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Friday, June 1, 2012

What in the World Am I Doing in This PhD Program!?

This past school year has been an exciting (and demanding) time of discovery.  The purpose of this post is to briefly share the results of my first year in the Fuller School of Intercultural Studies PhD program as it relates to how I’ve shaped my research design.

The motivation that drove me to this study program springs from my experience in Papua New Guinea (PNG).  When I lived among the Wantoat language group I observed a pattern that I think is typical of many communities in PNG.  The mother-tongue language is very much alive, and it is the primary language used in most domains of life by all age groups.  Even in the church it is the preferred language for announcements, much of the singing and informal conversation.  Scripture reading, however, always occurs in a different language, even though vernacular Scriptures are available.

I know that many factors are at play in such a situation, ranging from sociolinguistic dynamics to literacy/orality issues, etc.  Wayne Dye has done a great job of categorizing the variables that affect vernacular Scripture Use.  The nature of a  PhD program, however, is not to address every aspect of a problem but to narrowly focus on a discrete portion of the situation that can be studied through the gathering and analysis of data.

My research will focus on divergent concepts of revelation in the PNG context and especially the effect this divergence has upon perceptions of vernacular Scripture.  In traditional PNG culture people gain access to spiritual knowledge (i.e. spiritual revelation) through such means as ritual, magic, dreams, etc.  Well-intentioned western missionaries entered this context and said, “We want to share the most important spiritual knowledge of all!”  Then, they introduced people to The Book.  I will use theories and methods from the discipline of cognitive anthropology to try and better understand the results of this mismatch in perceptions of how to gain spiritual revelation.  My hypothesis is that the concept (i.e. schema) of vernacular is associated with traditional views of revelation and that the concept of Scripture is associated with western views of revelation.  The result is that the idea of “vernacular Scripture” combines two things that are not normally combined in the thinking (i.e. cognitive environment) of many Papua New Guineans.  This mismatch causes the concept of vernacular Scriptures to have little relevance or meaning in the PNG context, contributing to its lack of use.

My PhD mentor, Dan Shaw, has written about the importance of communicating with people in a way that makes sense to them.  Dan’s background in cognitive anthropology and his long-time expertise in Bible translation and Papua New Guinea will guide my research.  An anthropologist at the University of California San Diego campus has also written articles that significantly influence my thinking.  Joel Robbins worked among the Urapmin people of PNG.  He notes that in traditional Urapmin culture only concrete action (e.g. ritual or the exchange of materials goods, etc.) has the ability to produce real change in the spiritual world.  This leads the Urapmin to doubt the efficacy of mere words.  (Here and here are links to two of his articles and a section of one of his books)  I think something similar is happening among the Wantoat and within many communities in PNG, where vernacular Scripture does not seem to have a meaningful role in congregational life.

The population I'll focus on is Bible school students in PNG.  The reason for this is because in my experience among the Wantoat and other communities in PNG, I have observed that it is the leadership of the local pastors that has a tremendous amount of influence on the use of vernacular Scriptures.  Other research also supports this observation.  I have worked to increase the use of vernacular Scriptures by local pastors, but I know that their attitudes and habits have been shaped significantly by their church training.  So I would like to find out more about what is going on in that environment that affects their perceptions of the role of vernacular Scriptures in the church.

I am excited about the opportunity to study this problem more fully.  The further I get into this PhD program the more motivated I become to play my part in furthering the ministry of Bible Translation in PNG.  I know that the road will be full of both rewards and seasons of feeling overwhelmed.  I am also aware that my research will not magically solve all the problems related to Scripture use in PNG.  But if the Lord will allow me and my family to serve Him by more clearly understanding how He has created my Papua New Guinean brothers and sisters and how to more effectively promote the use of His Word in the PNG context, then I’m ready to keep moving forward!

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