Aboriginal Cultural Recovery and the Fear of Syncretism
In May 2001, Canadian Mennonite University hosted the inaugural NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) Missiological Symposium. The purpose of the symposium was to address issues concerning faith and culture with regard to the newly recognized role of indigenous people in God’s mission. The ensuing discussion was to seek “to build with and on the foundation of Biblical, orthodox, evangelical scholarship and mission practice as found throughout the Evangelical community of Christ.” 1 This dialogue on faith and culture continues and represents an intersection between the wider aboriginal cultural recovery and revitalization movement currently taking place in both the USA and Canada and the faith of Christians who have an aboriginal heritage. As these Christians move to reclaim their ethnic identity, questions and objections arise as to the compatibility of aboriginal culture with evangelical Christian faith. This has led aboriginal Christian leaders to critically reflect on the contextualization of the gospel within aboriginal culture.
A people called into God’s shalom can recover and reclaim their cultural heritage without fear of any Satanic/demonic attachment to drums, whistles, or blocks of wood.
Contextualization efforts have prompted various responses in the evangelical Christian community, ranging from optimistic encouragement to outright rejection. The most pronounced objection to an openly styled contextualization from within the Native community comes from the Report of the Native Theological Task Force, in a booklet entitled, “Boundary Lines,” commissioned by the Native American Association of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (a.k.a., The Native Alliance). 2 This report adopts a definition of syncretism posited by CHIEF (Christian Hope Indian Eskimo Fellowship) in their 1998 document entitled “A Biblical Position by Native Leaders on Native Spirituality,” which states: “By syncretism, we refer specifically to the subtle attempt to integrate Biblical truth and faith in Christ with non-biblical Native religious beliefs, practices, and forms. The result is an adulteration of biblical truth and the birth of ‘another gospel (Gal. 1:6–9).’ ” 3
The Task Force’s interpretation of “non-biblical Native religious beliefs, practices and forms” is later clarified to include specific sacred objects, such as, “[a]ny geographical feature (mountains, stones, rivers, valleys, etc.) that a particular tribe has ascribed to it spiritual significance and power”—“[k]ivas, sweat lodges, longhouses, tobacco, peyote tipis and sticks; smoke from cedar, sage, sweetgrass or other mediatory incense” and “[f]etish masks, drums, rattles, whistles, Kachina and Yeibechi dolls, carvings, bundles, medicine pouches, dream catchers, totem poles.” 4 The report goes on to conclude that “the teaching of redeeming of sacred objects used in traditional or contemporary Native American practices and worship constitute unbiblical, heretical, and false doctrine.” 5 The document also affirms a form of contextualization, but only within the confines of aboriginal cultural artifacts that have no sacred associations.
This approach is practical within a Western culture, where the sacred and secular are clearly defined, and the bulk of cultural artifacts (work, leisure, food, art, etc.) occupy the secular realm. But what about highly sacralized cultures in which almost all cultural artifacts are deemed sacred? Any effort to reconnect with an aboriginal ethnic identity is stifled under this approach, as the ancestral heritage necessary for this task becomes virtually untouchable.
SYNCRETISM OR SANCTIFICATION?
