Theology in 3D

How to Desecrate a Religion

Greg Stiekes | March 12, 2018
New Testament

Last month one of our campus societies sponsored a Color Run for the student body and faculty. For those who don’t know, a Color Run is an untimed 5K event in which the goal is to finish the race plastered in a rainbow of brilliantly colored powders. The original Color Run organization, which began in 2011, boasts over six million runners in over 35 countries and claims to be the largest running series in the world, dubbing itself as “The Happiest 5K on the Planet” (www.thecolorrun.com).

Searching for the origin of this unique 5K, I was surprised to learn that the Color Run was inspired at least in part by a Hindu religious festival known as Holi. Holi, or the “Festival of Color” is celebrated annually the day after the full moon in the month of March. On this day, Hindu worshipers rejoice at the coming of spring and the conquering of good over evil by dousing each other with several hues of a brilliantly-dyed cornstarch, called “gulal.” There are multiple legends that stand behind the color ritual. In the Krishna legend, for example, Holi commemorates the divine love of Krishna for Radha. Krishna worried that the fair-skinned Radha would not accept him because of the dark color of his face, so he threw color onto her face and the two became lovers.

But I also discovered that there are apparently many Hindu people who are not happy that the color ritual of their religious celebration has been incorporated into the Color Run. The first complaint that caught my eye read, “Hipsters, Please Don’t Culturally Appropriate Holi on Instagram.” The author, Carol Kuruvilla, states,

[T]here’s a fine line between appreciating culture an appropriating culture. The problem happens when people who don’t identify as Hindus strip the festival of its spiritual context and history, turning an ancient holiday into a chance for hipsters to throw a raucous party and post the pictures on Instagram (Kuruvilla 2017).

Kuruvilla continues by explaining that she is not opposed to non-Hindus participating in Holi rituals, as long as they appreciate and uphold the sacred traditions. For the festival of Holi is meant to bring people of all beliefs and nationalities together in celebration of universal brotherhood, love and unity. However, those who design events such as the Color Run “dilute” Holi by borrowing ad hoc from the festival’s aesthetics and harnessing the traditions for their own purposes. Divorcing Holi traditions from their religious context crosses the line from appreciation to appropriation, or “taking … what is easiest to like from a cultural celebration in order to go play with it somewhere else” (Corbin 2016).

Co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, Suhag Shukla, said,

Too often, American pop culture picks and chooses cafeteria-style from Hindu traditions, thereby missing the fundamental spiritual context and purpose, and ending up with what can look and feel like a circus. But perhaps rather than making it some hipster or commercial enterprise, people can join local Hindu celebrations to actually enhance their religious and cultural literacy quotient (Kuruvilla 2017).

There are other examples of Hindus who lament the appropriation of Holi into American pop culture, recognizing that the new-styled events look less like a religious festival and more like Woodstock. Elizabeth Flock summarizes the tension between cultural appropriation and appreciation as the difference between “stealing and homage,” and wonders “whether the original meaning of … [Holi] is mocked, distorted or lost when it is copied” (Flock 2016).

A young Hindu woman, Priya Patel, seems to think that the original meaning is indeed lost. She speaks of her favorite childhood memories of Holi, yet complains,

“I never would have thought that 15 years later, hip white people would be jacking this very community-centered and meaningful holiday, sequestering themselves in an empty Williamsburg parking lot and raging out in the name of some vague sense of oneness…. It’s truly colonial to say ‘Look at this cool thing I discovered that’s been around for thousands of years, let me share it the way that I want to share it!’ … Just because you throw colored powder around, doesn’t mean you are celebrating Holi” (Corbin 2016).

Nadya Agrawal protests that the Color Run and similar events such as Run or Dye “white-washes” Holi by stripping the religious festival of its significance. Her concern is two-fold. First, she resents the fact that those who sponsor the Color Run events are making money through cheapening Holi. “So, our culture is being co-opted to turn a profit. But at least you can buy a pair of super cute shorts that say, ‘Color This!’” she gibes (Agrawal 2013).

Her second concern is that the white-washed version of Holi does not allow her to introduce the profound meaning of Holi to her friends. She explains,

[The] profiting off our culture and the further sexualization of it … doesn’t give us the chance to share Holi properly.  Personally, I love it when I can bring my non-[Hindu] friends to the annual campus Holi function. I can show them a part of my heart and an aspect of my identity as a strong brown South Asian. But the Color Run robs me of that chance by giving everyone who participates a diluted (and completely wrong) version of [Hindu] culture” (Agrawal 2013).

