A good teacher knows where he wants to take his students but begins where they are. A teacher who can’t speak the language of his students won’t be able to teach them his. And this is one of the key features of Christianity. It sneaks into a culture wrecked and dysfunctional and cures it from the inside. I thought about this a lot this semester teaching Mozambican young men about the epistles of Paul. In Philippians and Titus you can see so clearly the contrast in approach he uses to address different cultural ills. In Philippi, a Roman colony where the culture worshiped power and despised those of lower station, Paul presents Christ as the Emperor of all Emperors who attained his position not through power-grabbing but through humiliation. On the wild isle of Crete where men were lazy and ignorant savages, Paul presented the model of an overseer as someone of moderation and education.
In the trajectory of the Gospel’s influence you will see invasion, syncretism, transformation, and often decay. I come from the USA where Christianity’s influence is waning. But, I work in Mozambique where Christianity is at the stage of syncretism, absorbing Christian Kingdom concepts and joining them to traditional values. Every good Christian thinks his own Christianity is good. That is, he thinks that his worldview is that of the Bible. But it’s not. We are colorblind to the influence of our own culture tinting our theology. This can lead to nationalistic versions of the faith, each interacting with, changing and being changed by the dominant worldview.
I thought about this a lot this week reading My Utmost For His Highest. Oswald Chambers (pictured left) writes in wartime to young men who might the next day face fire in the trenches. That context gives his writings a distinctly patriotic and almost macho swagger. He talks often about sports and battle metaphors. We must “buck up” and “take risks.” The same thing happened during the next World War in the writings of CS Lewis. His radio addresses were to a nation troubled by the threat of invasion and he often sounds to me like he’s giving Churchillian pep talks from a Christian perspective. Now in this century, America is seeing a surge of religious fervor/patriotism fighting the twin perils of a shifting public worldview and a menacing external threat. This leads to unfortunate slogans like JesUSAves and even a newly released, American Patriot’s Bible with an American flag on the cover.
One benefit of the global village is that we can see how others are absorbing Christianity. Is it syncretism or cultural transformation? It’s a little bit of both and as long as imperfect people are being redeemed by a perfect God we will see a spectrum of Christianities. Not for us to judge, but rather to look to our own hearts, where the Holy Spirit is transforming men created of dust and trained on the rough playground of life into the likeness of Jesus Christ.