Monday, January 17, 2005

The connection between Christian expansion and the use of indigenous names for God

Hau kola's
Lamin Sanneh offers some challenging ideas regarding the connection between the effectivenss of the Gospel and the appropriation of local indigenous names for God in Bible translation. It presents a unique wholistic view of redemption and the whole person as it relates to the preservation of indigenous cultural, social and religious contructs. I found it to be very helpful in our ongoing discussion of syncretism. -- RT

Excerpts from Lamin Sanneh's, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003.

p. 10
I have decided to give priority to indigenous response and local appropriation over against missionary transmission and direction, and accordingly have reversed the argument by speaking of the indigenous discovery of Christianity rather than the Christian discovery of indigenous societies.

The fact that Bible translation adopted into its canon the indigenous names for God implied at the minimum a tacit rejection of the standard monotheism-polytheism dichotomy of evolutionary thought, and opened the way for indigenous innovation and motivation in the religious life.

Bible translation has thus helped to bring about a historic shift in Christianity’s theological center of gravity by pioneering a strategic alliance with local conceptions of religion.

p. 18
Another factor little noticed in the statistics is a theological one: Christian expansion was virtually limited to those societies whose people had preserved the indigenous name for God. That was a surprising discovery, because of the general feeling that Christianity was incompatible with indigenous ideas of religion. Yet the apparent congruity between Christianity and the indigenous name for God finds a parallel in the fact of Christian expansion occurring after rather than during colonialism. In any case, Africans best responded to Christianity where the indigenous religions were strongest, not weakest, suggesting a degree of indigenous compatibility with the gospel, and the implicit conflict with colonial priorities.

Christianity has caused a renewal of local languages, and the old customs and traditions in response to its ethics of love, reconciliation, justice, and responsibility. That renewal has also meant new structures and institutions guiding the expansion.

“World Christianity” is the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that previously were not Christian, societies that had no bureaucratic tradition with which to domesticate the gospel. In these societies Christianity was received and expressed through the cultures, customs, and traditions of the people affected. World Christianity is not one thing, but a variety of indigenous responses through more or less effective local idioms, but in any case without necessarily the European Enlightenment frame. “Global Christianity,” on the other hand, is the faithful replication of Christian forms and patterns developed in Europe. It echoes Hilaire Belloc’s famous statement, “Europe is the faith.” It is, in fact, religious establishment and the cultural captivity of faith.

p. 24
The development of mother tongues as the means of receiving the gospel caused the shift. Under Christendom the basis and rationale for transmitting the gospel were colonial annexation and subjugation, with the church as an afterthought. Native lands and labor were expropriated, commercial and administrative agents appointed and deployed, mission stations setup, and church life and practice regulated. That was “Europeandom” as the faith and politics of early modern Europe spread abroad and was legitimized by the sacraments of the church.

Indigenizing the faith meant decolonizing its theology, and membership of the fellowship implied spiritual home rule. World Christianity was thereby weaned of the political habits of Christendom, even thought he mental habits died hard.

p. 25
An inculturated Christianity is not merely a sequel of discredited versions of the religion; it anticipates an emancipated society, a situation for which local leadership is best suited.

p. 35
World Christianity, by contrast, must be interpreted by a plurality of models of inculturation in line with the variety of local idioms and practices. The mental habits of Christendom predispose us to look for one essence of the faith, with a corresponding global political structure as safeguard, whereas world Christianity challenges us to pay attention to the dynamic power of the gospel and to the open-ended character of communities of faith.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Richard Twiss blog members

Greetings friends,
I have added you as a member of my blog site. I have only added those who responded to my email. Postings are limited to members only. My hope is to begin an open forum / dialogue on issues affecting First Nations ministry. If you ever want to be deleted from the blog, simply email me and I will gladly do so. I will add a few more details as I discover them. Peace and blessings -- Richard

Syncretism - A Work in Progress by Richard Twiss

Reflections on the Widespread Concern About Syncretism
in Native North American and Indigenous Ministry

Based on a research paper for the Doctor of Missiology Program
at Asbury Theological Seminary in December of 2004.

By Richard L. Twiss
© 2004

PO Box 5246, Vancouver, WA 98668

Other related topics will be addressed in future versions.
Please do not make copies and/or distribute
without permission from Richard Twiss. Thank you.

Any critique, suggestions, or challenges would be greatly appreciated!


In the past ten years the widespread concern of syncretism has become a divisive and hotly debated issue in Native North American ministry. This debate is actually a microcosm of the church at large. As Robert Schreiter notes, not only does the syncretism problem not go away, it has once again become the object of an increasing lively discussion (Schreiter 1993:50). In this paper I will offer some reflections about this concern. My aim is not to present a definitive answer to the problem, but to offer another perspective to help us better comprehend the issue and its implications.

In looking at the questions Native (Folk) Religions pose, Dr. Paul Hiebert remarks, because most church leaders have more knowledge of biblical truths than of human beliefs and practices, it is important in this process of inquiry to analyze the questions folk religions raise, and understand them, if we are to satisfactorily, biblically respond to them (Hiebert, Shaw, Tiénou 1999:10). This couldn’t be more applicable than in our dialogue on syncretism.

I will specifically respond to whether or not this concern is based more on the potential for syncretism, a misunderstanding of syncretism, or actual syncretistic error. Because this paper is structured as a formal academic research paper, it will follow formal guidelines including language style, references and bibliography.

Syncretism, or negative syncretism, the concern this paper will focus on at the end, is essentially a rejection of the centrality of the Biblical, historical Jesus Christ as savior, redeemer, reconciler, sacrifice, healer, intercessor, mediator, atoner, protector, etc., because it assumes other religious beliefs / practices are equally God-honoring and dynamic in accomplishing the purposes of God for humankind. Because of this primary assumption, negative syncretism is a blending or mixing of traditional non-Biblical religious beliefs with Christian faith, producing a different gospel. To equate these rituals is syncretism because it takes away from the real message of communion - the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. Syncretism is sin in that it directs one's allegiance to other than Jesus Christ by reason of a person's participation in a new religious system - one created from the blend which dilutes or redirects faith to other than Christ.

Because I am responding to this concern primarily as a North American evangelical issue, I find it necessary to expand this dialogue to include some historical and global mission context. Our understanding of syncretism will benefit greatly from an increased awareness of the ongoing work of God, as well as dialogue, among Indigenous believers worldwide.

Global Shift in Missions Philosophy

The churches approach to missions has radically changed over the past 75 years. Addressing the topic of syncretism, Alan Tippett has noted we now stand at a formative period in the history of the expansion of Christianity. An old era of mission has passed, and we are suffering the birth pangs of a new one. (Tippett 1975:16) The recent resurgence of literature on syncretism is indicative that we are entering a new stage in this discussion (Schreiter 1993:50).

