Synced with Culture

Had our grandparents heard, “I need to sync my watch with my phone,” thirty years ago, they would have thought you wanted to submerge your phone and watch in water—and would probably have been quite nervous about your sanity. Today, however, the idea of “syncing” is everywhere. Google and Apple sync all compatible devices on your account so that moving between them is seamless (and so that you stay loyal to their platforms). I take a picture on my phone, and ten seconds later I can look at it on my computer through Google Photos. I save a document on my computer and three seconds later can access it on my phone through Google Drive. While a generation ago this would have seemed like a storyline in a sci-fi novel, it’s just reality today. Mostly the concept of syncing is handy (though admittedly a bit creepy). It allows harmony among our many devices. However, being “in sync” can also be quite dangerous.

You’ve probably heard of the concept of syncretism—the blending of one religion or philosophy with another. Typically, we think of this happening on the mission field. For instance, in Mexico the spiritism of the Aztec beliefs has blended with Catholicism, creating a mystical hybrid religion. This accounts for the unique celebration of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in which adherents believe that the spirit of a deceased loved one will come for a visit. Syncretism may also be seen in polytheistic countries where the denizens accept Christ as one of their gods and add Him to their pantheon. Because of these extreme examples, we’re tempted to believe that syncretism is something that happens “over there” in “those countries.” It’s not something that we have to deal with—or is it?

Admittedly, examining culture is difficult when you’re living in the midst of it. We see much more clearly when we look at bygone generations and evaluate their cultural philosophies. Therefore, we will not have as tight a grip on what’s going on in today’s culture as our successors will fifty or a hundred years from now. However, that should not stop us from scrutinizing where we have blended the gods of our culture with the God of the Gospel. Though there are many examples, I want to consider just two.

Jesus + the American Dream

Rags-to-riches stories always seem to arrest our attention. We find something about a poor, down-on-their-luck person making it big irresistible. As Americans, we love and cling to our “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And that’s not necessarily bad. The opportunity for prosperity outshines the weight of oppression any day. While Christ has many warnings for the rich, He never condemns them for having money. And though the verse is often misquoted, money itself is not the root of all kinds of evil, rather the love of it (1 Tim. 6:10). That’s where the problem comes in.

Because as Americans we seem to be hardwired to pursue success and prosperity, we don’t give it up easily. Christ-followers are called to a different path, a narrow and difficult one that “winds uphill all the way.”[1] Our treasures ought not amass in a bank account or under a floorboard or mattress; no, the treasure chest of the Christian lies in heaven. However, we often attempt to sync the two. We attend church, give our tithe, sing the songs and maybe even attend a midweek Bible study and then say to ourselves, “Look at all the heavenly treasure!” Meanwhile, at every other turn we fixate on accruing treasure in the here and now as we covet the “next big thing,” plan the perfect beach vacation, or browse Zillow for our dream house.

In one of his most famous sermons, John Piper said this about the American Dream:

I tell you what a tragedy is. I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest (Feb. 2000, 98) what a tragedy is: “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.”

The American Dream: come to the end of your life — your one and only life — and let the last great work before you give an account to your Creator be, “I collected shells. See my shells.” That is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream.[2] 

The “dangers, toils, and snares” that John Newton mentions in his most famous hymn don’t always come as storms, famines, and persecution. God has extended grace upon grace to America, though she doesn’t deserve it any more than her war-torn neighbors on the other side of the ocean. Yet with that comfort and prosperity come subtle traps from the enemy. Satan cackles with joy as he sees American Christians work more fervently and passionately than they worship so that, just like their unsaved neighbors, they can retire early. He giggles with glee as he watches American believers bask in comfort and safety, never venturing their reputation or savings for the sake of a greater Kingdom. He dances with delight when Christ-followers mimic the world in raising their families, attending church on Sunday (when it’s convenient) while lapping up the lies of culture during the week as they ferry their kids from one activity to another so that they will be “successful” when they grow up.

Jesus + Hatred

If you’ve spent any time on social media, or even looking at the news today, chances are pretty good that you have already encountered the hatred that seems to fuel every news cycle and many a Tweet and Facebook post. Many times, it’s political, maybe even from the politicians themselves. Name-calling and finger-pointing run rampant on both sides of the aisle. And then there’s the protesting. It seems that every event of any size must be accompanied by a band of angry protesters. The realm of athletics is no exception. Of course, expressing outrage at referees is nothing new, nor brawls between the athletes. However, the hatred does seem to be reaching new levels. Myles Garrett plays defensive end for the Cleveland Browns (6’4”, 271 lbs.), and on October 16, 2019, without provocation, he was punched in the face by a man posing as a fan who wanted a picture with him.[3] Stories like this are a dime a dozen; but most are not so innocuous. It’s unthinkable, but we have become almost desensitized to news stories of mass shootings because of their ubiquity. Yes, we live in a culture that loves to hate.

Jesus-followers are called to be different. Before His crucifixion, Christ told His disciples that the world would identify them by their love for one another (John 13:35). However, what should mix like cats and water—Christian love and worldly hatred—have become one. We just dress up our hatred in “Jesus clothing.” Christian tweets and blog posts often reek with as much disdain as their secular counterparts. We sling mud at each other every bit as the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. We claim moral high ground, believing that we have the right, no obligation, to lambaste fellow believers for something that disagrees with our practice or doctrine.

 But this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. Listen to Jesus’ brother Jude: “And have mercy on some who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (vv. 22-23, emphasis added). I’m afraid that we have confused his exhortations. We have forgotten that confrontation is a rescue mission, not a public lynching. We hate the sin (the “garment polluted by the flesh”)—not our brother himself. Beyond issues of sin, we treat disagreements over practice like matters of eternity. While Scripture clearly calls us to confront a sinning brother in his sin (James 5:19-20; Gal. 6:1-5), these passages do not give license to publicly (or privately) eviscerate a fellow believer. For every passage about confrontation, we could probably find ten about the importance of love (Jn. 13:35; 1 Cor. 13:1-8; Eph. 4:31-5:2; Col. 3:14; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2:17; 3:8; 4:8; 1 Jn. 2:9-11; 3:18).

Our outrage doesn’t stop with the family of Christ, however. It’s easy to take angry shots at politicians and policies with which we disagree. In some cases, our indignation may be righteous. For instance, the extinguishing of precious unborn lives is abominable and must be stopped. We’re right to hate such an atrocity and to use our constitutional rights to see it stopped. However, our ghoulish hearts can easily slip from righteous anger to ugly hatred. Attacking the opponent (even if accompanied with a Bible verse or “bless their heart”) rather than the problem mimics the god of this world, not the God of the Gospel. Yes, we are called to stand for righteousness, to condemn sin, and confront a sinning brother; but I’m afraid that we’re often doing it with a hefty plank of hatred hanging out of our eye. We have adopted the world’s system of broadcasting disagreements and disguised it with a clumsy Christian mask.

Syncretism isn’t something faced only by missionaries in the dark jungles of Africa. It is a tool wielded masterfully by our enemy, with which he attacks us all. I’m influenced by the culture as well. I’m as prone to respond in hatred as the next person. I am daily tempted to trust in horses, chariots, and bank accounts rather than the Lord my God. So, I write this as a hunting expedition of my own heart. I don’t want to accuse you or berate you, but lovingly rescue you and “snatch you out of the fire.” So I ask you to consider, where have you blended the gods of our culture with the one true God?

[1] See “Uphill” by Christina Rossetti.

[2] Check out the entire sermon here:

[3] You can find the story here:

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