Photograph by Jean-Leo Dugast in The Supernatural
in Thai Life
by John Hoskin (Bangkok:  Tamarind Press, 1993)

Chapter 2
Tools for Learning Animistic Worldviews

Topics in Chapter

Perceiving Cultural Diversity
Learning at the Worldview Level 
Learning Animistic Worldviews in Times of Crisis
Learning Animistic Worldviews Through Rites of Transition
Learning Animistic Worldviews through Indigenous Proverbs and MythsLearning Animistic Worldviews by Contrast
Learning Animistic Worldviews by How Words and Sounds are Organized and Classified
(Add Fig. 1)

Perceiving Cultural Diversity

A missionary may live in the midst of an animistic culture without knowing that it is animistic. He conceives "reality" through the grid of his own background and experience. He assumes that people think as he thinks, feel as he feels, and communicate as he communicates. Because he uses Western language and cultural frameworks, indigenous cultural conceptions escape recognition.

For example, short-term apprentices from the United States to East Africa almost invariably express the sentiment that "people all over the world are basically alike." They superficially see the wide use of Western dress and Western technology and assume that similar externals manifest similar internals. Or a campaign leader tells prospective Americans going to a Third World country, "People are people are people! You will not have to learn a new language or a new way of thinking to teach people in this country."

One two-year missionary to Africa wrote: "People are people the world over. Not only are people basically alike in make-up, but they are minutely identical in needs. All need the gospel, and all can be approached in principally the same manner." Nothing could be farther from the truth! In this case, nationals were identifying with the missionary by speaking his language and communicating in his cultural framework. Communication was being westernized in transmission. However, the missionary wrongly assumed that the commonality was based upon the universal similarity of humans rather than upon years of Western education and cross-cultural communication on the part of nationals. The nationals were identifying with the missionary rather than the missionary identifying with the nationals.

The average person in an animistic society may wear Western clothes, desire education, listen to the radio, and travel long distances in automobiles, buses, taxis, and trams. He might live in a plush suite in a multistoried apartment building. These material benefits make him appear Western. However, when he is sick or his wife is barren, he consults the medium or diviner. He believes in God yet fears his ancestors. He appreciates Christianity but is frightened of witchcraft. He worships Allah yet places portions of the Qur'an around his house to magically ward off the spirits. While affirming the power of God, he believes that hatred in and of itself has power to kill or inflict disease. A man who kills another's pregnant cow would expect his next baby to be dead at birth if restitution is not made. No rash generalizations that "people all over the world are basically alike" can be made. Only when the cross-cultural evangelist realizes the diversity of culture and how to perceive distinctive thought patterns can he begin to understand animistic beliefs and behaviors.

Learning at the Worldview Level

The missionary must become a culture learner in order to perceive cultural diversity. He must learn to look beyond superficial similarities to perceive the distinctive ways people pattern their cultural reality. These distinctive patterns of reality are worldviews--models of reality which shape cultural allegiances and provide interpretations of the world. Animistic perspectives become comprehensible to the missionary only when he understands the worldviews which validate and integrate cultural values and behaviors.

Effective missionaries must accept two presuppositions of learning worldviews. First, worldviews are so natural to insiders that they feel that all others perceive reality their way. They are like the monocultural Americans previously described who feel everyone thinks and acts their way. Worldviews are like the air we breathe--very important but taken for granted. They are like eyeglasses. One does not consider their importance until they are lost. Since worldviews are largely implicit, the missionary must search for forums where the implicit is made explicit and develop methodologies for uncovering worldview meanings. Second, worldviews can be perceived by outsiders at some times more easily than at other times. This chapter describes the times when worldviews are made explicit, laid bare for the perceptive to grasp.

How are animistic worldviews learned? How can a missionary understand new belief systems? Animistic worldviews can be effectively learned during times of crises; during rites of transition; through proverbs and myths; by contrasting "our" perceptions with "their" perceptions; and by analyzing how words and sounds are organized and classified.

Learning Animistic Worldviews in Times of Crisis

Worldview differences become more apparent during times of crisis, especially at times of death and illness. Each society has developed its own distinctive rituals for grappling with crises. When the meanings of these rituals are studied, they reveal significant insights into a people's worldview because "basic beliefs and assumptions are. . .laid bare" (Hiebert 1978, 37). Some rites are distinctively Christian; others are animistic. The Christian and the animistic are practiced by people living side by side and sometimes by the same person.

