Folk Christianity (Part 4)

The Prophetic Tradition and Resisting Folk Religion

During the period of Judah and Israel’s monarchies, it was the prophets who resisted folk Yahwism, that is worshipping YHWH alongside the gods of indigenous folk religion. As I mentioned in the previous post, scholars have pointed out that Israel became truly monotheistic only after the Babylonian exile which brought independent monarchy to an end. With the national existential crisis of the destruction of the temple, the capital and exile from their homeland, the warnings of the prophets over the centuries that folk Yahwism will have disastrous consequences had been horrifically vindicated. Yet it was those same words that gave the people hope for restoration, refocusing and energizing them for covenant faithfulness to YHWH alone.

It is because of the prophets we have the Sacred Scriptures and the generations of people who have historically organized their lives and communities around it. Without their activity biblical religion woul not exist today, let alone have unparalleled historical and global influence. They not only resisted folk religion, they overcame it. The prophetic tradition is therefore a powerful heritage to draw on if people wish to practice biblically faithful religion.

That being said we must remember the prophets were not immune to the allures of syncretic folk religion. Folk Yahwism was part of their culture and society so it was just as natural to go with the flow. The Bible in no uncertain terms gives us insights into how difficult it was to go against the grain of their own society. So as we draw inspiration from the prophetic tradition to live faithfully, we must remember it is difficult and when we face difficulty it is not strange.

The prophetic tradition is very long, rich and varied. There is so much that can be said about it and so much that can be learned from it even regarding this specific issue of resisting folk religion. On this question I will make three fairly brief points highlighting how the prophets remained faithful in the face of syncretism. They are the power of the word, forming alternative community, and being a creative minority.

No two biblical prophets were the same but what was true of all of them was that God spoke through them. They were specially called and empowered by the word of God. They were servants of the word. What exactly is the word of God? It might seem obvious but a word is a very complex thing in itself. The fields of linguistics, cognitive psychology, and the philosophy of language have shown that speech, not just great works of literature but the ordinary things we say, is a wonderfully profound phenomenon. Imagine for a moment the ability to speak was completely erased from existence and certainly human society and identity would immediately collapse. We are irrevocably speaking creatures and speech steers the course of our existence as a species. This deep appreciation of the word as a potent, multifaceted thing is present in scripture and is taken to a whole another level with the belief that one god created everything by the power of his word. Christians tend to think of the Bible as the written word of God. While this is not wrong we must remember that in biblical Israel they did not yet have the Bible. So the word of God cannot be reduced to ink on a page. This is not to say scripture does not matter but we need to first grasp what it claims to capture and makes it powerful which is the word of God.

In Scripture and the Authority of God, N.T. Wright concisely and instructively points to an expanded vision of what the divine word is.

[I]n and through it all we find the elusive but powerful idea of God’s “word,” not as a synonym for the written scriptures, but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating… (Psalm 33:6; Jeremiah 23:29; Isaiah 40:8; 55:10–11; Deuteronomy 30:14). This view of YHWH’s “word” in the Old Testament is very instructive. It is as though, to put it one way, “the word of YHWH” is like an enormous reservoir, full of creative divine wisdom and power, into which the prophets and other writers tap by God’s call and grace, so that the word may flow through them to do God’s work of flooding or irrigating his people. Or, to put it another way, the creator God, though utterly transcendent over and different from the world which he has made, remains present and active within that world, and one of the many ways in which this is so is through his living and active word. This reflects God’s own nature on the one hand; it is a natural and normal thing for this God to speak, not some anthropomorphic projection onto a blank deistic screen! On the other hand, it reflects the fact that, within God’s world, one of the most powerful things human beings, God’s image-bearers, can do is to speak. Words change things—through promises, commands, apologies, warnings, declarations of love or of implacable opposition to evil. The notion of “speech-acts,” which… is fairly new in philosophy … would not have surprised the ancient Israelite prophets. As Walter Brueggemann puts it in his Theology of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1997, 146), expounding Psalm 33:6: “The imagery is of a powerful sovereign who utters a decree from the throne, issues a fiat, and in the very utterance the thing is done.”

Speaking of Brueggemann, his classic book The Prophetic Imagination helped me make the connection that just as God by his word created the world, the prophets used God’s word to create alternative realities, that is a different way of being in the world. The word instructed and enabled the prophets to live differently. Folk religion encompasses a particular worldview and social imaginary. It is a way of living in and understanding the world. The word the prophets spoke implied a radically different way of seeing and acting in the world as the creation of YHWH who has called Israel to be his covenant people. The word not only bore faithful witness to what true religion was, it powerfully generated a robust alternative vision of reality. Living faithfully to YHWH encompassed one’s whole life, therefore the word of YHWH had to empower that divinely enlightened way of being human. The word inspired a different type of life.

