New Guinea Culture and Christianity - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


New Guinea Culture and Christianity

I recently attended a lecture by a (Christian) missionary to people living in extremely primitive conditions in New Guinea. Apparently their mission efforts were extremely successful, and they saw whole villages convert to Christianity.

After their conversion, these people noticed that their laws and customs were quite different from those of the American missionaries. And so they had to decide: Which of their traditional practices were incompatible with their new-found Christianity, and which were simply cultural differences from Westerners that had no moral significance.

Many of these decisions were easy. They quickly concluded, for example, that the practice of raiding neighboring villages, cutting people's heads off, and using these to decorate their huts, was not consistent with Christianity. (Yes, there are still head-hunters and head-shrinkers in the world in the 1990's.) On the other hand, they also quickly concluded that different musical styles had no moral significance, and so they wrote their own "hymnals" using styles of music they were familiar with.

But some issues led to debate and disagreement. The one I found most interesting was this. Most of these new Christians decided to abolish their traditional practice of a man being expected to give money or gifts to his bride's family before the wedding. They concluded that the idea of "buying" a wife was treating her like a piece of property rather than a person created in the image of God. I don't think this reasoning requires much explanation: it is quite consistent with modern Western thought.

But others disagreed. They said that if a man has to pay for the privilege of marrying a woman, this will cause him to value her more. After all, people are often careless about things they get for free, regardless of how much it cost someone else. And if a man knows that to marry again is going to cost him again, he is less likely to seek a divorce. So they saw the bride-price as a tool to strengthen marriage.

© 1997 by Jay Johansen


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