Observing Death

Missionaries can learn much about animistic worldviews by observing death. For example, the Kipsigis of Kenya believe that the spirits of the dead will eventually be called back to live in the bodies of another generation. This is not obvious unless the missionary sees and hears what occurs at traditional burial ceremonies. When a father dies, his eldest son throws crabgrass into the grave as a parting blessing and verbally bids his father farewell. "Go safely," he says. "We will soon call you to come back to us." This calling back of the dead into life is done when a new child is born. Such an explicit statement of a cyclical worldview is seldom heard except at times of death and birth. The traditional Kipsigis hope is this-worldly--to be reborn into the present world.

In Christian funerals, on the other hand, evangelists stand before a believer's grave and proclaim:

Our hope is beyond this world. God placed his spirit in man when he breathed into him the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). The Bible says that at death the body "returns to the ground from which it came, and the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7). We believe that our brother has gone to be with God who created him.

Hope is redirected in a Christian funeral. Hope is no longer in reincarnated life in the present world but in resurrected life in new spiritual bodies at home with God (1 Cor. 15:35-50).

Certain cultural motifs become apparent to the identificational missionary during death and funeral rites. Without understanding these motifs, the missionary lives in a cultural void. Finding answers to the following questions while participating in death and funeral rites helps the missionary understand his context.

What is the meaning of life? It becomes apparent from observing traditional Kipsigis burial rites that the meaning of life is found in maintaining harmony with the ancestors. The message of Christian funerals, however, shows that the ultimate purpose of life is to live so that we might be united with God.

Is the cultural view of time cyclical or linear? Traditional Kipsigis funeral rites show a cyclical view of time. The dead are thought to return later in another body. Christian evangelists struggle to linearize the traditional Kipsigis view of time.

What do morality and sin have to do with death? Traditional Kipsigis believe that sin against other Kipsigis causes societal disharmony and that sin will eventually "eat up" and "kill" the sinner. Thus Ezek. 18:20--"The soul that sins, he will die"--is interpreted literally. Christians, on the other hand, recognize that ultimately sin is against God and that only the cleansing blood of Jesus can make one righteous.

What is the relationship between the "living dead" (those who have just died) and their family? Traditional Kipsigis consider the "living dead" as that part of the family who have passed from the realm of the living. Because they are the spiritual beings closest to the earthly realm, they are appeased and propitiated by the living. Faithful Christians believe that such appeasement and propitiation denies the all-sufficiency of God. Weak Christians, however, are tempted to appease and/or manipulate ancestors when they are told that illness or other misfortune has been caused by disgruntled ancestors.

Thus both animistic and Christian perspectives of life and death are vividly seen by witnessing what happens at death.

Observing Sickness

Worldviews also become comprehensible during times of illness. To many Africans, both Christians and non-Christians, extended illness is thought to be caused by sin. When I was severely sick with hepatitis in 1979, Christians prayed that God would forgive my sins so that I might be healed. I replied that I knew of no major sin in my life; Satan was rather tempting me as he tempted Job in the Old Testament; and I needed prayers to overcome Satan. Unlike Job's friends who refused his proclamations of innocence and declared Job guilty of sin, the Kipsigis Christians were open to discussing other causes of illness. During these discussions, I discovered much about Kipsigis conceptions of suffering and evil. The Kipsigis Christians, in turn, learned biblical perspectives which broadened their understanding of human suffering.

From a Kipsigis perspective sin is not the only cause of illness: Ancestors might also produce illness because they are dissatisfied with the activities of the living. I learned about this cause for illness when Stephen Mibei, an older Kipsigis Christian, became ill. Instead of praying to the Lord for healing and waiting on him to act, he went to a diviner to find out what was causing his sickness. The diviner sacrificed a sheep, which Stephen provided, and analyzed the entrails to determine the cause of the ailment. It was determined that Stephen's failure to pay the brideprice for his wife had angered his deceased father-in-law. Healing would occur only if part of the brideprice was paid immediately and a libation poured out at the ancestral shrine to appease the deceased. I felt his emotions as he struggled with his desire to follow conflicting allegiances, either that of Creator God or that of the ancestors. Although Stephen realized that making sacrifices and libations to ancestral spirits was a denial of his allegiance to God, he followed the advice of the diviner. In the midst of Stephen's struggles I was not only a cultural learner but a Christian teacher. While learning that Kipsigis believe that ancestors may cause illness, I taught that a believer must trust in God, wait patiently for him, and never call upon the dead on behalf of the living (Isa. 8:19).

