Reading the Bible in a Javanese Village

Article excerpt

On most Wednesday evenings around seven in a hamlet in Central Java's highlands the sound of group singing breaks through the blare of a neighbouring TV set. There is no gamelan accompaniment, and the scale used is Western, not Javanese. This cannot be the local theatrical troupe practicing.

Kula sami kekempalan Memuji dhateng Pangeran. Dhuh Allah ingkang sinuwun Ing salamilaminipun.

We gather together Praising the Lord. O most honored God Forever.

The words, sung to a melody familiar to me as the offertory in the Episcopal church of my childhood in Indiana, compete with the other night noises. The singing comes from the spacious front room of a traditional Javanese house. With all the wooden shutters and doors shut tight against the night air, five or six men are seated in chairs around a low table in the centre of the room. Against the wall, an equal number of women, a few small children, and one or two young men sit above the dirt floor on a broad, mat-covered platform. The house's best oil lantern is placed on the table for the men to use. Some of the men are dressed comfortably but neatly in sarung, while others wear pants. The women, too, are dressed in a range of traditional and modern dress styles. After the group sings three or four songs, one of the men greets the gathering in very formal High Javanese.(1) Eyes close and heads bow as this brief greeting is followed by even more formal and flowery Javanese addressed to Gusti Allah (Lord God) in the name of Yesus Kristus (Jesus Christ). This hamlet's Bible study group has begun its weekly session.

Just under a quarter of the hamlet's thirty-one households are headed by a Christian. Christians are scattered throughout the five hamlets comprising the village, but the hamlet in which this gathering is taking place has the highest concentration of Christians and is the only one to have organized its own Bible study group. Usually around eight to twelve adults come to Bible study. All of the participants are first generation Christians who have converted since the early 1970's. They belong to the village's sole church, Gereja Kristen Jawa (GKJ), the Javanese Christian Church. GKJ is the largest and one of the oldest of Central Java's ethnic Javanese denominations. The product of evangelical work by Javanese Christian leaders and missionization by the Dutch Gereformeerde churches in the latter half of the nineteenth century, GKJ today is similar liturgically to the Dutch Reformed Church.

Reading and interpreting the Bible are central to Protestant practice everywhere. Yet comparing how first generation Javanese Christians read and interpret the Bible to the Western history of Biblical interpretation is less illuminating than comparing it to other Javanese interpretive practices - both non-Christian and non-religious. Javanese Christians often define themselves by contrasting their practices with those of Javanese Muslims and adherents of kejawen, an amalgam of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and animistic beliefs and practices,(2) so it is particularly instructive to compare their respective styles of textual interpretation. The first contrast that emerges is that Javanese Christians read and discuss texts while other Javanese approaches emphasize reciting and memorizing texts. A second contrast is that unlike other sacred texts in Java, the Bible is relatively accessible. Interpreting the Bible does not require any sort of specialized knowledge beyond literacy in one's native language.

But the fact that people have unrestricted access to the Bible does not mean that all readings of it are equally authoritative. Participants in the hamlet's ongoing Bible study group differ in status, style and gender. These differences affect the process of Biblical interpretation and determine whether any particular interpretation is accepted or dismissed. Also, even though the format of Bible study constitutes an innovation in village Java, the authoritative interpretations that come out of this format tend to be conservative and continuous with the ethical formulations that come out of other Javanese traditions, such as Islam and kejawen. …