Aboriginal Christians Adrian Jacobs, Richard Twiss, and Terry LeBlanc respond to the Report of the Native Theological Task Force in an article entitled “Culture, Christian Faith and Error.” 6 Addressing the polarizing reaction of the report and affirming the report’s stance against syncretism, they state, “Syncretism is the most feared response to Native culture among most Evangelical Christians. No one wants to compromise his or her commitment to Christ and the importance of His redemptive work.” 7 They then qualify this affirmation by taking exception to the report’s sweeping definition of cultural artifacts that are beyond redemption:
As Native leaders it is we who must be careful that we do not allow Biblical ignorance to lead to an unfounded fear of syncretism among ourselves. We must counsel, pray and dialogue to prevent syncretism from becoming an emotionally defined standard for a type of modern day inquisition meant to root and burn out of Native Christians any tie to their culture and tradition. When we do this, what we are doing is basically denying God’s handiwork in us. 8
What they suggest in place of outright rejection of items with sacred associations is a process of “sanctification” in which “the Word of God, as guided by the Holy Spirit and discerning Christians, critiques Native culture. Aspects of Native culture that need to be changed are examined by a sound hermeneutic process and experienced Biblically literate Christians.” 9 In an earlier article, Jacobs clarifies the positive goal of sanctification: “Sanctification means setting something or someone apart for God’s purpose. I believe sanctification is the proper biblical response to Indian culture. Every culture has good, godly elements and bad, evil elements.” 10 The implication here, along with Jacobs’, LeBlanc’s, and Twiss’s cultural exegesis and socio-cultural hermeneutic 11 is that even cultural artifacts with previously sacred associations are not beyond the scope of God’s redemption.
In this essay I will affirm with Jabobs, LeBlanc, and Twiss that a contextualization of the gospel in aboriginal culture can include cultural artifacts with previous sacred associations, and that those artifacts can in turn be used for the glory of Christ. Such a contextualization is in fact made possible by the freedom of the gospel. I will argue that an aspect of God’s missional activity is the transformation of worldview (be it Ancient Near Eastern, Western, or indigenous North American) which in part enables the believer to regain peaceful dominion over creation, and thereby is afforded the freedom to participate in the ministry of reconciling all things to Christ. Finally, I will demonstrate the principle of demythologized cultural artifacts recovered for Christ’s glory in Paul’s treatment of idol food in 1 Corinthians 8–10.
At the heart of the opinion that certain cultural artifacts are irredeemable is the belief that demonic personalities and powers can inhabit inanimate objects and places. In the section entitled “Demonology” (in the “Boundary Lines” document), the Task Force lists several passages narrating the destruction and abolishment of the physical symbols of idolatry in Israel’s conquest of Canaan, followed by several NT warnings against Satan, his intentions, and his demons. This section concludes with this statement: “The material artifacts (sacred objects) used by animists are never neutral, but dedicated to the demons. In most instances they are actually indwelt by demons. There is not the faintest hint in the Bible that it is God’s intention to redeem such objects.” 12 Again, under the section “Sacred Objects,” they write, “[sacred objects] 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.” 13 With this belief that a drum, rattle, or whistle with sacred associations is in most cases the actual dwelling place of a demonic being or power, it is quite understandable that the Task Force would suggest keeping them far away from Native Alliance churches!
While the Native Alliance cannot endorse the recovery of sacred objects in good conscience, there is another voice in the contextualization discussion that advocates the neutrality of such objects—but only after they have been exorcised of their demons. In Anthropology for Christian Witness, Fuller Seminary missiologist Charles Kraft writes, “[O]ften in cross-cultural situations we come across food, amulets, items used in worship, idols, and the like that have been empowered by satanic power and cannot be regarded as merely neutral cultural forms. These must be destroyed or freed from the empowerment they carry if the work of God is to go on unhindered in that area.” 14 So while the Native Alliance disagrees with Kraft’s opinion about God’s work in the context of cultures, 15 they actually share a very similar worldview with respect to the role of demons in culture. If Kraft is correct, the basis for the Native Alliance’s fear of syncretism is well founded. But does this basis conform to Scripture? Furthermore, is the average godless aboriginal, surrounded by artifacts that her culture has deemed “sacred,” more in the presence of the demonic than an average godless westerner, surrounded by artifacts that her culture has deemed “secular”?
