Song and Stance: Local Theology for the Lutheran Church in Papua New Guinea

Felde, Marcus Paul Bach

     The hymns which have become nearly canonical through general acceptance in a church may be an appropriate starting point for doing relevant local theology. This is certainly so in the Lutheran church in Papua New Guinea. Traditional Melanesian cultures used song to construct their social realities; and Lutherans have always seen hymn singing as crucial, for three theological reasons: they embody the praise of God, they proclaim the Gospel, and they are a medium for the priesthood of all believers.
     The hundred-year history of Lutheran hymnody in New Guinea includes translation of German chorales, appropriation of Western hymnody from non-Lutheran traditions, and, since 1910, original creations set to indigenous tunes. The missions designated 'church vernacular' languages to overcome the problem presented by the incredible multiplicity of languages. Lately, Tok Pisin has been the strongest shared language. In this language, the Lotu Buk (worship book) has been a part of the worship scene for over thirty years.
     Investigating the picture of salvation presented in the most popular of its hymns, we find the story of an absent God who takes pity on people and sends his Son to save them. Salvation consists in this, that we are accompanied through earthly trials by a strong savior, who finally brings us to be eternally with the God we never knew.
     This picture of salvation does not fare well when it is held up against local traditional values. Salvation is deferred, other-worldly and anti-material, and does not demand much of people. (In practice, however, Christian missions presented a more attractive face.)
     The author encourages a local theology which draws on Garry Trompf's analysis of the fundamental importance of 'retribution' in local culture to articulate an experience of God's presence as Luther's deus absconditus, the hidden God, whose blessing is never unmixed with obligation. The salvation which is ours in Christ is then an answer to fundamental, socially-articulated needs. He proposes a ruling metaphor of the reconciliation of enemies to speak of what, in other words, is justification by faith."