Understanding of a people’s culture is vital. If the missionary does not know the culture, he is likely to deliver a confused message. The following article by a BBTI graduate, whose identity we must conceal, demonstrates this fact. Understanding of a people’s culture is vital. If the missionary does not know the culture, he is likely to deliver a confused message.
In the process of language learning, we have heard several folktales and children’s stories and have learned much about the people’s cultural mindset and worldview. We have seen at least three common themes.
Firstly, people are collectivists, NOT individualists. In America, we have been rooted in humanism to the point that “I define me.” In other words, I get to decide what I think is right and wrong. In general, westerners want to stand out of the crowd, be their own person, and have their own opinions. It does not work that way here. A person’s goal in a collectivist society is to progress the community; all are equal, and everyone is happy. Nobody has more than anyone else, we are all one big family, and what is mine is yours. This could explain why communism, to a certain point, makes sense here culturally. It is when the people discover that the dictators are above everyone else, have more, and are bossing people around that things begin to change. Which brings us to the next point…
Authority (without reason) is almost always resisted and rebelled against. If others (the pu-nyai) are over you, they are expected to show respect and understanding to you and everyone else (the pu-noi) under them. This means that if you give a rule, you should also explain why that rule is being enforced. Giving a reason shows you care about others and are helping to further everyone so that all live in unity. Otherwise, you are just a jerk full of pride scolding the underlings.
Last of all, deception is considered heroic. A typical hero in a folktale is an underling (pu-noi) who deceives the dictator/jerk (pu-nyai) in order to shame him, make him “lose face” in the community, and bring down his pride. We have seen this pattern over and over in these stories. A clever trick played on someone, usually in a humorous way, shows not only how the trickster does not like the jerk, but that he thinks the jerk is something he should not be. It is a way to “get the upper hand” so to speak. Here is an example of a story involving these things:
“Please don’t put me in the bucket!” called a soft voice.
“Oi! The fish can talk!” the lady said with a startle.
“Please don’t put me in the bucket!” the little fish begged again.
“But if I don’t catch you, I will not have anything to eat!”
the lady replied.
“But I am so young and very small,” implored the fish. “You will not have enough to eat. Why don’t you put me back in the water and wait until I am fully grown? Then you can catch me again, and you will have more to eat for that meal.”
After some thought, the lady conceded. She gently placed the little fish back into the river.
The little fish, happy to be free again, swam and splashed as far away from the net as he could, determined to
never return to that spot in the river.
Here we observe the pu-nyai, the lady who will catch and eat the fish (which only benefits her and leaves no mercy for the fish). The pu-noi, the little fish, resists and outsmarts her, even lying to her that he will be there again for her to catch once he is grown up. His trickery saves the day, he swims free (a small victory for all fish everywhere), and the woman is assumed to go hungry that day.
How does this affect the missionary? Take, for instance, the story of Adam and Eve. At first, if you hear the story through our people’s ears, God could
be considered a bad pu-nyai, giving rules without reason; the hero of the story would be the serpent, Satan. In deceiving Eve (by mixing truth with lies), he really deceived God and foiled His plans. And now all the earth and humankind are as corrupt (thus on the same level) as Satan. Imagine trying to convey the Gospel when Satan is seen as the hero!
However, if we show that God is a good pu-nyai, giving reasons for his rules (“In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”), thus trying to look out for and protect the pu-noi under Him, we see that deceiving Him is the worst blasphemy ever! Now, the deceiver is harming the one that protects the community, making himself the pu-nyai who is getting something only for himself and hurting everyone else. It shifts the situation entirely.
Now consider Christ Jesus. He was and is THE Pu-Nyai: Creator God, holy, sovereign, all-powerful, eternal, worthy of all praise. He stooped down and became a humble Pu-Noi. He had no more than anyone else around Him; He roamed homeless, often only finding solace on the Mount of Olives. He helped make the lives and souls better for those around Him. He had compassion on His fellow men. He did not come as Pu-Nyai, even though He is worthy to make the rules. He came as one of us, so He could be accepted by us.
As missionaries, we MUST be learners before we can be teachers, or we will find ourselves having to correct grave errors in our teaching. We cannot just spread the Gospel without giving due attention to culture. The way we pre- sent things may or may not make sense to the hearers. We must be pu-noi, just humans among fellow humans, serving our Heavenly Father, the Pu-Nyai of pu-nyai, the holiest and worthiest of all.