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American Astarte

“No trees. No telephones. No Jesus.” Thus begins a National Geographic article (September, 2002) on the paganism of supposed Eastern Orthodox Christians in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains, east of the Black Sea. The title of the piece—“Crucible of the Gods.”

Though they traffic in the names of Christian saints and touch base with the liturgy and Christian symbols, their deepest devotion is to a spirit they call Khati. Beer is a sacred beverage, and animal sacrifice is common. At the same “service,” the citizens both read from the Bible and dip their hands in goat’s blood. And the ceremonial stone house, with its bell and brightly colored cloths, stands on a rise reminiscent of the “high places” used for idol worship in Bible times.

Sunday school children read about Moloch, Ashtoreth, and Baal in the Old Testament. For application, their teachers likely suggest that our “idols” are luxury cars, vacation homes, and championship trophies. But ancient paganism and idolatry are making a strong comeback in the midst of Western Civilization. It is not at all unusual to find self-proclaimed heathen material at local newsstands and in chain bookstores. Those wanting to order a devotional image of the goddess Astarte can turn to the ads in the back of pagan periodicals. (A nine-inch, $42 dollar model is available by mail from Sacred Source in Crozet, Virginia.) This is the same Astarte who appears as Ashtoreth in 2 Kings 23:13. Good King Josiah demolished her, but she’s back.

Type “pagan” into Internet search engines, and you’ll be overwhelmed by their products. There is even one for child raising, Through the catalogue store, Mom and Dad can order a pentagram-adorned t-shirt, ball cap, or coffee mug proclaiming, “Proud to Be a Pagan Parent.” Under “Kids’ Stuff,” they find new words for a familiar bedtime prayer—“Earth and Water, Fire and Air, Stay with me while Mom's not there.”

Meanwhile, in the Nevada desert, 120 miles north of Reno, 25,000 revelers recently attended the 17th annual Burning Man festival. Started in San Francisco, this arts-and-orgy campout culminates in the incineration of a 70-foot-high wooden man, while cheering celebrants dance below. The sponsors disavow occult connections, but many celebrants disregard the disclaimer.

The words “pagan” and “heathen” were coined with reference to those primitives who lived so far out in the wilderness (on the heath) that they’d missed out on the spread of Christianity in the cities. Now American towns have pagan chapters of their own. It is ironic that the mailing address for a leading Shamanic Wiccan church is Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin. That town is the namesake of the site where Moses dealt with worship of the golden calf (Ps. 106:19-20). Now Christians must once again deal with idolatry at Horeb—and in Chicago, London, and Rio.

Certainly, pastors should focus on the “gods” of materialism, ambition, and sensuality when preaching on idolatry. But they should not consider the Old Testament condemnation of graven images and pagan ritual as curious, ancient insects trapped in amber. These errors are alive and well, buzzing about in the atmosphere.

Missiologists tell us that conversion comes easier to a pagan or idol worshipper than to a Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist. Perhaps that is even true for those who have slid from Christian church attendance into heathenism. Whatever the case, the message of response is simple—Christianity 101: There is one God. His Only Begotten Son is Savior and Lord. Salvation comes by grace through faith. Repent, trust, and follow Jesus.