After waking up in the middle of the night to the high-pitched cries of my sweet daughter, I rolled out of bed to warm a bottle. With her snuggled closely in my arms, I reached for my iPhone and noticed that I had received a text message from one of the other pastors at my church. It was a link to a recent interview with the rapper, actor, film producer, and social media phenomenon Nick Cannon.
As a pastor in the inner city, I often listen to interviews and podcasts on urban stations so I can stay up to date on some of the prevailing thoughts that influence inner-city culture. With millions of social media followers, Nick Cannon has a cult-like following that adheres to his business advice, wisdom, and insight like a modern day prophet. After placing the baby down, I popped in my headphones and listened to the entrepreneur open up on a wide range of issues including his failed marriage with Mariah Carey, his new NCredible headphones, and even his belief in God.
Cannon, the son of the late televangelist James Cannon, was asked about his eccentric dress and specifically the reason he dons a diamond-studded turban. He mentioned that he wore the garb for religious significance. He'd been studying different religions and cultures, and while he affirmed his Christian roots, he'd become greatly influenced by the teachings of the Nation of Islam, The Moorish Science Temple, and a plethora of other mystical religions.
Cannon goes on to mention that Christianity was his first language but that he is now fluent in a range of different spiritualities as well. As I listened intently, it became clear that his religious worldview was based on a combination of Christian, Islamic, and Moorish thought which frames his unique, personal belief system. I immediately recognized the symptoms of urban religious syncretism. Religious syncretism is the reconciling and fusing of two or more unrelated religious beliefs and practices in a new system. In other words, it’s the incorporation of beliefs into religious traditions that are wholly unrelated.
While syncretism occurs in every context, it takes a different shape in the inner city. Urban religious syncretism is often a fusion of Egyptian Mysticism (often learned from YouTube videos), ahistorical documentaries (i.e. Hidden Colors and Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection), urban folk religions (i.e., Moorish Science Temple, Nation of Islam, Black Hebrew Israelites, etc.), misunderstood Christian doctrine, unbiblical pan-African rhetoric, and countless other falsehoods.
Before falling back to sleep, I thought about the ever-evolving, pluralistic urban context and the similarities between Cannon's philosophy of religion and the religious pundits that proselytize their beliefs on the street corners of the inner cities of America. Comparatively speaking, Cannon’s rhetoric is very similar to the doctrines of those who deny the historical Christ in the Afrocentric movement, whom I’ve engaged in the urban/inner-city context. Like Cannon, they combine complex, often contradictory, spiritual elements and blend religious practices to form personal, pseudo-indigenous religions that suit their lifestyles and passions.
While urban religious syncretism can take a plethora of forms, no matter the form, it’s disheartening because it compromises the tenants and integrity of the gospel. Urban religious syncretism discards core doctrines—such as the divinity of Christ, penal substitution, and the Trinity, among other things—to form a new gospel that is tailor-made to be inoffensive, unobtrusive, and ultimately ineffective. Consequently, unwitting and incognizant brothers and sisters have been drawn away from the gospel of Christ by doctrines that sound true, but only borrow authority from other religions and distort the gospel (Gal. 1:6–9).