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Tom Harpur’s book ‘The Pagan Christ’, which argues that Christianity is stolen from pagan religions, was a top seller in 2004 despite criticism from the Christian fundameltalist community.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Tom Harpur was a devout Christian who was not certain that Jesus existed, but did believe in the principles that were taught in his name. He knew before he wrote his most powerful book, The Pagan Christ, that his views would be controversial and unsettling.

"My goal is not to summarily dismiss the deep beliefs held by many millions in North America, Europe, and increasingly now in the Southern Hemisphere, where the vast majority of today's Christians live. But I do want these people to think deeply about their faith anew," Mr. Harpur wrote in that book.

Tom Harpur, who died last month at the age of 87, was an ordained Anglican priest and theology professor at the University of Toronto who gained international fame, not from the pulpit, but from his newspaper columns and books. He wrote for the Toronto Star for almost 40 years, first as its full-time religion editor and then as a freelance writer.

According to his wife, Susan Harpur, he wrote more than 1,000 weekly columns for the paper and travelled the world to meet prominent religious figures, including the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.

His greatest literary success was The Pagan Christ, which was the bestselling Canadian nonfiction book of 2004. It was also the most controversial thing he wrote, because he challenged the idea that Jesus Christ was an actual person. He said the early Church, in the third or fourth century, decided to make allegory fact.

"What was preserved in the amber of allegory, [the early Church] misrepresented as plodding fact. The transcendent meaning of glorious myths and symbols was reduced to a farrago of miraculous or irrelevant, or quite unbelievable, events. The great truth that the Christ was to come in man, that the Christ principle was potentially in every one of us, was changed to the exclusivist teaching that the Christ had come as a man. No other could match him, or even come close. The Dark Ages – and so much more – were the eventual result," Mr. Harpur wrote in The Pagan Christ.

The message sold books, but it isn't popular with everyone, especially Christians who cling to the fundamental script in the Bible.

"Christian fundamentalists could not abide his message," says Patrick Crean, his publisher at Thomas Allen, who is now with HarperCollins. The Pagan Christ was the most important book he worked on, Mr. Crean said. "The book was popular with the public but you won't find it in Christian book stores."

One person who does agree with him is his younger brother, George, a practising physician in Tobermory, Ont.

"I came to the same conclusions as my brother, though by a different route. There is a problem with the literal interpretation of scripture. Things such as Jesus spending 40 days and 40 nights fasting in the desert. Who was there to record this?," says Dr. Harpur, who also says he is a Christian who believes in the moral principles of Christianity.

"Allegory is a powerful thing. You can learn the lessons of Aesop's Fables and still realize that a mouse can't talk to a lion."

Thomas William Harpur was born in Toronto on April 14, 1929. His parents, William Harpur and the former Elizabeth Hoey, were immigrants from Northern Ireland who came to Canada a year before Tom was born. His father had been a policeman in Ulster, but worked as a salesman for a paper company in Toronto.

The family was religious and at first were fundamentalists, though they later returned to the Church of England, Dr. Harpur said. He remembers going to church morning, afternoon and evening on Sunday.

Late in life, at age 55, his father became an Anglican priest, so there was both religion and the immigrant pressure to succeed at home. The family lived in a working-class neighbourhood north of Kingston Road, on Lawlor Avenue in what real estate agents today would call the Upper Beaches. He went to Adam Beck Public School and then Malvern Collegiate. A brilliant student, he won a full scholarship to the University of Toronto, where he studied Classics. That meant being able to read Latin and ancient Greek as if they were his second and third languages.

After graduating in 1951, he won a Rhodes Scholarship and spent four years at Oxford University reading "Greats," a more advanced study of Classics. He returned to the University of Toronto's Wycliffe College and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1956.

For seven years he was the parish priest at St. Margaret in the Pines in the Westhill suburb, part of Scarborough. After that he returned to the University of Toronto as the New Testament professor at Wycliffe College in 1964.

At the time he was also involved in social issues and in March, 1965, he was part of a large group in Toronto protesting racism in the southern United States, in particular the police violence in Selma, Ala. Wearing his Roman collar, he walked alongside an Anglican bishop outside the U.S. consulate in Toronto.

In 1971 he left teaching and started writing a column for the Toronto Star as the paper's religion editor. More than just an armchair columnist, he travelled widely to report on religious subjects. He never used his column to preach, but rather to try to cover moral issues.

In the Star and other publications there were familiar themes: "Gospels Not History but Sacred Dramas," was the headline for an article he wrote in the Catholic New Times in 2003. He also worked for television, including writing scripts for Man Alive, the CBC's religious program.

In 1983 he left the Star to go freelance, still continuing to write a syndicated column for the paper. He concentrated on longer-form writing and over his career produced 18 books, most of which were non-fiction works on spiritual topics.

Some themes were constant, such as his critical take on Pope John Paul II. Mr. Harpur believed the Pope hid his deep conservatism under his charismatic exterior. Mr. Harpur wrote about this in Born Again, My Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom.

"Few figures in the modern era have so completely escaped a truly objective, balanced reportage as [Pope John Paul II] did. … Underneath the charismatic exterior was a willfully stubborn, undemocratic temperament ill-suited for the huge task of giving guidance to a church heading into the third millennium," Mr. Harpur wrote. "This was not a man who was prepared to do any listening to his own clergy and his most devoted laity. … The press and public treated JPII as if he were a rock star, and he played the role of global celebrity to the hilt."

Mr. Harpur said he was unsettled by his own changes in thinking, from the literal interpretation of the Bible he learned in Sunday School to his later beliefs. Though his books caused a great deal of controversy, he said, that was not his intention.

"This is not about seeking controversy or headlines; it is a sincere and earnest search for spiritual truth. Certainly it is in no way meant as an attack upon Christianity – or any other religion, for that matter. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the end, it is about the realization of a richer, more spiritual faith than I ever knew before," he wrote in The Pagan Christ.

For 18 years Mr. Harpur and his wife, Susan, whom he met at the Toronto Star, lived northwest of Toronto. They had a hobby farm, keeping horses, donkeys and cattle.

"Tom's biggest passion since early childhood was for the wonders of the natural world. He felt that there was far more to learn of God from nature than from holy books or preachers," Ms. Harpur says.

As he grew older, physics and nature increasingly fascinated him.

"The writings of modern physicists were appealing more and more to him because they're starting to reveal an extraordinary world of wonderment and surprises. He believed that our spiritual bodies are immortal and one day we will be able to experience this more fully as further mysteries unfold."

Mr. Harpur died at a hospital in Lion's Head, Ont., on Jan. 2. He leaves his wife of 38 years, Susan; brother, George; sister, Jane; and children, Elizabeth, Margaret and Mary Catharine (from his first marriage, to Mary Clark).

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