Day 4: Be Not Synced With The World

In chapter 4 of Neighbors and Wisemen, Tony introduces the big word syncretism. This is something that I wrote pages and pages about in my Master Thesis. I went back and found a part where I utilized the work of our recently deceased friend and teacher Richard Twiss.Neighbors & Wisemen

Here is part of that.

Syncretism is commonly defined theologically as “the union of two opposite forces, beliefs, systems or tenets so that the united form is a new thing, neither one nor the other” .
Another way to say it is, ‘the combining of two sets of practices or beliefs that make an entirely new creation not recognizable as either of its components”
A slightly more generic definition is “the mixture of old meaning with the new so that the essential nature of each is lost”.

It quickly brings implications for classic expressions of church history and theology  into question. The very idea of “a “pure” religion, untainted by outside influences, is regarded by many scholars of religion to be a myth.  The difficulties and implications of these concerns on classic Christianity and modern expressions are eye-opening.

This is where it is vital to listen to the contribution of Richard Twiss. Twiss insists that syncretism be understood as a Theological issue and not simply as a Socio/Cultural one.

Twiss does not believe that just because a bracelet or drums have been used for evil in the past, that it makes all bracelets or drums inherently evil.  He argues that while cultural syncretism is a normal fact of life – like the addition of horses to the Plains Tribes, he calls “a mixing or blending of two cultural lifestyles that becomes something previously unknown”.  He is careful to clarify that,

Syncretism is a theological issue of faith and allegiances, not merely wedding religious form.  Syncretism is any belief of practice that says that Christ’s work alone is not enough.  (It) is believing that by performing a particular religious ceremony, or practice, one can alter the essential human spiritual condition in the same way that Jesus does, through His death on a cross, burial, and resurrection from the dead; and continues by faith to accomplish in the lives of believers today.

If Twiss’ definition is adopted then what is and what is not syncretism becomes clear and some radical implications begin to take effect.  A new conversation comes up as some items and activities that had been traditionally taboo, or at least frowned upon (or down right outlawed), are revisited and considered under the category of “intent.” Some things that were assumed to be neutral or at least in the spectrum of “not harmful” to “acceptable” need to be reconsidered in the light of this new lens.

The forms that we use have the capability of both good and bad meaning.  It is the intention and not the form itself in which value is found.

Twiss uses the specific example of the use of drums to illustrate the importance of separating out the socio-cultural criteria for discussions on syncretism. Since drums have at various times in the past been used to summon evil spirits and supernatural activity has been reported to have been experienced in conjunction with drums on occasion (such as human voices or animal sounds coming from the drum), some Native believers have regarded the drum itself as evil. This has meant that any use of the drums is evil and therefore, can never be used for holy purposes. The danger of coming to this conclusion is that it is based on subjective standards and not biblical precedent. One can look at the biblical Psalms and see no “prohibiting the use of ceremony, dancing, drum playing, incense burning, assigning redemptive meaning to colors, and designing special articles of clothing for religious ceremony”

Basically, when we speak of redeeming cultural forms we are speaking of redeemed believers in Christ, repossessing those God given forms that have been erroneously given away or surrendered to ungodly and idolatrous uses and practices. We also mean restoring those cultural expressions that were stripped from us, by an ethnocentric missions mindset…In developing a contextualized style of ministry, we are looking to see cultural forms of creation, restored to original intent- praise and worship to Almighty God.

 

Be not conformed to the world. 

People love to quote Romans 12:1-2 Do not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind …

They partner this with Jesus’ saying that John 15:19 that we are in the world but not of the world.

I like to ask people what it means to be conformed to the patterns of this world. The answers I hear would astound you.  Most are trivial (secular music) but some are fantastical (not having hope in the rapture).

What almost never comes up are the things that are probably most problematic about the patterns of this world.

People tend bristle when I suggest that it might be things like

credit card debt

or 

nationalism

or

working for a paycheck

or

supporting the military

or 

eating 3 meals a day

or 

getting a marriage certificate from the government

or 

driving a gas powered car

or 

speaking english

or

buying clothes

or 

watching TV

or 

drinking coffee

or

any number of things both believers and unbelievers can do mindlessly and automatically.

