I have studied the Bible in a tertiary institution. I have taken exegesis classes. This helps me understand a complicated and ancient text, so that I can attempt to apply it to my own life. It also helps me attempt to explain the Bible in terms that others will understand.
The Bible that many of us read is hard to understand. A big reason for this, is that many of us are not reading it in our "heart language." Eugene Peterson went a long way to putting the text of the Bible into modern language that we can all understand. This indeed is powerful, but is still lacking in something for this Aussie.
In Bible college I also took many classes in the discipline of "Intercultural Studies." I have much to thank my old prof Les Henson for as he challenged us to understand culture from the inside (an emic perspective). Les and his wife spent many years in West Papua among the Momina people. He grappled with the issues of communicating the gospel in culturally relevant ways. Today Les continues to grapple with these issues as he lives in 21st century Australia.
Now that I live in Siberia, I am grappling with these issues too. I have realised for a long time that I would need to understand the stories of the people I want to reach before I could begin to tell them the stories of the Bible. As I learnt their stories, I would begin to understand their forms and then be able to tell Bible stories in the same form. But I had always thought of this some how through a literate world view. A literate worldview is the one I adhere to. I am a literate person. I have two tertiary qualifications to my name. This puts me in the "highly literate" category of society.
Many people in western society do not fit into the "highly literate" category. They learnt to read in school and perhaps even went on to university, but they no longer prefer to pick up a book. They will possibly read a magazine or newspaper. I recently watched Andrew Denton's interview with Steve Irwin (shown on ABC's Enough Rope in September 2006 after Steve Irwin passed away). Steve Irwin, joked that he hated plane trips because he hated the idea of reading for 14 hours. He joked that he would pick up a surf-mag but only for 20 minutes. Steve Irwin, great Australian that he was, was most likely a "semi-literate" individual. He was able to read, but really did not enjoy it. There are a suprisingly high number of semi-literate people in western society, who even though they can read, prefer not to.
Let me take this one step further. I am a highly literate person (in English, but I have such a long way to go in Russian), and I do enjoy reading a good book or an intelligent National Geographic article, but I still enjoy watching movies or listening to the radio. I enjoy "orality." "Orality" is a world view that many in the world hold. They need to hear stories presented in an oral form for them to make any sense at all. Now I can understand a literate story and I can also understand an oral story. But I really enjoy the oral format.
There is a post-literate world developing in the West. There is now so much available in multi-media formats. People can carry their 80 gig iPods around and watch any snippet of video and show these to their friends any time they want. The need to communicate things in writing is decreasing as video technology increases and becomes easier to utilise.
Recently I have been reading about Oral story telling theories. A paper was put together at the 2004 Lausanne conference for World Evangelization. It has been published as a book: Making disciples of oral learners. I have appreciated the book, but there were a couple things in it that annoyed me. They insist on using the term "storying" as if they have come up with a new concept. Storytelling is an ancient concept. If we already have a word, why try to invent a new one? I could quite confidently say that Les found ways to tell stories to the Momina people, and he didn't need an official mission term coined to be able to do this. The paper has prompted a lot of thinking for me and the ideas have been churning around inside.
Following the reading of this book we were able to make a trip down to Khakassia where some Germans are ministering to a Siberian people called the Khakas. Our German friends are keen to take the Khakas people they know through the stories of the Bible- Creation, Spirit world etcetera, to challenge their world view. I agree with this concept in principle. The methods used were highly formal for my liking though. The material being used was the chronological bible teaching material from New Tribes. I sat in on one of the sessions. One of the people present read some verses from Genesis, but I could tell that this was uncomfortable for her. Even though she could read, I would have to say that she was "semi-literate." The formal nature of the course was not entirely helpful for these Khakas people. One of the questions put forward to the them was "What did God create the world from?" The desired answer is "nothing." God created the universe out of nothing. This concept was outside of the world view of these Khakas people. One guy kept saying that God created the world "from earth"; i.e from the soil, from the dirt. The concept of "from nothing" was outside of his world view. But the formal nature of the New Tribes course would not allow this man to really grapple with this concept. Two minutes later, my German friend was giving the answer "from nothing." But I was not convinced that this concept stuck in for our Khakas friend.
"Making disciples of oral learners" argues that a story needs to be told in the form that a culture uses to tell stories, for a world view to be truly challenged. I could see quite plainly that this was not happening. The stories were not being told in the Khakas form and not in the Khakas language.
I have some friends who are planning to develop stories for the Altai culture. They desire to see an Altai person telling the stories of the Bible in an Altai context in the Altai language. It is thought that these stories will then challenge the Altai world view to make room for their Creator and Saviour.
Let me bring these ideas back to home for a bit. I contend that Christianity in Australia, is not very Australian. Christianity first came to Australia in the context of the Anglican and then Catholic churches. These are very institutionalised forms of religion. It is no secret that Australians do not enjoy insitutions and do not enjoy authority. The gospel has not been contextualised (very minimally at best) into Australian culture. Modern day Christianity in Australia borrows much from American culture. The most successful church, numbers wise in Australia is Hillsong in Sydney. Many of their doctrines are based upon the dangerous concepts of the Benny Hinn mob (this can be traced back through Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin and E.W. Kenyon right back to the New Thought movement of the late 1800s; Kenyon was a contemporary and borrowed many ideas from Phineas Quimby and from the more popular metaphysicist and founder of Christian Science- Mary Baker Eddy). But I contend that this is a passing fad and that the true gospel has yet to be communicated to the Australian people. The gospel that Hillsong preach is known as the "health and wealth" gospel. It is a gospel that says that God wants us to be rich. This is not what the Bible teaches and it is a tempting trap to fall into, both for the preacher and the listener.
