by David Mark
Do missionaries dance? Let me tell you about it. It was an unusual Sunday because Javier and Chelo Martinez had just finished building a new house.
Do missionaries dance? Let me tell you about it. It was an unusual Sunday because Javier and Chelo Martinez had just finished building a new house. They were pretty excited. Since Javier is one of the leaders of the new church, he thought it would be a great idea to invite the whole congregation up to the new house and give it a sort of blessing. The upshot was that it was decided to go ahead and hold the worship service at their house with dinner and fiesta following.
I’m not sure what the missionaries expected, but here’s how it went. First, there was the worship service with music, prayers, testimonies, and a sermon. The music was with the usual guitars and electric keyboard and, of course, tambourines. After all, how could anyone really celebrate the presence of God without tambourines? The service was well attended, warm and, overall, quite satisfactory. It ended with special prayers for the Martinez family and a kind of dedication of the new house to the Lord. I don’t know, but maybe the missionaries should have gone home right then. If they had, they could have avoided all those embarrassing snapshots-the kind that don’t get put in with the missionary slides on home assignment. Anyway, the meal came next. Great stuff: tinga, empanadas, enchiladas, frijolitos, cebollitas. If you don’t know what these are, well, I guess you are just culturally deprived.
I must admit that the missionaries got nervous at this point. Right about here, following the tradition of the wedding at Cana, the wine is usually served and it is time to toast the house and its occupants. Fortunately for our heroes, there wasn’t any wine on this occasion, and our longsuffering missionaries were beginning to feel relieved.
"Excuse me," someone said, "would you help us move the tables and chairs back up against the wall?"
"Whatever for?" asked our missionary friends.
"For the dance, of course," was the reply.
Mambo! Samba! Cha-Cha-Cha! So it continued, loud, rhythmic, and everyone danced-deacons, deaconesses, preacher. The missionaries?
Do missionaries dance? Do they dance well? In their honor, the hosts included some vintage rock ‘n’ roll in the music selections. ("Don’t go, we have your kind of music, too!") Do they dance well? One person remarked, "Gringos dance okay, but there just seems to be something missing."
So what do you think? Was this a "Christian" event? Was it a "pagan" event? Some of both? Should the missionaries go home when the music starts? What should they say to their children?
How should missionaries respond to local culture? The question comes up with every new generation of missionaries, concretely and constantly. Missionaries are never unaware that they are not in their "home" culture. They are never 100 percent sure what any local event means in the mind of a native inhabitant. They ask many questions, and try to get close to an understanding.
CHRIST IN CULTURE
Somewhere, back in the misty past of my seminary days, I ran across a very helpful book that described three different ways in which the church has historically responded to culture (Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr, 1951). The first approach he called Christ in culture. The argument went something like this. Since God created man, then the culture of man is godly in many respects, even though he may not be aware of it.
The church needs to remind the world of the hidden godliness within its everyday cultural forms and expressions. So the fiesta is essentially godly because of the positive, human values that it expresses, such as celebration, fellowship, good spirit, and the like.
The 16th century Spanish missionary and scholar, Bernardino de Sahagun, wrote a lengthy defense of the native Mexican culture: its science, art, religion, philosophy, and festivals. He had been influenced by Tertullian, who wrote an Apology back around theend of the second century. Tertullian wrote that Greek philosophy was to the pagans what the Old Testament was to the Jews-God’s preparation for the coming of the gospel. Sahagun, then, compared the Aztec gods to the Greek and Roman gods and wrote that they embodied essential Christian virtues. So, Huitzilopochtli was "another Mars," Painal "another Mercury," Tezcatlipuca "another Jupiter," Quetzalcoatl, Hercules; Cihua-coatl, Venus; Tlaloc, Neptune, and so on. Sahagun wrote,
Yet they had for gods the governors of the universe; fire, spirit or moving air, or the turning of the stars, or much water, or the sun and the moon. Of whose beauty they were enchanted and made them into gods recognizing how much more beautiful is the Lord since the Lord of beauty made all these things. Or, if they marvelled at their virtue and influences, they understand by them that he who created them is greater than they. . . . so, conversing by means of their works, they seek Him.
Sahagun’s evangelization "method," then, was to teach the native population to see the Christian virtues hidden within their pagan beliefs. The weakness, of course, was the creation of what some call "Christopaganism," the worship even today in many villages of the old gods dressed in Christian clothes. Or, in the urban scene, participation in religious festivals by atheists on the grounds that such festivals are "part of our Mexican culture."
Cortez favored Sahagun’s approach to Christianization and instructed his men not to destroy the Aztec idols and places of worship. They disobeyed, however. Once, when Cortez was away, the soldiers came upon the blood-stained idols in what is now Mexico City. Furious at the sight of human sacrifice and idolatry, the soldiers tore down the idols, unleashing the violent confrontation that marked the remainder of the conquest. In the long run, however, Sahagun’s approach dominated in most of Mexico.
So, do we go to the fiesta and point out its hidden Christian virtues as a kind of "pre-evangelism"?
CHRIST AGAINST CULTURE
The second response to culture is one that is called Christ against culture. This was clearly the response of Cortez’ soldiers and common to much of Protestantism as well. This approach calls for a radical separation from the world, denunciation of the world, nonparticipation in the world, and the creation of an alternative, Christian society.
