The upwardly-mobile, syncretistic city
Urban environments present their own unique challenges to the purposes of the gospel in bringing about lasting transformation. One of those is undoubtedly a syncretistic tendency that is particularly, and sometimes peculiarly, framed, shaped and nuanced by factors that make a city a city. They are usually quite subtle in their presentation, much more than the kind of blatant religious-tradition mixing that has no intent of camouflaging its agenda of social and theological blending for the purposes of easing caustic tensions or rendering a less demanding template of discipleship. Rather, they rear their head in the form of compliance with a form of liberal democracy that exonerates the wealthy and excuses them from more holistic social responsibility.
It is for this very reason that David Smith reminds us of the praxis orientation of some of the more noteworthy of the non-Pauline contributors to the New Testament (David Smith, Liberating the Gospel: Translating the Message of Jesus in a Globalised World, 109-115).[i] Smith approaches it with the urgent question as to “what saving faith in Christ crucified actually does”. The Letter of James, for example, does not hesitate to raise the economic stakes of gospel application by confronting the urban gentrification problems that follow in the wake of business purposes that blend in with the city and its culture, but in ways that leave the poor humiliated to an even greater degree (4:13). James decries this as an unacceptable mode of syncretistic mixing for those whose loyalties are to “the Lord of Sabaoth” (5:4).
John’s apocalyptic emphasis in Revelation, as Smith further and rightly suggests, has much of the same in view. Cultural blending in the Christian community, while John dwelt in exile on the isle of Patmos, had become not only commonplace, but was of such an insidious nature that it was not always easily detected, even though it was not any less extreme because of it. It took the form of accommodation to the necessary idols of a distorted capitalistic vision that was zealously caricatured as the fruit of the blessing of God, while at the same time giving scant attention to, much less critique of, the imperial motivations of Roman power that was its true beneficiary. This state of affairs was, in fact, the likely reason that John felt the necessity of resorting to an apocalyptic genre in the first place. It is not without significance, therefore, that John incorporates a serious note of stridency when he repeatedly refers to ‘Babylon’ in terms of her enticing (and money-exchanging) harlotries (Rev 17:5).
It is, in fact, the capitalistic susceptibility of urban modes of conflation that predisposes them, I suggest, to a type of mixing and matching that challenges a more rigorous understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ and its capacity to provoke transformation. Cities inherently promote the possibilities of entrepreneurial agendas that are rife with hopes of a better future. These hopes, however, are not always well placed and are certainly not always altruistic. They very easily deteriorate into solipsistic ventures that reap collective disparity in terms of rights, advantages, and the various factors that end up being determinative of who and who is not important. Pursuits of this kind require assessment, therefore, that does not hesitate to question both social and individual criteria of value.
The good news of the kingdom, among other things, is a hopeful enquiry into and an eventual declaration of ultimate value; where it lies and what is its source. It cannot concede, then, to the levelling effect of any form of syncretism, whether overt and programmatic, or to more sly versions that come in the guise of the reasonability of upward mobility that determines value solely on the basis of productivity. Concession of this sort may appear conciliatory and therefore advantageous. But it colludes with culture in such a way that robs the gospel of its central place in advocating for urban health and broader, more equitable happiness. The gospel, in fact, is emancipative in nature, freeing the imaginative capacity that continually seeks expression in the even nobler objective of the shalom purposes of God. It is a gospel, in other words, that rejects syncretistic temptations not in spite of, but in the interest of and for the sake of the city.
Dr Wesley White
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