By empathetically listening to those who are sick and analyzing rituals of healing, the missionary learns much about the indigenous worldview. Since animistic religion is greatly concerned about causes of illness, it is imperative for the missionary to learn why people become sick. In addition to sin and ancestral dissatisfaction, soul-loss, spirit intrusion, object intrusion, the breaking of a taboo, and sorcery are also thought to be causes of illness (Burnett 1988, 179-182). Through empathic sharing the missionary learns indigenous perceptions of illness, spiritual beings which must be appeased or propitiated for healing to occur, types of magic employed to manipulate spiritual power, and traditional and contemporary medicines used locally for curative and religious purposes.

How Christians and non-Christians conceptualize such significant problems as death and illness tells the cross-cultural evangelist much about his adopted people.

Learning Animistic Worldviews Through Rites of Transition

All societies have rites of passage from one status in life to another. Marriage ceremonies are an almost universal rite of transition from unmarried to married life. Baptism is a rite of transition into the Lord's body. Many societies have rites of transition from childhood to adulthood. Some have rites from a warrior class to an elder class or from one elder class to another. Funerals, already discussed under learning during times of crises, are understood by some as rituals which symbolically transfer the spirit into the world of the spirits or free the spirit to make this journey. The Masai of East Africa have not only birth, marriage, and death rites, but also transitional rites between stages of life. The rites of passage separating childhood and adulthood are of special importance: After initiation the male becomes a warrior, and the girl becomes a woman and is allowed to marry. Usually these rites of transition are times of cultural indoctrination when cultural values and worldview perspectives are especially explicit. In animistic societies rites of transition intimately tie the living to the spirit world. Unlike some secular ceremonies in the West, all animistic rituals carry significant religious meaning.

Among American Indian tribes, such as the Crow, Comanche, and Shoshoni, a young man achieved power to become great in life only after receiving a special vision. In this vision some spirit would come to the young man to give him phenomenal strength, extraordinary wealth, or the power to lead. Achieving this vision became a rite of passage into successful life. Frequently the spirit came in the form of an animal or bird who then became the young man's personal totem. Although a few received their visions in their sleep or without much effort, most achieved them only after much effort through an planned vision quest. At the approximate age of eleven a boy began training for his vision quest. He observed taboos, underwent rigorous physical training, and supplicated the Sun. During the vision quest itself, he "mortified his flesh" to induce a vision. It was common to fast for four days, cut off one finger at the joint as a sacrifice to the Sun, and pray for horses (Lowie 1948, 3-5).

The nature of a man's vision determined his role in life. If his totem appeared invulnerable, he would become an invincible warrior with a reputation of reckless daring. Or, if his empowering totem demonstrated the use of herbal medicine, he would become a wealthy healer/diviner. A man without a vision was destined for poverty and ill-repute (Lowie, 1948, 6-9).

Once the centrality of the vision quest becomes apparent, other basic cultural motifs also become evident. (1) Endurance is required in a life of struggle. As a man could not obtain a vision without struggle, so the Indian could not survive without struggle. (2) Power, prestige, and fame come from visions and dreams. (3) A totem spirit guards the strong man. (4) An ideal man, although strong and self-sufficient, is helped by spirits (Hiebert 1983). Without understanding the role of the vision in Indian society, the missionary could not understand the culture.

Among the Kipsigis of Kenya circumcision is the rite of transition into adulthood. During these month-long rites each December, Kipsigis youths are circumcised and taught what it means to be a Kipsigis. From the time that they emerge from these rites, they are expected to act as adults. These rites are extremely valuable for social and cultural identity. In a short time Kipsigis youth go through an identity change that American young people uncertainly accomplish with much anguish over a longer period of time.

Since these rites conflict with the teachings of Christ, Christians cannot participate in them and remain faithful to God. Even non-Christians realize this. Circumcision is the time when the young are indoctrinated in the traditional animistic way of life. Ancestral blessings are frequently used. Sexual promiscuity is expected. Initiates are taught how to curse those who wrong them. When an outsider studies what is taught to traditional circumcision initiates, he sees distinctive features of traditional Kipsigis culture.

