Evangelical Syncretism

I am astonished at how many evangelicals think that it is okay to observe a Ramadan fast with Muslims. Christianity Today has published remarks from ten evangelicals, five (or perhaps seven) of which think that it’s okay to fast with Muslims during Ramadan. Douglas Wilson is the last of the ten, and he sounds the clearest note against such a practice. He writes:

“It is not appropriate to fast alongside Muslims. I wouldn’t make a point, if I were in a heavily Muslim state where everybody is fasting during the day, of fixing a hot dog and walking outside and eating it … but to observe Ramadan along with your Muslim neighbors and friends, letting them know that you’re observing Ramadan as an act of some sort of religious or spiritual solidarity, is simply a fundamental compromise. They’re observing Ramadan in the service of a false God and a false gospel, and we shouldn’t be trying to express our solidarity with that.”

I wrote about this topic last August when Brian McLaren announced that he would be observing a Ramadan fast this year. I said then, and I reiterate now that such a fast is a total compromise of the gospel. Christians like Richard Mouw and Brian McLaren who are observing a fast during Ramadan offer the most theologically vacuous reasons for doing so. In fact they sound as if they have no real understanding what the Bible teaches about fasting.

Fasting in the Christian tradition is irreducibly Christocentric. It involves praying to the Father of Christ (Mt 6:18) and longing for the return of Christ (Mt 9:15). The meaning and aim of the Muslim fast has nothing to do with Jesus. How can one observe Ramadan in any meaningful sense and do a Christian fast? The answer is that you can’t. If you try, you will end up distorting the Christian fast with syncretistic gobbledy-goop that is no longer recognizably Christian.

Unfortunately, gobbledy-goop is all that we get from at least seven of the evangelicals in the CT piece. What a sad commentary on the state of evangelical piety.

23 Responses to Evangelical Syncretism

  1. Lindsey October 28, 2009 at 9:10 am #

    I’m not sure that I agree on the idea that the comments from Mateen Elass, Joel Hunter, and Ron Kernahan are “gobbledy-goop.” Much of the other explanations were pretty fluffy and alarmingly more focused on solidarity than evangelism, but Kernahan especially makes a solid point about prayer and fasting in Jesus’ name and for the salvation of Muslim friends.

    I’m quite compelled by Hunter’s comment as well, that it’s not appropriate if “one is doing it just to be a nice person and identify with a Muslim neighbor,” but it’s a sweeping generalization to say that all Christians who fast during Ramadan (during, not as a part of) have those motivations. If one were to fast for Christian reasons–be drawn closer to Christ and be more like Christ–and a Muslim neighbor observes and, as Elass pointed out, thinks, “Here’s someone who is serious about obeying God as much as we are,” and a relationship based on an open dialogue about spiritual beliefs is created, then all the better.

  2. russware October 28, 2009 at 10:23 am #

    “such a fast is a total compromise of the gospel”

    Come now.

    I agree that a Christian fast is always Christocentric. But, it does not follow that any other type of fast is anti-Christian, or anti-gospel.

  3. Chris Wilson October 28, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    Russ,

    If a Muslim says he is fasting as an observance of his religion, whatever that means to him, and if a Christian agrees to share in that with him, doesn’t that mean that the Christian is honoring that religious practice in the same spirit as the Muslim?

    Wouldn’t that me a compromise of our faithfulness to Christ?

  4. Denny Burk October 28, 2009 at 10:37 am #

    Russ,

    I disagree. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matt 6:24).

    Also, consider James 4:4, “Friendship with the world is hostility toward God. Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

    Biblically speaking, There is no such thing as neutrality toward Christ.

  5. Darius T October 28, 2009 at 10:38 am #

    Russ, how is a Muslim fast not anti-gospel? It’s all about earning God’s favor and moralism, which stands in enmity with the Gospel. It’s not neutral… then again, nothing is gospel-neutral. Either it affirms the gospel or rejects it.

    Would you also say that it would have been cool if the Israelites fasted or feasted with their Canaanite neighbors during Baalic holidays?

    Showing solidarity with a false religion only serves to further confirm that false religion in the minds of its followers.

    That said, something along the lines of what Lindsey said could be done appropriately (if the gospel was prominently preached in the process).

  6. russware October 28, 2009 at 10:46 am #

    Denny,

    I obviously affirm the scriptures you are quoting, I simply am not in line with your broad application of such related to the question of the practice of fasting, and specifically the suggestion that a Christian who would practice a fast that in any way relates to Ramadan, is completely compromising the gospel.

    I’m not always clear what the term ‘biblically speaking’ means, but I agree the ultimately neutrality toward Christ is untenable.

