by Dale R. Meade
A veteran of the mission field in Latin America shares how he and others used death rituals to better understand the local people and culture.
Nearly every missionary is inspired by the success of the evangelistic outreach of the early Church. We long for such growth in our own church planting ministries; yet, that success is often woefully elusive. It has been a lack of success that has both motivated and frustrated missiologists and practitioners of mission for years. Since the earliest days of the modern missionary movement, each generation has struggled with and debated the best and most effective means for spreading the gospel. A great deal of this effort has been directed into considering the methods used. As a result, there has been a steady parade of new methods that have worked for some and are thus proposed as a solution for all. I work in Latin America as a child of this rich heritage. In my own ministry, I have attempted to use many different methods, each of which had once been very effective in another region or in another time. My excitement would grow as I was certain one method would spark the growth I so desired to see in the church where I was working. In each case, any real increase in church growth was very limited or negligible. My excitement was soon replaced with disappointment and soul searching. I asked myself where I had gone wrong. Had I failed to understand or correctly implement the method? Or was the problem something else?
BEGINNING TO SEE THE LOCAL CULTURE AND WORLDVIEW
I began to look honestly at the gospel I was preaching. As I studied culture more profoundly, I began to wonder if the message I was preaching was not more of a contextualized gospel that reflected the culture and the needs of the times and the place that had given it birth. This brought me to the question of content as well as methodology.
Most of us would presume there is but one gospel and we are honestly convinced that the correct gospel is the one which we adhere to and preach. In reality, the gospel as presented by Jesus himself in the New Testament varied significantly in both methodology and content, depending on who he was talking to and the cultural milieu in which he was working. The final result was always the same, but the componential elements of the message were precisely tailored to the hearer and his or her perceived problems at that moment. This explains how Jesus could so successfully talk with the Jewish rulers, the country poor, the outcasts and even the Roman functionaries. He tailored both the message and the method to the audience to which he was speaking. He did not offer a “one-size-fits-all” approach as we so often tend to do today!
What I am suggesting is not so much a change to the basic message or the ultimate purpose of the gospel. I am reflecting on the shock produced in my own heart by a realization that were there to exist an evangelistic method so simple and universal that we could have applied it to all, God would have given us the exact contents of it in the Book of Acts. Instead, what we have is a brief overview of what was preached and how Paul did it. The Book of Acts becomes a guidebook, not a straightjacket. Paul, like Jesus, adapted the content and the methods to the deep felt needs of
his audience. That was the key to his success.
KNOWING THE LOCAL CULTURE AND WORLDVIEW
This leaves much latitude but requires our own investigation into the perceived problems of our own culture. We cannot provide answers when we do not know the questions. Only then can we tailor the content and adapt the methods to fit the people and the moment. It is in this last area I feel we have so often failed. Paul Hiebert states that “the problem is to account for change in the sociocultural models. Where does it originate? How does it occur?” (1983, 411). That insight sets the parameters for the questions we must ask ourselves. Often, we have not even been aware of worldview and deep values, let alone used them as a guidepost to select from the many different elements of the gospel and then fine-tune our methods.
But if this is true, we only add one conundrum to another. If the problem is more than methodology and if content may need to be adjusted to felt needs, how is an American going to understand the secret longings of the heart of a campesino who is attempting to eke out a living in a clearing deep in the Amazon jungle?
People do not wear their most basic values on their sleeves. In fact, they may not even be aware of their own deep values. As Roy Rappaport states, “Never do the basic assumptions of any society simply stand naked to the view of its members” (1999, 172). This is why if we were to ask most people, or even if someone were to ask us, for an understanding of the basic meaning of life, a blank stare would be the most likely response.
That is because worldview is like a pair of prescription lens that we use to look at the world. These values affect the way we see and understand everything; however, we are no more aware of them than we are of the glasses we use to read with and through which we observe the world. What is needed is a fairly simple mechanism by which we can study and investigate the basic values of a people to whom we are attempting to carry the gospel. Only when we know those basic values and understand the meaning they give to life can we adapt our message and select our methods.
