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Contextualization of Christianity and Christianization of Language: A Case Study from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Among the treasury of languages that is New Guinea, few have been described in a good grammar. Renck writes about one, Yagaria, that has been the subject of two published grammars, his own and John Haiman's grammar of Hua, a dialect or very closely related language. Now Renck gives us in this very readable dissertation a unique study of language in change in its use by mission and church. "Contextualization" here is primarily and explicitly concerned with the linguistic context into which the Christian message is brought, so there is little said about cultural adaptation in a wider sense.

But there is a rich discussion of the entry of the Gospel into the Yagaria language. The pioneer communicators of the good news were Lutheran Christians from neighboring areas, a number of whom spoke Kamano, a language of the same family as Yagaria, and also used the Kate language, a non-Austronesian language that was one of three lingua francas for Lutheran mission work in New Guinea. Theological terminology developed in Yagaria from roots in Kate as terms had come to be expressed in Kamano, sometimes via loan translation, but very seldom directly borrowing theological terms, with notable exceptions like the use of Anutu for God. Literacy was not widespread in the early growth of the church, so memorization of materials was focal. Scripture translation was not made as important as the shorter units needed in worship, such as the creed and prayers. The samples included from the Gospel of Mark, which was translated in this stream, show a "pared" style, possibly reflecting the impact of memorization, where an often-repeated, familiar text may not need much built-in redundancy.

A second stream of communication came through the work of New Tribes Mission, also early at work in the area, using Pidgin as an intermediary language, but moving on to translation of the New Testament. The term for God was borrowed from Pidgin. The samples included show what Renck feels is a style too "verbose" for written style, though "very close to the way many people actually speak", with the tail-head sentence-linking redundancy and the discourse particles so typical of most Papuan languages. In my experience, unlike Renck's, materials in that kind of style are easier for new readers, not more difficult.

Perhaps the most interesting stream of "contextualization" has been the development of indigenous hymns, "which use very few of the theological terms which occur in prayers, preaching and Scriptural translations," but use "everyday words, amongst which the verbs are quite prominent". Renck seems strangely to equate "concepts" with noun-focused expressions, contrasting them with verbal constructions in the language spoken and sung. He rightly welcomes this musical development.

Among important observations from reading this stimulating book are these two: First, the neglect of what has been done or is being done by others in communicating the Christian message impoverishes the church. In their translation of the New Testament, New Tribes personnel paid little attention to what had been done by Lutheran evangelists, and in turn Lutheran Christians do not use the former translation. Recognition and use of each other's work could have enriched both. Second, in the language-rich context of New Guinea, the number of languages is an argument for, not against, the importance of the use of vernacular languages for propagating the Gospel. They give an anchor to people undergoing rapid change, helping not only to prevent the rejection of the message but also to favor its "inculturation" and effectiveness in the renewal of village culture and life. The expression of the Gospel in these languages is "incarnation as it takes place now".

Myron Bromley is a missionary in Irian Jaya with Christian and Missionary Alliance.
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Author:Bromley, Myron
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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