Rev Hendrik du Plessis January 2021
Cult or Culture
A false statement
A false problem statement is, as we all know, a problem that stems from a false perception. The origin is false but the problem becomes a reality. In the mission field, one often struggles with such problem statements. After years of ministering, it can so easily flare up again depending on the right questions at the right time.
I will give a few examples:
During a visit from a certain anthropologist, I held a Bible study one evening. Afterwards she asked the Naro speaking San people from our village, a few questions, which caught them off guard. “You have your own religion,” she said. Why do you still need the religion of the European people? You have served the Lord, prayed and danced to Him for centuries – or to whom else have you done this? Was it the devil?”
Later another anthropologist visited us at D’kar with a group of San people from South Africa who could no longer speak their own language. They only spoke Afrikaans. With them was their leader, whom everyone called Uncle Jan, with a bunch of bones and other things hanging around his neck. The purpose of their visit was to catch up on their “spiritual backlog” from our “Bushmen”. This specifically refers to the trance dances during which the dancers go into a trance – often so bad that they literally go crazy, want to climb trees, fall into the fire and make the most horrible unearthly sounds. Some of them just head off in a direction and then other people have to run after them to stop them from crashing into trees or fences. During this trance, the hands are laid on the sick and they are apparently healed. I have not yet seen the evidence of that, but this is what they claim.
One evening such a trance dance was arranged for the visitors so that they could see first-hand and experience how it should be done. Spontaneously, the dance began with the women’s whining songs and the men dancing around the fire.
Uncle Jan (the leader and a man of mixed race) sat next to me – he knew his Bible surprisingly well, but unfortunately mixed it syncretisticly with all kinds of dreams, omens and cultural practices.
Later, as the music progressed, the men began to go into a trance. One of them then started to make howling sounds and jerks. I drew Uncle Jan’s attention to this. He answered me: “He is now going into the depths of the Holy Spirit.” I immediately responded and said: “I do not believe this is of the Holy Spirit.” He was aggravated by my reaction and went to bed shortly afterwards.
The next day I was requested to apologize to him for my statement. The anthropologist who was with them was furious with me and lit one cigarette after another and constantly verbally attacked me, “. . . how dare you. . . this and that …”. The lady in charge of our dance group, a Dutch speaking Roman Catholic lady, was all too eager to put the blame on me, because not seeing the trance dances as divine was for her a sacred sin. My response was: “I did not mean or try to hurt anyone, nor to insult anyone. On the contrary, I only spoke to the leader and did not use my position to offend anyone. But I cannot be silent about my beliefs. He had the right to say what he believes, so have I. I certainly cannot live with my conscience and pretend to believe what I do not. After all, I would then be hypocritical.”
One of the trance dancers started to attend church services regularly and was determined to make a confession of faith, which he did. This resulted in him losing interest in trance dancing altogether. He was one of Kuru’s dancers who occasionally danced for tourists. When he mentioned to our cultural centre that he no longer wants to dance and that he now comes to church regularly, the Roman Catholic lady was furious over this. She blamed me for influencing him. Unfortunately, he eventually surrendered to their influence.
Recently, an Indian anthropologist made an appointment with me. She wanted to know more about our church’s history. Very carefully she formulated her question but I soon realized where she was heading. When she asked where we as a church stand to the San people’s culture? I answered that as far as I was concerned there is a distinction between culture and cult.
Culture is a man-made arrangement in which different peoples maintain and live in different ways, which in itself is not wrong, but a cult is a way of worship that is contrary to what Scripture teaches us. Along with that, there are a large majority of superstitions that are not at all reconcilable with Scripture.
I gave her a few examples:
- Recently I buried a child and the mother and a few other women cried uncontrollably. According to them, a certain person they called by name, has bewitched and killed the child. My question to the Indian anthropologist was: “If witchcraft is part of their culture and the faith around it, should we as a church support such things for the sake of culture?”
- If a certain person has malaria or tuberculosis, but the culture claims he is bewitched and needs to be danced for to break the forces, should we preserve this heritage in the name of culture? Do you have to watch someone fade away and die in front of your eyes for the sake of culture, to preserve the so-called beautiful heritage?
- Should we motivate the people to fear all the evils that will come upon them if they do not preserve certain rituals, because the culture is full of such rituals and fears?
These are just a few of the many problems we face when it comes to culture.
Then there are questions that come genuinely and sincerely from the San people themselves.
- Their ancestors danced for rain and then the Lord gave them rain.
- If someone was sick, they danced for the sick and asked the Lord to heal him – or was it the devil that healed him?
It sounds like weighty questions and it evokes great sympathy until one shines the light of the Bible on it.
This brings us to the big question in the mission field: What does the Bible say about this?
This is a question that many people in Africa ask: “Before we came into contact with Christianity, we were religious. When we prayed, we did not pray to the devil, but to God. If we asked him something, he gave it to us. Surely it was not the devil who gave it to us?” Therefore, for many African religions, it does not feel wrong to incorporate some syncretistic mixture into their Christian faith.
A Zulu once said to me: “I pray to my ancestors who then convey the message to Christ and Christ then to God.”
What does the Bible say about these false statements?