Strong local churches in Kipsigis have created viable Christian alternatives to the traditional rites. Christian blessings are used. The purity of a Christian lifestyle is taught. How a Christian Kipsigis functions in an animistic world is communicated. Where local churches have not creatively devised a cultural substitute, reversion to paganism is extremely high. Where churches are strong, a cultural equivalent is devised and frequently accepted by the village.

By studying rites of transition, a missionary overtly sees cultural motifs otherwise hidden. Christian alternatives to these rites show how the teachings of Christ have been contextualized in the new culture.

Learning Animistic Worldviews through Indigenous Proverbs and Myths

Every society has a verbal cultural heritage--"an inventory of lore"--which has been handed down from one generation to another (Loewen 1969b, 150). Because Animism is not typically codified into written documents but transmitted intergenerationally by verbal means, a study of the culture's verbal heritage helps the new missionary understand animistic beliefs. Two types of cultural lore, proverbs and myths, are significantly helpful in deciphering animistic worldviews.

Indigenous Proverbs

 Oral cultures, which are prevalent in Third World societies, are proverb-oriented. Some of these proverbs are riddles which hide meaning from outsiders but vividly portray it to insiders. Other proverbs are simply concise, overt descriptions of cultural concepts. Understanding such proverbs is an effective tool in culture learning. A new missionary must develop the linguistic fluency to catch succinct statements of cultural reality; otherwise, he will hear them as simply incoherent sentences.

Certain proverbs reveal distinctive cultural motifs. The Kipsigis say, "Manamegei oikyuk ak cheguk," literally meaning "My ancestral spirits are not tied to yours." Thus my ancestral spirits cannot harm you, and your ancestral spirits cannot harm me. Every person is under the control of his own ancestral spirits. This statement counters another's threat of invoking his ancestral spirits to cause harm to those who are not of his lineage.

Some proverbs are cultural statements of universal truths. Jesus' statement "No man can serve two masters" (Matt. 6:24) is interpreted by the animist to mean that one cannot follow two incongruous roads simultaneously. One cannot follow the way of God and the way of ancestors; one cannot offer his body as a living sacrifice to God while continuing to pour libations on the ancestral shrine. Different cultures express this idea in their own distinctive ways. For example, the Kipsigis say, "Magibeeljindos kirokwek oeng'" ("Two walking sticks cannot be burned together"); the Bukusu of Kenya, "He who wants to start a new home must destroy the old"; and certain Zaireans, "Can a woman marry two husbands?" Each of these proverbs conveys the same truth by using different analogies.

The meaning of proverbs is frequently reinterpreted as cultural perspectives change. A Kipsigis proverb says, "Mautien moset katwalet": "A baboon does not forget how to jump." Traditional religious practitioners use this proverb to explain that a Kipsigis cannot forget to do those things that are natural to him, that is, practice traditional rites. Christian leaders employ this proverb to explain that Christians cannot forget to do those things that are natural to Christians.

Indigenous Myths

All religious people have sacred narratives, called myths, which explain how things got the way they are. While proverbs and legends describe wisdom and phenomenal exploits "in ordinary, profane time," myths portray the work of spiritual power(s) in arranging the existing order "in primordial, sacred time" (Loewen 1969b, 150). Creation myths depict the origin and destiny of the world and of humankind. National myths describe how tribes and nations came into being. Deity myths recount relationships between humanity and divinity: Why has God become distant? How do people relate to deity? How have higher gods come into existence? Spirit myths depict the origin and functions of lower spiritual beings. Sickness myths reveal ancient sources and causes of illness. Cosmic myths describe the origin and cause of catastrophic events, such as earthquakes, lightning, thunder, drought, rain, and eclipses. Eliade's description of the functions of myths show that they are intimately related to animistic conceptions of reality:

Myth, . . .(1) constitutes the History of the acts of the Supernaturals; (2) that this History is considered to be absolutely true (because it is concerned with realities) and sacred (because it is the work of the Supernaturals); (3) that myth is always related to a "creation," it tells how something came into existence or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working were established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts; (4) that by knowing the myth one knows the "origin" of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will; this is not an "external," "abstract" knowledge but a knowledge that one "experiences" ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification; (5) that in one way or another one "lives" the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted." (1963, 8-9)