    Darius,

    I agree that a Muslim fast is anti-gospel.

  7. russware October 28, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    ‘that’ not ‘the’… dang, hit the button too soon.

  8. Darius T October 28, 2009 at 10:52 am #

    So Russ, you would support a fast in the spirit of what Lindsey said, but not in the spirit of how McLaren went about it?

    In other words, would you agree that a Christian should only partake in a Christocentric fast?

  9. russware October 28, 2009 at 11:00 am #

    I agree with Lindsey. I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with McLaren’s approach.

    If by Christocentric,you mean to suggest that the only licit fast for the Christian in one that is directly related to Christian piety and has Christian devotion as it’s main intent, then no, I do not agree. For example, a 24 fast before a surgery might not be considered Christocentric in these terms, but it’s not ant-gospel, or sinful.

  10. Darius T October 28, 2009 at 11:03 am #

    Good point. Sorry, I meant more along the lines of religious-oriented fasts…

  11. russware October 28, 2009 at 11:19 am #

    Thanks Darius,

    Now let me quickly add that I understand your intent given the context. The reason I make the point is that it can bring some clarity to the discussion and even open us to be a little more open to those Christians who have chosen various reasons to practice a fast that in some way relates to the Muslim fast. Some may indeed be problematic, but some may not be.

    I simply think that Denny, once again in this case, has allowed his extremism to compromise the precision and accuracy of his premise. And then, once again, he applies his premise in such a broad way as to further compromise the accuracy of his point.

    For instance, could Denny exegete the scriptures he quoted above in such a way as to show how these biblical admonitions show error or sin directly related to each of the stated motivations/practices of those Christians choosing to practice a fast that in some way relates to Ramadan?

  12. Nathan October 28, 2009 at 1:46 pm #

    Russ,

    It appears you are desirous of being generous towards “those Christian who have chosen various reasons to practice a fast that in some way relates to the Muslim fast.”

    However, I haven’t been able to read how you clearly define the parameters that they could do this (fast as a Christian while relating to Ramadan). I really don’t see how one can say one the one hand, I want to participate with you in Ramadan, but on the other hand, say I am doing it as a Christian.

    That just seems contradictory and problematic.

  13. russware October 28, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    Nathan,

    I am not making any attempt to clearly define the parameters for Christians who would choose to practice such a fast.

    I am simply pushing against the idea, so broadly suggested, that there is no way to do so without gospel compromise. I do not agree with the blanket suggestion that to do so in any way is to be equated with ‘serving two masters’ or becoming an ‘enemy of God.’

    A specific judgment would require a specific case, which is not the context of this post. And at any rate, that is not my intent or desire.

    I do think we should always be generous in our assumptions related to our brothers and sisters in Christ who might practice the faith in a way that we might not. Certainly, it is also our calling, in proper context, to point out clear and specific error when we see it in a sister or brother. But broad generalizations, especially as related not to specific theological principles, but rather general practices, tend to fail this calling.

  14. Lindsey October 28, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    Russ,

    I really appreciate your comments. You are making well the point I wanted to make with my first post!

    Question: do you all think that it is overstepping a boundary to say that there is a cultural aspect to many religious practices and that it might be possible to separate the culture from the religion, then the sin from the culture? Many Christians, for example, now practice yoga–whose roots are found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism–and simply do not participate in the spiritual aspect of it. Certainly Ramadan is inextricably tied to the religion of Islam, but over time, do you see it possibly evolving into a practice that is no longer so closely identified with Allah (much like Americans celebrating Christmas, or Halloween)? If that were to be the case, would the argument still stand that Christians cannot casually align themselves with it, even in an expressly Christ-centered way? I’m not offering an opinion; it’s just something I’ve wondered.

  15. russware October 28, 2009 at 4:19 pm #

    Lindsay,

    Hmmm… are non-Christians compromising their ‘secular faith’ when they participate in practices related to historically Christian festivals. ;-)

    Perhaps this is all a bit of a tempest in a teacup, for if we think that any Christian choosing to ‘fast during Ramadan with Muslims’ automatically means that they are observing Ramadan in its essence, then I’m sure an orthodox Muslim would be quick to correct us. One is either a Muslim, truly observing Ramadan in it’s essence and fullness (which would obviously be in contradiction to Christian faith), or one is not.

    In this sense I agree with the concerns of Larson and Wilson (the only two broad objectors from the CT piece).