In Acts 14, Paul and his company had to flee. They had to leave Iconium in a hurry because a movement arose among the Gentiles and also among the Jews with their rulers to harm and stone Paul. When they realized this, they fled to Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe. In Lystra there sat a man who was paralyzed at his feet, crippled from birth, he never walked. While Paul was speaking, he kept listening. Paul looked at him and saw that this man had faith to be healed. With a loud voice Paul said to him, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped and walked.” The crowd was amazed and said to one another in Lycaonia: “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the crowds. 14But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran into the crowd, crying out 15and saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, 16who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. 17Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.’ 18And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the crowds from sacrificing to them.”
In this section we notice some important things.
In the first place, Paul did not try to compromise between Christ and their religions, and yet Paul was not unsympathetic to them. “We also are men with the same nature as you,” he says.
Secondly, he does not condemn them, but the senseless gods and calls on them to repent without compromising between their so-called gods and the God of the Bible.
In the third place, he introduces Him (God) to them: “the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them”.
Fourthly, he wants to free them from misunderstanding and includes all nations under one umbrella when he says, “16who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways.”
“Own ways” then means by the nature of the matter the opposite of “God’s ways”. Therefore, they must repent. To someone who could say, “Yes, Paul, I hear what you are saying, but in the past we have prayed our way to God or to the gods or consulted our ancestors in our own way and we were answered.”, his clear and unequivocal answer is: “17Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”
Though God allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways, to set their own ways, God was not in the least absent as far as His general mercy was concerned. If the San people danced around the fire in the Kalahari in their ignorance and distress and the Eskimos in Antarctica and the Indians in South America, God was not absent in His general grace at all.
The distorted image of God that every nation has had or has, does not at all make God apathetic to their personal need of every day, but when the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is preached, it comes with the drastic call: “We bring you the good news that you must put an end to these senseless gods and turn to the living God.” Paul could not put it more clearly. There was a time when God in his tolerance allowed each nation to set its own course, but there is also a time when each nation is faced with the drastic choice: Either Christ or my own course to eternal damnation.
It comes down to the fact that in the past God has heard people in their need with his general grace by way of rain from heaven that he gave, regular harvests, plenty of food and even made them happy. It was not the devil who heard them, but God, who was merciful to them, even though in their ignorance they sought the face of God in a diabolical way.
It further means that there must be a drastic reversal and that there must be no systematic transition or reconciliation between Christ and one’s own course at all.If sacrifices were ever made on the altar of the unknown god in Acts 17, it could no longer be done after that, because Christ is the only sacrifice for our sins.
If the ancestors had been consulted in the past, it would then be intentional devil worship to go on with it, for Christ is the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Him.
Back to the question of cult or culture. In culture, not everything is necessarily bad or evil. God in his general grace also shone his light there that a thief is punished accordingly and that the youth learn to respect the old people.
In English culture we have “ladies first”, while in the African culture the man should rather lead the way to protect the woman.
Every culture has its music, rhythms and dances that in themselves are not necessarily wrong. How many beautiful proverbs are simply not locked up in own language, which testifies to the fact that God in His general grace also let His light shine there by way of beautiful proverbs and insights to maintain order and authority.
Even of the most anti-Christian government that ever existed, Paul writes in Romans 13: “1Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”
Culturally there are many beautiful things that one can appreciate from every nation, but unfortunately between these culturally beautiful things also lay hidden occult practices of which every nation must repent before God.
Some also ask the question: “What about the Sangomas with their roots digging and the drinking of their concoctions you very often get healed. Is there something wrong with that?” Of course not, there is anything wrong with that per se. Very often one find the contents of the roots in a more refined form in the pharmacy.
As Christians, we believe that God in His grace made the plant material available to us, not only as our food but also as our medicine, but as soon as I use the same plant that God has given me to treat my headaches against God’s intention and then hang it around my neck or bury it at my doorpost to protect me from evil spirits or evils, I move from culture to cult.
This is where these witchdoctors are so dangerous, because in this natural medicine that God has given us, they have in many cases added an occult dimension to rely outside of God on created things in the place of the Creator.
Cult then always accompanies fear. If you do not strictly follow certain rituals, certain evils can strike you. Thus, many cult leaders have a spiritual hold on people around him.
The San people has a beautiful culture, but unfortunately also many cultic superstitions that have a restrictive or stifling influence on them, which makes it impossible to live out their culture fully to the glory of Christ.
Many anthropologists have a romantic idea of the San and do not want to make any distinction between cult and culture. For them, it is one pretty beautiful heritage. To the anthropologist who came to visit us, I said that day: “While you are sitting there behind your desk writing the most beautiful books, I bury people with tears in my eyes because of superstitions you want to preserve to their downfall. While you are taking beautiful pictures of the “healing dance” around the fire, we have to deal with the harsh reality that the “healing dance” cannot cure tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS and so on. Many of them were buried because they refused medical treatment and only relied on the dances.”
Had they received healing by means of these dances before the coming of the Gospel, it was none other than the Lord who had mercy on them by way of his general grace, not because the dances were anything but because the Lord through his general mercy pardoned them in their difficult circumstances.
It is our daily struggle as missionaries, to separate culture and cult from each other so that each in his own culture can bow the knee before Christ and acknowledge that He alone is Lord and God. May God give us the insight and wisdom to do so.
Your brother in Christ,
Hendrik du Plessis.