Because myths describe spiritual powers which stand behind the world, the study of myth is especially important in deciphering animistic beliefs. Tabor rightly comments, "Understanding the mythology of a people is one of the most important keys available to open the door into their view of the nature of reality, the meaning of life, the foundations of value judgments which underlie their whole outlook" (1969, 146). For example, a myth among one South American Indian tribe explains why many Christian words had become interpreted as "hard words"-- power sounds used to inflict either healing or harm on the people against whom they were used:

One day while god and the people were walking through the forest, a poisonous snake suddenly bit god in the hand. It was a very poisonous snake, so all the people expected him to swell up at once and die. However god told them: "Don't be afraid. I will not die. This happened so that I could teach you how to cure illness when you get sick once I am gone." Then he spoke some "hard" words and blew taleng `magic' on his hand, and at once he was completely restored. Then he taught "hard" words to the people so that they also would be able to cure. (Loewen 1969c, 148)

Other myths describe the origin of various spiritual powers and therefore depict their character and functions. According to a myth of the Waunana of Columbia, Ewandama (god) lived with his son near the ocean before the creation of the people. When his son begged him for playmates, Ewandama sent him to make dolls. Later Ewandama gave these various dolls life. Dolls made out of black palm wood became progenitors of black magic spirits; dolls carved from white balsa wood became the ancestors of white magic spirits; and mud dolls became the forebears of the Waunana (Loewen 1969b, 155-156; 1969c, 175).

African creation myths explain why God, who once lived close to humankind, has removed himself from their world. Most of these myths describe a golden age when there was no separation between humans and their creator. However, something occurred to alienate God. The Mende say that God withdrew into the heavens because humans continually begged benefits from him. Ashanti mythology tells of God's retreat into the heavens after a woman hit him with her pestle while pounding traditional food. Myths from the upper White Nile area speak of the relationship between God and man being severed when a rope between heaven and earth was accidentally cut (Mbiti 1969, 97; Mitchell 1977, 25).

Myths are intimately related to a culture's worldview explaining, integrating, validating, and sanctioning its belief system (Loewen 1969c, 159-167). For example, myths concerning the transmigration of souls undergird the Indian caste system so that the numerically greater untouchables willingly submit to the ruling castes. Myths among Australian aborigines describe how each tribe must live off the "life root" of its own land thus eliminating aboriginal war to conquer neighboring lands (Loewen 1969c, 164, 166). The Nazis promoted an Aryan myth to validate their conviction that the German people were racially and culturally superior. In each case myths explain, integrate, validate, and sanction cultural beliefs and practices.

Too often myths have been ridiculed by Westerners, especially missionaries, as frivolous nonsense. As a result, national Christians have hidden their myths from outsiders who might be able to understand them. Such hidden myths are more insidious because they cannot be overtly discussed and analyzed in the light of the will of God:

Mission history is replete with attempts to eradicate myths along with other forms of "pagan" superstition. But myths are not easily destroyed or changed by external pressure.... In fact, overt prohibition usually tends to greatly increase the overall value of myth. (Loewen 1969d, 171)

Throughout Latin America the drive to forcibly baptize the native without any regard for his mythology has resulted in syncretism, the blending of traditional animistic beliefs with Catholic beliefs and rituals. While peripheral mythological motifs have been lost in this reintegration, core motifs of animistic myths have reemerged in Christo-pagan Catholicism and Spiritism. Frequently mythological characteristics are given to Christian characters, and pagan gods are equated with Christ, Mary, and Catholic saints.

Although the historicity of most myths need not be accepted by the missionary, myths presently being told in animistic contexts reveal cultural motifs currently held by the people. In many cases, even when the historical content of a myth changes, the cultural motifs communicated remain the same (Loewen 1969b, 152). By studying the mythological content of comic books, anthropologists learn much about American conceptions of bravery and heroism and the victory of good over evil (Eliade 1963, 184-185). Although the plots change, many of the cultural motifs remain the same.

Thus myths serve a number of missiological functions. First, the missionary develops insight into how the people conceptualize their reality by researching and documenting traditional myths. Basic cultural motifs surface as they are communicated in mythological form. Second, the sharing of myths creates an "atmosphere of confidence and reciprocity" conducive to the sharing of the gospel. After listening to traditional myths the missionary is frequently asked about what he believes. Myths, therefore, become a contact point between the missionary and his host culture (Loewen 1969e, 185-186). Third, recognizing the significance of myth will help the missionary communicate the gospel in such a way so as it avoid syncretism. In many cases the missionary will work with national leaders to consciously compare traditional mythology with the scripture. Where traditional mythology is found to be false, it must be replaced with biblical stories reflecting biblical motifs. Fourth, the use of myth gives insight concerning how the biblical message must be relevantly communicated. Western sermons, which segment thought, employ deductive reasoning, and use few metaphors, have little impact in Third World contexts. However, parables, stories, and myths--formulated to communicate concrete Christian motifs--forcefully relate God's eternal message. For example, many lives have been changed among the Kipsigis of Kenya by "the parable of the nail" first presented by Joseph Lang'at:

