Chopping Down Thor’s Oak – The Missionary as Colonizer

One of my favorite missionary stories is from the early Middle Ages. It concerns a monk intent on converting nearby Germanic peoples. He discovered that these people venerated a certain large tree, called “Thor’s Oak”. One fine day our hero walked up to it and, in the sight of the entire village, proceed to chop it down. The horror of the tribesmen at this act of destruction was soon eclipsed by a greater horror – Thor did absolutely nothing to stop it. It is said that this was the catalyst for that tribe’s acceptance of Christianity.

I think about that monk often. Most recently, he came to mind as I perused a few Twitter feeds of some Brazilian evangelicals of African descent who are concerned about the “colonizing” aspect of Christianity. Their claim is that Christianity should not be at the service of any political project, and that right-wing, mostly white, evangelicals have appropriated Christ for their own devious purposes.

Now, were that as far as it went, I could agree with it. I’ll never forget one of our mission administrators admonishing us, during our candidate seminar, that as missionaries we are called to say “thus saith to Lord” and not “this is how we do it in America”. Words to live by.

And yet, as I peruse these particular Twitter feeds, it becomes more and more evident that this argument is not made in good faith. As I compose this post, one of the top “retweets” on one of these accounts – one of the more prominent ones from what I can see – claims that “it is not only women that have a uterus.” This individual’s Twitter name includes “Black Lives Matter”, and he writes for a leftist publication run by an American with a clear political agenda.

So, for those keeping score, while he howls with outrage at evangelical organizations in line right-wing politics and with ties to the United states, he himself promotes left-wing politics and is clearly aligned with political movements that come from…you guessed it…the United States.

But it’s not this staggering lack of self-awareness that I want to focus on here. Instead, I think it is more important to examine the underlying theological point of all this: that Christianity should submit to the cultural expressions of a determined culture – in this case the Afro-Brazilian culture.

I understand that, in superficial ways, the outward expressions of Christianity will differ from one culture to the next. A church service in Wisconsin will look different from one in Uganda, for example. This is to be expected, and is part of what will make this such an amazing experience.

But those cheese-head believers will have one very important thing in common with their sub-Saharan brethren: their minds have been colonized by the Gospel of Christ.

Though the word has fallen on hard times, from the very beginning Christianity has been in the business of colonization. By this I mean that Christ disrupts cultures and remakes them in His own image. Much of Paul’s writing is focused on telling Roman believers to reject certain aspects of their own culture – in other words, to be less Roman and more Christian. As the Gospel spread into Europe it gradually extinguished such quaint Eurpean customs as human sacrifice and the the burning of slaves on the funeral pyre of their dead master.

If it was important for these people to be less Roman, less European, and more Christian, why then is it not just as important to affirm to Brazilians of African descent that they must reject those aspects of their culture that are in conflict with Scripture?

Answer: it is just as important.

At this point, I’m sure the podcasters and YouTubers in question would be very quick to point out that the nations that ended the above-cited practices had evil practices of their own…the slave trade and exploitation of native populations among them. This is absolutely true. It is also true that these atrocities were (and are) committed when cultural or national concerns trump Gospel truths.

Please do not miss the point of all this: those who would conform Christianity to Afro-Brazilian culture are committing the same sin as those who would conform it to European or American culture. Also this: those who appropriate Christ to leftist ideology are guilty of the same heresy as those who appropriate Him to right-wing ideology.

And please, please understand there is no amount of “white guilt” that should motivate an ostensibly Christian church to contribute to the construction of a center for Afro-Brazilian spirit worship – which is a thing that happened.

I am convinced that as missionaries…no…as Christians, we need to spend a lot less time trying to make Christianity compatible with culture, and a lot more time cutting down sacred trees.

Where to start? Like that monk of old, go after the things they worship. Tell people that what the Bible calls sin is actually sin and that there is not hope for the unbeliever apart from Christ.

And only women have a uterus.

Banner image: A painting by an unknown (to me) artist depicting the chopping of Thor’s Oak.

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