I’ve become something of a podcast junkie lately, and recently my sister turned me on to Hardcore History. (Thanks, sis!)
If you’re at all interested in history, you should check it out. The host, Dan Carlin, says he’s not a historian but a history fan. As such, he puts together shows of varied topics that cover all sorts of interesting aspects that are broader than a typical historian might cover. I started out listening to his current series on World War I (appropriately!). Ten hours of podcast, and he’s only up to the end of 1915. Have I mentioned they’re unusually lengthy for podcasts? They really are.
Anyway, after catching up on WWI, I went back and started with “Thor’s Angels” a program on the Christianization of the Germanic tribes, or one might even say the Germanization of Christianity. When the Germani encountered Christianity, they–like many or even most people before and after them engaged in syncretism, or the blending of their traditional religions and customs with Christianity.
Clovis, the Christian* king who united the Franks.
Syncretism is the process by which aspects of one religion are assimilated into, or blended with, another religion. In his (very handy and comprehensive, every Christian should have a copy) book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, R.C. Sproul explains:
In the Old Testament, God was deeply concerned with the pressure and temptation toward syncretism. As the people of God moved into the Promised Land they were confronted with pagan religions. The Canaanite gods, Baal and Asherah, became objects of Israelite devotion. Later, God’s people worshiped the national gods of Assyria and Babylon. The law of God clearly warned Israel not only against abandoning Yahweh for other gods, but against worshiping other gods in addition to the true God. The prophets warned of coming judgments as the people modified their faith to accommodate foreign doctrines and practices.
The New Testament period was one of widespread syncretism. As the Greek Empire expanded, her gods mingled with the indigenous gods of conquered nations. The Roman Empire also welcomed all manner of cults and mystery religions. Christianity was not left untouched. The church fathers not only spread the gospel but labored to protect its integrity. Manichaeism (a dualistic philosophy that saw the physical as evil) crept into some doctrines. Docetism (a teaching that denied Jesus had a physical body) was a problem even as the New Testament was being written. Many forms of Neoplatonism made a conscious effort to combine elements of Christian religion with Platonic philosophy and oriental dualism. The history of God’s people seeking to separate themselves from the snares of foreign religions and philosophies.
The problem is still with the church today. Non-Christian philosophies such as Marxism or existentialism seek the power of Christianity while giving up what is uniquely Christian. Syncretism continues to be a powerful tool to separate God from His people.
Carlin is struck by the message of Jesus–the Prince of Peace–and the reality the brutality of the likes of Charlemange, the “Hammer.” He notes how Christianity was co-opted to justify and even sanctify a conquering mission. But the reality is that syncretism wasn’t invented by Thor worshippers. The church has always had to be on guard–and has long been tainted—by syncretism and accepting as gospel those things that are not. For example, the church’s whole-hearted embrace of Aristotilean logic and Ptyolymic astronomy as though they were gospel has led to some interesting church doctrines and actions. *cough* Galileo *cough*
What’s interesting isn’t that Carlin is shocked by the blood-thirsty version of Frankish Christianity, it’s the fact that Christians often don’t notice, or explain it away.
As Dr. Sproul says:
Every generation of Christians faces the temptations of syncretism. In our desire to be “with it” or contemporary in our practices and beliefs, we yield to the temptation of being conformed to the patterns of this world. We accept pagan practices and ideas and seek to “baptize them.” Even when we confront and engage alien religions and philosophies we have a tendency to be influenced by them. Every foreign element that creeps into Christian faith and practice is an element that weakens the purity of faith.
I think it’s a careful line that the church must always walk: how to translate the gospel to the culture without polluting the gospel with cultural values that go against the gospel. And furthermore, we have to realize that Christian virtues may look different walked out in different cultures, but at their heart are all fruits of the same spirit. (One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all–regardless of various cultures in which we live.) For example, generosity may look differently in the lives of Christians in America or Cameroon or Mongolia, but all Christians are suppose to be generous, or kind or seek justice or whatever.
But at the same time, we ought to be alert to the ways in which syncretism is prevalent in our culture. We can see how Clovis and Charlemagne mixed the gods of their age–the Germanic version of Thor, in this instance–with the gospel to create a conquering religion. The questions we should ask ourselves are what are the gods of our age, and how have we mixed them with the gospel? Just throwing out the first thing that comes to mind, but our particular culture worships progress and image and success, among other things. Some of us have political positions we can mistake for gospel truth. How have those values and beliefs been mixed with gospel in our own hearts?
How have we–how have I–syncretized the gospel?