Dare to be ridiculed or you will never be able to get the Gospel into the heart of a culture. Being an inter-cultural Christian is not for the faint-hearted. But daring to make Christian applications of one’s own most venerable cultural treasures is risky, too.
The good news of Jesus Christ must be interpreted in order to make sense. First, the Gospel emerged in the Roman colony of Judea and it had to be interpreted for the wider culture which used Greek and Latin as well as a hundred other languages in Gaul, Germania, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Parthia and Persia and even China all within the lifetime of the first generation of Gospel-spreaders. Not only were there language barriers, but the cultures were diverse. The history of the Christian Church can be written as the story of accommodation to and domination (sometimes decimation) of cultures. The parallel history, of course, is about the evolution and preservation of doctrine. The Gospel that goes nowhere withers.
In Thailand one of the best known organizations working to interpret the Gospel in Thai cultural terms is the Christian Communications Institute of Payap University. The CCI has been a pioneer in the use of traditional Thai folk melodrama, called likay, to communicate Christian stories and Christian values related to moral and social issues. Likay is a South East Asian folk-art form using stylized costumes and dance movements, traditional music, set characters and melodramatic plot-lines.
In this era of information technology when even television is being challenged as the leading medium of mass communication, such highly personal and small scale approaches as likay are disappearing. Where there were hundreds of traveling likay troupes a few decades ago, now there are only a few scrambling for sponsors to bring them to fairs and festivals. But the mere appearance of a poster with likay characters, like the one at the top of this blog, still says “LIKAY” to every Thai person who sees it. A likay character has the power of an icon.
But “Christian” likay, is that possible? This was not an easy concept to establish. Cultural traditionalists scoffed that the CCI would erode the art form, ignoring the fact that all art forms are evolving if they are not dead. There was even the call for a royal investigation, which concluded by vindicating Christian likay. Christian traditionalists scolded the CCI for desecrating the Gospel by dressing it up in debauched and pagan attire. But the CCI has prevailed into its fourth decade, performed before audiences in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and is now embarking on its 15th international tour that will take a group to churches in California, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky during March. Google: CCI USA Tour or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
The purpose of performing Christian likay in Thailand is to communicate Gospel messages and show that the Gospel is not a foreigner’s dangerous faith. The purpose of performing Christian likay on international tours is to show that there are many ways to adapt the Christian message without imposing a homogenized “Christian sub-culture” where a vibrant culture already thrives, a concept that early missionaries rejected and current “One Country, One Language, One Culture” advocates seem in danger of forgetting.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.