One day a man sold the best house in all the village. However, as the sale was being concluded, he declared that he could not sell one nail in a wall. That nail was to be eternally his. After a week the previous owner returned to hang his coat on the nail. The new owners were puzzled but determined that since the nail was his and the coat was his, there was nothing that they could do. However, in the second week the previous owner returned again. This time he took his coat off the nail but replaced it with a piece of raw meat. Again the new owners deduced that since both the coat and meat belonged to the previous owner, they could do nothing. The smell in the house got worse and worse as the days transpired. Finally, the previous owner returned again to reclaim his now rancid piece of meat. This time, with a knowing nod of his head and twinkle in his eye, he left a long, dead, slimy snake on the nail. With shock the new owners moved out and soon the previous owner moved back in.

The power of this story is in the mystery of the message. What does the nail represent? Who is the first owner? And who are the second owners? In this particular story the nail symbolized the unrepentant remnant of the former life used by Satan to repossess people who once belonged to him. Even though people accept Christ, they do not allow the Lord to possess all of their lives. As Loewen rightly says, "Those who disregard mythology are excluding themselves from valuable material that will make their message both applicable and desirable" (1969e, 187). Hopefully, this description of the use of myth will aid the Christian communicating in animistic contexts.

Since all cultures have some kind of an oral history, a new cross-cultural worker must learn the oral forms of his adopted people. He learns much of the new culture by perceiving the proverbs and myths of this culture.

Learning Animistic Worldviews by Contrast

As new missionaries begin learning languages and cultures, they hear and see things that do not fit their conceptions of reality. When there is such confusion, the new missionary should ask questions and seek answers in culturally appropriate ways.

He might privately ask a national friend, "In America, when we see men holding hands with men, it means that they are homosexuals. Is that the meaning here in Africa?" An East African would laughingly respond, "No, to us it means friendship with people to whom we are close. There are few homosexuals here." When a missionary explains what a cultural act means to him, typically the national reciprocally responds explaining what the act means to him. Such reciprocity opens up numerous doors of understanding.

When I was first learning the Kipsigis language, I heard an old lady greet a young boy and call him "Grandfather." I asked the Christian with whom I was evangelizing, "Did I hear right? Did the old lady call the young boy `Grandfather'?" "Yes," he responded, "but she just does not understand." At this point I was perplexed not only by the old lady's greeting but also by the Christian's response.

The next day I was visiting a Christian who wanted me to know Kipsigis customs thoroughly. I explained the greeting of the old lady and the Christian's response. He laughed and said, "Let me tell you about the Kipsigis kurenet rite."

This rite takes place immediately after a child is born to ascertain which ancestral spirit has embodied the new child. An old woman will ask, "Are you Arap Tonui?" The women gathered for this rite will wait for some time for the child to sneeze, thus signifying the affirmative. If the child does not sneeze, another name is proposed until the child responds by sneezing. Later I read of this rite in Orchardson's ethnography of the Kipsigis:

So firmly is it believed that the child really has the spirit of the Kurenet, and is in fact the same person, that his or her mother, when using terms of endearment, will address the child for many years by the Kurenet's name, . . . (Orchardson 1961, 45)

I learned that the old lady called the boy "Grandfather" because she felt the spirit of her grandfather had come to live in the body of the young child. The Christian whom I asked the question was embarrassed that I heard traditional conceptions typically hidden from outsiders.

When unexpected events happen that new missionaries do not understand, they must seek answers in culturally appropriate ways.

Learning Animistic Worldviews by How Words and Sounds are Organized and Classified

As missionaries begin their first crucial step of learning the language of another culture, the relationship between language and culture soon becomes apparent. For example, one sixteen-year missionary to Germany who is also fluent in French and Greek, frequently comments, "Germans think like . . . because they say . . . ." Such a statement rightfully recognizes that linguistic categories are related to conceptual categories.

