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Inculturation, indigenisation, syncretism and cultural appropriation

26 September 2009

Big words in the title, but those words are quite often used by missiologists and other students of religion to refer to one religion borrowing beliefs or practices from another. I recently wrote a blog post about the new fashion in some Christian circles for observing the Muslim fast of Ramadan (Notes from underground: A Christian Ramadan?), which reminded me of the fashion for Christian Passover meals in the 1980s.

One commenter, Yewtree, said “it would be uncomfortably like cultural appropriation (for those who don’t know, this is a big issue for Native Americans, who are fed up with wannabes lifting their spiritual practices out of context and trivialising them).”

I’m not aware of having heard the term “cultural appropriation” before, though I was aware of the phenomenon. But it got me wondering about related terms, like inculturation, indigenisation and syncretism as well. Are they synonyms, and if not, how does one distinguish them? Or is it all a matter of one’s point of view, along the lines of “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”?

“Inculturation” and “indigenisation”, as far as I am aware, are used primarily by Christian missiologists to refer to Christianity being brought to one culture by missionaries from a different culture. The Christianity the missionaries bring has often been embedded in their own culture, so it needs to become inculturated into the new culture if it is not to be seen as a foreign import. An example here is the 19th century Orthodox missionary St Nicholas of Japan. He was a missionary from Russia who went to Japan in 1861, but his aim was not to plant a Russian Orthodox Church in Japan, but to plant a Japanese Orthodox Church. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, he urged the Japanese Christians to pray for their own country.

“Cultural appropriation” and “syncretism”, it seems to me, are used more generally by scholars of religion, and can refer to any religions. The first-ever synchroblog was on the topic of syncretism — see Notes from underground: Syncretism in Western Christianity — many of the links on that site will no longer work after more than 10 years, but my contribution can still be found at Deconstructing Sundkler: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

But what about cultural appropropriation?

One of the best examples I know of was given by Tinker (1993:121ff):

A curious reversal has seemingly occurred in the attitudes of many white American and Europeans towards Native American peoples. One of the more significant problems faced by Indian peoples today is not the intentional and overt imposition of European culture in the guise of Christianity. Nor is it the federal legislation and policy that made many tribal ceremonies illegal or the official church and state displeasure that made nearly all ceremonies difficult to sustain. Rather, our modern problem is just the opposite of the problem the tribes confronted a century ago in the presence of the missionary. Nevertheless, in a subtle way the systemic imposition of Euroamerican culture on Indian peoples persist [sic]. Paradoxically, the modern appeal of Indian spirituality to many white people has, I believe, become a major destructive force in our Indian communities. The withering of white Christian spirituality has so disillusioned people that many have engaged in a relatively intense search for something to fill the spiritual void, from Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, or Hindu meditation to Lynn Andrews hucksterism or the so-called “men’s council” movement, with channeling, astrology and witchcraft falling somewhere in between. In this time of spiritual crisis, Indian spirituality, which just a short while ago was the anathema of heathenism, has now become an appealing alternative to many of the seekers.

The main difficulty is that Indian spiritual traditions are still rooted in cultural contexts that are quite foreign to white Euroamericans, yet Euroamerican cultural structures are the only devices Euroamericans have for any deep structure understanding of native spiritual traditions. Hence, those native traditions can only be understood by analogy with white experience. To use a paradigm devised by linguist Noam Chomsky three decades ago, Indian and white people may see an identical surface structure, yet understand that surface structure in radically different ways because they are rooted in culturally disparate deep structures. To make matters seem even more confusing, the two may go along for a long time without recognizing the deep structure differences in understanding. A simple example may suffice to demonstrate the potential for complex cultural differentiation. The sentence “The girl hit the boy with the bat,” is a single surface structure, yet it represents two quite different deep structure perceptions of reality. Without further investigation, one is left wondering whether the boy was struck with the bat or was holding the bat when he was struck. While this sort of confusion is part of the intrinsic ambiguity of human language that becomes the basis for much humor and joke telling, it also has caused destruction and radical cross-cultural misunderstandings.