I sit here today with some excitement inside of me. I just completed an online transaction for the second installment of The Aussie Bible. When I first read the Aussie Bible, my heart was warmed and the Bible came alive to me in a way it never has before, despite all of the exegesis I did at Bible college. Kel Richards has found a way to put the stories of the Bible into my "heart language." And he has done this using some wonderful storytelling (the Aussie in me rejects the "storying" term) skills. Wycliffe and the like spend enormous resources on translating the Bible into the "heart language" of a people group. It occurred to me when I first read the Aussie Bible, that this had never before been done in the Australian language. I am so excited that Kel Richards has gone on to tell some of the stories in Genesis. This gives me hope that there will be many more installments.
My family and I are off to Turkey in April for a conference. We will have two weeks holiday before the conference and a car to drive around in. It occurred to me that Gallipoli is in Turkey. For those who are not Australians, Gallipoli is a site near the Dardanelles where soldiers from Australia and and New Zealand (and incidentally Newfoundland too) fought in World War 1. They fought on their own without troops from the mother country. They fought in a battle that they had no hope of winning. Yet the diggers ("digger" is Aussie for a solider, due to the fact that soldiers dug trenches in World War 1), fought with everything they had. The battle is thought to have helped turn the tide in World War 1. For Australians, this was a very significant moment in our history. World War 1 was the first war that Australians went to as citizens of an independent Australia. (The legal birth of Australia was January 1, 1901). Gallipoli became a powerful symbol for Australians. Today the battle of Gallipoli is remembered every year on ANZAC day, April 25th. (ANZAC- Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.) Gallipoli was the spiritual birth place of the Australian nation. Every year many Australians make a pilgrimage to Gallipoli in Turkey for the ANZAC dawn service that is held there.
The ANZAC spirit is a fascinating phenomenon in Australian culture. For many years the diggers would march to remember their fallen mates. The central theme of ANZAC services became "Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his friends." This is a direct quote from Jesus in John 15:13 told shortly before his crucifixion. The original diggers would have known where this reference came from. But many Australians today do not know. Instead many Australians would see this as an ANZAC quote.
As the diggers from World War 1 have all died out now, the ANZAC day services have taken on a new level. Some thought that as the diggers died out and stopped marching that ANZAC day would wane in significance. It was especially their day after all. But something interesting happened. The children and granchildren of the original ANZACs began to march in their place, even wearing their old medals. A legend had been born. The ANZAC legend had sunk deeply into the Australian psyche. It represents the spiritual birth of our nation.
For me it is fascinating to realise that God was present at the spiritual birth of a new nation. As missiologists have studied cultures they have looked for redemptive analogies to explain the gospel. Don Richardson has explained these concepts in his books "The Peace Child" and "Eternity in their hearts." The central theme to the event marking Australia's spiritual birth is mateship and "Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his friends." This is exactly what Jesus has done for us. As Australia begins to reject institutionalised Christianity, Christmas and Easter are becoming less important to Australians. But interestingly ANZAC day is becoming more and more important and significant to Australian culture. A national religion is being born in the ANZAC spirit. Is this national religion a bad thing? Doesn't it take the focus away from Jesus? I would argue, no it doesn't. Australians are forgetting who God is, but we are not giving up this important shrine in our culture. In many ways ANZAC shrines are the same as the shrine to the "Unknown god" that Paul discovered in Athens in the book of Acts. The ANZAC story is Australia's redemptive analogy. God loved the Australian nation enough to make sure that even at the very birth of the Australian nation there would be signs that point to him. This is mind boggling stuff to me.
I am convinced that the gospel has not really been told in the Australian language or through Australian stories. Australians don't need some big show to hear the gospel. We need to be told it in fair dinkum language over a barbie with a tinny in our hands. We need to be told that Jesus is the true mate who laid his life down for us. The gospel needs to be contextualised into Australian culture. This needs to be done in the form of stories that Australians understand, such as Banjo Patterson used to do in "Clancy of the overflow."
Kel Richards has begun to do this, and the secular public loves his work. There are some knockers from within the church. Sadly I think that they have missed the ball altogether. Their faith is stuck within the insitutions of the old world. But I am excited that some keys are coming together to communicate the gospel properly in Australia. I am convinced that when Australians hear and understand the gospel in their heart language that millions will respond. Up until now preachers have been entering the house through the window. If we stop and take the time we can enter the hearts of Australians through the door. The secular press has written about the Aussie Bible and it has received the thumbs up. Check out these articles:
Aussie Bible? No worries, mate
'Strine' slang Bible a hit in secular Australia
These thoughts are still fresh in my mind. I will learn more over the coming years as I begin to try these ideas in Siberia. But as I learn I will be encouraging people I know in Australia to try the same ideas in our 21st century Australian culture. I am also hopeful that I will make it to Gallipoli, even if it is not on ANZAC day when I am in Turkey, and somehow understand my own people group better.