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EthnoArts Workshop - Art the Language of the Soul

by Levene Wong

It is often said that "Art is the universal language". Even without words, a painting or a song can convey emotions of joy and gladness, grief and sadness. Art speaks to each one of us in a unique way that mere facts and figures cannot. You will be hard-pressed to find a culture or people group that does not express themselves through art — be it in stories, songs, dances or drawings. This insatiable desire to create can only be attributed to the God who by himself created the world — and we reflect His creativity through expressions of our own.

For most of us, our culture and identity is closely knit with these expressions, many of which are central to rituals to commemorate significant events in our lives and community. More importantly, it is an expression of community, kinship, and belonging. To choose to forsake these rituals would be a declaration of isolation and separation from the community. Unfortunately, for many people groups today, when individuals turn to Jesus and embrace a new way of life, they are viewed as forsaking their own culture and community. Christianity is perceived as a foreign religion — with its Western songs, instruments, and style of worship. To follow Christ is akin to turning one’s back on one’s own family.

On a warm August morning, a group of believers from four different hill tribes gathered in a church, a quiet haven in the middle of a city buzzing with activity. As they sat in a circle, they shared shyly about the songs and poems they had created since they had last met, two and a half years ago, in that very same church. Then, they had learned about how every culture and language is precious to God, and that they could worship God even more meaningfully through their own language and cultural expressions.

Dao*, from the Jishan* tribe, sang a lilting chant in a strong steady voice, in a style very similar to what he used to sing as a shaman before coming to know Christ. Hoang*, from another tribe, played on a stringed instrument commonly used in his village. It had a body fashioned from a gourd, with a long slender neck holding the strings taut. It was his first time sharing this song with anyone outside his family, he said.

Tim and Marg*, Senior Musicologists and Arts Consultants, listened attentively and shared how encouraged they were to see how far each of the hill tribes had progressed. These new songs, they explained, were not just for the believers themselves, but would be the very tools that they would use to bring the gospel right into the heart of their communities.

In order for the message of the gospel to effectively reach its audience, the messengers have to take into consideration the culture of the listener, yet at the same time maintaining the accuracy of scripture that the message is based on. The illustration given was that of an arrow and a target. The feathers on the arrow help to balance and stabilise the arrow so that it is able to hit its target accurately. An imbalance on either side of the arrow would cause it to miss the mark.

For many people groups, it is a radical idea that they can worship God in their own language and songs, not just the national language and with western songs. The good news of Jesus Christ is for all cultures and all peoples. It is not an exclusively western religion, requiring people to turn away from their own cultures to embrace a foreign one. When people worship in their own culture, and their own language, God becomes real to them, and it is a powerful witness to the rest of the community that God loves their language, their people, and their culture.

In Indonesia, Sulawesi, the Tado people saw transformation in the lives of people in their community through a worship song. After working hard together during a songwriting workshop, the people came up with a song about a little boat being tossed about by waves. The people were able to identify with it because it reflected their lives and culture so clearly, and many were moved to hear a worship song in their own language for the first time.

Watch the video for the full story below

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