In “The Third Wave Worldview: A Biblical Critique,” Pierre Gilbert addresses the Third Wave movement of which Charles Kraft is a founding proponent. 16 Gilbert argues that the Genesis creation account delivered at Sinai presented God’s newly gathered people with a worldview that would free them from the hostility and fear of the realm of spiritual warfare and conflict. 17 It was this chaotic and uncertain world that the surrounding nations sought to mitigate with idolatry, but God’s people were not to even engage this world—Genesis destroys this world at the conceptual level. As Gilbert states,
According to the narrative, the universe is not populated by evil powers bent on the disruption of human life, and physical objects in no way represent the essence of the divine. In the biblical story, the universe is no longer an object of worship, fear, or terror. By its repeated reference to the ‘goodness’ of creation, the author explicitly proclaims that humanity lives in a friendly universe. 18
Therefore, to engage in idolatry was to deny the Creator’s power and goodness. Yahweh could not be incorporated into a world populated by a pantheon of countless other deities, as if Yahweh was yet another player in the cosmic warfare paradigm. 19 Instead, His people were invited into a world of shalom restored via the gift of the law. Canaanite idols and religious paraphernalia posed a threat to God’s people, not by the demonic forces they contained but by their ability to lure the Israelites back into the old ways of fear and divine appeasement and away from the grace and shalom of the law—where an idol was a mere “block of wood.” 20
An important distinction needs to be made at this point as Western missionaries have often mistaken the demythologized worldview of the Bible for the materialistic worldview of Western culture. In “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” missiologist Paul Hiebert recounts his lack of preparation to deal with spiritual encounters in a cross-cultural setting. 21 He attributes this to the blind spot of his Western culture regarding the spiritual nature of the universe, the “middle level” of this-worldly, spiritual aspects of creation that are beyond human perception. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to fully delve into Hiebert’s ideas surrounding the theology of ancestors and spirits, it is important to stress his point that God’s goodness and power pervades all levels of creation—God rules, and is not locked in cosmic warfare. This is not to say that there is no struggle between good and evil. Hiebert explains that “If the central message of the Bible is not that a cosmic struggle between God and Satan will determine who will rule, what is it about? The battle rages within the human heart, which God and Satan seek to win.” 22 The presentation of Jesus’ ministry in the gospels is depicted this way: demons pose no resistance or formidable opposition to Christ; it is the hearts of lost people that Christ wrestles with. 23
Unfortunately, an overreaction to this blind spot of the Western worldview can lead to what Hiebert calls “a Christianized form of animism in which spirits and magic are used to explain everything.” 24 Therefore, there is a danger of syncretism on both extremes of the cultural recovery debate: there are those who would use traditional ways to engage and manipulate the spiritual world as an augment to their Christian faith, but there are also others who would outright reject the traditional ways because they are infested and overrun with demons. In this latter sense, Christ’s victory has been claimed, but the believer’s world remains untransformed: they have not fully moved into the world of God’s shalom; they remain in the world of chaos.
THE “KNOWLEDGE” OF 1 CORINTHIANS 8–10
Paul’s interaction with the church in Corinth over idol-food in 1 Cor. 8–10 provides an apt scriptural case study of inanimate cultural artifacts with previous sacred associations. In this section I will examine the “knowledge” to which Paul refers to confirm that the “knowledge” is the particular demystified perspective of idol-food that is a part of the larger demythologized worldview of Genesis. It should be noted at the outset that Paul’s primary concern was not to demythologize idol-food—the Corinthians were already there. Paul’s admonition was for the Corinthians to limit their freedom out of love for the fellow believer whose allegiance to Christ may have been at risk—this is the primary focus in chapter 10. This risk leads Paul to cast the “knowledge” in this passage in a very bad light. (Indeed, anything outside the meta-ethic of love would be detestable to Paul.) Nonetheless, the fact that Paul affirms their “knowledge” of demystified idol-food confirms the demythologized worldview of Genesis.
In this passage Paul encourages the Corinthians to give up idol-food if the faith of another believer is in jeopardy, and therefore he wants to stress the danger of idol-food in that respect. At the same time he does not want to reintroduce superstition back into their worldview, and so he attempts to affirm their knowledge even though it poses grave danger to some believers in Corinth. This inevitably contributed to a highly nuanced and complicated argument, so much so that the dominant theory concerning this passage until recently was that it was a compilation of disparate and conflicted Pauline writings. 25
Many treatments of this text fail to account for the apparent contradictions in Paul’s argument: “we know that there is no idol in the world and that there is no god except one” set against “there are many gods and many lords”; and “eat anything sold in the market without worrying about conscience” versus “you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (among many others). Why is Paul affirming the eating of idol-food based on the knowledge that there is no god except one while at the same time warning against eating at the table of demons? Recent archaeological and textual evidence has suggested that Paul may be referring to two very different activities in this passage that both relate to idol-food. The demonic aspect was not in the eating of the idol-food itself but in the scenario of the eating.
