R. Daniel Shaw and William R. Burrows, eds., Traditional Ritual as Christian Worship: Dangerous Syncretism or Necessary Hybridity?

The Abstract

R. Daniel Shaw and William R. Burrows, eds., Traditional Ritual as Christian Worship: Dangerous Syncretism or Necessary Hybridity? Orbis, New York, 2018. 278 pp. US $50.00. ISBN: 978-1626982628. Jesus does not replace the message of Creator sent to our peoples, He completes the messages they brought. He does not take away the ceremonies, He restores and […]

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Book review by Titus Guenther

R. Daniel Shaw and William R. Burrows, eds., Traditional Ritual as Christian Worship: Dangerous Syncretism or Necessary Hybridity? Orbis, New York, 2018. 278 pp. US $50.00. ISBN: 978-1626982628.

Jesus does not replace the message of Creator sent to our peoples, He completes the messages they brought. He does not take away the ceremonies, He restores and strengthens them. His path is not that of assimilation, nor of destruction, but of peace, healing, restoration, and walking humbly with the Creator as the people He made us to be. I am in no way bound or oppressed by following Jesus, but free to follow Him on the Red Road, and take my place dancing before the Sacred Fire.

—One Hot Mama, Native American artist (v)

The above quotation encapsulates well the recurring theme of “hybrid Christianity” featured in Traditional Ritual as Christian Worship, a collection of case studies exploring the inculturation or contextualization of the gospel. On the book’s brilliant cover, with a scene of the “Last Supper,” artist Peter Dambui casts Jesus and the disciples with Melanesian features (ii); this is analogous to Gabriel Kuman’s work contextualizing the Eucharist in the Simbu Pig-Kill Festival in his chapter (54ff). But more than Melanesian-izing the scene, Dambui’s portrait links the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry (of the Word)—reading from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:16ff)—with the Last Supper (Luke 22:7–20), thus fusing the Old and New Testaments together “in his blood” (ii).

The first two chapters, by the book’s Western editors Shaw and Burrows, provide a helpful theological-anthropological foundation. All the remaining chapters are contributed by Indigenous scholars, who remind the readers “that God was in Melanesia [and elsewhere] before the arrival of the first missionaries” (59, passim). In order not to impose “foreign” worship patterns, the “Gospel communicators” (19) must study traditional rituals and ceremonies by which pre- or non-Christian peoples relate to the Creator. Indeed, “this book revolves around using traditional elements from a society’s pre-Christian past and present and find[s] ways to incorporate these elements into meaningful Christian worship in a biblically responsible way” (xxiv). Since the gospel is born into human culture through the Incarnation, it can never be “culture-free” (159), and so, argues Burrows, we must recognize “that Texans, Swedes, Italians, Peruvians, and Xhosa are all hybrid Christians” (30).

This volume is filled with astonishing examples of hybrid forms of worship. Analyzing the Costa Rican Indigenous myth and ceremony El Baile de la Yegüita (the dance of the little mare)—the basis for the Nicoyan Indigenous’ annual community-building and reconciliation festival—Osias Segura-Guzman and local pastor Gerardo conclude: “‘We can be 100 percent Costa Rican and 100 percent Christian’” (53). Similarly, two popes, on past visits to Africa, clearly agree, declaring that their hosts can be at once “authentically African and authentically Christian.”1

For several contributors, honoring the ancestors holds center stage in traditional worship (for example, Nigeria’s Igbos, Koreans, Melanesian peoples, and others). The chapters’ authors, referring frequently to Shaw and Burrows’s theoretical frame of reference, demonstrate that the traditional forms of honoring the ancestors are not a hindrance. Rather, these forms offer an excellent, non-alienating means for building a hybrid Christianity in dialogue with God’s biblically revealed “ultimate purpose” for each particular group and humanity as a whole. Exemplifying this, J. K. Daimoi’s treatise on “Ancestors as a Bridge to Understanding Jesus,” maintains that “the Epistle to the Hebrews can provide the basis for inserting the ancestors into God’s plan of salvation and for understanding the work of Jesus” (205–220, here 206). The Sentanian ancestors may be counted among the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 11) that merits their respect and honor. But “Jesus . . . is at once the ancestor and the high priest of all ancestors” (211). Jesus, who “is uniquely the Son of God . . . offers human beings eternal life, which the ancestors cannot provide” (218–19); therefore, Jesus alone is worthy of all humanity’s worship.