Around the world missionaries have gradually come to value the importance of critical contextualization, an anthropologically informed Biblical approach to evangelism and discipleship. The consideration and incorporation of cultural forms and expressions have become central in the missionary process. These changes have not occurred in the vacuum of isolated geographic locales, but are global in scope, affecting all indigenous communities.

Dr. Tite Tiénou[1] comments that in our day one should be able to take for granted that Christianity is not the religion of white people. He writes that Polycentric[2] Christianity is Christian faith with many cultural homes. The fact that Christianity is at home in a multiplicity of cultures, without being permanently wedded to any one of them, presents for Christians everywhere a unique opportunity for examining Christian identity and Christian theology (Tiénou 2004:2).

Phillip Jenkins describes this shift as one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide. He writes that over the past five centuries or so, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in White nations, allowing theorists to speak smugly, arrogantly, of “European Christian” civilization. Conversely, radical writers have seen Christianity as an ideological arm of Western imperialism. Over the past century, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Jenkins 2002:1,2).

Though this shift is the new global reality, these changes, initially, have been slow to find acceptance in the North American First Nations Christian community. They are finding an accelerating acceptance with a new generation of leaders emerging as Native people find their place in the world. Indigenous people have great contributions to make in the areas of theology, missiology and a Christian Spirituality.

Etymology of Syncretism

Like others, Irina Levinskaya, traces the origins of the word syncretism to a time in Greece when the Cretans, who constantly fought each other, would stop their inner-tribal fighting when faced by a common enemy (Levinskaya 1993:119). Greek historian, Plutarch, referred to this coming together in unity to fight a common foe as “syncretism.” In a letter in 1519 the early church father, Erasmus, used the word in the same sense that Plutarch used it – to come together to fight against a common foe, in this case the humanists. In both cases it held a positive meaning and Erasmus’ definition was widely adopted until the 17th century.

Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw remark that the arena of syncretism is a deeply politicized site of difference, contact and reconciliation that requires looking back to help us consider our present dilemma. They say it is noteworthy that syncretism begins its history with positive connotations, referring to a strategically practical, morally justified form of political allegiance – to a form of ‘brotherly love’ (Stewart, Shaw 1994:3).

The Protestant Reformation gave rise to huge chasms over church polity, doctrine and theology. Calvinism, Armenianism, Reformed, Ana-Baptists and numerous other movements emerged during the Reformation era. Any attempt to bring these new and adversarial groups together in Christian unity, was universally rejected by one side on the basis of compromising “doctrinal correctness.” This stance then labeled the other perspective as “incorrect.” These unification attempts came to be considered “syncretism” (Levinskaya 1993:119). Syncretism underwent a gradual change in meaning to assume a negative one, referring to the idea of trying to mix or blend incompatible different beliefs; namely the “incompatibility” of Christian doctrine, i.e., Calvinism versus Armenianism.

Peter van der Veer suggests that the term syncretism refers to a politics of difference and identity and that as such the notion of power is crucial in its understanding. At stake is the power to identify true religion and to authorize some practices as ‘truthful’ and others as ‘false’ (van der Veer 1994:196). Syncretism came to be used by defenders of “the true faith” as a protection against illicit contamination - a sign of religious decadence, betrayal of principles, or the corruption of the truth. What it attempted to do was establish itself as the single source of authentication (van der Veer 1996:197).

Concerns and Attitudes About Syncretism

Though the shift toward a global Christianity has become normative Christian mission, in our commitment to present a biblically faithful, culturally meaningful message of faith and in hope in Jesus Christ in a cross-cultural setting, we will always walk a fine line between syncretism and critical contextualization.[3] There will always be dynamic tension in contextualizing the gospel. David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen warn of two dangers in approaching the task of contextualization, the fear of irrelevance if contextualization is not attempted, and the fear of compromise and syncretism if it is taken too far. There is a need to use existing cultural forms that can be baptized and pressed into the service of Christ if the Gospel is not denied in the process. But since by definition contextualization appropriates indigenous linguistic and cultural forms, it always risks cultural and religious syncretism. The only viable choice in the face of these two dangers is a contextualization that is true to both indigenous culture and the authority of Scripture (Hesselgrave and Rommen 1989:55).

While anthropologists, missiologists and church historians have been able to objectively examine syncretism with relatively detached “objectivity,” leaders of local churches have generally reacted with fear and opposition. Even though, in most cases, they have never seriously studied its meaning; it is simply taken to be synonymous with heresy (Starkloff 2002:12). This is the true among many Native pastors and leaders who have not had the opportunity to engage with others in honest dialogue outside their denominational or organizational structures. Frequently critical contextualization is mistaken for syncretism.

Native leader, Lloyd Commander (Cayuse Nation),[4] describes the often skeptical and negative attitude of Native ministry leaders against their own cultures as the result of them not understanding syncretism. They hold on to what some highly esteemed Native leader or leaders have said in regards to its definitions and expression. He views that this kind of reasoning as fear-based and says fear has no place in the Jesus Way. He traces the origins of this Native skepticism as a worldview carry over by Native peoples from their non-christian background and also a way to exert paternalistic-like control because that is the way Christianity has been modeled to Indian people (Commander 2004).

Representing the concerns of numbers of Evangelical Native leaders about syncretism, CHIEF, Inc., Ministries[5] published a biblical position paper against syncretism. In the document, syncretism was defined as the subtle attempt to integrate Biblical truth and faith in Christ with non-biblical religious beliefs, practices, and forms. The result is an adulteration of biblical truth and the birth of “another gospel. This definition represents the collective work of several dozen Native ministry leaders with many years of combined ministry experience. In their thesis they affirm their belief that salvation is in the finished work of Christ and that nothing can be added to this that can improve right relationship with God. The central concern of the paper is summarized in its conclusion, believers should not, therefore, use or attach any spiritual value to items regarded as sacred such as tobacco, cedar smoke, sweet grass, peyote, … masks, drums, dances, etc.; to places regarded as sacred as mother earth, … sweat lodge, or other traditional religious places of worship, etc.; or to spirit beings …or nature spirits, etc.

Syncretism for this group of First Nations leaders is primarily concerned with preserving “orthodoxy” or theological integrity. Their concern has led them to assume an adversarial posture toward appropriating cultural forms and practices while presuming the “correctness” of their conclusions; to the point of issuing a prohibition against using various items or places for Christian use. This conclusion would represent how Rosalind Shaw and Charles Stewart view syncretism as a contentious term, often taken to imply ‘inauthenticity’ or ‘contamination,’ the infiltration of a supposedly ‘pure’ tradition by symbols and meaning seen as belonging to other incompatible traditions (Shaw & Stewart 1994:1). In addition, the papers prohibition reflects a western interpretive bias that indigenous leaders have been forced to use in exegeting their own cultures in light of scriptures. This bias is a normative view for most North American evangelicals and systemically problematic, even oppressive, in Native mission endeavors today, particularly within denominational structures.

