“Thamus, for his part, was resolved, if the wind permitted, to sail by the place without saying a word; but if the wind ceased and there ensued a calm, to speak and cry out as loud as he was able what he was enjoined. Being come to Palodes, there was no wind stirring, and the sea was as smooth as glass. Whereupon Thamus standing on the deck, with his face towards the land, uttered with a loud voice his message, saying, The great Pan is dead. He had no sooner said this, but they heard a dreadful noise, not only of one, but of several, who, to their thinking, groaned and lamented with a kind of astonishment.”– Plutarch, “De defectu oraculorum”
There has been much discourse in Christian circles recently on how exactly we are to behave in our cultural context. It would seem the West is falling, or at least enjoying the fast ride down the mountain toward the cliff, and we Christians are trying to decide what to do with ourselves. For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve been living on the fumes of Christendom, inheritors of a culture built on Christian morality and social mores. The past few decades have seen an accelerated effort to discard every last vestige of that backwards and bigoted age, and to forget all the confusing words of that homeless guy from Palestine–why did anyone ever listen to that guy anyway? Let’s be done with it and just throw Him out, says the modern. Unless, of course, I can still use Him to beat His supposed followers over the head with the fact that He was a refugee, and while we’re at it He was probably gay, and of course He agrees with me on everything.
We’re living through a groundshift, and the previously Christian majority is finding itself more and more minimized and scoffed at, a scoffing and condemnation that gets worse the tighter the Christians cling to historic Christian orthodoxy. What should our posture toward a hostile culture be? From Aaron Renn’s helpful “Negative World” framework (First Things), to Douglas Wilson’s “Mere Christendom,” to David French’s defense of winsomeness, to the constant and exhausting discourse over “Christian Nationalism,” to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” to C.R. Wiley’s “Boniface Option,” there is no shortage of ideas on how we ought to treat our interlocutors. Some Christians want to hunker down and wait out the collapse of society until the judgment of God arrives. Some want to go out with a blaze of glory fighting the demon hordes. Some feel bad being too “mean,” and want to cede as much as possible to the demons, apologizing all the way. What we would do well to remember is that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” This is where our fight is, and there is a historical event that I think can help orient us as we navigate these new waters.
It’s one of my favorite stories from history and it comes to us by way of the famed historian Plutarch. Because it’s not recorded anywhere else, some discount it or view it as unreliable. I choose to believe it really happened, because it’s just the kind of thing that God–the great storyteller–would do.
To set the stage: the god Pan is an important god in the Greek pantheon, and has his equivalents in many of the pagan pantheons of the ancient world. Pan is a nature god, a god of fertility, and had his hands and hooves in all sorts of things according to the Greeks, including sex, fertility, and the Spring season. Pan was a faun, with the legs of a goat and the torso and head of a human, and gods like Pan (though certainly not Pan alone, or even Pan primarily) gave us much of the imagery we use to represent the demonic and Satanic today.
The story, according to Plutarch, goes like this: sometime during the reign of Tiberius, an Egyptian mariner named Thamus was sailing to Italy by way of Greece, and on the deck of his ship heard a voice from heaven address him by name. The great loud voice told Thamus that when he arrived at shore, he was to announce to all that “the great god Pan is dead.” Thamus followed his orders, and the news was met with great cries and groans. The great god Pan was dead–what did this mean?
One important thing to note–and this is my favorite part–is the time frame. This happened during the reign of Tiberius. There was another somewhat significant event that took place while Tiberius was in charge. Namely, the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord of all creation. The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ was not simply a significant event for the Jewish people, or for the Christian looking back, or for the first century. The crucifixion was a cosmic shift in the structure of the created world. Christ defeated death itself, he bound the strong man, he disarmed the powers of evil forever and put the demons to shame. The old pagan order, the power of the devils hidden in the crags of the earth, the dominion and dark sway tapped into by Priests of Moloch and Prophets of Ba’al was made impotent. The reverberations were felt throughout all the realms, and Pan knew it. Paul tells us that behind the old gods and behind the crafted idols are real, demonic entities. Whatever his true name, “Pan” knew that God had entered into creation. He knew the game was over, and the deciding blow had been struck.
The story of the death of Pan was taken as fact and seen as significant by certain Church Fathers in those early centuries, including Eusebius. Eusebius and others famously mocked the pagan gods, and made the connection that since “Pan” was Greek for “all,” the death of Pan represented the death of the entire pagan pantheon because of Christ. Christ had defeated the old gods once and for all. G.K. Chesterton takes a similar approach in The Everlasting Man, saying that “it is said truly in a sense that Pan died because Christ was born. It is almost as true in another sense that men knew that Christ was born because Pan was already dead. A void was made by the vanishing world of the whole mythology of mankind, which would have asphyxiated like a vacuum if it had not been filled with theology.”
The death of Pan means that every false religion, every evil ideology, every demonic entity is powerless against the victory, the majesty, the power of our living Lord Jesus Christ. The King is reigning, His church is marching, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. This has drastic implications for how we are to act in the world. How do we posture ourselves toward a hostile and pagan culture? We do what the voice from heaven told Thamus to do: we tell the pagans that their gods are dead. Their idols are defeated, and their vain philosophies disarmed. Christ has come, and he enables us to live boldly and proclaim the truth in the face of anything, be it cancellation or job loss, or lions in the Coliseum.
I don’t have a clever name for this strategy other than the “in your face option.” Boniface cut down the pagan idols in front of the pagans; Benedict built faithful Christian communities for a refuge. Perhaps aspects of every “option” are necessary for us; perhaps there’s something to be learned from every saint and martyr of the faith. Perhaps we ought to make an effort to build Christian communities and institutions, to cut down the idols of our day, to make our nation Christian in whatever sense, and yes, to be winsome in doing so. We’re called to “live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18), and to “mind our own affairs” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). And we do this faithfully in the process of “making disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), declaring that Pan, Moloch, Zeus, Thor, Baal, and every other demon have been deposed to make room for the King of Kings.
Zephram Foster is a writer, musician, and songwriter from Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He works in the field of educational media, and in youth ministry in a Reformed Baptist Church. He has been published at American Reformer and Theopolis Institute, and his various outlets can be found at http://www.zeffoster.com.