By Stephen J. Bedard
Tom Harpur was one of the most popular Canadian religion writers over the last half-century. He died recently at the age of 87, after many decades of writing about religion in Canada.
Not many Canadians have had such a major public platform to speak to religious issues: Harpur was the religion editor for the Toronto Star for 12 years, wrote a column on ethics and spirituality for over 30 years, and perhaps had his greatest influence through the 22 books he published.
In many ways he was a reflection of Canada’s changing religious culture.
Harpur was born in 1929 to an evangelical family. He described his father as a “fundamentalist street preacher.” Harpur’s family of origin instilled an interest in religion, but there was also a reaction to the conservative nature of his family.
Harpur studied at both Oxford University in England and Wycliffe College in Toronto. After graduating he served as an Anglican priest at St. Margaret’s-in-the-Pines, West Hill, Ont. (1957-1964). After concluding his pastoral ministry, he taught New Testament at Wycliffe College in Toronto (1964-1971). Wycliffe is an evangelical seminary within the Anglican Church of Canada.
As a columnist and author, Harpur generally presented a liberal but semi-orthodox picture of Christianity. Although he rejected the virgin birth and deity of Christ, he did affirm the miracles, the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of the afterlife.
While holding to some traditional beliefs, Harpur was quite critical of evangelicalism. In his 1986 book, For Christ’s Sake, Harpur took aim at John 14:6, which states: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Harpur saw in this verse the exclusive attitude which in his view was typical of evangelicalism and the source of many of history’s worst atrocities, such as the crusades, inquisition and the holocaust.
He found relief from his concern about an exclusive Jesus after reading authors such as Gerald Massey (1828-1907) and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963), proponents of something called the Christ Myth. The Christ Myth claims that Jesus never existed as a historical figure and that the Gospels are a Jewish retelling of the pagan myths of Horus, Dionysus and Mithras.
Harpur repackaged the claims of Massey and Kuhn and added his own flare for stirring up controversy, and the result was his 2004 bestseller The Pagan Christ. Harpur, who had once argued for a historical Jesus, was now able to solve the problem of the exclusivist Jesus by turning him into an allegory. All people, whether Christians, Muslims or atheists, had a Christ within them, a universal spirituality, which all myths have pointed to.
The Pagan Christ struck a chord with some people like none of Harpur’s earlier books had. Some mainline churches used the book for study groups, while others who felt Harpur’s ideas could no long be contained within the traditional church created their own fellowships to celebrate Cosmic Christ spirituality.
Harpur had come a long way on his spiritual journey, a journey somewhat reflective of how Canada has moved from an open acceptance of Christian values (sometimes described as the Christendom era) to a cautious relationship with the church to an increased concern about religious exclusivity. While the Christ Myth is still very much a minority position, many Canadians can sympathize with questions about how exclusivity fits within a multicultural Canada.
The good news is that the answer to these concerns is not a pagan Christ or a mythological Jesus. The evangelical church in Canada has the opportunity to both affirm biblical truth and to stand up for the freedom of religious expression for all Canadians. Exclusivity of beliefs does not have to lead to exclusivity of freedom.
Tom Harpur’s impact on the Canadian religious scene will diminish with his passing. Since most Evangelicals disagree with his ideas, they are not likely to lament that. However, at the same time, all Canadians including Evangelicals can be thankful for the picture of Canadian religion that he has provided for us so that we may be able to interact with our culture in a thoughtful manner.
Stephen J. Bedard (www.stephenjbedard.com) is pastor of Queen Street Baptist Church in St. Catharines, Ont., and author of Unmasking the Jesus Myth (2016) and co-author with Stanley Porter of Unmasking the Pagan Christ (2006). See his related 2010 article for Faith Today.