In tribal communities religion is the core of the culture and permeates all of life and there is no artificial separation of sacred and secular beliefs. In contrast missionaries to tribal peoples brought a distinct “dualism” or “split-view” that separated the natural and supernatural realities from each other (Hiebert, Shaw, Tiénou 1999:16, 17). It created spiritual and natural compartments that categorized native culture expression as “spiritual” and thus pagan, demonic and evil, things needing elimination. Paul Hiebert acknowledges how difficult it is to draw a sharp line between religious and non-religious practices (Hiebert 1985:184). Yet, he says, missionaries felt that most customs, because they did have religious connotations, had to be rejected indiscriminately. Tissionary view has carried over several generations and has now been appropriated as a “Native evangelical perspective,” when in fact it is likely the lingering effect of paternalism and fear of syncretism. The paper does not qualify meanings or uses of the items listed, nor apply commonly accepted missiological principles in their findings.

The conclusions of the CHIEF document seem to reflect the influence of the previous seventy-five year missionary pattern, as Hiebert has noted, of indiscriminate and generalized rejection. Conversely, William Shenk takes a redemptive approach to cultural forms and items stating not all the expressions of culture and identity are to be abolished, but instead, are to be brought into captivity to the purposes of Jesus Christ ( Shenk 2001:100). The gospel has to come through in indigenous rhythm and speak its message to the heart. For the man from the forest, the worship must have the capacity to vibrate with the beat of the drum (Tippett 1975:28) Tippett states the arts and crafts of the group must be employed to absorb the energy, skills and dedication of the artists and craftsmen of the group, that their manual and mental competencies may be expressive of spirituality and help the group to worship the Lord in what, to their eyes and ears, may be described as “the beauty of holiness,” even though discordant or grotesque to the westerner (Tippett 1975:28).

Controversy and Misunderstanding of Syncretism

Syncretism is a word loaded with explosive connotations in the minds of Christians involved in ministry among tribal/indigenous people. Carl Starkloff (2002:10) writes that syncretism has become a ten-letter, four-letter word in missiological circles. The controversy about syncretism in Native North American ministry is clearly articulated by Starkloff when he writes that no other word in the ecumenical vocabulary has aroused more fears, created more unnecessary controversy, and, more often then not, succeeding in sidetracking urgent issues in the life of the churches in pluralist situations than the term syncretism (Starkloff 2002:10).As an instrument of spiritual warfare, it has indeed created serious wounds, suspicions and divisions among the brethren.

In our attempt to present Jesus Christ in the midst of our tribal cultural realities we face the tension of acculturation and inculturation, that is, the inevitable mixing of elements that occurs whenever cultures and religions meet (acculturation), and especially when one culture adopts and appropriates a new religion, (inculturation) (Starkloff 2002:10).

Lamin Sanneh has stated that Christianity answered this historical challenge by a reorientation of the African worldview so that the old moral framework was reconfigured without being overthrown. It was not that the old spells, turning benign from overuse, had dulled the appetite, but that, under challenge, their spent potency sparked a clamor for a valiant God (Sanneh 2003:43). People sensed in their hearts that Jesus did not mock their respect for the sacred or their clamor for an invincible Savior, and so they beat their sacred drums for him until the stars skipped and danced in the skies. After that dance the stars weren’t little anymore. Christianity helped Africans to become renewed Africans, not remade Europeans (Sanneh 2003:43). Whereas in North America, historically, Christianity has rarely produced renewed Natives, but been intent on creating remade or replicated Europeans.

Sanneh writes that conversion is the turning of ourselves to God, and that means all of ourselves without leaving anything behind or outside. But that also means not replacing what is there with something else. Conversion is a refocusing of the mental life and its cultural/social underpinning and of our feelings, affections, and instincts, in the light of what God has done in Jesus. He concludes, saying that is the most succinct and precise way he can define conversion (Sanneh (2003:43).

When reading this, for some it will raise the question about syncretism. When Sanneh says we can turn ourselves completely to God “without leaving anything behind or outside” what does this mean for us in terms of religious or spiritual ceremony, ritual, music, dance, etc? What cultural forms or practices must be given up, reinterpreted or remade after conversion? Is Sanneh implying these are issues of the heart and if we simply focus our affections on Jesus Christ we can still retain and utilize some of the same cultural forms?

Sanneh replies to the concern of syncretism (2002:44) by saying that syncretism represents the unresolved, unassimilated, and tension-filled mixing of Christian ideas with local custom and ritual, and that scarcely results in the kind of fulfilling change signaled by conversion and church membership. He then says we only use the term syncretism as it applies to those we don’t like. Or, perhaps to those who do things so culturally different from us. Sanneh then says until the western church is willing to use the term as a judgment against our own forms of religious practice, we should drop it altogether.

The Native American District of the Christian & Missionary Alliance Denomination published an official position paper as an apologetic on syncretism in 2000. Rev. Craig Smith, Chippewa, was the acting District Superintendent of the Native District. The paper, entitled Boundary Lines, addressed syncretism in the context of animistic practices and its relationship to contextualization.

The paper’s aim is to establish safe boundaries and guidelines for appropriating various cultural forms, by identifying a list of “evil things” to avoid in the process of contextualization, such as material artifacts (sacred objects). The paper states that certain “sacred objects” are objects used specifically in spirit worship or animistic practices. They are often used as mediators between man and the spirit realm. In this role, they are indwelt by spiritual beings or powers. Sacred objects can be animate (living) or inanimate (non-living) objects made animate by indwelling demonic powers (Smith 2000:20).The paper gives a lengthy list of sacred objects that I have abbreviated. Animate (living) sacred objects are any animal, bird, fish, plant, or other living being has the potential of being a sacred object, if a particular tribe has ascribed to it spiritual significance and power. Inanimate sacred objects are any geographical feature (mountains, stones, rivers, valleys, etc.) that a particular tribe has ascribed to it spiritual significance and power is to be considered a sacred object. Sweat lodges, longhouses, tobacco, tipis, stick; smoke from cedar, sage, or other mediatory incense are sacred objects. Fetish masks, drums, rattles, whistles, carvings, medicine pouches, dream catchers, totem poles, are all sacred objects (Smith 2000:23).The paper includes the inter-tribal powwow in their discussion. The dancing and ceremonies of a native powwow are cultural forms as well as a spiritual ritual. All of the attending paraphernalia, regalia, rattles, whistles, feathers, and drums are sacred objects.

The paper’s concern of syncretism rests on their premise that sacred objects used by animists are never neutral, (or sanctifiable), but dedicated to the demons. It states that in most instances they are actually indwelt by demons. The paper states there is not the faintest hint in the Bible that it is God’s intention to redeem or appropriate such objects for Christ-honoring use and suggests the idea originates from non-biblical sources. The paper uses their declaration of the finality and authority of scripture as their basis to conclude that the correct Biblical position forbids the use of, or the redeeming of the artifacts and practices of animism and admonishes the Christian to destroy them and forever distance themselves from the evil they represent (Smith 2000:12). The paper offers a prescriptive for avoiding syncretism by condemning the unqualified use of “sacred objects” by Christians.