This was the issue I faced in my own work. Even once I had identified where I felt the problem to be, I had no mechanism that I could use to provide an answer to the riddle. I began searching for some methodology that might open a window of understanding into those dark and hidden recesses of basic meanings that guided actions and provided meaning. Without knowing it, such a method had much earlier been thrust upon me by God himself in the daily pursuit of ministry.
RITUALS AS WINDOWS TO WORLDVIEW
Rituals are one of the few windows of understanding open to the outside observer. In a generation past, although an anthropologist by the name of Monica Wilson clued us in, we were slow to pick up on it. She stated that
Rituals reveal values at their deepest level. There is much woolly talk of values and how to study them. Surely, men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expression is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed. I see in the study of rituals the key to understanding the essential constitution of human societies. (1954, 240)
I, however, was slow to perceive this window into worldview and even slower to take advantage of it. I had always been invited to attend the wakes and funerals of family by my friends in the city where we lived and worked in Colombia. I noted curious differences with the death rituals practiced in my own culture, but shrugged them off as mere curiosities. When attending a funeral, for the most part I visited, expressed my condolences and then left. I failed to see the window of understanding into the soul of the people God had put before me.
DEATH RITUALS UNLOCKING WORLDVIEW
Death is a trauma for the family of the deceased and it affects the entire community. In the death ritual, we have one of the rare moments when community values and deep beliefs are on public display. Deep values generally come closest to the surface when a crisis affects the individual and the family. Yet most of these times of crisis are deeply personal events that are shared only within the immediate family. That makes these opportunities of limited value to the outsider as he or she is not invited to peer through what amounts to a tightly shuttered window. Death rituals are the exception to this rule.
Rituals themselves are the collective expression and reinforcement of commonly held values. The death ritual speaks to the meaning of life more than any other ritual. Whenever anyone is faced with the death of a loved one, he or she must first answer the most basic of all questions: “What is the meaning of life?” If that question is not answered, then death itself mocks the meaning of life (Hiebert, Shaw and Tienou 1999). The death ritual contains two ubiquitous mechanisms for the revelation of deep values. By paying close attention to these two facets of the death ritual, the people will share with us in a subconscious way that which they would be incapable of expressing otherwise.
The first one is the ritual itself with the programmed and expected formal speech that accompanies it. The way in which the body is handled, presented and then disposed of all speak volumes about the meaning of life. The keen observer will realize that even the simplest of attendant elements will speak volumes about the underlying worldview. In rural Colombia, the direction in which the body is placed is very important. The feet must be pointed toward the door and must enter or exit first. A glass of water placed under the coffin and kept filled speaks to the “betwixt and between” nature of the deceased. He or she is not yet fully departed this world nor has he or she fully entered into the spirit world.
That process is the function of the death ritual and that is why the death ritual explains so vividly the deeply held values that undergird the meaning of life in this harsh region of the world. This element of the ritual can explain the people’s view of life, death and the means by which a person departs this world and enters into the next. It is only when we understand this that we can preach a gospel that will be meaningful and coherent to them when it is viewed through the lens of their worldview.
The second element of the death ritual that elucidates the deeply held meanings of life is the casual talk that fills the long, sad hours of the wake. The body of the deceased is usually not embalmed or preserved in any way. In fact, it is the decomposition process that will later reveal the nature and character of the person. As a result, burial occurs normally within twenty-four hours. During this time, the family will accompany the body of the deceased and it will never be left alone. Visitors come and go; however, there is always somebody around to share the grief of the family.
During this time, the conversation inevitably revolves around the deceased and why he or she was a “good person” during life. A secondary topic of conversation is a discussion of the nature of the “good man” or the “good woman.” This discussion varies radically depending on the gender of the speaker. Presuming the deceased is male, women will speak of the values and characteristics of a “good man” as far as women are concerned. Men will speak of a vastly different set of values that made the deceased a “good man” in the eyes of other men.
It is this conversation that can provide a window into the issues that men struggle with in that culture and the most basic characteristics and behaviors that women seek in finding a person to be of value. Victor Turner makes this vividly clear when he points out that in all the discussion relating to death and religious values, “none…has denied the extreme importance of religious beliefs and practice, for both the maintenance and radical transformation of human social and psychological structures” (1969, 4). It is this conversation that occurs during the death rituals that reveal to us the content of the gospel we need to be preaching if we wish to influence these transformations. This is what allows us to tailor the message to answer the needs of the people.
