Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Syncretism in American Christianity

A couple stories this week served to remind (and perhaps even shock) me back to the realization that our faith is often far too syncretic. It is the constant challenge with which the follower of Jesus struggles. How do we grow in an understanding of what God wants, of what the Bible really says, without turning it into just another man-made religion? Or worse, without falling into just another age-old but updated version of animism?

(I probably ought to point out that the following observations are not a reflection or judgment on the people involved or the ones sharing and agreeing with the stories. This syncretism is so deeply ingrained in us, or taught to us, that it is usually a case of people not thinking about what they are passing along. We are all too often syncretic without realizing it.)

The first was, unsurprisingly for this week, a sports story. Ray Lewis has become known for interjecting statements of faith and “quoting” scripture after games. He sort of did it again with Sal Paolantonio after the Super Bowl.

“Sal, I tell you man, when you believe in what you believe in, no matter what happens, no matter what people believe the ultimate is the ultimate.”

Ok, maybe that is a terrible, heat-of-the-moment, not really saying what you mean comment. But it is indicative of the entire sports-meets-Christianity culture in America. One might even call it a religion in some parts. Athletic cults have always existed. In Greece there was the whole cult of Nike, goddess of victory. In America today it is alive and well, it has just been clothed in Christian imagery. For people like Ray Lewis it often sounds like a regional religious struggle where one cities version of god is stronger than another’s. Where victory depends on one’s faith and defeat is a result of weak belief. This is not Christianity, in spite of what some “Health and Wealth” cults will try and tell you.

The second story has been making the rounds on the web. It concerns a defiant young girl who does not believe in God as her mother does, and sarcastically suggests that God will have to ride in the trunk when her mom tells her to take God along on a car ride. Of course, the car crashes violently and the occupants are crushed beyond recognition. But the eggs in the trunk are undamaged. The moral of the story is if you laugh at God he will crush you!

This is the talisman version of Christian syncretism. It says God is a good luck charm. It says God is a vengeful spirit that will not be crossed. The only problem is that this teaching implies two falsehoods. One, if you cross God you will get your comeuppance immediately. We would have a lot more terrible deaths than we do already if this were the case. The God of the Bible is a forgiving and loving God that exhibits a tremendous amount of patience toward those in rebellion. The other problem with this story’s lesson is that it implies nothing bad will happen to those who trust in God. This is also demonstrably untrue and unbiblical.

Biblical Faith is about a relationship with a living God, not some animistic, talisman wielding, faith as a mechanical power, magic and voodoo superstition.

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