Excavations at the Asclepius temple complex 26 and at Demeter and Kore 27 reveal Greco-Roman and Hellenistic temple dining that involved varying levels of cultic involvement. The excavations reveal temples with inner and outer courts: casual participants of a sacrifice could enjoy cheap meat in the outer court while the cultic officiants would offer the sacrifice in the privacy of an inner sanctum. This inner and outer court distinction between ritual officiation and peripheral participation is supported by David Gill’s research into the role of the Table in Hellenistic sacrifice. 28 Cultic sacrifices and participation were delineated by those few who ate the sacrifice at the Table of the idol (usually the inner organs), and those who ate the bulk of the slaughter in the outer courtyard. The general public might eat the idol-food, but only a few would eat at the Table.
This distinction intersects with Paul’s warning against idolatry in chapter 10. In the imagination of the Corinthians, the image of the Table would be associated more with a ceremonial place than with a filling of one’s stomach—it was the place to declare one’s allegiance to a god through the act of eating idol-food. That’s why Paul’s diatribe against idolatry in chapter 10 centers not around demonic power but around a loyalty divided between God and demons.
The consequences of turning one’s allegiance away from God are dire, as was the case with Israel, and that is why Paul’s heart aches for the weaker brother. The weaker brother is one whose conscience might be injured by witnessing a fellow believer eating idol-food. This is not the offended conscience of Romans 14, where an action causes one to feel naughty; this injury involves becoming “emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols.” This is an injured conscience in the moral lawgiver sense of the word, where one’s moral compass is damaged. 29
Thus, one’s eating idol-food in the courtyard might embolden a fellow believer to eat idol-food at the Table, implicitly declaring their allegiance to that deity.
Therefore, while Paul is maintaining that idolatry does not do anything in a magical sense, he is forcefully arguing that it does everything in a loyalty sense. There are no gods except one, who is the source of all spiritual significance, but there are still many gods and many lords, imagined or not, that clamor for our allegiance. The cultural artifact of idol-food is only as dangerous and demonic as it threatens the believer’s allegiance to Christ.
It would seem as though the positions of some in the cultural restoration debate would reject Paul’s approach in 1 Corinthians. Indeed, citing no evidence, Kraft simply emotes that “The food spoken of in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 does not seem to have been dedicated to (and thereby empowered by) Satan or evil spirits.” 30 Even Gordon Fee’s semantic range 31 argument cannot afford Kraft the liberty to make this statement—the food was indeed dedicated to an idol and the evil spirits associated with it. Therefore, Paul’s affirmation of the truth of Corinthian “knowledge” similarly relates to and supports the idea of a transformed worldview with respect to aboriginal culture.
While a transformed worldview is only a single element of the gospel narrative, it remains consistent with the whole: the gospel shines a light on every frightening dark corner of God’s universe to show that he is in control and is restoring shalom through the work of his son. Therefore a people called into God’s shalom can recover and reclaim their cultural heritage without fear of any Satanic/demonic attachment to drums, whistles, or blocks of wood. In Christ there is freedom.
Cultural recovery in the name of Christ should not be forced or artificial. Commenting on the recovery and place of aboriginal myths and fables in the Christian faith, Raymond Aldred states,
This is not about understanding how ancient aboriginal myths and fables might substitute or accomplish a contrived utilitarian purpose but how real aboriginal history, the real stories, can be understood to have a place in the biblical narrative and how the gospel story, the canon of scripture, can encompass and be reconciled with aboriginal people so that an aboriginal Christian spirituality can thrive. 32
There is an image here of the richness and depth of culture, with all its flaws, as a bed in which the gospel can grow and flower. The mission of God then does not simply involve cultural restoration as permissible but as necessary. In this respect, a whole new area of mission opportunity is opening before North American churches as they have the opportunity to welcome and support Aboriginal people in reclaiming and recovering what God has created them to be.