The paper includes demonology in its opposition to using certain cultural forms in question. It states that because Satan and his demons are fallen angels and as powers of darkness opposing Christ and attempting to deceive His church, Christians are to be cautious and test spiritual manifestations to determine if they are from God.[6]

The paper speaks of animism as a demonic system that invades the culture of any people that embrace it. It concludes by saying when there are converts from animism they do not need to renounce their culture; they need only to renounce the evil infestation of spirit worship which God hates. This statement reveals the fundamental flaw of the paper when it does not critically exegete the culture in light of Biblical principles of missiology and a theology of mission. It does not identify and acknowledge the difference between “forms or objects” used in “so-called” spirit, from actual spirit worship. This is an issue of the heart – giving homage, praise and worship – to a spirit or idol. The bible does not indict drums and guitars, or feathers and rattles, or dances and clapping, as expressions of worship, but utterly condemns giving worship to any god but Himself.

The paper continues, saying Israel was forbidden to dabble in animism and that God Himself has drawn a line between His people and all animistic practices. Again the papers flaw surfaces in the statement that Israel understood that to follow Jehovah God one must make a clean break with spirit worship and to destroy all the paraphernalia associated with the works of darkness; they were to be destroyed because they were used to worship demons. Hiebert sees that animism has more to do with issues of power, and success than truth and logical consistency. He says animistic beliefs address the existential issues of every day life – fertility for barren women, curses to defeat enemies, amulets to defeat evil spirits, cures for specific deseases – and less with ultimate realities (Hiebert 1999:76). Animism is not so much about idol or spirit worship, but more about folk religious beliefs and practices. Ultimately, animism is sin because humans put their faith in the works of man, not in God Himself.

There were many perverse practices involved in Satanic ritual and idol worship, which the Bible condemns; human sacrifice, torture and mutilation, prostitution, fornication, drunkenness, sorcery, and divination, to name a few. The children of Israel, as the Boundary Lines paper notes, were told to tear down the “high places” of Baal worship, and to destroy the works of idolatry. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai to find the people worshipping a golden calf, He did not command them to kill all the cows and destroy all the gold. He was angry not with beef and metal, but with idolatry – misplaced faith and allegiance. Later in King Solomon’s Temple, gold was used profusely; all kinds of carvings of animals were erected, painted, and made statues of. All the instruments and dances (excepting those obviously perverse) were later used in the temple in worship to Jehovah.

To produce their paper, Smith convened a Task Force of respected Native Christian leaders and elders. He writes that an important moment in the process of the Task Force meeting came after four days together, when the members were asked the question, do you believe that the teaching of redeeming of sacred objects used in traditional or contemporary Native American animistic practices and worship constitute unbiblical, heretical, and false doctrine? (Smith 2000:31) The response to the question by their task force was a unanimous “yes.” As an outcome of their findings they declare, “as such, we admonish the Native American District of the C&MA (US) to not embrace this unbiblical teaching. In that the purpose of this report is not only to protect from unbiblical teaching, but to promote the proper use of culture in the Native American evangelical Christian context.”

The paper has been widely circulated and been embraced by a number of native evangelical groups as an “evangelical position.” The tone of the paper bears a strong resemblance to a western and modernist distrust and adversarial posture toward those they view guilty of syncretism. The rational used to identify the various cultural articles and geographic features as the “possessed by demons” because they were used in animistic ritual or ceremony, seems based on uncritical generalizations for all the different tribes it acknowledges earlier. The paper makes the assumption that the items in question are “sacred objects” in a one-dimensional and axiomatic analysis.

The paper reflects the authors’ intent, as they assume leadership responsibility within their organization, and as they perceive its necessity, to contend to preserve the integrity of the scriptures against a heretical affront. Several assumptions surface in their discussion. One is the over-estimation of the degree of bias free objectivity of their cultural analysis to state their findings so conclusively. Another is their exclusion of the “other guilty side” to engage with them in a “healthy dialogue.” The fact that their conclusion creates and ends with an adversarial crisis seems indicative of a western, modernist approach to dealing with the issue. In our look at the topic of syncretism among North American tribal settings, as A. H. Mathias Zahniser suggests this dialogue may have much more meaning to tribal peoples than to those of a westernized, post-industrial worldview orientation. The problem is that those who have judged and labeled as syncretistic, certain Native rituals, have all done so from the perspective of the western outsider (1991:16). Though the authors of the paper are indeed respected tribal cultural insiders, the analytical or hermeneutical schema they use to arrive at their conclusions seems to strongly reflect the cultural bias and prejudices introduced by early missionaries or western outsider.

Throughout the early part of the century, government policy and public opinion were often informed by missionaries. In 1919, an “American Indian Survey” was conducted by the Interchurch World Movement with the view to promote Protestant Christianity among the Natives.[7] Some Protestant activists denounced the traditional Indian for keeping alive old religious ways, for wasting valuable work time, and – this was a new emphasis – for promoting sexual immorality (Jenkins 2004:96). Missionary complaints found a sympathetic ear in the BIA, which during the new Harding administration, was in the hands of politicians …unsympathetic to Indian causes. In 1921, BIA Circular 1665 declared that “the Sun Dance” and all other similar dances and so-called religious ceremonies are considered “Indian Offenses” under regulations and corrective penalties are provided. In the following year, a conference of missionary groups active among the Lakota/Sioux recommended stringent limitations on dances, and demanded “that a careful propaganda be undertaken to educate public opinion against the dance and to provide a healthy substitute. By 1923, official policy toward dances further spelled out on exactly the lines recommended by the missionaries. Ceremonies were “to be limited to one each month in the daylight hours of one day in the midweek, and at one center in each circuit; the months of March and April, June, July, and August excepted. (Jenkins 2004:99).”

Paul Hiebert addresses the concerns raised by the Boundary Lines paper when he discusses how Christians should think about using various cultural items formerly used by unbelievers in animistic practices. He writes how often the “pagan” customs of drums, songs, dramas, dances, body decoration, marriage customs, and funeral rites were condemned by missionaries because they were thought to be directly or indirectly related to traditional religions, therefore unacceptable for Christians. A huge problem this wholesale rejectionist approach produced was a cultural vacuum, which became filled with the culture and customs of the missionary. Drums, cymbals, and other traditional instruments were replaced with organs and pianos. Another problem arose when the missionaries, in order to maintain “biblical standards,” turned into culture police, and actually hindered new believers from growing into mature leaders themselves, by denying them the right to make their own decisions (Hiebert 2002:381,382).

One of the difficulties created by the Boundary Lines position on syncretism in North American Native ministry is that it can be used as an instrument of control and power. The paper, through its dogmatism, sits in judgment of those who do not categorically fit its definition of syncretism. The language used, heresy, false doctrine, protection and assumed posture of correctness in “promoting the proper use of culture” and the logical outcome of shunning those guilty of heresy, is indicative of this attitude.

