“Totemism” Chronically American

The reader will immediately recognize that I have only a cursory knowledge of what I am writing about.  I am good at bluffing but privately I make no pretence to being a credible intellectual. I have met a few of these folks here or there so I know what they are. I hear something once and I’m off and running with it.

Perhaps twenty years ago I heard preacher, sociologist and “comedian” Dr. Tony Campolo discuss the concept of “totemism.”  I had taken both cultural anthropology and sociology in university and had heard the term but paid little attention to the concept at that time. Campolo referred to anthropologist Margaret Mead as one of those who studied the phenomena and went on to explain some of her observations.

Though the word seemed ponderous the concept did not. Campolo handily explained that the idea came from the totem. He went on to use the totem pole as a way of unraveling how the concept works.

Mead, pointed out that almost all cultures, though centuries and miles apart, are notable in that they are incurably religious and have totems of one kind or another as a way of expressing their mystical beliefs. Whether it happens to be the enormous stone and lava heads of the Easter Islands in Rapa Nui National Park or the totem poles of the northwestern American aboriginals, the Nootka, Haida, T’simshian, Tlingit to name but a few, totems appear almost everywhere in the world. Sometimes they show up as glyphs rather than something made of stone or wood. Nevertheless, various mascots universally occur.

Campolo made the following application: every culture adopts totems of one kind or another. It might be, as in the case of American Indians, a Thunderbird. This bird doesn’t exist in reality, but the idea sums up all of the cultural values of the tribe(s) so they build a tribute to it. What existentially follows is the interesting idea. They worship or pay homage to the pole. We might refer to this practice as idolatry.

In primitive societies this plays itself out in thousand ways throughout the history of man. The image might have been a scarab, owl, cat, cow, frog or turtle. In more sophisticated cultures these might be a bear, lion, dragon, beaver, eagle but you get the idea. The animal or some other thing, whether real or imagined, embodies the qualities the culture wants to project regarding its own perceived strengths, character and qualities. Of course, we should expect this from primitive societies. What should we expect? They don’t know any better until we reach them with the Mustang, Cougar, Viper, Ram, or the gospel, right?

About a year ago I happened to be in an American denominational church in the south on Independence Day. They made quite a thing out of this special national holiday by recognizing those who had served in the military, to which there was much-deserved applause. Next, however, they struck out to sing “America the Beautiful,” a song to which, without prompting, people all around began to stand to their feet with hands over their hearts and sang at the top of their lungs. In fact, I made note that I had not heard this sort of worship all the while I have attended there. I’m afraid that in the same way, the Jesus of Roman Catholicism plays second fiddle to Mary. While  “American Jesus” plays second fiddle to Caesar and his agenda. It was theologian, Francis Schaeffer who said, “Caesar and God cannot both be God. One must make up his or her mind.”

Are we guilty of pagan “Totemism?”   

It occurred to me, have we dressed Jesus up to look like us so we might actually worship ourselves? I think so. This isn’t just true of Americans. It’s equally true of the Chinese, Guatemalans, Kenyans, Tutsi, and Massai, Southern Baptists or members of the Assembly of God. In some circles we have imagined a “Reformed,” holiness, charismatic or Pentecostal Jesus. The great challenge of every believer is coming to terms with the authentic Jesus. This becomes a lifetime of re-calibration. Whatever we have gathered up about Jesus probably isn’t Him.

It’s election time again and some Americans are trying to figure out how they might turn Jesus into a Republican. In many minds he’s certainly not a Democrat! Jesus doesn’t live downtown. He’s not black. You won’t find him with “nappy” hair, low pants or sporting a tattoo. He lives in the suburbs. He graduated from university, drives a SUV and several other late model cars. He has a Jacuzzi and a hot tub. For some he might be a cool Jesus or a “Gap Jesus” in the same way Central America had fashioned a “Liberation” Jesus with a bandoleer and Uzi machine gun.

You see, we have all done this to Him. We have invented a Jesus that embraces our cultural values so that we can indirectly worship ourselves and our values. This is classic narcissism. We fail to honestly examine Him and take Him as He really is. We have laid our grid over Him rather than His grid over us. We have turned Jesus into the culture learner.

