Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
Author and missionary to Indonesia (then, Irian Jaya) has passed away this Dec. 23.
Richardson received his education from the Prairie Bible Institute and the Summer Institute of Linguistics. He never taught full time at a university, and his publications would be considered popular rather than academic. Yet his theories of redemptive analogies, the Melchizedek factor, and original monotheism captured the imagination of missionaries and mobilizers of missionaries. He also had a tremendous impact on my own life: I was planning on being a pastor in the USA until a friend at church gave me a copy of Richardson's Peace Child. After I read it, I knew I was called to Bible translation.
Richardson provided data from around the world that suggested that God has planted the notion of a Supreme Being deep within the human psyche (Richardson, 1981). This is a simplified version of Wilhelm Schmidt’s (1931) massive “culture-history.” Like other “diffusionary anthropologists,” Schmidt believed that cultural elements (bows and arrows, ideas about exogamy or endogamy, religion, etc.) must have been diffused from a proto-civilization. For Schmidt and Richardson, this uber civilization was directly inherited from Noah’s descendants, so it must have had a vestige of belief in one high God. The original culture, then, was monotheistic, but subsequent diffusion and cultural innovations led to increased interest in ritual and “middle level” religious activity, to the near extinction of belief in the high God. Yet spanning from the Karen of Burma to the ancient Incas, to Sub Saharan African religions, tribal peoples seem to have a name for the High God who seems to have forgotten them. Perhaps if missionaries would just re-introduce these peoples to their long lost belief in God, they would experience a collective conversion. Richardson’s stories of mass
At the American Society of Missiology, Terry Muck made the argument that the story of the Good Samaritan can be read (faithfully) from the hermeneutic of interreligious dialog: Here we have a story of people from different faiths (albeit faiths of shared origin) showing compassion, regardless of - yes, regardless of ethnicity- but also regardless of religion. The powerpoint featured global images of the good Samaritan from this blog. Most moving to me was the image of a black person, perhaps in South Africa, healing a white man, as other privileged whites passed him on the road.
I suppose that the story can be accurately read from an interreligious perspective, since the question put to Jesus was "who is my neighbor?" And our neighbors come from all religious backgrounds. And we have faithfully loved our neighbor when we show compassion. But we have also faithfully loved him or her when we share the unique blessings found in Jesus Christ.
Richards and O'Brien's (2012) popular book on how Western culture causes us to misunderstand biblical passages only takes about four hours to read, but will enrich your sermons and stretch your understanding of God and the Christian praxis. While many of the stories are about Indonesia, it is not about an Indonesian hermeneutic- it is about how the Indonesian cultural logic made the biblical stories come to life for the authors.
The authors trace the them of 'what goes without saying' in a culture- that is, the implicit cultural logic that everyone knows, but which those from another culture may not know. This way of making implicit cultural information explicit is in the tradition of Bruce Malina, who did an anthropology of New Testament World. It is also, I might add, what Bible translators do as they translate every verse into vernaculars. Some interesting insights:
I recently came across this back translation (1918) of Psalm 23 from the Khmu language, which is primarily spoken in Laos.*
“The Great Boss is the one who takes care of my sheep
I don’t want to own anything.
The Great Boss wants me to lie down in the field.
He wants me to go to the lake. He makes my good spirit come back.
Even though I walk through something the missionary calls the valley of the shadow of death, I do not care.
You are with me. You use a stick and a club to make me comfortable.
You manufacture a piece of furniture right in front of my eyes while my enemies watch.
You pour car grease on my head.
My cup has too much water in it and therefore overflows.
Goodness and kindness will walk single file behind me all my life.
And I will live in the hut of the Great Boss until I die and am forgotten by the tribe."
True, translating 3000 year old Hebrew poetry into a tribal language is always going to be difficult- which is the main reason this story has such valence- we grin as we watch the native speaker do his best to puzzle through the missionary's botched language skills.
But it doesn't always have to miss the mark this badly. Note that this translation was done before Bible translators understood the importance of village checks and back translations. Nowadays, once the vernacular translators have given the primary draft their best shot, native speakers who were not involved in the primary draft must translate the vernacular back into a lingua franca. That way the consultant can ask speakers, "Why would the Great Boss want you to lie down in the field" or "what other kinds of spirits could come back to you" or "What kind of grease was poured on his head? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Why would he do that? What kind of furniture was he talking about, and why would he do that?" Then the consultant can work with the speakers to come up with alternative renderings that more closely align with the original meaning.
...unless, of course, you think that meaning is found in the community, and not in the author's intent. I suppose deconstructionists and postmodern literary critics would say that this ethno-hermeneutic of Psalm 23 is equally valid?
*(originally provided by Darrell Whiteman in Wichita Eagle, January 7, 1960, but also in Grunlan and Mayers Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective and in Richards and O'Brian Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes)
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor