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Finding our own voice: the quest for authentic conversion.

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. Those subsisting as landless laborers, sharecroppers, or beggars, whose destitution is compounded by droughts, blights, and famines, have never well complied with the comfortable Western missionary's insistence that they be self-supporting. Something more was needed--in Fairbank's case industrial schools, agricultural work, and English classes--so that Christian untouchables might develop the capacity not merely to speak but to be heard in their own voice.

In his essay "Christian Scholarship in Africa in the Twenty-first Century," appearing in the December 2001 issue of the Journal of African Christian Thought, Andrew Walls noted that while the health and survival of Christianity depend upon cross-cultural diffusion, Christian conversion involves more than a cognitive shift from incorrect to correct theological propositions. Any transformative process aiming to redirect the breadth and width and height and depth of a people's culture toward Christ must penetrate to the very DNA of that culture. And "deep translation," as he calls it, takes multiple generations to accomplish.

Walls went on in the same article to make the startling prediction that if such qualitative conversion occurs in African societies, "we may see something like what appeared in the third, fourth and fifth centuries. We may see a great creative development of Christian theology; new discoveries about Christ that Christians everywhere can share; mature, discriminating standards of Christian living; people and groups responding to the gospel at the deep level of understanding and personality; a long-term Christ-shaped imprint on the thinking of Africa ... a new stage in the church's growth toward the full stature of Christ." Walls warned, however, that if this deep translation does not occur, if African Christianity is but the hollow echo of European Christian forms and theological formulations, "we shall see distortion, confusion, uncertainty and, almost certainly, hypocrisy on a large scale" (p. 46).

"Finding our own voice" and "hypocrisy on a large scale" represent poles at either end of the Christian conversion continuum. The latter requires only a few years, or perhaps a decade or two, while the former consumes many generations. The second pole quickly translates into the church growth figures so craved by our measurement-driven culture, while the first represents a sustained, complicated, sometimes controversial process that eventually touches the very heart of a culture and transforms its every fiber. The second may be a resurfacing of the same fatally flawed proselytizing as practiced by those whom our Lord accused of crossing "sea and land to make a single convert," and then making "the new convert twice as much a child of hell" as they themselves (Matt. 23:15), while the first contributes richly to "building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to ... the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13). Not shallow hypocrisy but authentic conversion should be our object, an aspiration that we think you will agree is modestly supported by this issue of the IBMR.
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Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Words:975
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