However, in fairness, this approach has been the way the church has historically dealt with, and modeled for Native people, how to deal with their culture. The American church has saddled Indian pastors and leaders with a culturally flawed, biblically insufficient hermeneutical schema in Bible schools and in the churches. The paper reflects the earnest commitment of Native people to the revelation of God’s Word, although from a western bias.

If we are to find meaningful dialogue between those of differing views, we must not interpret syncretism solely from a modernistic and static understanding, but see throughout church history that this has been an ongoing tension in mission. Syncretism, when understood as a stage in an ongoing process, says we see through a glass darkly in our forward pursuit of the Truths of God in the light of His Word.

Influence of Modernity in Defining Syncretism for Native Ministry

Like all people, missionaries are shaped by the times in which they live. To understand how Western missionaries in the past century dealt with other ‘religions,’ it is important to understand how the Enlightenment defined the world in the West after the eighteenth century (Hiebert, Shaw, Tiénou 1999:16).

In the midst of the “age of human enlightenment” the Protestant Reformation was birthed bringing new Biblical revelation and a renewed spiritual life to the Church. During the enlightenment era great epistemological shifts took place giving birth to humanism, rationalism, and faith in human reason to objectively understand the secrets of the universe, thus elevating the individual self to the center of the world. Stanley J. Grenz notes these shifts became the intellectual foundation of the modern mind and its assumptions that knowledge is certain, objective, and good. Moreover, moderns assume that, in principle, knowledge is accessible to the human mind (Grenz 1996:4).

These assumptions include the belief in the essential correctness of philosophic, scientific, religious, moral, and political doctrines. Modern man, or modernity, exercises an absolute faith in human rational capabilities. Modernity assumes that knowledge is not only certain (and hence rational) but also objective (Grenz 1996:4). These became the primary worldview assumptions of European and western people.

The Protestant Reformation did not escape the influence of “western modernity” at a fundamental philosophical level. The philosophical underpinnings of the western church grew from both an understanding of the supra-cultural nature of the Kingdom, as well as the notion of the superiority of western man. This notion eventually grew into modernity. Modernity became the theological framework of the west in its missions to the non-European peoples of the earth. Wilbert Shenk describes the logic or way that mission has been carried out under the influence of the Enlightenment as an essentially Western initiative. The global domination of Western theology remains largely unaddressed (Shenk 2001:98).[8]

Western theologians, often emphasizing the fall and alienation of humankind from God concluded that the entire pre-Christian inheritance must be se aside. Shenk acknowledges the emphasis on discontinuity was applied disproportionately with regard to cultures outside the West. Because the measuring rod was Western sensibilities, it was non-Western cultures that were stigmatized. This approach encouraged a dismissive attitude toward traditional culture and religion (Shenk 2001:98). Phillip Jenkins notes that among the Protestant and evangelical traditions that have so totally dominated American culture, the thought that Indian religion might have something to teach them would be ridiculous (Jenkins 2004:10). Charles Taber writes that the superiority of Western civilization as the culmination of human development, the attribution of that superiority to the prolonged dominance of Christianity, the duty of Christians to share civilization and the gospel with the “benighted heathen” – these were the chief intellectual currency of their lives (Hiebert, Shaw, Tiénou 1999:18).

John Probee observes that all the historical churches by and large implemented the doctrine of tabula rasa, i.e., the missionary doctrine that there is nothing in the non-Christian culture on which the Christian missionary can build and therefore, every aspect of the traditional non-Christian culture had to be destroyed before Christianity could be built up (Hiebert, Shaw, Tiénou 1998:18).

It has been the influence of this western modernistic hermeneutic that has created a legalistic and narrow view of syncretism that Native leaders involved in indigenous ministry are trying to break free from. This has led to an inherent distrust of all things indigenous that First Nations theologians are challenging, and correcting, biblically, theologically and missiologically around the world.

However, there was an unanticipated backlash from the presumed superiority of Western science and culture over those of indigenous people that actually produced syncretism. In religion this led to the widespread belief that when Christianity and science came, old animistic beliefs would die out. However, this did not happen. Christianity in much of the world has been added as another layer of religion over the old animistic ways. The result is Christopaganism (Hiebert and Meneses 1995:255). When Christianity is added as a new layer on top of old ones, it creates a two-tier Christianity, an uneasy co-existence between public Christianity and private “paganism” which leads to syncretism (Hiebert, Shaw, Tiénou 1999:19).

So then, does the position advocated by the Boundary Lines paper actually open the door to syncretism by not engaging the religious beliefs, and when combined with the rejection of the new foreign ways, actually encourage some Native believers to simply “add” Christianity to their existing folk religious beliefs?

The influence of “western modernity” has shaped the meaning of syncretism and captured its use as a means of control. The Western intellectual framework assumed the primacy of western culture (Shenk 2001:100). It has carried this one dimensional negative use as a pejorative term used to decry “incorrectness” as a practice primarily among non-western peoples by cultural outsiders.

Syncretism in a Redemptive Process - Not a Rigid Fixed End-State

I want to suggest that a different, biblically valid way of dealing with the subject of syncretism is to view it as a normative stage in the process of spiritual and cultural transformation, not as a fixed end-state. Reinterpretation of culture resulting from new forms or new contents is an every day practice (Nida 1975:240). The Oxford English Dictionary defines syncretism as “attempted union or reconciliation of diverse and opposite tenets or practices, esp. in philosophy and religion’. It treats syncretism, firstly as a result and not as a process, and secondly as something man-made and not natural (Levinskaya 1993:117). This, and most of our current evangelical definitions, view syncretism in terms of being a final product – static – the result of people mixing good and evil beliefs or practices.

True conversion, becoming conformed to the person of Christ, is a gradual process of socio-cultural change or acculturation. It is not an evenly paced change, but varied, uneven, erratic or fluctuating. This is a part of contextualization, the process of learning to express genuine Christianity in culturally, Biblically appropriate ways. Charles Kraft notes the question faced by Christian witnesses is, however, whether any given undesirable state is but a step in a continuing process or whether the changes have virtually come to an end and the people are settled in their present beliefs and behavior. (Kraft 1996:378)

In this process of making Christianity their own, there may be some erroneous conclusions and incorrect practices that emerge that will need to be patiently, loving adjusted or corrected. In the case where clearly aberrant theological beliefs or any other kind of unbiblical practices becomes a settled state, or the people are making this normative biblical faith, this is where syncretism occurs. [9] And where this kind of negative syncretism is found, the church being aware of these cultural challenges relating to faith and syncretism, can, as William Taylor suggests, use the methods it has developed that adapts to the geographical, ethnic and religious identities (Taylor 2000:350). Taylor states, properly understood, contextualization is a dynamic living out of biblical truth in the here-and-now, so that faithfulness and relevance, truth and love, continuity and freshness – all the amazing contours of God-made-visible in and through His people – are held in God derived balance with each other (Taylor 2000:455).

