“You converted because of the songs”

My class of Sudanese Episcopalians last Saturday considered the rapid conversion of many Dinka to Christianity in the 1980s and 1990s. For the teacher, this raises an interesting conundrum: how to teach about something which the students experienced firsthand. The solution? Prompt them to talk about their experience and try to provide some concepts to frame the experience in terms of mission and how and why people convert.

What is so fascinating about the conversion of the Dinka is that for many decades European missionaries tried—to no avail—to convert the Dinka. What happened when the missionaries left, however, is that the Dinka were able to encounter Christianity on their own terms and in a way that was coherent with their culture.

I got a lesson in this in my class on Saturday when one student told me about how he converted. Singing has long been important to Dinka culture; indeed, in many ways, it is the chief artistic expression. Before war decimated the Dinka homeland, young men would tend cattle in camps. They’d wrestle, talk about women, tend their prize bull, and, in the evenings, write songs about all of it. If it was a good song, it would be sung by others and passed around.

When the Sudanese civil war sent many of these young men into exile, they did the same thing: composed songs about their experience. Only this time, the experience of displacement had (for a variety of reasons we can talk about in another post) introduced Christianity to their mix. In one refugee camp of tens of thousands in Ethiopia, there were two Sudanese pastors. These pastors held services under the trees and taught the boys songs about Jesus. The boys would learn the songs and go back to their shelters and teach others. As they learned more, they began to compose new songs about Jesus. The good ones began to spread. The Gospel was being transmitted to the culture in the most culturally-appropriated medium. As the student said on Saturday, “You converted because of the songs.” The message they were transmitting was appealing and it was unencumbered of the culture of the European missionaries.

This, for me, is a textbook example of the way in which Gospel and culture can come together and lead to the mass conversion of a people. It’s one thing to preach the Gospel. It’s entirely another thing to preach it in a way that people can interpret in light of markers they already know.

So Saturday’s class got me thinking: what’s the equivalent in American culture? North Atlantic culture, we are often told, is moving away from Christianity. In some places, it is outrightly hostile to the faith. This part of the world is now a chief “mission field.” So how do we speak to non-Christians in this part of the world in a way that will be understood?

One challenge, of course, is the fracturing of culture and media. There are now so many sub-cultures (in a way there weren’t necessarily in Dinka culture) that to think about hitting on one method is probably foolish. Still, the reason I’m so fascinated by mission history is that I think it has lessons for us today.

So… in our own time, what’s the equivalent of converting people by song?

“The Dinka national characteristic is laziness.”

The title of this post is taken from an article in the Church Missionary Society’s Gleaner newspaper in 1906. Missionaries of the new CMS mission among the Dinka people of southern Sudan were reporting back on what they were learning. As you might guess from this extract it’s not all that positive.

I gave this article (which I found while doing research at school this spring) to my class of Dinka students in the Sudanese American Theological Institute that I’m teaching at in Phoenix this summer. We were talking about the early years of the European mission effort in southern Sudan. Here are some other extracts from the article:

The value of the medical mission in breaking up the fallow ground is again receiving marked demonstration in the Dinka Mission. Illness is naturally prevalent owing to the fact that the Dinka will use the same water hole for drinking, washing himself, and watering his cattle! As the benefit of proper treatment is appreciated the pioneer doctor’s hands are kept full.

Contact with clothed Europeans is also having an excellent civilizing effect. Clothes are desired, and the possession of cloth leads to the need of soap. Clothing does not harmonize with the daubing of grease, red ochre, and ashes, and so the civilizing process goes on.

(This is actually not true. In separate letters home, the doctor and others complained about not having enough to do because the Dinka basically ignored them. But facts never got in the way of anyone’s fundraising appeal!)

The article makes me wince when I read it. It reeks of the late Victorian, noblesse oblige that so characterized mission efforts of that time. The way the word “civilization” is used constantly is a reminder that missionaries saw it as their job not just to spread the good news but also to bring with them their cultural suppositions.

I gave it to the students and I wanted to know what they thought. Right off the bat, one male student read it and said, “That’s accurate.” A female student agreed and said that it was the women who do all the work in Dinka culture. That prompted a male student to say, “They didn’t understand what men do in Dinka culture.” And the conversation took off from there. (For what it’s worth—and I noted this in class—I’ve read lots of ethnographies of Dinka from various points of the last 150 years and it’s amazing how often the word “lazy” crops up.)

We ended up talking at length about how—if at all—missionaries can separate their own cultural background from the gospel they are seeking to share. Ultimately, the answer is not entirely. The gospel is always enculturated. Missionaries share the way they understand the gospel and then it is received and transformed as it enters a new culture. The question for missionaries to ask, then, is what parts of what I am sharing are essential to the gospel and which are not?

This is all pretty obvious stuff for folks who’ve been engaged in cross-cultural mission. But it’s worth reading wince-inducing mission histories because it reminds us of this central dynamic in Christian mission between gospel and culture.

Mainline Protestant denominations have, in the past several years, moved away from explicit evangelism to a partnership model of mission that stresses the development of relationships. There is much to commend to this model and I’ve written a book that essentially endorses it without, of course, losing sight of the kerygma of Jesus Christ.

Even as we do so, however, I think it’s still important to step back and ask ourselves the question: what is gospel and what is culture? In working with other cultures—even in partnership—we still bring with us cultural suppositions as deeply rooted (if less obviously offensive) as those the first CMS missionaries brought with them when they went to southern Sudan.