Ethnoarts Scripture Engagement - Scott Rayl
Ethnoarts Scripture Engagement
by Scott Rayl
I worked in Nigeria from 2018-2021 as an Ethnoarts Specialist, employing a type of Scripture engagement that encourages the use of traditional or other local artistic genres to help oral learners engage with the Bible. Ethnoarts are artistic ‘languages’ that are unique to a particular community and can communicate information. This means that they can help foster Bible literacy while simultaneously strengthening cultural and Christian identity.
Such artistic genres may go back thousands of years or may be more recent creations. Other proposed terms for these types of artistic genres include heritage arts, established arts, community arts, traditional arts, and folkloric arts. Local arts seems to be used about as much as ethnoarts due to its inclusiveness for both historic artistic genres and more modern genres used by a particular community. I am familiar with using both ethnoarts and local arts, depending on the referred context, so I will use both terms in this article.
There is also a related term, ethnodoxology, which is the interdisciplinary study of how Christians in every culture engage with God and the world through their own artistic expressions. This area of study complements the goals of ethnoarts Scripture engagement by providing research data from a variety of ethnolinguistic contexts. These data can assist ethnoarts specialists in better understanding the universal dynamics involved in using local arts in Christian worship, while they seek to apply these dynamics to their own work in specific contexts.
1. The Beginning of Local Arts Use for Scripture Engagement
The use of local arts for the purpose of Scripture engagement may reach back nearly to the beginning of the Christian church. Some of the earliest known examples of Christian art are frescoes from Christian catacombs in Rome during the mid-third century, which depict a variety of subjects including Bible stories (about Old Testament prophets, Gospel healing stories with a beardless Jesus, etc.) as well as pagan Roman symbols like peacocks, anchors, fish, grape vines, or the Good Shepherd, which were given new Christian meanings. Christian sarcophagi produced for wealthy Christians sometimes contained these symbols and themes as well. All of these images reveal that early Christians were using the same local visual art genres as their pagan Roman neighbors, but were using them to depict biblical subjects and motifs instead.
It is hard to know exactly how the early Christians thought of these depictions. The frescoes may have represented Christians’ hopes and prayers for the salvation of their departed loved ones, much like the prayers for the souls of the deceased on Scandinavian Christian rune stones. Or, like icons in Orthodox Christian churches today, these images may have also brought a “revelation, a manifestation of the unseen heavenly host of angels, saints, and martyrs—yes, even the eternal saving events—into [the] presence” of the early Christians.
Whatever their original meaning, the biblical fresco imagery seems to have given Roman Christians a sense of peace and comfort, while also serving as prompts for recalling specific Bible stories. And that is certainly one purpose of Scripture engagement: to strengthen Christians’ faith and love for Christ by increasing their familiarity with God’s acts in Scripture.
In more recent times the birth of modern Ethnoarts Scripture Engagement can be traced to the work of Vida Chenoweth and Tom Avery in the 1960s-1990s.   Both were ethnomusicologists and Chenoweth was the first to apply and promote the use of ethnomusicological research methods in Christian missions. She did this by analyzing some of the traditional musical genres of Papua New Guinea and then composing new Christian worship songs in those genres. Later Tom Avery worked with the indigenous Canela people of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest using the same methods to produce indigenous hymnody for Canela Christians.
Since the 2000s this type of ethnomusicological work has continued through the efforts of numerous ethnoarts specialists around the world. But some of the methodology used by ethnoarts specialists has changed over the years. So let’s take a step back and look at the ways that the arts have been used in cross-cultural missions and church planting throughout the centuries.
2. Three Historical Approaches to using the Arts Cross-culturally for Scripture Engagement
Though the arts have often been used to help spread and deepen an understanding of God through his Word, there have been three primary approaches to using the arts in cross-cultural church planting and evangelism: 1) Bring It–Teach It; 2) Build New Bridges; and 3) Find It–Encourage It.
The Bring It–Teach It framework has overwhelmingly been the most widely used approach throughout the history of missions, even up until the present day. This approach advocates foreign missionaries using their own cultural art forms in church life and evangelism. In past decades and centuries, European and American missionaries regarded their cultural forms of Christian arts as inherently Christian, rather than culturally European, American, etc. In their minds culture and faith were one and the same; therefore making disciples of all nations meant making those disciples use the same artistic forms that were familiar to the missionaries.
