Thoughts from Godfrey Sim, MAF PNG Church and Community Partnership Manager, July 2017
In part 1, I promised: “But more of that ‘cultural interrogation’ in episode 2 of this story!” It’s taken some months to get there and sorry to those who have been waiting.
Before I explore the impact of Planim Pos, also known as the “Creation to Christ” (C2C) approach, I’d like to share a picture of culture that I found helpful during my community development experiences in the 1990s, as well as some filtered observations since. These are personal thoughts and not necessarily the view of MAF, but I hope will help to grow an understanding of the complex context of the “Planim Pos Phenomenon” (as I call it) and its potency in Christian transformation in rural Melanesia. Meantime, Jim Tanner (*Ethnos360), and the teams he has helped train to perpetuate the courses, continue with this amazing work in some of the most remote areas of PNG, areas in which MAF assists by providing access to, through our subsidised flying.
What is Culture?
Culture is made up of all those things we do, wear, build, eat, and all of ‘how’ we do life. But it’s also all those things that are in the next level down; the ‘why’ we do what we do. Many attitudes that drive behaviour are often the same the world over, but the values that give those attitudes more or less authority, more or less permission or inhibition, are important to identify if deep change is to occur.
However, there is actually another layer below the values layer that is fundamental to human change. This is the source matrix from which values derive. This is known as the world view, or rather it’s a set of basic assumptions that people may not even know they hold, but which defines the way they see; what is real, what is good, what is bad, what is the cause and effect of any particular phenomenon. Take our own Western world view and how (false) assumptions of where illness came from gave rise to superstition, and practices such as witch killing, before medical science gradually unravelled the scientific causes (and effects) of many illnesses.
Culture is like an Iceberg
This is the picture I was going to share. What you see (of culture) is ‘above the surface’. The large part is both ‘invisible’ and hard to unravel. What a people group or society ‘show’ (what you as an outsider see and hear) of their culture, will have deeper layers of; attitudes, values, and assumptions, that their behaviour and practices are based upon. As I said, this makes up their world view. But then there might be few ‘pure’ and untouched cultures anywhere. Most isolated people groups have been influenced (or imposed on), to varying degrees, by foreign cultures, and so have formed both ‘fusions’ of world views and/or parallel ones existing side by side. Members of the society often jump between these, adopting values that often seem in conflict with each other, but for them are merely appropriations of alternative values, as they ‘decide’ or opt for which will be more useful or be safest for them in the circumstances.
Collision on Culture Street
However, when cultures ‘collide’ there are inevitably key areas of ‘damage’ as a result of the collision. I see damaged areas as those negative patterns of behaviour, and their impact, which come from the confusion and conflict between two strong belief systems. Sadly these become norms in a society.
In the early stages of the cultural clash and in the absence of education and rational thinking oral societies must both interpret the ‘new’ through their own cultural grid (world view) and must assign ‘cause’, (their own ‘logic’), to the new phenomena. They rationalise these by incorporating the invading ideas and events into their myths of origin and stories of their ‘history’, all safely encased in their framework of beliefs. Many stories then spread as explanations of the changing world. These remain present and actively evolving in the background in spite of the progress that is happening through education. In any case, the rational approach Westerners may take to interpreting new phenomena or ideas is far from the Melanesian way of making meaning out of a changing world.
“Alive” Myths of Origin
A live myth is one that is actively providing reasons for the current existence of a people group through the adaptive process of incorporating a rationale for new phenomena. (my definition)
I remember while growing up in the West Sepik that the myths of origin started including the new phenomenon of the Waitman, (Europeans), by the explanation that there were always (originally) two brothers, one of which departs, learns much, and returns as the ‘white brother’ – the arrival of white people with much secret knowledge and goods. Then later, the character of Misis Kwini (the Queen) was incorporated and later still in 1974, another person called Indipendens, (Independence), who was “coming soon”, and would “change everything for the better”.
And still, for many, the validating stories for the current influences and phenomena are contextualised in and through the tumbuna stori, (ancestral narratives), and have to be connected to them and the spirit realm. Recently two cults, with charismatic leaders, claiming to be “Black Jesus” and “The Way” (Mim Rot God), are adaptations of the animistic world view with a modern and validating Christian twist in a millenarian framework. Followers believe their ‘new’ Jesus (messiah) will usher in a new and better era/world, and so they worship and practice gross acts to be part of the select. These cults are wreaking havoc in their respective areas of influence.
After escaping from prison, “Black Jesus” was eventually hunted down and shot by police and the influence of that cult is thankfully in recession. (Not that I condone the killing.) Meantime in remote west Enga ‘The Way’s (Mim Rot God’s) cult is spreading at an alarming rate.
