Mind Change #1 – Syncretism and American Christianity

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syn·cre·tism
ˈsiNGkrəˌtizəm
noun
  1. the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.

I first learned the word “syncretism” in my college missions class at Liberty University, some 25+ years ago. In that context, syncretism was discussed as a process that sometimes happens following the introduction of the Gospel to a culture which has its own existing beliefs and practices. In some cases, the message of Jesus and the Bible get added to or merged into the beliefs and/or practices and ideologies of the culture. The depth of the syncretism varies from slight to significant, with the latter resulting in a fundamental change in the message. In extreme cases, the syncretised message becomes what the Gospel is understood to be in that cultural context.

Great. So, whoopee, what does that have to do with anything?

As you may remember, last time, I determined to start unpacking and discussing the things I’ve changed my mind about over the past decade or so, particularly as it relates to my faith, walk with God, my theological perspective, and my attitude toward “church” and man’s religion. During this process, virtually none of those changes have been as significant or taken as long to untangle and make sense of as my concern about the confusion and misrepresentation of Jesus and his message in the context of American “Christian” religion. It took many years of thinking and soul searching to quantify and define the distress I’d been feeling. And then one day, out of the blue, the concept from that college class a quarter century ago drifted out of vague memory to deliver abrupt clarity. Syncretism. THAT was the concept I’d been fighting to describe.

As stated earlier, syncretism in the extreme is when the syncretised message becomes what the Gospel is understood to be in that cultural context. In America in the 21st Century,  history and culture have changed the Gospel message, and THAT message (though it’s actually many messages – we’ll talk more about that later) has so grown in prominence, that for many, it is THE message of the Gospel. And for me, that reality is heartbreaking.

Living in the Southeast, my world is filled with people who have had lifelong experiences with “church.” Church – along with all the attendant images, ideologies, and dynamics inherent therein – is just a part of the cultural fabric. And with the reach of the internet and particularly the dynamics involved in social media, the same can be said of most of our country. People have had contact with the church and religious teaching; I’m just not certain they’ve seen Jesus in most of it. As a result, many sense the odious nature of the disconnect and walk briskly, and often vitriolically, away – making the oft-posted church sign: Life Stink? Well, we’ve got a PEW for you!” particularly ironic.

I ran across an interesting fact while reading an article in Christianity Today about Obscurantism (which is closely related to syncretism.) I’ll use this to begin unwinding the snarl of concerns that have plagued me and to illustrate the overall concept that I think represents the core (or at least one of them) of the issue.

Did you know there is a concept in the Media called the God Gap that’s related to Christianity in America and politics? Here’s a quote from the aforementioned article:

“The fact of the matter is that the more you to go church, the more likely you are to be a Republican. That’s just math. The less you go to church, the more likely you are to be a Democrat. (There are individual and group exceptions, but that is what the media call “The God Gap.” Don’t yell at me about it—I did not create math.)

The issue? The article continues “…if unchurched people note that all their Christian friends are Republicans, they can assume that to be a Christian is to be a Republican.”

Sticking with the math motif, I also know that if, 100 average church-going, Christian friends read the above quote (which isn’t likely, but it’s just an illustration!) easily half or more of them will have a negative, emotionally charged response to it. (Well, of course that’s the case! Democrats are humanistic, liberal, such and such, etc. etc) In fact, I anticipate that, even though I have had virtually no interaction or responses to my blog posts, if I’m going to get a lot of them, I feel confident that it will be in response to this one.

And most of them will be negative. Which will illustrate my concern and where I think our trouble lies within the church in America.

And what is that concern?

That we have a more heartfelt, gut-level allegiance to our country, to its values, to the platforms of conservative politics, to our own comfort, to our own desire for power and control in the political realm than we do to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. A quick 10-minute perusal of the topics that explode into mean-spirited. “Christian” rants on social media bear this out. Nearly all of them will be about something that has nothing to do with Jesus or his central teachings (healthcare, gun control, immigration, etc, etc.) but he’ll be drug into the fray as a condemnatory witness nonetheless.

I believe that we’ve made the colossal misstep of allowing our rights and freedoms as citizens of a democratic nation to blur our vision and co-opt our loyalty. And over time – maybe to lessen the tension and diffuse the cognitive dissonance between the Gospel and conservative American culture – we’ve arrived at the place where we have added to the message to such a degree that it bears almost no resemblance to the Good News Jesus preached. We’re a living example of what syncretism looks like.

I’ve thought a very long time about how to demonstrate what I mean, and to come up with examples that would be powerful and helpful, and some of those follow. I know in doing so, I inevitably run the risk of generating more of the aforementioned mean-spirited rants, but my hope is that in forging ahead, someone – maybe someone who is just starting the journey that I’ve been on for the last decade – will be helped further along in their walk by what’s ahead.

Keep in mind, I used to hold most, if not all, of these perspectives and beliefs. So I use these examples with compassion and identification, as I will with all of the subsequent topics that I cover in this blog.

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think that’s understated.

Guns_God_Glory_US_Flag

There really could be no more succinct, poignant illustration of the dynamic I’m describing than this photo.

Now, keep in mind:

  • I love our country and deeply appreciate everything that being born here has made possible for me and my family. I’ve traveled the world and have seen other places, and I’m still here and happily choose to call America home.
  • I like guns. I have several.
  • I love the Bible and the God of it.

But the message presented in this photo is a grave misrepresentation of Jesus and the Gospel. It says that the first two things are on the same level as, and as important as the third. But maybe more subtlely and dastardly is the message that the Bible (and by extension everything in it including the Gospel) endorses and is compatible with the first two.