Many First Nations evangelicals seem to view, and be primarily concerned about syncretism only as an end result, the final outcome or final stage. Rather, I would like to suggest it would be better viewed as a stage in a process of learning of how to do critical contextualization. Shaw and Stewart (2004:6) look at syncretism not as a determinate term with a fixed meaning, but one which has been historically constituted and reconstituted.

Because no culture is static, meanings change over time as well. In North America many of our tribal ceremonies and rituals have experienced this, being at points in time lost, revived, redefined, forgotten, and changed.

Missiological Considerations of Syncretism

In our mission to effectively communicate the unchanging, supra-cultural message of faith in Jesus Christ from one culture to another, we are always challenged by the question of cultural adjustments. In the twentieth century, syncretism has been understood as a negative force in Christianity in general and in missiology in particular (Schreiter 1993:50). What are the limits of contextualization and how much does a culture adjust in order to embrace Christ and His Word? This is a missiological subject. It has a theological dimension, but is not confined to theology. It has a historical, anthropological and strategic dimensions but is not confined to any of these either. The common bond is missiology (Tippett 1975:16).

Robert Schreiter suggests, in a missiological context, there exists the need to redefine syncretism and gives three reasons why. The first is theological. In a radically diverse and pluralistic world, often accompanied by conflict, there exists a need to form a new discourse that does not colonize people, but allows their voice to be heard with those of others who are committed to the fidelity of the Gospel and justice of God. The second is cultural. This invites a dialogic approach in which the diverse particular forms which are meaningful to peoples in various contexts are both respected and valued for their ability to link diverse communities together. Finally, the reason is missiological. Missiology has gone through a major shift in our post-colonial period. Missiologies longtime concern about crossing boundaries is now becoming a central concern in theology as a whole. In this regard theology is becoming missiology. Schreiter concludes by saying that, in this context, syncretism must be engaged as a topic that has both a history, as well as a being a force that will shape how missions is done in our growing new and diverse world (Schreiter 1994:53).

Negative or Christopagan Syncretism

This is the kind of syncretism that is our primary area of concern. It is fundamentally a theological issue centered around Christology and allegiance. The concern is that one may borrow elements of another religon, without critically passing them through the screen of Christianity, with Christianity being watered down or destroyed in the process. “Ultimately, syncretism is but another form of Christ-rejection (Schineller 1992:50).”

Schineller qutoes Byangg Kato as saying that syncretism occurs when critical and basic elements of the Gospel are lost in the process of contextualization and are replaced by religious elements from the receiving culture (1992:50).

A distinct form of syncretism is what is referred to as Christopagan Syncretism or Christopaganism. This occurs when a people group adopts foreign forms but interprets them largely within the context of their local tribal religious beliefs (Kraft 1996:376). There is a connection of new forms with old meanings, ideas and practices. They do not reinterpret their cultural forms in light of Scripture; they simply give their pagan deities Christian names or labels. It is often agglomerate with cohesive animistic units embedded in it (Tippett 1975:21).

Syncretism can be frequently found where the sacraments and rituals of Roman Catholicism have been blended with tribal rituals and deities creating new hybrid beliefs and forms, referred to as “Christo-paganism.” This kind of syncretism is found throughout Mexico, Central and South America. There are numerous local “christian deities” and sects that are prolific among tribal peoples. This kind of blending has created a new kind of christo-pantheism and christo-animism.

In Argentina there are numerous urban syncretistic spiritistic movements. In one, Umbanda, a priest seeks the help of spirits to perform healings, blessings, protection for people by inviting these spirits to “come into him.” Most often the crucifix, Christian cross, rosary, pictures of Jesus, Mary and the catholic saints along with numerous fetishes and effigies are all part of many of their altar ceremonies. In one video documentary the priest is shown at his altar praying to Jesus for protection from evil spirits and making the sign of the cross, as he begins soliciting the “indwelling” of his spirit helpers. He has reduced Jesus to another, perhaps higher spirit, along with the others.

There are numerous christo-pagan shrines throughout these parts of the world. Would making offerings, oblations and sacrifices to these be examples of syncretism? Christ is no longer the focus and center of worship.

An example of christopaganism is seen in the renaming of the local sun god, God the Father, or volcano spirit the Holy Spirit. Many “Christian” rituals are viewed as magical ceremonies and local healers practice their black magic alongside the “christian magic.” They might sacrifice a goat and mix its blood with wine for some communion concoction or hang dead animals on the crucifix to ensure power over certain evil spirits.

On a trip to Tucson, I visited the Native cultural museum at the University of Arizona; I read this historical account by John P. Schaffer, which shows how some local tribes in Mexico exemplified this christopaganism.

Jesuit priests introduced the ceremonies of Easter week to the Tarahumara [of Mexico] and other Indians in the 17th and 18th century. They combined Catholic ritual with European folk dances and costumes of the day to form a loose reenactment of the events of the Easter week. The Tarahumara created their own interpretations of these colorful ceremonies, which have little basis in Orthodox Catholic beliefs. The Tarahumara people believed that at Easter, God was in a weakened state and must seek refuge in the church with his wife. For days the Tarahumara march around the church building in a ceaseless procession of music and dance. Through their active participation in the ceremony of Norirawachi (when we walk in circles) they protect their god from the world of the devil.”

Syncretism in Native North America – Where Does the Problem Lie?

(This paper is intentionally very limited in its scope and has examined syncretism primarily from a worldview perspective).[10] Using the lens of this perspective I would submit the notion that the cause of this widespread concern can be traced to a one dimensional western / modern definition of syncretism versus widespread christo-paganistic error. Using the CHIEF and Boundary Lines definitions of syncretism as representative of a larger concensus of Native leaders, I would suggest these concerns are based NOT on “actual syncretistic error,” but more on the problem of a phenomological misinterpretation of the characteristics of culture in relationship to missiology. That is, the way the papers define the use of musical instruments, geographic features, animal parts and dance, and are percieved to “hold” certain meanings considered impervious to change or reinterpretation when previously used for religious functions. The First Nations Christian leaders who contributed to the two documents reflect the struggle with the burden of modern worldview assumptions, like most evangelicals, in struggling to grasp the concept and reality of negative syncretism. In part they also relfect the difficulty of first generation Christians to separate forms from previous meanings and the reaction to jettison all of the old ways in favor of Christianity.

Negative syncretism or christopaganism is much more than an application, misuse or practice of a particular cultural form, i.e., music, musical instruments, language, dance, custom, social practice, ceremony, art, etc. Nor is it simply the combining of or use of similar or even identical ceremonial forms, methods or liturgies. Syncretism is a theological issue of belief and faith, not merely the wedding of religious or cultural forms and objects.

Jesus Christ is the “Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.[11]” Negative syncretism is anything that attempts to undermine or exerts itself to reduce, minimize or replace the centrality of the life, work and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our midst.