We could add more observations from the Hindu community, but already we are able to discern from these comments a program for desecrating a religion. If you want to desecrate a religion …

1. Cheapen it.
Turn the religious into something entertaining.

2. Change it.
Alter the meaning of the religious symbols by placing them in a different context.

3. Contextualize it.
Allow pop culture to determine the shape of the religious rather than let the religious challenge the shape of pop culture.

4. Control it.
Exert your own will and preferences over the religious expression rather than submit to the religious expression.

5. Commercialize it.
Use religion to turn a profit.

This is how you desecrate a religion, make it profane or common, demean it, and overall castrate its ability to offer profound meaning.

Yet when I read these concerns for the festival of Holi my mind wanders to twenty-first-century Christianity in America. The irony is palpable. These religious Hindus are concerned that outsiders are desecrating their religion. But Christians do not need outsiders to desecrate their religion. They have been desecrating their own religion for decades.

For example, we cheapen Christianity by turning it into entertainment. We seek after and identify ourselves with Christian groups and performers and preachers and entertainers in an identical way to the world’s glamorization of its stars. This past October, if you had the money you could have attended the 48th annual Dove Awards, the Christian copy of the Grammy Awards. For $400 you could have purchased a front row seat. For $300 you could purchase the opportunity to sing in the choir with a famous Christian artist. and for $125 you could be on the red carpet with your favorite group or singer and have your picture taken with them. I am not overlooking the fact that many of these performers have a heart for God, are humble servants of God, and have been used by God. But I am saying that a Christianity celebrating its entertainers is foreign to the original version of Christianity that Jesus himself taught—Jesus, who was rejected by the masses, who called his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross (Matt 16:24), who left a pattern of profound humility and selflessness for us to follow (Phil 2:1–11). Christian entertainment desecrates Christianity because it is antithetical to the message of the gospel.

We contextualize Christianity by allowing pop culture to shape our worship and our approach to ministry, rather than calling pop culture to abandon its unrighteousness and learn from and submit to Christ and to the holy implications of the gospel of Christ. These Hindus I quoted above do not hesitate to call people out for tampering with the meaning of their religion. Why do we as Christians who know the truth become apologetic if we think that the gospel is going to encroach upon the lifestyles or beliefs of those who do not know Christ? The Lord has not called us to offer the people of this world a Christianized version of what they already have. The gospel calls us to abandon what we have and embrace Christ, which is a completely different life altogether.

I believe that we still need the exhortation John MacArthur offered 28 years ago. His words sound a little dated, but that is because he is talking about a Christianity married to popular culture, and rapid, pragmatic change is the nature of pop culture. MacArthur said that many in the church seem to believe that

you must have an angle to present the gospel to a hostile world. You must be indirect, and winsome, and simplistic, and careful not to turn anyone off. And if—God forbid—someone should be offended or reject the message, it means you have failed. Is that a biblical perspective? No, it is not. It has opened the door to some bizarre evangelistic strategies. The church apes nearly every fad of secular society. Heavy-metal, rock, rap, graffiti, break dancing, body building, brick smashing, jazzercise, interpretive dance, and stand-up comedy all have been added to the evangelical repertoire. Turn on most Christian television stations, and you’ll see a parade of talks shows, music videos, carnival acts, comedy routines, musical variety shows, and other performances virtually identical to the programming on secular stations except that the Christian stations use the name of Jesus. It is nothing but hedonism under the guise of religion (MacArthur 1991, 145).

We try to control Christianity by appealing to the worshiper’s appetites. The very fact that the same church offers a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service demonstrates this control. The sign at one large church asks the question, What’s YOUR style? and offers no less than five venues of worship, each with a unique difference in the entertainment value.

Cheapening, contextualizing, and controlling Christianity are often driven by believers with strong motives, believers with a heart to reach others with the gospel and to woo them to Christ. But we must take great care that in our expression of Christianity we do not compromise the message of Christianity and so desecrate it. Maybe we need to be instructed by those Hindus who are so protective of their festival of Holi, lest we end up with a Christianity of a different color.

Admin. “How RAD is Cultural Appropriation?: Color Run Capitalizing Indian Culture.” Sociology Lens, 1 December, 2014, http://www.sociologylens.net/topics/culture/color-run-and-cultural-appropriation/13955.

Agrawal, Nadya. “Dye-ing Culture: Color Run, White-washing Holi Since 2012.” Brown Girl Magazine, 2 April 2013, www.browngirlmagazine.com/2013/04/color-run-controversy.