Many people may ask, “If music is universal among people worldwide, what difference does it make whose music (or other art forms) are used in cross-cultural Christian missions and church planting?” Well, it actually can make a big difference! Music is indeed a universal phenomenon among every group of people that God has created, but every musical genre communicates information differently to its target audience. So when you carry one type of music into a new community and begin using it, it may or may not communicate information correctly or accurately to the new target audience. Using the arts in this way for evangelism and church planting can sometimes lead to theological miscommunication. Unfortunately this has been the very process used most often in cross-cultural church plantings throughout the history of church missions. The results have not always been positive.
Often in these cases foreign songs were translated into the local language, but not into the local musical genres! This approach often resulted in slow growth of churches and an anemic faith in Christian believers, who saw no outward connection between the new faith and their identities as members of a particular cultural or ethnolinguistic community. And as mentioned above, Bring It–Teach It also sometimes results in theological miscommunication due to misunderstood art forms and/or mistranslations of texts.
The second approach to using arts in missions, Build New Bridges, represents some degree of collaboration between foreign missionaries and local believers, often for a common goal or purpose. In many of these cases the outsider learns about local artistic genres and materials, but guides or directs the local artistic believers in how to use them for achieving a goal. In other cases the foreign artists may collaborate with local artists to produce a new hybrid, or fusion artistic genre or individual work of art. This approach can sometimes be helpful, but not when there is a power difference between the missionaries and the local artists, or the process of artistic creation isn’t sustainable due to limited access to artistic materials or financial resources.
The third approach, Find It–Encourage It, does just what it sounds like: the foreign missionary observes and researches local artistic genres, forms relationships with local artists, and then encourages (or commissions) them to produce new works that communicate Scripture accurately to their fellow community members.
There can still be power differentials in these cases that can negatively impact the process. But Find It–Encourage It has the greatest probability of producing new artistic creations that can be most easily understood and embraced by local Christians. This approach advocates for the creation of local arts by local artists, with or without the involvement of the foreigners, via self-theologizing. Such biblical exegesis into local artistic languages requires a much longer and deeper commitment by local Christians to be successful for Scripture engagement. Find It–Encourage It is the method I helped to promote while working in Nigeria as an Ethnoarts Specialist.
3. Description of the Scripture Songwriting Workshops like those we did in Nigeria
While in Nigeria from 2018-2021 I worked with the Ethnoarts Team of SIL Nigeria (Summer Institute of Linguistics Nigeria). Though ethnoarts specialists may commission or encourage the creation of new Bible-based works of art in a variety of artistic genres (drama, visual arts, poetry, music, dance performances, etc.), the Ethnoarts Team of SIL Nigeria focused primarily on leading Scripture Songwriting Workshops for various language communities. These workshops could range in length from one day to two weeks, but most of them lasted five days. Our team was based in the city of Jos, and we would travel several times a year to visit language communities around Nigeria, most of whom were located across central Nigeria.
During the workshops, our team would begin by teaching various topics about culture, music, and especially the types of instruments used in biblical worship, both by the nation of Israel and by her pagan neighbors. In Nigeria this was a very important topic because so many of the early foreign missionaries not only used the Bring It–Teach It approach for music in the church, but they also strongly condemned all indigenous instruments and musical genres. This dichotomy in turn often produced what Father Jaime C. Bulatao called “split-level Christianity,” where foreign Christian forms and behaviors are publicly affirmed by local Christians, while privately some of these same Christians turn to pagan rituals in order to meet their needs.
Once we were able to show Nigerian Christians passages like Psalm 150 and Daniel 3, which describe the instruments used in both Israelite and pagan worship, they could see the overlaps between the two groups of musical instruments. This led to an “Aha!” moment where they began to realize that they could use their own traditional music and instruments as long as they used them to worship the God of the Bible!
We would then guide them through some research about their own local musical genres, both traditional and contemporary, and compile lists of which genres were used only inside local churches, which ones were only used outside of churches, and which were used in both places. Usually the list for both places was much shorter than the other two. So we would encourage them to consider drawing upon some of the musical genres from outside of the church to compose new songs with biblical lyrics (depending on what Scripture was available in their language). In groups they would compose and practice their new songs, and then perform them for the entire group for feedback. On the last day of the workshop we made recordings of their songs to leave with them in order to encourage continued song composition after we left.
It is my hope that the work that I did in Nigeria contributed to more Christians being able to connect with God’s Word deep within their hearts and express that connection through song and dance. Revelation 7:9-10 was an ongoing inspiration in my mind and heart as I labored beside my Nigerian brothers and sisters, working toward the day when we will all join together with people of every nation and tribe and language to worship and proclaim the mighty acts of our God and Savior Jesus Christ!
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