· John 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
· 1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,[12]
· John 1:29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world![13]

The centrality of Christ, and our heartfelt devotion, worship and obedience to him must lie at the heart of this discussion. Theologically speaking, because a shaman uses an elk hide hand drum to conjure evil spirits, it does not make one a syncretist to use an elk hide hand drum to honor Christ and the Holy Spirit on Sunday morning in church or in a sweat on Friday night. Some perspectives to consider;

Syncretism presumes that unscriptural beliefs can be interchangeably mixed together with the doctrines of justification, righteousness, atonement, holiness, redemption, sanctification, salvation, etc. – orthodoxy - because they are “parallel truths.”

It is essentially any belief or practice that says Jesus Christ's work on the cross can be mixed together with other religious beliefs as” parallel truths. Negative syncretism says mutually incompatable religious beliefs can be combined together with Biblical Christian faith to create a new system of religious belief, wherein, Christ is no longer the ONLY mediator between God and man.

Unconditionally speaking, it is not syncretistic to own a dream catcher, attend a give-a-way to honor a relative, attend or dance in a pow-wow, wear an eagle feather, square dance or hang a buffalo skull in your living room, or even burn a braid of sage or sweet grass. There is no Biblical prohibition against doing any of these things. None of these things would constitute syncretism or a compromise of God’s Word or a believers Christian testimony. It is only syncretism when an attempt is made to combine Christianity with Native religion in a way that conflicts with the revelation and authority of scripture or compromises the fullness of God in Christ.
In traditional Lakota, Hopi, Kiowa, etc., Religion, prayer, fasting, personal devotion to spiritual disciplines and holiness are all core values. The same is true for Christians. I can combine elements of prayer and fasting, whether in a sweat lodge or church sanctuary, in my worship to Christ so long as Biblical faithfullness is not compromised in the process.

Syncretism can be described as a way of thinking that says by performing or participating in a particular religious ceremony or practice, you 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, because they are parallel truths. Therefore, they can be considered both equally accecptable in the eyes of God; they’re spiritually syncronized or synonomous and can thus be embraced and united together because they are of the same spirit or spirutal reality.

Theologically, negative syncretism implies a Native ceremony can cleanse the soul from sin in the same way the work of Jesus Christ does; or that performing Native ceremonies can heal sickness, perform miracles and bridge the sin barrier separating sinful human beings from a holy God because they are parallel truths. It does not make a distinction between the sources of power, or the source of healing, or attempt to differentiate light from darkness. The syncretist assumes the supernatural world is a single relativistic dimensional reality. These attempts at blending would constitute as the CHIEF document states, an adulteration of biblical truth and the birth of another gospel.

A practice becomes syncretistic when it assigns the same weight of power and authority to unbiblical Native religious beliefs and ceremony that it does to the revelation of truth found in the Word of God. Based on the previous hypothesis, the syncretist says un-scriptural tribal religious beliefs can therefore be mixed in a mutually compatible and complimentary way with Orthodox/Biblical Christian faith, resulting in a new, acceptable Christianity.

Critical Contextualization

Essentially, contextualization addresses the challenge of communicating the gospel message in ways and terms that unbelievers understand. Its challenge is avoiding the foreignness of a gospel dressed in Western clothes that characterized the era of noncontextualization. It seeks to overcome the ethnocentrism of a monocultural approach by taking cultural differences seriously, and by affirming the good in all cultures (Hiebert 1987:108).

Critical contextualization, as advocated by Paul Hiebert, leads us to see contextualization as an ongoing process in which the church must constantly engage itself, a process that can lead us to a better understanding of what the lordship of Christ and the kingdom of God on earth are about (Hiebert 1994:92). Critical contextualization allows us to trust the Holy Spirit to direct us in this process. Here, old beliefs and customs are neither rejected nor accepted without careful examination in light Biblical truth (Hiebert 1985:186).

Native people are rooted in the land historically, yet are a modern people. In each culture Native leaders must answer new questions for which they must find biblical answers. Exegesis and hermeneutics are not the rights of individuals but of the church as an exegetical and hermeneutical community (Hiebert 1987:109). This is a time when the perspective of Native leaders must be recognized and invited to our theological roundtables in order to add their contributions to the understandings of contextualization and syncretism within the wider community. Modernity has excluded Indigenous people from this dialogue because for centuries they were the subjects of anthropological studies, not contributors. In our generation, critical contextualization and our understandings of syncretism must reshaped, reformed and adjusted by the biblical insights from Native peoples.

A difference must be recognized between critical and uncritical contextualization. Non-critical contextualization leads to unqualified relativism and rejection of absolutes as well as the uniqueness of the gospel and Christ. This happened when the worldview assumptions of Western superiority began to crumble and no culture was viewed as better than another, but all cultures as equal. The West could not longer speak of absolutes or truth, giving rise to pragmatism and theological relativism, a problematic and tricky affair (Hiebert 1987:108). Hiebert admonishes us saying even critical contextualization requires checks and balances against biblical and theological distortion.

When syncretism is too narrowly defined, it intrudes on, and undermines the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives. This leads into a trust issue from western leaders to indigenous leaders. Can the discernment, self-theologizing, ceremonial practices and worship models of these new emerging indigenous leaders be fully trusted? Are they really hearing and being directed by the Holy Spirit? Or is that Western bias like a proverbial wax in the ear producing impaired hearing?

Emerging Indigenous Theological Voices

In early missions history Stephen Neill acknowledges that missionaries (Neill 1990:384) were extraordinarily slow to recognize and trust the gifts of indigenous Christians. With the rise of national feeling, the foreignness of the church caused distress and anxiety to leaders in the younger [indigenous] churches. The missionary was usually a cultural outsider who brought with them a foreign faith. In North America this has been a major hindrance to conversion and resulted in a rejection of Christianity and loss of cultural identity.

Today, part of the emerging prophetic role of indigenous leaders from non-western nations is to provide a Biblical critique of the western church. The western church cannot authentically and accurately critique itself. This urgently needed critique will come from the diverse worldview perspectives, cultural realities and spiritual sensitivities of the non-westerner. This will include the voices of indigenous believers within their own countries as well as in an international cross-cultural context.

Lesslie Newbigin speaks[14] of the neo-paganism[15] of the West. He feels, with many others that Western Christianity has been overpowered by the West. He believes that “Modern culture” has become resistant to the gospel message. He goes on to say that Christians too easily identify with contemporary Western culture and lose the ability to be critical in light of the Gospel. He warns that a new, negative syncretism has been forged between Christianity and modern cultures that threatens the future of Christianity (Schineller 1992:51).