Corbin, Sam. “Is Bushwick’s Holi festival a harmless hippie celebration or cultural appropriation?” Brokelyn, 26 April 2016, www.brokelyn.com/two-ways-looking-holi-festival-bushwick-past-weekend.

The Hindu, 9 July 2016, www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Holier-than-thou/article14477854.ece.

Kingswood, Mary. “Think Before You Run: Cultural Appropriation and the Color Run.” 3 April 2014, www.thegenevacabinet.com/think-before-you-run-cultural-appropriation-and-the-color-run/.

Kuruvilla, Carol. “Hipsters, Please Don’t Culturally Appropriate Holi on Instagram.” Huffpost, 24 March 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hipsters-please-dont-culturally-appropriate-holi-on-instagram_us_58d18090e4b0be71dcf8c870.

MacArthur, John Jr. Our Sufficiency in Christ. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.

Telegraph Reporters. “Holi Festival 2018: How the Thwarting of a Hindu Demon King Led to the Colourful Celebration.” The Telegraph 2 March 2018, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/holi-festival-celebrated-throwing-coloured-powder/.


12 responses to “How to Desecrate a Religion”

  1. Rose says:

    Thank you. This is so well written. This is so clear. This is so to the clear point of how I believe!

  2. Debbie Butts says:

    Why then would BJU identify itself with Charismatic Calvinistic musicians such as the Getty’s?

    • Greg Stiekes says:

      Hi, Debbie. Layton and Ken and I do not speak for BJU, although we obviously reflect on the school since we all teach at BJU Seminary. But I can assure you that the school is not trying to “identify” with the Gettys or with the Charismatic movement. I was curious about your designation, “Calvinistic,” however. I don’t know that contemporary songs are necessarily more Calvinist than many of the hymns we sing, like those of Isaac Watts, Toplady (Rock of Ages), Robinson (Come, Thou Fount), etc.

  3. Don Johnson says:

    Greg, your comments are good, but as you know, there are many questions about these very compromises at BJU these days. The Tim Tebow meeting for example. Isn’t that celebrating pop culture and demeaning the gospel?
    There are other issues as well, but it is disheartening to watch a flagship institution sail off and join the “we can be cool too” crowd.

    • Greg Stiekes says:

      Don, I think that people have misunderstood the Tim Tebow invitation. Every year the athletic department sponsors and event/fundraiser. Last year it was a well-known coach, I believe (not well-known to me, obviously, since I cannot remember his name). In the bigger picture, however, this is an educational institution, and as such we should feel the academic freedom to bring people to campus to speak in an area of their expertise. Where else are the students ever going to hear a guy like this?

      • Don Johnson says:

        I’m not sure Tim Tebow has much to say. Can’t seen any academic value, and his presence isn’t billed as such. He is invited for his celebrity status and his weak Christian testimony. Not sure how profitable that is, and seems to contradict the spiritual purposes of the institution.
        Anyway, don’t want to get in an argument! Just making an observation.

        • Greg Stiekes says:

          No worries, Don. We won’t call it an argument 🙂 I don’t think you mean to imply that BJU was looking for someone with a weak testimony, and that is their motivation for inviting Tim Tebow. I trust that had the Lord gifted me with outstanding athletic ability I would have maintained by God’s grace my public stand for Christ in the professional arena as he has!
          But what about the celebrity status? Maybe my analogy to the other departments on campus was not nuanced in the best way. But I was trying to explain that there is a better way to look at Tim Tebow’s coming to campus than how you are taking it. We are not a church looking to boost the power of the gospel through celebrity status. We are an educational institution exposing students to high standards of excellence in every field. A good analogy may be the fine arts department. BJU has a long history of inviting to campus the best performers and musicians. In fact, some of the most famous performers I have ever seen I saw on stages at BJU during my 7 years here as a student decades ago. So what you’re seeing with Tim Tebow is nothing different than one of the departments on campus seeking to invite the top people in their discipline. We have sought the best actors, violinists, scientists, doctors, Bible teachers, political figures and athletes. And, yes, having excellent people on campus often gives the university exposure to the community and there is a lot of excitement in the event. But why not? That happens all the time! It’s the reason when BJU sponsors and event you often have to get there early for parking!

  4. Alina says:

    Would this be the equivalent of straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel? Brothers, it broke my heart reading this.

  5. Randy Leedy says:

    Greg, I believe that this is a very well done piece, and I appreciate it. I pray that it will get traction both at BJU and elsewhere.

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