Of course, this is a huge subject, so this is no attempt to examine the subject in depth but to share two recent personal experiences of Christ and culture.
Despite protestations that some cultures are superior to others, all cultures display something of the Creator’s glory. God has not left himself without a witness in creation and in the conscience of mankind (Rom. 1). There is a ‘general revelation’ of God in creation and culture [sometimes to a surprising extent – I am reminded of veteran missionary Don Richardson’s experience in Papua New Guinea in the 1960’s-70’s, when he was able to build on the Sawi tradition of a ‘peace child’ exchange between rival villages to stop the perennial killings and bring thousands to a knowledge of Jesus]. There is also God’s ‘special revelation’ in Christ, outside of which there is no personal knowledge of God.
Thus most of us would agree with anthropologist S. Lingenfelter (‘Transforming Culture’) and theologian H.R. Niebuhr that Christ comes to transform culture on earth through his redemptive work – through his incarnation, persons and cultures can be restored to fellowship with God and harmonious relations on earth.
A month or so ago I was invited to include in our regular house church gathering at Mordecai (a home for abandoned children) the ‘welcome home’ of the house mother’s son, Sipho. He and some fellow late-teens had been ‘in the bush’ for their traditional Xhosa circumcision. While some of this rite is commendable, aspects have occultic roots and involve the approval of the ‘ancestors.’ [While I have never personally looked for these things, I have had no choice from time to time to pray with Xhosa believers who carry spiritual baggage from pre-conversion beliefs and practices. Often in such prayer-times demonic forces evidence themselves via headaches, clasping of the ears (in order not to hear the name Jesus), convulsions, etc]
For some years Sipho had been mentored by a local multi-cultural congregation, Lwazi a respected Xhosa school teacher as well as a spiritual father, Julyan, whom I greatly respect. In the bush Sipho was joined by a committed believer from out of town, and together they got to together for daily Bible study and prayer. They learned what was good in their culture concerning ‘manhood,’ but also abstained from rituals they could not identify with as believers.
In our Sunday gathering we celebrated with praise songs, congratulations, exhuberant traditional dance moves, etc. Our house group shared with Sipho and two fellow graduates (apparently unconverted) that ‘what really makes a man’ is not circumcision in the flesh but ‘the circumcision of the heart’ (Deut; Rom; Gal). Lwazi and I prayed over Sipho as well as his mother who, despite many hardships, had adopted him and raised him as her own. Lots of banter, soft drinks, cake and coffee followed. I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything!
A few weeks ago there was another encounter, this time directly with evil supernaturalism. God had brought a professional Xhosa man into my circle who showed hunger for spiritual things. He had been raised in a very traditional home with a mother who, while attending an evangelical denomination still practices witchcraft. He has over many years resisted her overtures and spells in order for him to follow in her footsteps. He has suffered much in terms of horrific dreams, misadventures, ill-health, etc. A prayer team and I spent a morning praying over him the deliverance of Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross (Col. 2:13-15). I am pleased to say that the outcome was positive and there has been a massive shift toward knowing Christ more fully – he never misses our house church gatherings, his perception of biblical truth is growing weekly, etc. Please pray for his maturing as a follower of Jesus and that he might soon get a permanent post in his profession. [Let me say that we have learned, in this kind of ministry, never to become obsessed with the enemy and his tactics but through prayer to enforce, in co-operation with the demonised person, the victory of Christ and his cross. The great Scottish preacher of yesteryear, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, used to say ‘For every one look at sin take ten look’s at Christ!’]
I conclude with Eugene Peterson’s wonderful, Christo-centric paraphrase of Col. 1:18ff (The Supremacy of Christ): ‘He was supreme in the beginning and – leading the resurrection parade – he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious he is, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the Cross… Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence… There is no other Message, just this one…’
[For those working in Africa I heartily recommend my friend Vernon Light’s ‘Transforming the Church in Africa’
for excellent perspectives on African Traditional Religions & Culture]