For Canadian churches in particular, this area of mission is a matter of preparing for a certain future. Aboriginal people comprise Canada’s fastest-growing segment of the population and are also becoming increasingly urbanized. Ten years after its inception, NAIITS continues to forge theological resources and develop indigenous theologians for this critical task. To conclude its 2010 Symposium in Oregon, NAIITS entered into a partnership with George Fox Theological Seminary to offer a Master of Arts degree in intercultural studies specifically tailored for Native North Americans by indigenous North American theologians. Thus, as churches align themselves to the future of God’s mission in North America, God is simultaneously raising up those who can reflect on the interaction between faith and culture from a uniquely Native North American perspective.
- Terry LeBlanc, “About the Issue,” Journal of North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies 1, no. 1 (2003): 1.
- “Boundary Lines,” The Native Alliance, http://www.nativealliance.org/resources.htm.
- “A Biblical Position by Native Leaders on Native Spirituality,” CHIEF (1998), http://chief.org/about-2/a-biblical-position-on-native-spirituality/.
- “Boundary Lines.”
- Adrian Jacobs, Terry LeBlanc, and Richard Twiss, “Culture, Christian Faith and Error,” Journal of North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies 1, no. 1 (2003): 5–35.
- Ibid., 18.
- Ibid., 31.
- Ibid., 19.
- Adrian Jacobs, “The Meeting of the Two Ways,” in Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, ed. James Treat (New York: Routledge, 1996), 186.
- Jacobs et al., 19–21.
- “Boundary Lines.”
- Charles H. Kraft, Anthropology for the Christian Witness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 149.
- The Task Force takes specific exception with Kraft in “Boundary Lines.”
- Wonsuk Ma, “A ‘First Waver’ Looks at the ‘Third Wave’: A Pentecostal Reflection on Charles Kraft’s Power Encounter Terminology,” Pneuma 19 (Fall 1997): 189–206.
- Pierre Gilbert, “The Third Wave Worldview: A Biblical Critique,” Direction 29 (Fall 2000): 158–9.
- Ibid., 159.
- This view is often expressed in the popular God vs. Satan paradigm: God is diminished and Satan is elevated to God’s level, so that God’s victory over Satan is a battle of the deities, won with cunning and power.
- Isaiah 44 poetically expounds this notion of a demythologized universe ruled by a one-and-only deity, and goes as far as to mock the notion of physical objects mediating a supernatural essence.
- Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 189.
- Ibid., 211.
- Gilbert, 167.
- Hiebert, Reflections, 200.
- See Margaret M. Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993). Based on her doctoral work, Mitchell convincingly argues for a unified text, thus opening the door to serious exegetical work on this previously neglected passage.
- Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “The Corinth that Saint Paul Saw,” Biblical Archaeologist 47 (September 1984): 156.
- Nancy Bookidis, “Ritual Dining at Corinth,” in Greek Sanctuaries: New Approaches, ed. Nanno Marinatos and Robin Hägg (New York: Routledge, 1993): 45–46.
- David Gill, “Trapezomata: A Neglected Aspect of Greek Sacrifice,” Harvard Theological Review 67 (1974): 117.
- C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967): 184.
- Kraft, 149.
- For a fair handling and critical response to Fee’s theory, see Bruce N. Fisk, “Eating Meat Offered to Idols: Corinthian Behavior and Pauline Response in 1 Corinthians 8–10 (A Response to Gordon Fee),” Trinity Journal 10 (1989): 49–70.
- Raymond Aldred, “The Resurrection of Story,” First Peoples Theology Journal 1 (January 2005): 71.