FIRST, UNDERSTAND RITUAL; SECOND, EVANGELIZE
Assuming that we establish the significant nature of rituals in our quest to understand the meaning of life, we must ask the question, “So what does that mean to me and how can I use that information in my work?” The significance for such information here in Latin America was that we could circumvent the major obstacle we were creating when we preached the gospel. Most people would interpret religion in general and then include an evangelical church within that genre as a long list of prohibitions. They are turned off by what they see as more rules in a society where the overabundance of rules and laws is seen as primarily oppressive within their realm of existence.
For the gospel to be attractive to people, it must answer the basic questions of life and give meaning to suffering and death, as these climactic events challenge the very meaning of life. From that foundational paradigm, the gospel must move on to provide meaningful assistance in the daily challenges of people who live on the marginal edges of modernity. When the gospel is perceived as giving meaning to the greatest challenges in life and helping a person through the difficulties faced in simply living, it becomes a winsome proposal that appeals to the vast majority of people. In other words, we must preach a gospel that relates to the issues the people are facing instead of a gospel that met the needs of our own culture in times past.
However, the idea of “changing the gospel” seems heretical and dangerous. After all, do not we all preach the gospel “once and for all, delivered to the saints?” However, what I am proposing is a selective process where we ask the right questions, find answers by means of a study of ritual expression, then apply the elements of the gospel that answer those questions and provide guidance in meeting the real needs and concerns of the people. It is a selective and contextualized process of applying the meaningful elements of the gospel message to the daily realities of a people.
When I shared this concept with the local preachers, I think many of them worried that I had “gone liberal” or worse yet, gone crazy. I carefully explained that what we call the gospel is actually a fairly large body of teaching. I pointed to times where Jesus had used different themes and methods of teaching. I attempted to explain to them the tenacious nature of folk religion and what people were searching for in that practice. I pointed out our failure to truly transform society and in many cases, Christians who still resorted to folk religion when faced with a serious illness in the family or with the death of a loved one. Finally, they understood what I was sharing with them.
They also understood that there was research and literature to back up what I was saying (Meade 2005). With both theoretical and empirical foundations clarified, we began to attempt to understand the deep and gnawing doubts and questions that people were struggling with. Then we began to discuss how to select the gospel element that would answer those doubts and questions. From there, we moved to the most appropriate methods for presenting the truth that would open the door of understanding to the hearer without provoking a negative or violent reaction in a resistant society. As a result, we began to look at death rituals and to cipher out of them what the people were saying and what they were attempting to do. From that database of deep values, we began to search for ways of applying biblical principles to the deep felt needs and gospel teachings that provided guidance in the crisis of life. We developed a gospel preaching that did not reflect the American frontier but was instead a local theologizing of God’s answers to local life-crises. When we had done all of this, the results surprised everyone. We saw a dramatic increase of interest in and response to the gospel. We saw an increased enthusiasm among new believers and they excitedly shared their newfound understanding of the meaning of life. The gospel was not a boring ritual or a list of prohibitions; it was an answer to the conundrum of life.
This led me to believe that perhaps the death ritual is a key that can be used by virtually anyone who has gained some basic skills in social science research or is simply keenly observant. This can be a window of understanding that can help us to select methods and tailor the content. This may just be a mechanism by which we can finally begin to understand that it is not a perfect method we are searching for, but a genuine empathy with the people in their struggles and in their search for meaning.
Hiebert, Paul G. 1983. Cultural Anthropology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
_______, Daniel Shaw and Tite Tienou. 1999. Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Meade, Dale R. 2005. The Meaning of Life as Seen through the Window of Death Rituals Practiced within Colombian Folk Religion. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Dissertation Services.
Rappaport, Roy A. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Ithica, N.Y., Cornell University Press.
Wilson, Monica. 1954. “Nyakyusa Ritual and Symbolism.” American Anthropologist. 56(2): 228-240.
Dale Meade is a 33-year veteran of the mission field in Colombia, South America. He trains Colombian leaders by means of his work with Universdad FLET, a distance learning university that has trained more than seventy thousand students throughout Latin America.
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