In another example, Cheryl Bear of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation community in British Columbia, looks at a common traditional ceremony—the smudge—to show how this can serve to further one’s devotion to God (190). Bear explains, “The smudge is a cleansing or purification ceremony” (191). Avoiding “syncretism”—“denial and condemnation of old beliefs and practices” or their “uncritical acceptance” (191–92)—Bear shows that these traditional ceremonies actually anticipate fulfilment in Christ, saying: “All North American Indigenous cleansing ceremonies point directly to Jesus . . . the cleansing sacrifice” (202).

Given the horrors of the European invasion—including land theft, cultural genocide, and destruction of families—we may well ask with former Prime Minister Paul Martin: “‘After all this history, why are you even Christians?’” (192). Bear’s answer “is that the story of Jesus is much older than our encounter with Europeans.”2 Bear affirms the full unity of Jesus and Creator and that “Jesus has perfectly revealed Creator.” Moreover, she argues: “Today Jesus walks onto the reservation through his body, the church. . . . The church must be an Indigenous church. . . . One’s worship must be Indigenous and authentic: worship, ceremony, values, instruments, methods, institutions, and life” (198). Bear credits Lakota theologian Richard Twiss with “help[ing] us understand how the Holy Spirit is introducing new ideas of being both Native and ‘Christian’ while walking with Jesus” (193).

It is hard to overestimate the potential impact on world Christianity by ethnic churches who are increasingly leaving behind them an imposed syncretistic Western-style worship and are instead adopting participatory, hybrid, homegrown forms of worship. These latter types of worship result from traditional core ceremonies finding both their fulfilment and transfiguration through the biblical dialogue in which its practitioners take leading roles. John Sanjeevakumar Gupta of India concludes his chapter by rightly comparing its significance to the birth of the Modern Missionary Movement (MMM): “Just as William Carey started the age of modern mission when he arrived in India in 1793, we are at the beginning of an age of new missiological understanding” (236).

Through the MMM, the Christian church became a truly worldwide reality. Sanjeevakumar Gupta predicts that the result of this growing “new missiological understanding” that encourages hybrid Christian worship will be mission that “allows the Holy Spirit to create . . . images of Christ acceptable . . . within [the hearers’] own cultural milieu (Rom 8:29)” (236). This, though in its early days, is not simply aspirational, futuristic; Sanjeevakumar Gupta already exults today: “The word ‘Emmanuel’ now brings a new realization to my life: God dwelling in the midst of God’s people, wherever they are found” (236). Judging by the reports of the other contributors, his is part of a chorus of hybrid Christians.

Titus Funk Guenther is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology and Missions, Canadian Mennonite University, and former Book Review Editor of Mission Focus: Annual Review. A member of Charleswood Mennonite Church, Titus lives in Winnipeg, MB, which is Treaty 1 Territory and the homeland of the Métis Nation.



Robert J. Schreiter, ed., Faces of Jesus in Africa (Maryknoll, NY; Orbis, 1994), viii; Schreiter asserts: “A new style of Christianity needs to emerge that does not bifurcate the African Christian—making the African Christian reject a cultural heritage and identity in order to become a Christian. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II reiterated the theme of being authentically African and authentically Christian in their visits to Africa” (emphasis added).

In Faces of Jesus, a group of African theologians set to work helping their readers visualize the “face of Jesus” via familiar cultural categories like Ancestor, Elder Brother, Healer, Initiation Master, Liberator, etc. Invariably, their Jesus fills these roles to overflowing, thus making Jesus the unsurpassed measure of these traditional cultural roles, and so transforming and crowning them with ultimate fulfilment.


Douglas Waruta similarly notes that despite the “grossly tainted” “Western models of Christian leadership,” Africans are undeterred: “Jesus we know, and His disciple Paul; but you [Western message bearers], who are you?” What is their clue? “When seen in the Gospels, he is easily known—by the scars on his hands and body from being crucified. Africans know how to look for these scars. Jesus supplied them in plenty” (Faces of Jesus in Africa), 63.