Finding Our Own Voice: The Quest for Authentic Conversion

Article excerpt

Charles Forman is to be thanked for his masterful overview of theological developments in the Pacific Islands, a part of the world too seldom mentioned in this journal. His title, "Finding Our Own Voice," aptly reflects a ubiquitous and quintessentially human quest that manifests itself at all levels of life--individual, community, ethnic group, and nation--and across the spectrum of languages, societies, and religions. This quest is implicit in several of the articles in this issue of the IBMR.

To be spoken for implies a degree of powerlessness on the part of those who are represented by the voice of another. This incapacity may issue from intrinsic reasons having to do with one's degree of maturity, mental development, or medical condition; or it may be the result of extrinsic conditions that foster and perpetuate marginalization, rendering certain individuals and groups voiceless.

Representation does not always reflect the wishes of those represented and sometimes is brutally imposed, as with colonies and possessions of empires. Those on whose behalf the powerful voice of domination is raised are obliged to sit mutely by while others explain what is "really" on their minds. In other cases, socially amplified voices represent or misrepresent others in matters pertaining to the Ultimate and the innermost. Theologians speak for God, bishops speak for dioceses, clergy speak for congregations, and missionaries speak for converts.

Anatoliy M. Ablazhei's article, translated by David Collins, illustrates ways in which a people can be rendered voiceless through the well-intentioned actions of missionaries. Through his careful study of the religious worldview of the indigenous population of the northern Ob', in western Siberia, Ablazhei reminds us that while the Christian Gospel should be good news for all peoples, regardless of their cultures, destructive forces are unleashed when insensitive outsiders too quickly presume to represent God within a complex cultural and linguistic milieu that they neither adequately comprehend nor fully appreciate. Such ignorance has at times issued in the evisceration of indigenous cultures through the agency of Western boarding schools for the young. Years spent on the Procrustean bed of Eurocentric education inevitably spawn sterile hybrid cultures whose indigenous memories and traditions have been obliterated or so denigrated as to no longer serve as trustworthy guides to life. The indigenous cultures having been exorcised, the inrush of an incoherent concoction of values and orientations has produced miserably dysfunctional communities whose condition is worse now than before the "Good News" arrived.

Yet, as Jennifer Trafton reminds us in her article on Samuel Fairbank, missionaries often got things right. It was the adaptation of the kirttan (an indigenous style of teaching and singing) to Christian purposes in the mid-nineteenth century that most compellingly and effectively communicated the Gospel to the people of Wadale, India, resulting in what today is a socially vibrant and predominantly Christian region. The story of Fairbank's agricultural work is a sober rebuke to doctrinaire insistence on Rufus Anderson's "self-supporting churches" ideal, whatever the cultural and economic circumstances of a people. …