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How to Thrive in a Polytheistic American Culture, Part 4

christian living culture public theology May 10, 2023

How do you react when you find yourself completely outnumbered as a Christian? Do you feel comfortable when you find yourself in the minority as a Christian?

Do you even have any non-Christian friends — I don’t mean Christians who don’t go to church or are not practicing their faith — I mean those who would explicitly and without hesitation say that they are not Christians at all. Do you even know someone like that? Do you hang out with them? Are you comfortable around them?

How do we live and act in a culture that is completely foreign to our Christian ideals?


Survival Babylon

In order to develop some strategies that will answer those questions, let’s begin with Daniel and his friends in Daniel, chapter 1. We need to begin with what happened to get Daniel where he is — in a foreign polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

In 597 BC King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s temple. Why does he do that? He needs that little strip of land, sometimes called "The Levant." It acted as a buffer zone and a gateway.

The great empires of antiquity were always fighting over The Levant because whoever controlled it, controlled the battleground and the gateway between the most powerful empires.

Nebuchadnezzar didn’t need Jerusalem. He needed control of that strip of land was to control Jerusalem. So he conquered Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon's temple. 

His strategy was to take the brightest and best that Jerusalem had to offer, assimilate them into the Babylonian culture, and use their gifts for the good of Babylon.


The Babylonian Strategy

This was brilliant because it accomplished two important things simultaneously.


#1 - It stripped Jerusalem from all her best leaders which prevented them from striking back.

Everything rises and falls on leadership. Nebuchadnezzar executed the most prominent of the royal family and then deported the rest so that Jerusalem was left without leadership.


#2 - It benefited Babylon because they could learn from other cultures.

This, by the way, set Babylon apart from other Empires of its day making it one of the most progressive empires. In fact, there is some evidence that Alexander the Great learned from the Babylonians and adopted an improved version of their strategy to Hellenize most of the Mediterranean world.

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were part of the group that was taken to Babylon. They were most likely part of the royal family in Jerusalem and they would have known each other.


The Cultural Agenda

There are three things Nebuchadnezzar did right away to force these captives to assimilate into the Babylonian culture. That was the Babylonian goal — assimilation.


#1 - They isolated them from their cultural roots.

They took them away from Jerusalem. In so doing, they separated them from the practice of their faith and culture.

The Jewish faith was centered on the sacrificial worship system in Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. 


#2 - They change their names.

Names were extremely important in antiquity. They were identity markers.

Daniel and his friends had names that were associated with their God - Yahweh. The “el” or “ah” endings were connected to the names of God — El or Elohim and Yahweh.

When they changed their names, they gave them corresponding Babylonian names that were associated with the Babylonian gods — Marduk and Ishtar.

So, Daniel became Belteshazzar; Hananiah became Shadrach; Mishael became Meshach; and Azariah became Abednego.


#3 - They indoctrinate them with a crash course on the Babylonian language and literature.

Language and literature were two of the most important and basic building blocks of any culture. They were indoctrinating them into the Babylonian culture, including the Babylonian gods — literature in that day and time was inseparable from religion.


Daniel's Response

Daniel was quickly characterized as the leader among the Jewish exiles. So, what does Daniel do? He resolves three things for himself. These three things are very difficult to do simultaneously but are key for thriving in a polytheistic culture.


#1 - Daniel resolved that would study hard and learn the Babylonian ways even better than his Babylonian oppressors.

Daniel knew that in order to survive in the Babylonian culture he had to understand the Babylonian ways. He had to learn to speak the Babylonian language. He had to study Babylonian history and literature. 


#2 - Daniel resolved that he would work hard for the good of Babylon.

He would do all he could to keep the peace and to bring prosperity to Babylon.

This is what God told him to do through the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 29:4-7:

"This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”


#3 - Daniel resolved that he would not let the oppressor get inside of him.

That’s not easy to do. This is where most people slip and fall. It’s hard.

Paolo Freire in his classic work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, talks about this very thing. Freire was a Brazilian philosopher and educator who worked with the poorest of the poor in Brazil. He revolutionized education by teaching the poor to think critically and question the powers that held them in poverty.

Jane Thompson, drawing on the writings of Paolo Freire, encapsulates the basis for his educational reforms.

"There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the "practice of freedom", the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

Freire made a distinction between indoctrination and education — where the latter always teaches you to think critically, even about the educational system that is teaching you to think critically.