Here is the irony of the situation: 

We have preachers talking into microphones to people about the dangers of compromising the gospel with things like syncretism and challenging them to “Be not conformed to this world” … all the while they drove to church in an SUV, are in credit card debt, 20 lbs overweight, hopped up on caffeine and supporting the troops.

Does anyone else wonder what it means to be conformed to the world? 

Would it help if we talked about being in sync with the world? 

__________

 

– Twiss was the author of Dancing our Prayers: perspectives on syncretism, critical contextualization and cultural practices in First Nations Ministry, and One Nation Many Tribes.

 

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8 comments
Beddard731
Beddard731

This is a little off topic from your post but reading this chapter reminded me of a story:

My freshman year I went to a small Christian college. One of my professors assigned Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz" to the class to read (it's interesting that it reminded me of this, because Tony is a character in that book). The first time I read it I did so with my "syncretism goggles" on, that is I read it with my guard up on the lookout for compromises of "True Christianity". When we discussed it in class all the other students had positive reviews, an older student named Mark particularly loved it. I didn't. I said that it was cliche and full of buzz words and phrases but lacked any useful information. I remember playing out an arguments in my head with Mark about how I was right and he was wrong about the book, as I expected him to confront me about it. So the next day when he came over to talk to me I was on my guard. He said, "Hey man, I thought i appreciated that you spoke up about your concerns with that book. I'm sure it wasn't easy since every one else liked it so much."  It caught me completely off guard, and I didn't know what to say.

 

I went back and read the book again later, this time without my guard up and I absolutely loved it. Reading it the second time I started to question assumptions I had been making for the first time in my life Looking back now I realize that book started in me the process of being more open and honest with myself and others about my faith. 

 

It's always fascinating to me how much a conversation is effected by the way we approach it. 

kenalto9
kenalto9

As the person who used to spend too much time in bars, I loved the sloshing glasses metaphor in this chapter. Probably have to admit syncretism in spiritual practice, but plead the best of intentions. Not sure my combining of forms or practices results in something "not recognizable as either of its components.” so maybe I am just a sloppy Christian.

 

I'm enough of a Trinitarian for it to be important to me to claim that the Mother/Son/Spirit I worship is found in the Hebrew Bible, but I was reading some essays by Harold Bloom on the Old Testament where he very clearly communicated how heretical he found Christian claims that God could have a Son.

 

btw, isn't the obvious metric of success for a church to be found in the number of cars parked outside on a Sunday morning ;-) 

 

Happy to find One Nation Many Tribes available in our library federation!

 

charis9
charis9

What springs to mind immediately is the "world's"devotion to greed, and the "Christian" answer of love and charity; unfortunately, most Christians that I know, including clergy, are as greedy as anyone and as tight-fisted as anyone in the world. I live in a 1600 square foot converted double-wide on the mainland of Pawleys Island, SC where beachfront housing approaches 5 million, and "normal" housing on the mainland averages over 300,000. Thankfully, I live on a half-acre lot full of trees with a small lake in the back.My "house," which cost me 54,000 dollars is full of books and music to the extreme, and I would not live anywhere else. Yet when certain Christian friends realize where I live, they are somewhat taken aback and cannot imagine that I live in what they call a trailer - not a home- and that I drive a 14 year old truck, I am not attempting to sound super-christian, and I apologize if I come off that way. I would live no differently even if I had the opportunity to do so, but I do consider myself blessed to have found such a place as this, while my friends with their more traditional homes are in debt and live in fear of those in need. Perhaps the "world" is attempting to get ahead, I would much rather get aheart... Charis 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @Beddard731 That is FANTASTIC stuff :)  So glad that you took the time to type!  -Bo

 

I'm very encouraged by your story.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @kenalto9 ENjoy One Nation Many Tribes you sloppy christian ;)  -Bo 

charis9
charis9

Unfortunately, you are correct, but usually it is SUVs and sports cars parked out front, and I cringe as I passed these parking lots. It was either Walter Kaufmann or Kierkegaard that said the bigger the church, the less effective it is... Charis

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @charis9 great stuff.  I'm really glad you gave us some personal examples. That is fantastic to hear your attempts to 'be not conformed'.

 

I gotta tell ya, this devotion to greed is pervasive and - as John Cobb says - consumerism is the first truly global religion.  -Bo 

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