A good example can be found in our older village Covenant churches in Oaxaca. The fiesta in Oaxaca is the pride and joy of anthropologists and the Mexican Department of Tourism. It is colorful and exciting, with religious parades, feasting, dancing, and lots of ancient customs-Christian and pagan-woven together.
On the negative side, there is much drunkenness and bad behavior. It is also an instrument of social control. If a man is doing well economically, or is in disfavor with the town elders, he may be required to pay for the town fiesta. The costs are overwhelming and often reduce the unlucky patron to a state of poverty. If one refuses to participate, one can be put in jail, fined, or expelled from the village.
Protestants tend to refuse to participate. The sanctions against them depend on their relative strength as a group within the village. Some years ago, an entire Covenant church was expelled from the town of Metaltepec, involving the loss of their homes and communal land. The movement to expel the Protestants was justified, in part, on their refusal to support the town fiesta.
We housed them temporarily at the campsite in Tlacolula until the government gave them the right to build new homes on the outskirts of Oaxaca City. Unfortunately, this did not include farm land. With help from World Relief and Oaxacan Covenanters, we instituted a program to retrain heads of households with urban skills so that they could survive in the urban environment.
Our village churches havetended to opt for a radical separation from the village and its general social life. Sometimes they have made common cause with Jehovah’s Witnesses, refusing to salute the flag, participate in civic events, pay taxes, and the like. This approach has been the source of much persecution from both religious and civic sources.
CHRIST TRANSFORMING CULTURE
Many of our churches, however, are now trying a new way. It corresponds to the third approach called Christ transforming culture. Rather than withdraw from participation in village life, this approach anticipates it and goes "the extra mile." Before they are asked to pay for the fiesta, church leaders offer alternative service for the village’s welfare to the town elders. Perhaps they build a new road, paint the public school, or dig a well. This approach has worked so well that in several towns church leaders have been elected as presidents of the village elders, and much good will has been gained among the residents of the villages.
So, back to the urban scene and its fiestas. Is it Christ in culture, Christ against culture, or Christ transforming culture? Each approach has something to recommend it. Perhaps we must be careful to avoid what some have called the "illusion of alternatives." We might use some elements of all three, depending on the circumstances.
Let me tell you a story. It begins with Ken and Louanne Wilson. These folks were dynamite. Some missionaries will be remembered as smart, competent, well organized, or hard working. What folks around here say about Ken and Louanne is, "They really loved us."
Anyway, it seems that they moved into a house next door to a really neat family, Teresa and Agustin Velasco and their kids. The Velascos are very traditional, in many ways, and live their lives deeply centered in Mexican culture. To shorten a long story, the two families struck up a friendship. Probably, Ken helped Agustin fix his sink or something. Ken is that kind of guy. After a while, they started talking about the Bible and spiritual matters, casually and sort of over the back fence. The friendship grew and the relationship deepened. Ken introduced them to my family, and once in a while the Velascos would come to some of our church events, but not to the worship services.
When the Wilsons left Mexico, I wondered if anyone would have the quality of love to stay in touch with the Velascos. Then tragedy struck. The Valascos had a baby girl born with a very rare genetic disorder known as maple syrup urine disease. At the time, there were only five known cases of this disease in Mexico. What it came down to was that the baby was dangerously allergic to many kinds of proteins. Finding formula that the baby could safely eat became the critical issue.
For 11 months we walked along side the Velascos in their desperate struggle. At one point, when formula in Mexico became unavailable, Patty Heaps and some other good folks at Hillside Covenant Church (Walnut Creek, Calif.) went to extraordinary lengths to find the formula and send it down via friendly airline pilots who brought it in with their personal belongings. There is a lot more to tell but, finally, our best attempts did not succeed and little Ana Lizbeth died, overwhelmed by a severe staph infection.
I felt deeply honored when the Velascos asked me to speak at the burial service. To my great surprise, there was no priest invited to participate. Later, I was asked to join the family and bring some words of comfort and hope.
The Valascos are a very traditional Mexican family. They have intense and binding loyalties and commitments to a very large extended family. They are amazed that anyone would care for others outside the family. The Wilsons were the first to introduce them to a quality of love that went beyond the expected. But the story doesn’t end there.
For 11 months, the Velascos had lived in the valley of the shadow of death. There were no parties, no celebrations, no dances. Some time later the ice began to melt. The Velascos decided to hold a 15-year birthday celebration for their daughter, a year late. The 15th birthday is a big event in this country. It’s a sort of coming out party with an official mass, a formal dance, and an elaborate introduction of the 15-year-old into society.
The Velascos rented a hall. There was a dinner for over 200 people. Marta, their daughter, entered the room in a beautiful gown, looking like Cinderella at the ball. She was accompanied by six escorts, bathed in spotlights with live music playing. She was radiant.
There is a formal waltz that the honored young lady dances before the dance floor is opened to everyone. It is the custom that she dance first with her father, then with her godfather, and last with her uncles. Imagine my surprise when the master of ceremonies called my name to dance with Marta before any of the uncles. This was a great honor and I was deeply moved.
Later that night, Wendy and I were introduced to all of the family members and friends from table to table, one at a time. Over and over Teresa and Agustin said, "These are our friends. They care about us. We want them to talk to the family about God." I wish Ken and Louanne could have been there.
Did the missionaries dance that night? You bet. With all our heart, in the name of Jesus.
"John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions" (Matt. 11:18, 19).
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