“Okay, Jesus, we’ll let you be God but only our terms.” 


14 Responses to ““Totemism” Chronically American”

  1. 1 Jolean
    December 27, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Did you and Ken Kraus compare notes? He spoke on something rather similar a couple of weeks ago at Bethany Church, which I don’t usually attend but did that Sunday. Nationalism as an idol–hmmmmm?!!!!

    Christmas Blessings to you from Texas where I am hanging out with newly discovered siblings–actually they discovered me.

    Keep up the good work bro’–when will we see you at BCOM again?

    • December 27, 2011 at 1:24 am

      Nope, haven’t heard or talked to Ken in a while though I think we agree on most things. We met some newly discovered relatives in Missouri. What a surprise! Yep, back at BCOM on January 29 for Acts (I think). Hope you’ve had a good holiday and a terrific year ahead of you.

  2. December 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Matthew 21:5 Clearly Jesus is a democrat. He didn’t ride on an elephant into Jerusalem. But seriously folks…as a resident alien, I’ve often questioned singing America the Beautfiul and The Star Spangled Banner in church. I’ve checked hymnals and they also have O Canada. A hymnal is no place for a national anthem or national song. As I wrestle with pursuing US citizenship, I try to keep in mind Paul’s words from Philippians 3:20 – “But our citizenship is in heaven.” Sadly, I too often reflect Paul’s words in 3:19.

    • December 27, 2011 at 5:02 pm

      I want to be sure that people know that I think Christian’s should be involved in the political discourse without politicking. Elect Christians to the the entire house and you will still not have the kingdom of God. There’s a good reason why Congress is despised more than lawyers and car salesmen. It was made known on network news yesterday the following,

      “Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, excluding home ­equity.

      Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the comparable median figure sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.”

      I doubt if those elected to office have any more interest in the average work-a-day fellow than Barry Maddoff did. For me, there is too much similarity. I feel like I’m getting rolled. I fail to feel good about taking the time to stand in a polling booth.

      • December 28, 2011 at 11:57 am

        In defense of our Congress, it could be that they’re worth more because it requires more and more money to get elected. It’s not that they earn scads of money (which they do), it could be that wealthier people are getting elected. I don’t think the fathers of confederation anticipated (or desired) high net worth being a pre-requisite for being elected.
        And yes, we Christians should be involved with politicking but not at the expense of Christ. If we’re promoting a congressman more than we promote Christ, we have a problem. I have a congressman’s bumper sticker on my file cabinet at work. I don’t have anything pointing to Christ. That’s a problem.

  3. 9 John Anderson
    December 28, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Tony, as others have opined, great post.
    What you are stressing seems to get more play around elections, but I struggle with the separation of church and state at all times.
    The struggle would certainly diminish with complete and total surrender to Jesus . His teaching included, “Render unto Ceaser……”

    • December 28, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      Thanks for your comment and I agree. You and I are on point. Of course, we’re having to re-surrender to His Lordship in new ways everyday. I must be scratching where people itch as I’ve gotten a ton of reads and responses.

  4. 11 fxmissions
    January 1, 2012 at 12:26 am

    Tony…. thx for the encouragement to seek and find anew the One who we thought we were following. Especially at this time of year, we should take a close look at our assumptions…

    1 Thess. 5:21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

    Blessings to you,


  5. 12 Ernie Jones
    January 5, 2012 at 1:21 am

    Would many Americans be appalled to think that the Jesus of the bible would look like a modern day middle eastern man with olive skin, long hair, beard and sideburns, making him resemble an atypical “terrorist”? How would he dress nowadays and what is our perception compared to the white anglo-saxon image we have conjured up?

    • January 5, 2012 at 1:48 am

      I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what I have sometimes thought. I have occasionally thought that Bin Laden looked more like Jesus than George Bush. Right?

  6. November 9, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Eslkevin's Blog and commented:
    Tony Campolo on American Totemism is an improtant understanding for evangelical Americans to internalize.

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