The syncretism occurs when the message of the first two, get attached to – and become associated with – the third. Myriad examples like this exist in the relationship between the Gospel and American culture. Things like:

  • Capitalism (“God helps those who help themselves!” That’s Bible, right?)
  • Healthcare and Welfare (“Why should the government take my money to help those lazy people?)
  • Conservative Political Ideology (“Build the wall, outlaw gay marriage, who cares about the planet, God’s going to make a new one”, etc.)
  • Democracy and Freedom of Speech (“Keep Christ in Christmas!” “This is country was founded on the Bible and we need to keep it that way.”)
  • Military Fervor (“We’re the greatest country in the world!” “We need to just bomb all the ragheads and be done with it.” “Our country was founded on the Bible, and that’s how it needs to stay!)

What we sometimes don’t recognize is that there is a monumental gulf between the rights we have as citizens of our great nation and our responsibility as children of God and followers of Jesus. Sadly, commitment to the former seems to typically outstrip loyalty to the latter.

But, wait. Aren’t they the same thing?

The result of syncretism is that we now believe that commitment to the former IS demonstrating loyalty to the latter. Hence, why you so often hear the admonition during election time to get out and vote and “stand for God in the midst of a sinful culture.” Our opportunity to participate in our government is held up as the primary means of obeying Jesus’ command in Matt. 5:13-16 to be salt and light.

What I don’t think we recognize is that a huge gulf exists between a human-based, earth-bound government and the Kingdom of God. In John 18:36, Jesus made it painfully clear, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” That means that the ways and means of both living in and expanding the Kingdom of God do not reside in the structures or systems of human government or any other thing made by the hand of man.

When we try to use human-based systems of power and authority to do the work of the Kingdom of God, all manner of wrong-headedness esues.  We espouse all kinds of things and use all kinds of words through all kinds of mediums to “stand for God”, because, by God, it’s my First Amendment right. And we are clueless that in so doing, we are damaging the Kingdom and erecting insurrmountable barriers against those who might otherwise respond to God’s grace. Jesus said, “if mine were an earthly kingdom, my followers would fight.” As it turns out, we’ve adopted an earthly kingdom, slapped a fish bumper sticker and called it good. And fight we do!; with each other and with the “lost” (those gays, those Democrats, those illegals, those fill-in-the-blank) while with a straight face, saying we’re following Jesus who said, “Love your enemies” and “by this all men will know that you are my disciples because we love one another.”

Over the span of 32+ years of being a Christian, at times I’ve been as guilty as anyone of the same type of blindness. But, little by little, I believe I’m learning to see more clearly. I love my country, but my first loyalty lies with the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. If it doesn’t, then what exactly does “following Jesus” even mean?

At this stage of my life, I want to hold the great blessings and freedoms that come from being a citizen of our great land with a light touch, realizing that it’s not how I vote, or what I fight against, or who I “set straight” on social media that marks me out as a follower of Jesus and advance the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, though it might be a perfectly logical thing to do from an earth-bound, human-made kingdom’s perspective, it’s probably the very worst thing I can do for those who do not yet know Christ. Especially when I conscript him to help wound them.

So I’ve changed my mind about a great many things when it comes to how my faith intersects with my citizenship. I’ll vote when I think it will make a difference for good. I’ll publically espouse things that I think are in line with the heart of God. But in both cases, I’m not likely to ever point to him as the reason, just in case I got it wrong. Rather, what I want to do is love like this:

I Corinthians 13

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails.

And live like this:

Galatians 5

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Matthew 22

“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’c 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’d 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

in the hope that, as imperfect an attempt as it may be, those things might speak life to those around me and point them to Jesus’ Gospel, which is really, really good news!

Until next time, may God’s richest blessing and knowledge of his love for your flood your life. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

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One thought on “Mind Change #1 – Syncretism and American Christianity

  1. Reblogged this on Ginger Terrell and commented:
    I’m thrilled my friend Don Stock is writing these chronicles. I have been on this journey for the last 18 years and have come to many of the same conclusions as have some of my family, friends, and colleagues.

    Several months ago I attended a networking event that is sponsored by many of the religious elite in this city. After a pledge of allegiance to our country’s flag, a prayer full of “Our Fathers” and “Lord Gods” and “Jesus name,” and much pomp and circumstance of introducing various business people, I fully expected to see the guns come out, loaded and cocked, with monster truck engines revving in the distant background (they didn’t).

    The “leader” of that group personally called me afterwards and asked me not to come back because I was his “competition.” (I was only attending because a trusted colleague had asked me to join her for lunch there). I gladly assured him he would never see me at his rally again.

    I say all that to say, there is a dangerous religious right who thinks all things they say and believe are right. Perhaps they are. However, I get a bone chilling shiver everytime I am in their presence where I clearly hear Jesus saying, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in THEM you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify ABOUT ME, yet you refuse to come to ME to have life.” [John 5:39-40]

    These verses always bring me back to reality because I used to be of the same camp…but the Bible says this and the Bible says that…when Jesus is clearly rebuking us that while we can repeat the Scriptures backwards and forward and beat people to a pulp with them, we better KNOW HIM because HE is the author of the Word, our salvation, and eternal life. When I found those verses so many years ago, I repented of my legalist, Pharisaical heart and went about striving to embrace the love scriptures Don mentions in his blog post

    It’s such a beautiful, free life when we finally let go of trying to be God and just let Him be who He is, and we be who we are…His image bearers.

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