by Alexander Bolyanatz
Symbolic anthropology has important implications for missionaries who need to understand local culture.
One bright afternoon in the highlands of Papua New Guinea a missionary was riding along in truck with several Papua New Guineans. As they sped along past groups of pedestrians, one of the men right out of the blue asked, "Should we go cut some sugarcane?" "No," one of the others replied, "the price is too high."
Completely baffled, the missionary thought to himself: "Sugarcane? What in the world are they talking about?"
A couple of days later, in another part of New Guinea, toward the end of the Sunday morning worship service the offering is taken. Two coconut shells are passed. Some of the people can’t give anything, but they touch the inside of the shells anyway, as if they were dropping in some coins. A visitor wonders, "Who do they think they’re fooling? Anybody can see they’re not putting anything in."
Meanwhile, in Guatemala a young, short-term missionary looks for a place to sit down in an Indian house. Seeing there are few chairs, he chooses the floor, but finding some things in the way, he stacks them in the corner. The men stiffen and stare at the corner. "That’s not right," they say. "Please separate the broom and the knife."
"Okay," he says to himself, "but what’s the big deal?"
These not uncommon stories show that although things have meaning, outsiders often miss it, and consequent behavior makes no sense to them. For example, "sugarcane" meant an enemy walking along the road. Since the cost of continuing the feud seemed too high to the men, they decide an attack wasn’t worth the risk.
In the second story, touching the collection shell showed support for the church. This means, "I want to give, but this week I can’t."
The Guatemalan Indians were upset because a woman’s implement (the broom) was laid over a man’s tool (the machete), meaning superiority, which was unacceptable to them.
In each case, the meanings of the symbols "sugarcane, touching the shell, placing the broom on top of the machete" were lost. Anthropologists tell us that one of the things that most clearly sets us apart from animals is our ability to create and use symbols. So, some of them specialize in what part symbols play in society. Their study is called symbolic anthropology, or, in the professional literature, semiotic anthropology.
As the stories above show, their studies have important implications for missionaries who need to understand local culture. These scholars try to understand the meanings people give to things, so that deeper understanding and communication can happen.
We all know that words alone aren’t enough. For example, I can easily translate "Christmas tree" into another language. I can even explain why we have such a thing. But unless I tell them what "Christmas tree" means in its cultural context (holiday, time off from work and school, carols, the birth of Jesus, gifts, family, and so on), the outsiders will have very little idea of what "Christmas tree" conjures up in our minds.
Broadly, symbols fall into three categories (with some overlapping, of course):
Verbal symbols: analogies, names, fables, poetry, and, in smaller units of speech, metaphors and other figures of speech.
Behavioral symbols: ritual and drama, music, gestures, body language, work, and leisure.
Physical symbols, manufactured and natural: stop signs, buildings, sculpture, paintings, tools, technology, furniture, places, shapes, colors, animals, plants, rainbows, and so on.
Something can’t become a symbol until someone gives it meaning. When a group agrees on the meaning, it becomes a cultural symbol. Some symbols mean more than one thing, even within the same culture. The meanings of symbols show how people think.
Examples abound of what anthropologists have discovered. Appadurai notes that among south Indian Tamils certain foods served to visitors send messages to the guests. Sapir suggests that among the Kujamaat Diola of southern Senegal the handling of dead hyenas and lepers offers insights into their mental categories. Douglas argues that the dietary rules in Leviticus help us to understand Hebrew notions of separation, wholeness, and order.
Well, you may say, that’s interesting trivia, but what does it have to do with missions? Let me give you some ideas, not formulas for "success," about how to improve your cross-cultural communication. All communication must be understood by listeners and symbols help us to achieve that goal. In fact, the Christian life offers a wealth of ways to use symbols.
Verbal symbols. A Papua New Guinea pastor once compared the Christian life to a garden that the Holy Spirit had planted. In New Guinea, all gardens need fences to keep out the pigs If you do the weeding, and get normal rainfall, you can expect fruit from the garden.
This is not an unusual metaphor, but it helps people to understand new information based on old information. Fables, parables, and analogies can be used to convey new ideas.
Some people assign great importance to names. Changes in role or character are reflected in name changes; e.g., Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel. Place names help people to remember significant events. If names are important, then when churches are started and people become Christians, names will reflect that change.
Behavioral symbols. Anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep in Rites of Passage says society is like a house. When you change your social position (move from one room to another), often there’s a transition (walk through a hallway). Usually, there’s a transition ceremony.
Milestones of growth in the Christian life could also be marked with some kind of dramatic symbol. We bring some rites, like baptism, but those imposed from the outside often don’t have the same impact as familiar local rites. Local celebrations could include feasts, dances, drama, and formal storytelling.
In Papua New Guinea, when the Suena New Testament was ready, we celebrated with song, dance, and drama. In the drama, the first missionaries came at the beginning of the century, the church grew, and now Christians had the New Testament. Many still remember the event and the Christian truth behind the drama.
Physical symbols. The cross, the Bible, the dove, the lamb, the bread and the cup are important Christian symbols. Sometimes in our eagerness to use symbols like these, we miss important clues.
In Colombia, a translator of Isaiah 1:18, "For your sins were like scarlet, but they shall be made white as snow," assumed he was on safe ground because the local Indians live near a snow-covered mountain and know what snow is. But their symbolic meaning for snow is death, not purity. Why? A person is never as cold, still, and white as he is when he’s dead.
Missionaries want to do more than avoid using the wrong symbols. When they learn what the symbols of their listeners mean, a whole new world of communication opens to them. Many symbols connote unknown messages to outsiders. If we want to communicate our message more clearly, and with better results, we will ferret out these less readily observed symbolic meanings.
To do so requires two skills, listening and learning. That’s especially hard for us who are trained to preach and teach.
We need much patience, to listen and observe, because symbolic meanings are not cut-and-dried. Take our Christmas tree, for example. I’ve suggested the usual symbolic meanings, but for me there’s another: Urbana.
That’s because after Christmas, 1976, I left the traditional things and went to the Inter-Varsity Student Missionary Conference, commonly known as "Urbana," and always held right after Christmas. "Christmas tree" for me means Billy Graham, the decision I made to be willing to be a missionary, and how I came to my present work.
How could someone possibly find out what "Christmas tree" means to me, unless they spent a lot of time with me, didn’t criticize my strange connections, and had the patience to learn?
We can never become insiders, but we can learn much about the people with whom we live and work, if we make the effort to learn their symbols and their meanings. To communicate clearly, we must understand local symbols and find the keys that will enable biblical truths to come alive among our listeners.
After all, God touches us with many symbols so that we can grasp our relationship with him: Father-son, king-servant, shepherd-sheep, vine-branches, and so on. I had to learn that in many parts of Papua New Guinea, the king-servant symbol didn’t work. It’s a foreign political idea. But older brother-younger brother (Rom. 8:14-17, 29) does work. It reaches deeply into the heart of many Papua New Guineans. Symbols are important and it’s never too late to try to learn them.
Copyright © 1988 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.