The idea of Christianity crossing cultural boundaries fascinates me. We’ve seen it since the beginning of course, with Jewish, Middle Eastern, Greek, Latin, and Germanic Christians all coming into the fold within the first four centuries of the church’s existence. And all of these catergories are certainly too broad. The most interesting issues for me are how Christian teachings are interepreted by each group. How does Christianity change the cultures that it enters? What do converts keep from their pre-Christian traditions? What effects do these changes have on the culture and the church?
So the story that I related in the last post raised some interesting issues for me.
- First, I was struck that the belief in a spirit world by the Sudanese Christians seems to mirror their traditional beliefs before conversion and probably puts them closer to the mindset of early Christians on this issue than many Western Christians today. A sermon last Sunday pointed to the idea of darkness in the world that appears in the Gospel of John, and Peter Brown and the Western Civ textbook that I use also point out that early Christians believed in a world full of hostile spirits.
- Second, some quick searching seems to confirm that Nhialic is the Dinka word for a supreme God. Lamin Sanneh said in Whose Religion is Christianity? that using African words for God, rather than trying to import European words, has helped Christianity to spread. From some of my reading, it seems that African religions tend to have one creator god over all the other gods.
- Third, this strikes me as a different approach than the early Christians took. Peter Brown writes that the early Christians viewed the pagan gods as devils rather than nonexistent. One illustration of this is in St. Ambrose’s letter to Emperor Valentinian II, arguing that a pagan altar should not be rebuilt: “the gods of the heathen,” as Scripture says, “are devils.” It seems (and I could be wrong) that Christians used the general words for deity, deus (Latin) and theos (Greek), rather than promoting a specific connection between God and a creator god like Uranus. I don’t have the theological or missiological background to defend or criticize either approach. I just thought that it was interesting.
- Finally, the idea of the cross as possessing spiritual power is an interesting parallel to the protective properties of sacred symbols and objects that has a long history in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.
Sometimes, I’m struck by how naturalistic and secular my training in history is. It gave me the tools to explain and compare but not to comment authoritatively on differing Christian beliefs and practices. What are your reactions to the descriptions of the cross in Bor Dinka Christianity and the way that the Gospel crosses cultural boundaries?