    For example, if a Muslim neighbor chose to ‘join me’ in my Lenten fast next spring, perhaps because of our friendship and because he could find value in a fast related to introspection, repentance and a sort of soulish ‘spring cleaning,’ that would not make him a Christian. He would not be observing Lent as a Christian, or even in a truly Christian manner. And I wouldn’t assume that he would be compromising his Muslim faith, inasmuch as he would not be participating in the fullness and essence of a true Lenten fast. And yet, we could still rightly say that he was ‘fasting during Lent with a Christian.’

  16. Darius T October 28, 2009 at 4:30 pm #

    “And I wouldn’t assume that he would be compromising his Muslim faith”

    I can think of a few millions Muslims who would probably disagree with you and slit his throat for doing so…

  17. russware October 28, 2009 at 4:46 pm #

    Darius,

    It doesn’t matter. I am making my case from a Christian viewpoint, not a Muslim viewpoint. Obviously, they are different. For instance, I don’t think any Christians are calling for McLaren’s throat because of this. What I said was that I would not assume he was compromising his Muslim faith. At any rate, I hope you can appreciate the point of my little ‘turnabout’ example, your observation related to the Muslim viewpoint of such a scenario notwithstanding. :-)

  18. Darius T October 28, 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    I do appreciate it. :)

    I guess what matters more than whether or not other Muslims thought he was compromising or if you thought he wasn’t is this: what does his god think about it? Now, since his is a false religion and false god, that question doesn’t apply. But if we come back to applying it to Christianity, it doesn’t really matter what you or I think about someone’s fast, what God thinks is most important. And, based on the Bible, we would be remiss not to conclude that messing around with other religions is hazardous ground (people who did so in the OT tended to get smitten, and not with love).

    I don’t think you and I disagree necessarily, we just are leaning in slightly different directions. Like me arguing that something is brass-colored while you claim it is bronze…

  19. russware October 28, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    Actually, I am standing straight. You are just leaning over further than you think you are… and, of course it’s bronze! ;-)

  20. BrianW October 28, 2009 at 6:59 pm #

    To me, the passages that support the contention that such a participation is a compromise of the gospel are Jesus’ letters to the churches of Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis in Rev 2-3. Led astray by false teaching, these are churches participating in pagan religious rituals. Christ does not have kind words to these churches. If Revelation 2-3 teaches us anything its that a compromising witness of the gospel is damning and such “blending” of religious practices is just that – compromising.

  21. Ryan October 29, 2009 at 1:40 am #

    I think this Scripture are a little out of context:

    “Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matt 6:24).”
    -Isn’t this a warning against greed for wealth?

    My main point:

    Concerning this issue, I think it is also helpful to think about the fast contextually. As a former missionary to Muslims, many Muslims have a false perception of Christianity based on skewed pictures painted by their Imams or non-Western media. One such picture is a sluggish spirituality associated with Christianity. As compared to their Imams, Christians (and especially missionaries) are spiritually lazy by not observing a stringent religious lifestyle. Christians who observe Ramadan in a Christo-centric way enhance one’s witness. Disregarding such spiritual discipline is seen as further confirmation that Christians do not truly seek religious truth.

    A description of Ramadan reads: “During Ramaḍān, Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds.” Christian missionaries consistently utilize this month to debunk the aforementioned perception of sluggish spirituality as well as fasting to honor Christ and pray for their friends’ salvation. What a wonderful opportunity to redefine this ritual in a Christ-honoring way! What an opportunity to tell our Muslim friends that they cannot “purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds” and that we are praying that they will have true purity! Within the contextual argument, I also find it compelling that most converts from Islam that I know continue to follow this practice for this reason.

    A ritual such as Ramadan obviously can be anti-Christian (such as William Carey’s encounters with Sati/Suttee and infant sacrifice), but not all such practices are ungodly. It is like Paul redefining a “good” attempt at religiousity in Acts 17, or the Christian holiday of Easter (and its links to the Jewish Passover as well as redefining an already existent religious practice in the Hellenistic world), or the Anglicans and Lutherans redefining (BUT not completely discarding) received Catholic ritual.

    There is nothing wrong with fasting during this month and I tell you, I am surely not going to NOT fast just because non-believers carry out a similar religious practice…where would that take us?

  22. russware October 29, 2009 at 11:00 am #

    BrianW (comment #20)…

    Good point. I think those particular passages are helpful. They would be appropriate ‘checks’ to have right in the forefront of the mind and heart of any Christian engaging in some way in the act we are discussing.

  23. JohnCW January 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the meaning of Allah. it’s Arabic for God. Arabic Christians, Arabic Jews and Arabic Muslims use it to refer to the God of Abraham. BTW Jesus called the same God father. I’m not sure why Christians would have a problem with fasting to draw near to God.

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