This may sound like a no-brainer to you, but it was revolutionary and dangerous in 1940s Brazil under the oppressive militaristic regime at that time. They kicked Frierie out of the country. He remained in exile until 1980.

One of Frieri’s observations which became central to his pedagogy was the idea that the oppressor gets inside the oppressed. Freire's observation was that the oppressor was so omnipresent in the culture that eventually the oppressed would become just like the oppressor. 

This has been proven throughout history. Cuba is an example where Castro and the Cuban revolutionaries overthrew the ugly dictator, Batista, in the 1950s only to replace him was an equally terrifying dictator. 

The oppressed replicated the system they overthrew because it was all they knew. The oppressor was inside of them. 

An example of the opposite is South Africa. 

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela became the face of a revolution that overthrew Apartheid and the government that supported it. However, when Mandela came to power, he resolved not to become like his oppressors. 

Mandela refused to oppress those who had oppressed him. Mandela had read the writings of Freire and knew the dangers of letting the oppressor get inside of him. 


Daniel's Battle with Food and Wine

So Daniel refused to let the oppressor get inside of him. He showed a healthy respect for the oppressor. He cooperated with the oppressor. He even worked for the good of the oppressor. But, he refused to let the oppressor get inside of him.

How does he do that?

Daniel decided that he was not going to eat the food nor drink the wine that was being offered to him from the King’s table (which meant it was the best food the Babylonians had to offer).

Food and wine. That’s where Daniel drew the line. Specifically, the meat and the wine.

This is interesting because there’s nothing in the Mosaic Law that prohibits a person from drinking wine or from eating meat. Nothing.

The Mosaic Law gave certain restrictions on what kinds of meat could be eaten and instructions about the way the meat was to be prepared. But that doesn’t seem to be the problem Daniel has with it.

If that were Daniel’s problem he could just have easily said, "I’ll eat this kind of meat but not that kind, and I’ll eat the meat if it’s prepared this specific way." He doesn’t do that. He says, “I’m not eating any of it.”

Why not?

The Scripture is clear as to why not. Daniel 1:8 says, “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.”

He decided not to defile himself.

The only possible reason that the meat and wine would defile him was that they had been used in the sacrificial worship of the Babylonian gods. Meat and wine were commonly used in the Babylonian sacrificial system (Just as they were used in the Jewish sacrificial system).

Every piece of meat and every glass of wine from the King’s table had been sacrificed to the Babylonian gods. And this is where Daniel drew the line. He said, “I will not be defiled by consuming that which was a part of the worship of the Babylonian gods.”

He said, "I’ll study the Babylonian gods. I’ll learn about the Babylonian gods. I’ll come to understand the Babylonian gods better than most Babylonians do. But here’s where I draw the line — I refuse to worship the Babylonian gods."

That’s a tricky line to navigate. That’s an elusive stance to make. It’s not always easy to know when to take it. When you take it, when you take that stand, many people will not understand you. They won’t get it.

Like the chief administrator in charge of the indoctrination of Daniel. He said, “I don’t understand why you are doing this and my heart goes out to you on this, but my neck is on the line on this one.”


Daniel's Strategy

So Daniel does two things in response to the culture’s attempt to get inside of him.


#1 - Daniel showed respect for the Babylonian culture.

He negotiated with the culture which shows respect.

Our problem in American Christianity is that too often we approach the culture with a sense of entitlement.

We were here first. There are more of us. We have a history in this place.

We throw a temper tantrum like a 2-year-old child — my toy, my room, my house — entitled, entitled, entitled.

Daniel didn’t do that.

#2 - Daniel offered something qualitatively better than what the Babylonians were offering him.

Daniel offered results.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the better results he eventually provided were because of the advantage of the diet he chose.

It was not a matter of whether being a vegetarian is better for you than being a meat eater. That may or may not be true — but, that’s NOT the point. You bury the point of the story when you make this about vegetarian vs. meat-eater.

The point of the story was that it wasn’t one diet vs. another diet — NO — the point of the story was that it was the God of Daniel, Yahweh vs. the gods of the Babylonians.

For Daniel, it wasn’t the diet that was at stake — it was that Yahweh was going to take care of him. Whatever protein he lost by not eating meat, Yahweh would provide and compensate for it. It was Yahweh who was victorious over the meat and wine sacrificed to the gods of Babylon.



Christians will make a transformational impact on a polytheistic American culture when we learn to show respect for the culture (maybe even learn something from it) and offer something qualitatively better than what the culture is offering. 

Until then, the culture will continue to ignore us. 



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