Cause and Effect…the Superstitious vs the Scientific Rationale
In the area of physical health, there is a base-line (false) assumption that it is normal to live from birth to old age, with no one dying before old age. So even when medical causes of diseases are clearly evident and known, people living with two belief systems will still cover their bases by consulting with the Glasman (an animistic diagnostician and healer) for the ‘actual’ reasons why someone is sick. One possible cause for their illness could be that there was a contract out on them for their’s or a family member’s misdemeanours. Contract killers (sorcerers) are often engaged.
The crazy-stupid Jesus
So the challenge of bringing the Gospel to this context doesn’t start and stop with the seemingly crazy man called Jesus (who stupidly let himself be killed) and to the Melanesian mind, the foreign and strange ideas of “love” and “grace”. I am oversimplifying the issue but only to make a point that for many rural Papua New Guinean’s the tumbuna stori bilong Jisas (the ancestral origins and narrative of Jesus), holds the key to contextualising this Jesus and how His story connects with, and addresses, the Melanesian world view. This is a window through which God’s truth can penetrate and bring light into animism and the syncretism (the ‘fusion’ of beliefs and practices).
So it’s easy to see how fundamentally different world views, operating or active in a society, can create huge tensions between the values that derive from them and which become visible in behaviour that lacks consistency with and within its own source matrix. Welcome to cross-cultural ministry in general. But many of these ‘value tensions’ are felt acutely by those working for change in PNG society now, whether that is in the context of Christian transformation or in civil and community development contexts!
So what then is the Relevance and Impact of the Planim Pos Phenomenon?
The approach (the ‘how’), and content (the ‘what’), of C2C (Creation to Christ) is ground-breaking in the context of PNG’s rural churches, but it’s all there in the canon of scripture! It should not be a surprising new discovery. God revealed His activity with regards to creation and the world of mankind, His character, His plan (of salvation for all) and His purpose (for all eternity) through chronological narrative, and with other types of writing.
It is this chronological approach in the C2C material which is particularly powerful in the Melanesian context, as it resonates with the deep connections that Melanesian societies have with their ancestral origins and the narratives that drive their everyday beliefs, practices and behaviours.
Generally for Melanesians, the historical context of any important relationship is paramount to that relationship’s validity, and shapes the expectations for its ongoing value.
My PNG West Sepik ‘brother‘, whom I grew up with, might say:
So if the God of creation really has a story for, or with me involved, then it’s from the beginning that I want to hear what that is, and understand what that means for me (individually), but more importantly for my clan, my people (the collective).
If I can understand the connection of all the sub-stories, that will enable the big story to make sense. And when that makes sense of who we are and our present reality, I (and my family) will “chose life”, and not stay in the darkness of ignorance.
Also, when I have experienced a trust relationship with the messenger through the shared experiences of doing life together, I will have all the validation I need to accept the message.
3 parts Context and 1 part Content??? The Balance or Ratio is important.
C2C material unpacks both the historical context and the content of the Gospel of Christ! It is a guide through the purpose of the events and stages of Old Testament narrative, the Law and the Prophets, the nature of sacrifices and all the other aspects of God’s relationship to humankind. It is merely unwrapping the context for, and nature of, salvation through grace by faith in Jesus alone. In short, time spent on context is vital.
Prescription or Freedom?
A common trend in PNG’s churches is the reversion to an Old Testament based belief system where a prescriptive ‘rules based salvation’ subverts the very heart of the Gospel.
So the explosion of excitement from rural Christians on receiving the C2C training and the freedom it offers, is to be noted and broadcast, as they indicate to us all, the potency of this approach in revealing the nature and expression of God’s love and grace.
Reinforced Building Foundations
As groups of leaders from rural Christian Brethren Churches (CBC) of PNG receive the C2C training in programmes run in both the Hela and West Sepik Provinces, the impact is starting to become evident. They are excited about having a ‘strong foundation’ (Planim Pos), re-established on which to build their haus (house or collective lives), and the basis from which to rebuff the false teaching of sects and cults.
This foundation training, together with courses on the Acts and Epistles, and many other resources produced over the years, will help Christ followers and congregations stand counter-culturally on critical issues that are fundamentally opposed to the Gospel. Issues like retribution and superstition that form the foundation of fear, which drives scapegoat violence. Issues like the greed that drives the abuse of the traditional ‘big-man’ leadership in politics, church and business life. Issues like the distortions of gender, marriage, and family. These devastate many communities.
My response to seeing C2C’s impact and God’s transforming power, is simply the strong desire to tell others, and unpack some reasons why we need more partners to pray for and support this particular extension of God’s Kingdom and enable MAF and its partners access the remotest places.
Contact your in-country MAF office through www.mafi.org and check out how you can support MAF PNG’s subsidised flying programme. Your support will in turn, help to mobilise Planim Pos and other subsidised flying initiatives, and so assist in increasing their effectiveness as agents of transformation.
Photos courtesy: Uwe Kils (iceberg photomontage), Anton Lutz (AL), Jim Tanner (JT), Glen Sim (GS), LuAnne Cadd (LC)