There is a New Age, liberal equivalent of this deep structure/surface structure dilemma. Both well-meaning New Age liberals and hopeful Indian spiritual traditionalists can easily be swept up into a modern process of imposed cultural change, without recognizing the deep structure cultural imposition even when in its midst. The first Indian casualty in any such New Age spiritual-cultural encounter is most often the strong deep structure cultural value of community and group cohesion that is important to virtually every indigenous people. As adherents of Western cultures, Europeans and Euroamericans live habitual responses to the world that are culturally rooted in an individualist deep structure rather than communitarian. In this “meeting” of cultures, the communal cultural value of Indian people is transformed by those who do not even begin to see the cultural imposition that has occurred, however unintended. Hence, dancing in a ceremony in order “that the people might live” gives way to the New Age, Euroamerican quest for individual spiritual power. What other reason would a New Yorker have for rushing out to South Dakota to spend eight days participating in a Sun Dance ceremony? Yet well-meaning New Agers drive in from New York and Chicago or fly in from Austria and Denmark to participate in annual ceremonies originally intended to secure the well-being of the local, spatially configured community. These visitors see little or nothing at all of the reservation community, pay little attention to the poverty and suffering of the people there, and finally leave having achieved only a personal, individual spiritual high. “That the people might live” survives merely as an abstract ideal at best.

The transformative, coyote twist here involves three things. The first is the impact of white participants on the thinking of younger Indians, many of whom are learning their own ceremonial traditions through increasingly individualist eyes. A second impact is the temptation of many Indians to convert their spiritual tradition into career and economic development opportunities. A certain wealth can be generated by catering to the individualist needs of white New Age aficionados, than the phenomenon has created a large number of what Churchill calls “plastic” medicine people. The third effect is less immediately perceptible, but just as observable over time. It involves the shift in thinking of the “traditional” people in an Indian community. Little by little, usually without them perceiving it, their language about spiritual practices changes both to accommodate the participation of white and to translate discrete cultural idiosyncrasies for an alien culture in ways that can more easily be understood and appropriated (or rather, misappropriated).

Indian dysfunctionality – a result of the conquest, including the missionary endeavor – means in this case that Indian
people are all too ready to participate in our own oppression and continuing conquest. Craving the approval of white acquaintances and hoping for a broader understanding and appreciation for the validity of traditional ceremonial life, Indian people often rush to invite this new European invasion, the invasion of what remains of tribal ceremonies. I am convinced that this meeting of cultures is in the final analysis harmful to Indian peoples and their tribal traditions. Yet I would argue that it is equally harmful to those well-meaning white seekers who, having lost themselves back in some white community and white church, hope to find themselves on some Indian reservation. The conquest has always been spiritually harmful to Euroamericans, even when the damage has gone largely unrecognized due to the systemic camouflage of wealth and physical comfort. To their credit, many New Age adherents have seen through this part of the lie, yet they are so systemically ingrained that they fail to recognize their continued participation in acts of conquest.

I think Tinker’s approach can also give hints about how African “traditional religion” has become incluturated in an urban, Christianised and capitalist milieu (Hint: see the film District 9) and the syncretism taking place between Christianity and capitalism, not merely in Africa, but in the West. When my son graduated with a degree in Fine Arts a few years ago he and his fellow graduands at the Pretoria Technikon (now more grandiloquently termed the Tshwane University of Technology) had to stand and recite the Entrepreneurs Creed in unison, whiile the spotline was on them, dressed in all their academic tat, and the rest of the hall in darkness–very much a religious ceremony.

So the question “When is it cultural appropriation and when is it syncretism?” is worth some more discussion.


Tinker, George E. 1993. Missionary conquest: the gospel and native American cultural genocide. Minneapolis: Fortress.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. jmerton1 permalink
    27 September 2009 2:00 pm

    I am bored almost senseless by “that a really cool blog post” comments; but I must say “well said.”

  2. 28 September 2009 8:31 pm

    As always, your post made me think! I have written two books on Hindu / Christian interfaith encounter (but specifically from a Christian perspective – believing that there is revelatory value in all of creation, which includes all religions as well. Of course not everything we learn is positive towrds God and Christ, but we can learn some things. However, I made the clear point that I believe Jesus is the true primordial ‘person’, the Christ, the one who saves. Thus, salvific power comes through the person & work of Jesus wherever persons (and creation) is saved).

    I suppose in some senses I am a Christian inclusivist – is that a correct statement? Much along the lines of Karl Rahner on the one hand and Raimundo Pannikar on the other (the invisible Christ)…

    Rich blessing,


  3. 29 September 2009 2:58 am


    Concerning “inclusiveness” I’ve written something in a blog post at Notes from underground: Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? (Synchroblog). In the case of Hinduism, it might be cultural appropriation on the part of Christians if they started having Christian pujas. I’m not sure that the more inclusively-minded Hindus would be bothered by that, but with the rise of Hindutva there might be some who would be offended by it.


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