighbor?
True, in ancient days, the Levites were unable to keep Israel from chasing after pagan gods. You may remember, if you’ve read the Bible, that didn’t turn out well for Israel. So possibly even the most sincere, determined efforts by the American church might not entirely pry Christians away from pagan practices.
But are we seeing a sincere, determined effort? Do the churches conscientiously teach God’s word, and how to apply it to life, how to use it to understand reality, and how to love it, and desire it?
I dare you to say “yes.”
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