Thursday, July 31, 2008

John Newton on TV?

Introducing "Wretched TV". It's not available over here but some of the episodes are on Youtube. Mr Mr Todd Friel is the host, I'm not sure this is exsactly what John Newton had in mind when he wrote "that saved a wretch like me", but it is a good show. Though Mr Friel takes some getting used to with his sarcasm and big hand movements, the topics he deals with are important and even serious, especially a current show dealing with the Lakeland, Florida "Revival" under Todd (Bamm) Bentley.

Take a look:

Monday, July 7, 2008

Contextualization or Capitulation? (Part 3)

by Dr Noel Due

The balancing act in contextualization is to speak properly into the shared cultural context of speaker and hearer at that point (e.g. Paul with the philosophers on Mars’ Hill) without giving way to syncretism.

Depending on which dictionary you use, syncretism means ‘the fusion or combination of different forms of belief or practice’; ‘the reconciliation of differing systems of philosophy or belief’; or ‘the fusion of diverse religious beliefs and practices’. In the ancient world (now making a reentry in spades) Gnosticism was the prime example of syncretistic belief and practice. It is therefore no coincidence that this occupied much of the theological and intellectual battle ground of the first centuries of the church. That it demanded so much time and attention from the early church fathers indicates how pervasive and troubling syncretism can be.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians has much to do with the concepts of wisdom and mystery. This emphasis is largely necessary because (by a sort of reverse engineering) we can adduce that the problems in the Colossian congregation related to distortions of these ideas. Throughout the New Testament the gospel is spoken of in similar terms (the ‘wisdom’ of God in the cross is a ‘mystery’ to the wisdom of the world). On the one hand, any language and means of communication is open to misunderstanding which must be clarified, but on the other hand a subtle cultural shift can occur where language does not simply ‘adapt’ or ‘accommodate’ to the culture, but is captured by it. Syncretism captures all language and practice in this way.

In the example of the letter to the Colossians, we see an instance of how the apostolic gospel had to confront and clear away the syncretistic tendency that had sought to capture it. The wider socio-religious context of the Colossians was a world in which esoteric wisdom formed a way to ensure safe and secure existence in a cosmos full of hostile powers. It seems that the Colossians had started to syncretise the wisdom/mystery of Christ with their cultural understanding of wisdom/mystery as means for controlling hostile powers and manipulating spiritual forces magically. They were fusing gospel terms and apostolic practices with those of their own folk religion.

How do we know whether our contextualised communication has become captive to cultural syncretism? There are a few helpful indicators:

  • Firstly, syncretism by definition undermines the uniqueness of Christ and the finality of the revelation he has brought (or better, the revelation, which he is). Among the Colossians, Christ was in danger of being regarded as ‘one of many’ or perhaps the ‘greatest of most’, but the matchlessness of his person and work were alike under threat. Where the uniqueness of Christ is diluted we draw him into our human systems of philosophy and religion. In particular we seek to draw him into our own systems for our own ends, in that we attempt to bring the (now modified) person and work of Christ into a system by which we may gain his benefits without organic faith-union with him as the only Saviour and Lord.
  • Secondly, syncretism offers an alternative understanding of the universe and the way in which we are called to live within it. Among the Colossians, Christ was in danger of being ‘slotted into’ an existing philosophical system of cosmic beings and hierarchies. In the Colossians’ situation we have an example of an existing understanding of the universe to which the person and work of Christ was being brought captive. Such alternative understandings are finally shaped by the wisdom of this age rather than that of the age to come. Its drift in this regard will be twofold. On the one hand it will lead to utter pragmatism (how do I use this system to get what I want?) and on the other it leads to an interpretation of the person and work of Christ which is ‘from below’ rather than from above (i.e. the weight falls on interpretation not revelation).
  • Thirdly, syncretism confuses our worship. In the Colossians’ situation, Christ was being worshipped, along with other angelic/spiritual beings, and all were being given comparable devotion. In principle there is nothing new here, since all of the Old Testament ‘high places’ provided Israel with opportunities with syncretised Yahweh/Baal/Asherah worship for example. Wherever this trend emerges, the purity of worship in Spirit and in truth is undermined. The church is given competing (and finally, mutually exclusive) bases of trust, which then rob God of his glory and lead astray the hearts of the Bride to shower their affections on other lovers.

    The contextualization/syncretism continuum is not simply an issue for cross-cultural communication, but is a real issue for the development of Christian life and worship amongst indigenous believers of every culture. The complexities that cluster around the issue are not reducible to a simplistic solution, but wherever the apostolic gospel is taken seriously, they must be addressed. Finally, the matter must be addressed by the apostolic content of the gospel, rather than by questions of form or style.

    (To be continued...)