When I was in missionary training, I learned about something called syncretism. Syncretism (I learned) is a kind of "worldview soup." Syncretism takes a generous helping of traditional spirit or ancestor worship and stirs it together with a little dash of Islam or a pinch of Christianity or perhaps both. The more religions one embraces, the better one's chances of covering all one's bases, the syncretist believes. A missionary who hasn't taken the time to learn the culture or is unclear in his or her communication may rejoice in the ready acceptance of the gospel by the syncretist, not realizing that it is a rough facsimile of the gospel which has been accepted and not the genuine article.
Jesus Christ does not fit easily in a soup pot. The One who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," will not settle for sharing His rightful place in the life of anyone who seeks to follow Him.
But culture does not need to be attacked, I also learned in my missionary training. The gospel needs to be presented clearly. Then, as true Christianity invades a culture, the culture begins to change. Not everything about the culture, mind you. As the Holy Spirit moves into the hearts and minds of people, He reveals to them what needs to go and what can stay.
That is the condensed version of what I learned about culture and Christianity. But, through one circumstance or another, what I've learned about culture outside of my own is still theory for me. I'm living (a little uncomfortably) within my home culture. Yet I can't seem to keep from applying some of the things I learned in my missionary training to the surroundings I now find myself in.
Could syncretism happen in my home culture? Even within the church? Christianity is meant to invade the culture and not the other way around. But the invasion of culture into the church is an old story told through New Testament letters to the churches of Corinth, Galatia, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea. Is it happening today? Has my culture invaded my own life in ways that it never should have?
In my missionary training, it was stressed that in order to recognize syncretism, we must learn the culture we were in. We needed to be able to identify the gods of the culture and in what ways they were worshiped.
Christians living in their home culture have a unique challenge. It is no easy matter to spot the false gods or their worship in a culture one has been absorbing from birth as naturally as breathing.
When the One True God set out ten rules of living for His people, His first prohibition was against putting any other god in His rightful place, and His second was against worshiping the visible. Worshiping the visible was synonymous with putting another god in the place of the One True God because the One True God could not be seen. From eternity, He planned the time when He would make Himself visible and say to those who knew Him, He who has seen Me has seen the Father, but all human attempts to make Him visible were idolatry.
The battle has always been between the seen and the unseen. Ancient humanity has always tended to worship what it can see, and nothing much has changed. The present god of our culture is the visible. Materialism, the worship of the tangible, is the prevailing worldview of my own culture.
As Christians, we're good at recognizing and rejecting materialism in its cruder forms. We realize we must not buy into the belief that matter is its own creator. It's the more subtle forms of the worship of the material that can creep in unawares.
Ancient humanity worshiped not only the works of God's hands but the works of its own hands. Ancient humanity has always worshiped silver and gold, and modern humanity still does. In this form, the worship of matter is harder to recognize.
I've wrestled long and hard with the question, In what ways have I bought into my culture's worship of money? And what do I do about it? I suppose the first step is what it always has been when it comes to putting away idolatry. Repentance. It means changing my mind. It means trying to see things the way God does. Then, it means acting on what He shows me.
While I've heard stories of Christianity really, the Holy Spirit invading a culture and turning it upside down, I've never seen it for myself. I've never seen the Holy Spirit turn my culture upside down as He did the culture of the early church. Yet I believe it's a work the Holy Spirit delights in doing invading a culture by invading its people. But when He does, He calls for a putting away of false gods. He won't share His place.
When the Holy Spirit has little effect on a culture, it's probably a safe bet that Christians the ones through whom the Holy Spirit affects a culture -- haven't been wholehearted in putting away the false gods of the culture around them. When people don't worship the gods of the culture, the culture sits up and takes notice. Tearing down idols has a way of attracting attention.
I recently heard about a Christian who could have been a rich man, but he kept very little of his earnings. He ate one meal per day. He owned one suit at a time. His neighbors couldn't have helped observing that he didn't worship their gods.
I'm still not sure what obedience in this area looks like in my own life. I don't know what obedience looks like in the life of anyone else. But I do know this: whatever obedience looks like in each individual's life, when it happens collectively, it will look a whole lot like Christianity invading our culture.
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