Sam is a local partner in South Asia, working in the field of ethnodoxology
My interest in different cultures stems from my background as a third culture kid. I was born in the Middle East but moved to South Asia as a child, and though I am ethnically from that area, I had to learn to blend in.
South Asia is hugely culturally diverse, with thousands of people groups and hundreds of official languages (plus many unofficial ones). You can encounter a new culture every 20km. I am used to always thinking about how what I am saying is being understood by the person I’m speaking with.
Having grown up in a Christian family, I became a Christian myself after hearing a talk by Billy Graham while I was still at school. My life changed drastically as I wanted to learn more about God and started studying the Bible intensively. As a student, I was involved with the local church and also with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. I started to do gospel outreach using contemporary music and the arts.
What do people hear?
As I started using different art forms for outreach, I realised we tend to look at one format, such as a street sketch, and keep doing that, assuming people understand us. We don’t always realise that what we are trying to communicate might mean different things to those who are watching or listening. I started using more varied artistic styles for outreach which set me on my path as an ethnodoxologist.
Ethnodoxology as a term comes from two words: ethne, referring to the people (and by extension their culture); and doxology, the way people worship.
My work is about understanding the way in which people communicate and putting biblical truth into those forms and using them in worship. This has taken me to communities in Africa, across South Asia and beyond.
I discovered while working alongside various organisations engaged in Bible translation that, while audio Bibles are useful in some ways, most people groups love to hear songs or stories in their own cultural forms of artistic expression. In oral cultures, there can be a distance between the language used in the Bible (which may be based on formal writing systems) and day-to-day language. People understand the Bible, but they wouldn’t naturally use its language in everyday communication – even though the Bible was originally formed in an oral way to be memorised.
This is not about literacy or levels of education – some cultures are highly oral and reading doesn’t play a big role. In these cultures, those who are literate and highly educated might still prefer the oral style of communication.
Cultural differences also affect the way the gospel is communicated. In some African and Asian cultures, someone preaching – standing up and giving a message – is just not something they connect with. It might seem the easiest way for us to share our faith, but that doesn’t mean it is going to be meaningful for the audience. It might be that sharing a song or a piece of narrative drama makes more sense culturally. We are often more creative when sharing with children, yet we know Jesus used parables with people of all ages because they were part of the culture. Whatever our background, we all use art forms to communicate.
Singing is very important in many cultures – it allows people to use their native language and connects with their emotions. But we need to understand the culture more fully to know what types of song are appropriate. If there are styles for courtship, working or war, can we share a Scripture in that context, such as using a warrior-style song to tell of Jesus defeating death?
Finding common ground
The starting point is always the community – I am just a facilitator. Usually I will be invited to work with a people group by a pastor or Bible translator. As I am a documentary maker, I go to record the heritage and cultural traditions of the community. Many elders are keen to do this as younger generations don’t always continue the traditions. This allows me to understand the culture and how they communicate.
I look at how they receive messages in their culture, then find common ground and ways to connect with that. We work out how to share the message of Jesus in their culture through questions and dialogue, with conversation happening through art forms. It is important to know that all people are made in the image of God and therefore their creativity stems from him. According to the book of Romans, God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen. The Bible also says that Christ is reconciling all things unto himself. Many times, we don’t think of Jesus reconciling culture.
One of the key challenges is communicating concepts that don’t exist in a particular culture. I worked with a community in South Asia to revive their ancient language and folk singing style using Scripture. As they were Christians, they chose to use Psalm 23, but we hit a roadblock as their language doesn’t have any concept of sheep or shepherds.
So we looked at what in their culture might give the same ideas, and found that they have a type of water buffalo that is huge but docile, and is also used as a sacrifice – so that meant we could use an image that spoke to them.
Breaking cultural barriers
What really excites me is when people immediately connect. In the Bible we see that God speaks to us using different literary forms. God spoke in the culture of the people in both the Old and New Testaments. God has been doing this since ages past – it excites me to see people understanding God’s message as cultural barriers are broken today.
MAIN PHOTO: The director of Suvanna Phum Art Association in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is using shadow puppetry to tell the story of the Indian epic Ramayana in the Khmer language. Sam builds bridges through such art.