The biblical prophets are often thought of as solitary figures. They were individually called by God and they were never popular. However, we must recognize that if the prophets did not gain some acceptance, no matter how limited, they would not have ultimately succeeded. We know from the time of Samuel at least, prophets travelled in companies which scholars have dubbed a “guild” or “school of prophets”, possibly instituted by Samuel himself. Apart from that, as the story of Elijah illustrates after he went on the run from Jezebel thinking he was the last man standing for YHWH in Israel, God always has a faithful remnant reserved. There was always an alternative community that heeded the prophets’ words, resisting folk religion and remaining faithful to YHWH.

Brueggemann explains in his aforementioned book that prophets were called to create alternative realities and within them form alternative communities. The archetypal example he cites is Moses birthing a counter-imperial nation through the Exodus. By saying YHWH alone is god and not the Egyptian pantheon, Moses was challenging pharaoh and the imperial reality which was undegirded by the gods. In God being victorious over pharaoh and his forces who embodied the imperial ideology and consciousness, he overthrew that vision of reality with a new reality of freedom and rest. The prophet Moses was his means of instituting that new reality through the word YHWH commissioned him to speak. Just as the word of YHWH created a new world, it created a new people through the same word which God empowered his prophets to speak. In fact the founding of Israel is often talked about in the Bible using creation language and motifs. God’s word empowers us to be a different people. The New Testament draws on this Exodus type language when it describes the church as a “peculiar” people. It is YHWH’s creative word that forms these alternative communities. To effectively resist cultural syncretism there needs to be a working counter example, a living model of a different way.

To resist folk religion we have to do it in community. There has to be a critical mass of people who will not be compromised by the culture to sustain pure religion. To do this the alternative community has to have the mindset of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls a “creative minority.” He borrows the term from 20th century historian Arnold Toynbee who developed a complex theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. Toynbee argued that for any civilization to sustain itself it needs a “creative minority”, that is a small group of cultural innovators who will be listened to by the majority because they create ways for the society to adapt and evolve to new challenges. Without a creative minority Toynbee conjectured that civilisations become stagnant and eventually collapse under their own weight. Sacks with some modification took Toynbee’s idea and indicated that Jeremiah 29, the prophet’s famous letter to the Babylonian exiles began the formation of a creative community which sustained Jewish identity in the time of crisis and preserved it to this day. Jeremiah envisioned a new way to be God’s people outside of the land God had given them which has been crucial for Jewish people throughout the ages. This is an example of what Brueggemann calls the “prophetic imagination”, that is the prophet’s ability to see and articulate a different reality thereby creating new possibilities. Even before the exile the prophets led creative minority’s inspired by the prophetic imagination. That is why they survived exile and were even able to flourish inspite of it. They were able to resist the pressure to syncretize from within and without the culture. This kind of robustness is something we need to aspire to in the face of the totalizing influence of folk religion.

I have spoken mostly about the “creative” aspect of “creative minorities.” Listening to Rabbi Sacks what struck me the most was the significance of being a minority. For some time I had the growing impression that one of the problems of Ghanaian Christianity is its cultural dominance. When you’re in the majority, your point of view is the default and you take things for granted. When you’re a minority you live more intentionally and you better appreciate the circumstance you find yourself in because you know your continued existence is by no means guaranteed. Being a minority necessitates creative ways of maintaining your identity in the midst of the pressure to conform to the dominant culture. You have to be distinct but find a way to accommodate without compromise. If you’re in the majority you do not have to worry about being distinct. Since Christianity is part of the dominant culture in Ghana, there is nothing particularly distinctive about being Christian. It is just part of being Ghanaian, a culturally adulterated religion, that is, folk Christianity. If the premise that Christianity is from above is true, to be in complete alignment with the culture from below is to betray who we are.

If Christianity is to continue in a biblically robust manner we need to have a minority mindset. If we think as if we are in the minority, that our views and manner of life will not be automatically accepted, we will not be complacent. We will be existentially motivated to be fully committed to our identity knowing that without doing that there is a real possibility we could lose it. If you recognize what it means to be truly Christian is to be a minority, that is you do not follow worldly patterns, you start to take scripture more seriously and you become committed to its vision of what it means to be Christian.

This minority mentality is clear in scripture. The people of God were never numerically mighty to begin with and God never wanted them to forget they were elect precisely because they were small. The people of God are specially called, chosen, select, separate, holy. During the exile these ideas came into sharp relief as they struggled to maintain their identity as captives in a foreign land. The New Testament draws from the exile paradigm in exhorting the Church in a hostile pagan world. Jesus said the world does it one way but it should not be so among you. To be first we must be last, to be the greatest we must be the least, to be master we must be servant. Our weakness is strength, our foolishness is wisdom. This is the paradoxical power of the crucified Christ. It is a completely different way of being, as such we have to be a creative minority. A minority in the sense that we are truly different and creative in the sense that we are empowered by God’s creative word to be new people.

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