William Hopper is well known for The Heathen’s Guide to World Religion. In this guide Hopper looks at greed, lust, stupidity and even murder that have become deeply intertwined in so many world religions. As you might expect the book (tagged as ‘Not for sheep!’) is the centre of many heated debates.
Hopper’s latest offering is well timed: A Heathen’s Guide to Christmas applies the same standard of sarcastic scrutiny to the traditions of Christmas. In Pure Spirit is lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to put some questions to William.
What were the inspiration and motivation to write the Heathen’s Guides?
Frustration mostly. The original Heathen’s Guide was written in 1997, just after I finished university. I’d spent four years studying the history, archeology, and theologies of the world’s religions, and it was annoying how little of what we know makes it to the pulpit.
The “religious” people wanted nothing to do with the realty behind the mythic stories. Because they were so invested in the cartoon-like versions they hear in church, anything outside of that was considered “pagan” or “evil”
I felt it was time to bring back the writings of people like Josephus or Pliny to the masses… time to take a critical, worldly look at the claims of the world’s religions.
Was the decision to write to write the Christmas book an easy one?
The idea originally came from Salman Nensi, who was my literary agent a while back. It was Christmas and he was throwing his usual paganesque Yule party, and he leaned over and said “You really should write a book just about Christmas. There’s gotta be enough stuff just in this one holiday to fill a book.”
He was right.
You’ve chosen humour as a means for articulating the book. Why did you do that and how do you think that influences the reader?
If you start a sentence with the words “In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine convened a council to firmly establish Christian canon”, then you are going to lose 80% of you audience right off the bat.
If, however, you start with something akin to “Ok, a nun and a naked Hindu are sitting in a bar…” then you’ve got something people will read.
No matter how good the information you have is, it is worthless if no one wants or enjoys reading it. Trust me… I went through literally hundreds of old, dusty tomes that no one ever reads in order to come up with something that’s accessible, easy to read, and fun. It makes all the difference.
What was the most interesting discovery you made while researching The Heathen’s Guide to Christmas?
Personally? I really liked the bit about the origins of Santa’s red sack.
The idea that it was originally used to scare kids by telling them that Santa used it to drag bad children away in the night. There’s also the fact that St. Nicholas is actually the Patron Saint of Mariners. The guy was born in Myna, Turkey and never saw snow his whole life. It’s pretty fun to watch the spin the Catholics put on him in order to mesh the Santa myth with the St. Nicholas myth.
Do you take part in Christmas celebrations at all? How does that make you feel?
My house is an anti-Christmas zone. I really do burn Christmas cards every year. I also chase away carolers, which is kinda fun as I am 6’3”, 290 pounds, bald with a goatee.
There was a time when I felt “left out of the season”, but that’s long past. I don’t celebrate Christmas any more than I would celebrate Hanukkah or the Mayan Day of the Dead. They are simply not my religion.
How do you think the missionaries who helped Christianise the Germanic and Nordic Yule festivals would feel about Christmas and how it is celebrated today?
I think they started on a slippery slope, trying to encourage the locals to come into Christianity by accepting bits and pieces of local lore to make them feel comfortable. On the whole, Christianity lost that battle and was overtaken. However, Rome continued and grew ever more powerful by the conquests, so I doubt the papacy has any regrets.
The missionaries though, were simply looking for a High Mass celebrating the birth of Jesus. To have it turned in the marketing blitz that it’s become would likely leave the real believers convinced that Satan had won and the world was lost for Catholicism. Fortunatley for the Church, they have always been very good at adapting.
In Pure Spirit
A Heathen’s Guide to Christmas is available now at Lulu and you can enjoy many more insights from the author at the William Hopper blog.