The other day, someone dear to me posted an item on Facebook mocking several Old Testament scriptures. All of them were taken simplistically and out of context in pursuit of a particular social agenda. What most of them shared was how mixing (a.k.a. syncretism) is dangerous and leads to death, both national and individual. (I resisted the temptation to respond with 2nd Peter 3:3!)
Do those texts mean that redeemed followers of Christ Jesus can’t wear garments made from two fabrics, or plant fields with two kinds of seed, or eat and mix all kind of foods, or marry across races? Of course not! Emphatically not. That’s as silly a notion as taking War and Peace and reading it as if it were a software manual. The Biblical prohibitions against syncretism were all physical allegories designed for a specific, called-out set of people (the Hebrews) during a particular dispensation, to illustrate, via a grand, multi-generational, acted-out metaphor, the true and unchanging nature of a much larger spiritual reality.
The moral law (written on stone, inside the ark and thus Christ, in whom believers dwell) never changes or goes away, even as the ceremonial law (written on paper, beside the ark) did go away when Christ came in the flesh. Why the distinction? Because the purpose of all the ceremonies was to point to Jesus, the one uniquely capable of rendering us not guilty for our routine mental and physical violations of the moral law. See here for a longer and more detailed explanation of this distinction within what is often referred-to, monolithically, as ‘the law’.
Shifting gears, but on that same theme — i.e., of syncretism, or mixing — note the following…
Matthew 4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came… 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.‘” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Matthew 24:10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
NYT, June 5, 2012 — Mysterious Yoga Retreat in the Desert Ends in a Grisly Death
BOWIE, Ariz. — The rescuers had rappelled from a helicopter, swaying in the brisk April winds as they bore down on a cave 7,000 feet up in a rugged desert mountain on the edge of this rural hamlet. There had been a call for help. Inside, they found a jug with about an inch of water, browned by floating leaves and twigs. They found a woman, Christie McNally, thirsty and delirious. And they found her husband, Ian Thorson, dead.
The puzzle only deepened when the authorities realized that the couple had been expelled from a nearby Buddhist retreat in which dozens of adherents, living in rustic conditions, had pledged to meditate silently for three years, three months and three days. Their spiritual leader was a charismatic Princeton-educated monk [Michael Roach] whom some have accused of running the retreat as a cult.
Mr. Roach, who uses the title “geshe,” a type of doctoral degree in theology in the Buddhist monastic system, said he and Ms. McNally “come from strong Christian backgrounds” and “wanted to do a Christian partnership ritual at the same time we did the Buddhist one, at the beginning of our partnership.”
What, pray tell, is a “strong Christian background”? What does that mean, in plain English? What use is it, really, other than to preserve a humanistic, nostalgic, and ultimately illusory sense of cultural rituals and traditions wholly lacking heart conviction (gut-level trust) or supernatural power? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the repentance and discipleship which we see as the exclusive model for following Jesus in the Bible?
I’m reminded of an encounter with a similarly confused, higher-synthesis-seeking woman who explicitly labeled herself, “just a cultural Christian”. There is no Biblical basis for such persons… except in galvanizing passages such as Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 8:18 and Revelation 22:8 which, if rightly read, should stoke a genuine, saving fear of God, or else cause deep offense (albeit, perhaps, concealed — see Proverbs 10:18).
Sadly, that woman is emblematic of a far larger contingent who, for a host of reasons, would not admit to the ‘cultural’ part, but who, without any growing, life-pattern evidence of the radically mind-altering, life-changing rebirth Jesus calmly demands, still insist on bearing the name and going through the motions.
That all-too-widespread phenomenon confused me when I did not believe. It perplexes me even more now that I do. Given all of the alternative options, going to church is a really really lame hobby if it’s not all Jesus claimed that it is and will be. If we get to pick and choose a Jesus that suits our needs, wants, feelings and pre-set beliefs then we’d be better off spending two hours on Sunday looking in the mirror or reading a novel.
Putting all this into perspective is Ray Comfort’s classic teaching, ‘Hell’s Best Kept Secret‘ (mp3 link, 52:10), which I discovered and listened to just last night. One can also access it off the ministry website which he runs in partnership with Kirk Cameron. One of several YouTube video renditions can be found here.
One may bristle at some of brother Comfort’s semi-confrontational, semi-formulaic tactics. Even as it is clear, from his prolific life ministry, that he has genuine compassion for those he’s engaging, he often brushes past the emotional nuances and social norms that our tolerance-worshiping, privacy-oriented to-each-his-own culture has come to demand.
As I anticipate arthroscopic surgery on my knee next Monday (not a big deal, but prayer much appreciated) I’m left to ponder whether my own discomfort (pun intentional) at such human conflict is not akin to a surgeon who promises to use only cotton balls and feathers in performing urgent, life-saving surgery. The pain and intrusion of the procedure and its aftermath will surely be avoided… but so too the much-needed results.
So too a particular, perplexing portion of my garden. Even as some of the vegetables I planted are growing robustly, one section seems completely immune to productivity. Hundreds of seeds, carefully sowed, patiently watered and fed have yielded three or four anemic, fragile seedlings amidst lot of unchanged dirt. The decision I’m facing (the same one which, by way of analogy, our long-suffering, hyper-patient God faces daily with us) is whether to till that section over, set the unproductive dirt aside, and start from scratch. May our stony hearts be turned into good soil.