In response to Newbigin’s critique, can we agree with his assessment that syncretism exists in the cultural forms in western Christianity? Peter Schineller suggests our “Feast of Christmas” is a clear example of syncretism where Christianity made an ill-advised accommodation to pagan ideas (Schineller 1992:51) .[16] The level of faith that Western Christians place in progress, science and technology, as well as their rationalization of their love of money and material things, might well be considered examples of syncretism.
Ray Aldred (Cree Nation), identifies Western Christianity as syncretistic with modernity. He says its call for conversion has become only a call to become more pious and better-behaved.[17] Western Christianity has become syncretistic with Western culture and thus has become the folk religion of the West. If we make Jesus just a good teacher, we have reduced him to the level of folk religion. Folk religion is only concerned with maintaining the status quo. He goes on to say the West has tended to reduce the gospel to doctrinal statements, and when they do that, they have removed the gospel story - the canon of scripture - and made it inaccessible to new peoples and new cultures, who are coming in.
If we cannot see syncretism at work in western Christianity, (through the influence of the spiritual dynamic behind materialism as the idol of the west)[18], but only in tribal cultural expression, we are being less than honest and, by default, confessing our blindness to our own bias. Without the perspectives of non-westerners we cannot see our own syncretism, which is potentially no less excusing of the centrality of Christ as any “pagan” ritual. It might be thought of as the delusion of the artificial distinction between the “sophisticated idolatry” of the modern, and the “primitive idolatry” of Indigenous tribal communities.

In part, this non-western critique will lead to freedom from the confines of a narrowly defined western understanding of syncretism as a part of an emerging indigenous theology. Paul Hiebert (Hiebert 1994:46-47) describes this process of self theologizing as the attempt by native leadership to break free from the paternalism of the missionaries. He says, for the most part, national leaders were not encouraged to study the Scriptures for themselves and to develop their own theologies. Deviation from the missionary’s theology was often branded as heresy. To young, nationalistically minded leaders this was theological colonialism (Hiebert 1994:46-47).

Hiebert refers to this paternalism and ethnocentrism as the “White Man’s Burden,” his perceived need to educate and civilize the world (Hiebert 1994:54, 55). The early missionaries among First Nations people were not free of the prevailing societal attitudes of their day. Hiebert notes, the seventeenth-century New England Puritan missionaries largely set the course for modern missions. They defined their task as preaching the gospel so that Native Americans would be converted and receive personal salvation. But early in their missionary experience these New Englanders concluded that Indian converts could only be Christians if they were “civilized.” The model by which they measured their converts was English Puritan civilization. The missionaries felt compassion and responsibility for their converts. They gathered these new Christians into churches for nurture and discipline and set up programs to transform Christian Indians into English Puritans.

North American and indigenous theologians around the world, are reading scripture and interpreting it for their own cultures. To the western evangelical the results of self-theologizing may on surface appear to be, using western terms and defintions, “syncretism.” However, it is just as likely to be fully Biblically orthodox, while being culturally appropriating of local indigenous forms, ritual and ceremony.


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[1] Dr. Tite Tiénou is Senior Vice President of Education, TEDS Academic Dean, and professor of theology of mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the founding director of a Bible school in Burkina Faso and Founding President and Dean of a seminary in Côte d’Ivoire, his home country in Africa. He has written and taught extensively on theological education in the United States and internationally.
[2] Polycentric means having many centers. Rome, America or Western Europe is no longer “the” center of Christian faith, but instead Christianity has many centers or homes.
[3] Critical contextualization is the term credited to Dr. Paul Hiebert from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School used to describe the process of using the scriptures to critically (within orthodox Christianity) examine culture, both the missionaries and of the group being reached, for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship. This process hopes to ensure that the Gospel is presented in the cultural forms, languages, and ceremony of the people that reflects Biblical Christianity, not Western civilization or culture, nor violates the integrity of the Gospel. The fruit would be that Christianity becomes “owned” by the people as their own, not a foreign outsider.
[4] Lloyd Commander (M.A., Missiology, from the Nazarene Seminary in Kansas City), is the former Academic Dean at the Nazarene Indian Bible College in Albuquerque. He was one of the early contributors to the contextualization movement in the Untied States.
[5] Christian Hope Indian Eskimo Fellowship (CHIEF), Inc., has been doing evangelistic work among tribes in the US and Canada for 28 years. CHIEF operates a training center in Phoenix, AZ holding numerous seminars and conferences for Native leadership each year. In 1998 over the course of six months in three meetings, 50 different Native pastors and leaders met to produce a two-page document titled, “A Biblical Position by Native Leaders on Native Spirituality.”
[6] I Jn 4:1‑3 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (NIV)

[7] The report was published in 1923 as The Red Man in the Untied States, edited by G.E.E Lindquist (Jenkins 2004:96).
[8] Shenk comments that “Western theology of mission has continued on an essentially unchanged trajectory.” He suggests it is time to listen to voices from the non-western world that can help construct a theology capable of empowering the global church in missio Dei. (2001:98)
[9] Kraft says it is this undesirable settled state where syncretism or Christo-paganism occurs. This he defines as the blending of Christianity and pre-Christian beliefs and practices relating to supernatural beings and powers. He describes a common form of syncretism where people adopt the surface-level forms of the missionary while attaching deep-level meanings to them from their pre-Christian religious experiences.
[10] Several significant “cultural revivalist movements” have not been unaddressed namely the Native American Church and The Indian Shaker Church. These will be added in future revisions. There are numerous ceremonial and ritual issues that need to be addressed as well.
[11] John 1:14
[12] Revised Standard Version
[13] New King James Version
[14] Peter Schineller quotes Newbigin in his article Inculturation and Syncretism: What is the Real Issue? He cites the blending and conjoinedness of Christianity and modern Western culture as an example of syncretism.
[15] Neo-paganism refers to the current rise and emergence of reinterpreted ancient paganism from history. For example the Wicca (witches) movement, Goddess worship, Earth worship, etc. It is different from Satanism, New Age, Astrology or the occult. It is growing in popularity and is anti-Christ and Christianity.
[16] Schineller, like others, notes that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Christ at the pagan winter feast of light, a feast of the sun. Their goal was to suppress or overwhelm that pagan feast by the good news of Jesus Christ. This adaptation of a pagan festival has prevailed as a now “Christian” celebration of Christ’s birth.
[17] Ray is the former Director of the First Nations Alliance (C&MA) Churches of Canada. He elaborates more on this theme by saying reducing the gospel to a set of propositions makes theology something you know, instead of something that you do. And it makes it the exclusive property of experts. He says when we reduce the gospel to a set of propositions or truth statements we are guilty of attempting to take control of our salvation and everyone else's. Reducing Christianity to a set of doctrinal statements without teaching how these things fit into the gospel story, we make Christianity a religion of the mind. He brings into his critique the influence of Gnosticism when he says if we only know the right stuff, everything will work out.
[18] Jesus said you cannot serve God and Money. Money, in the context of worship is a “religious pursuit or object.” In this context, money takes on a spiritual dynamic and when “loved” and “served” as a master by human beings, is no less an object of idol worship than any Native “religious or sacred object,” i.e. drum, fetish, symbol, dance, animal, spirit, etc. (Matt 6:24 NIV) "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” It is because of a love for money that people have made self-destructive decisions – the influence of evil and fruit of idolatry. (1 Tim 6:10 NIV) “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Friday, January 07, 2005

Richard Twiss Posted by Hello