Ethnolinguistics, the study of the relationship between language and culture, has shown that languages provide categories through which people think. Languages mirror culture at every point. They emphasize and systematize what is important to the culture and filter out what is not important. For example, Eskimo tribes have as many as seven distinct labels to distinguish between types of snow ("falling snow, snow on the ground, fluffy snow, wet snow, and so forth"), while English has one all-inclusive word for the concept. Equatorial African languages have no term at all for snow (Brown 1987, 138) but typically expand the word "hail" to include the idea of snow. The Kipsigis of Kenya have hundreds of words defining different aspects of circumcision and the circumcision ceremony. The emphasis upon this rite of passage into adulthood is reflected in the language. However, the Kipsigis learning English has difficulty understanding the Western pattern of becoming adults as reflected in the terms "adolescents," "teenagers," and "young adults." They typically grasp the denotated meanings without understanding the underlying connotated meanings of these terms. They understand that teenagers are people aged 13-19 (denotated meaning) without understanding that teenagers are young people struggling with their identities of selfhood who desire to prove themselves as adults (connotated meaning).

Many languages have more precise verb forms than English. Hopi forms indicate not only the action occurring but also the knowledge of the speaker about the action and the validity of the statement. The English statement "he is running" could be translated "I know that he is running at this very moment," "I know that is running at this moment even though I cannot see him," "I remember that I saw him running and I presume he is still running," or "I am told that he is running." While European languages specifically delineate time limitations of any action, the Hopi view time not in terms of length but "in terms of events, sequences, and development" (Brown 1987, 139). The length of time from planting to harvesting is not as significant as the development of events through stages of "planting, germination, growth, blossoming, and bearing fruit" (Brown 1987, 139). The Kipsigis have three specific past tenses--today's past, yesterday's past, and the distant past. The Japanese and Chinese infix respect relationships into their verb forms.

The cultural categorization of colors is the most discussed illustration in the study of ethnolinguistics. Americans see six colors in the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, violet, and blue. Some cultures see eight, others four, others three. Kipsigis classify blue and black together and consider the sky tue, the word that I initially translated literally as "black." Tue, however, has a broader color range than simply black. The Malagasy speaker of Madagascar distinguishes over 100 basic categories of color (Nida 1952). The Shona of Zimbabwe and Bassa of Liberia both have fewer color categories than English speakers, and they break up the spectrum at different points (Gleason 1961, 4). The following color scheme compares the color categories of these three cultures.





Fig. 1: Color Categories in Three Cultures (Brown 1980, 142)

A creative missionary can develop a methodology for learning the linguistic categories reflected by his host culture. He can write out a series of nouns and ask people to categorize the words that belong together. For example, how would Americans compartmentalize the following nouns: God, rocks, virus, man, bushes, fish, deer, rabbit, woman, demons, angels, cow, lion, whale, grass, germs, sand, and trees? A typical American might group (1) God, angels, and demons in a single category as "supernatural beings", (2) man and woman as "human beings", (3) cow, deer, lion, and rabbit as "animals", (4) fish and whale as "living beings dwelling in water", (5) bushes, grass, and trees as "plants", (6) rocks and sand as "inanimate things", and (7) viruses and germs as "organisms that cause sickness." These categories come from Western differentiations of natural and supernatural, human and animal life, animate beings and inanimate things, and plants and animals. Comprehending these implicit categories facilitates understanding Western culture (Hiebert 1985a, 146, 148).

Participants of an East African hunting and gathering society would classify the same nouns in vastly different categories. One such participant classified (1) God, angels, demons, viruses, and germs together as "things that can kill," (2) man, lion, and whale as "things that rule their environments," (3) women and cows as "things that are ruled and are convertible for bride price," (4) rocks, bushes, fish, trees, grass, rabbit, deer, and sand as "things of the habitat free for the getting" (Hiebert 1983). A Haitian student classified tree and woman together as "fruit bearers," rocks and angels as "message bearers," and man and lion as "creatures of bravery and strength."

In similar creative ways missionaries must determine how animistic beliefs are categorized within their host cultures. "Culture-specific world views are reflected in the language" (Brown 1987, 138). These animistic categories are seldom similar to Western categories. The Mazateco Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, traditionally felt that God's word was transmitted to them when they were under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug derived from a mushroom. They therefore classified both the hallucinogenic mushroom and the scriptures in one category known as "God's word" (Pike and Cowen 1959, 145-150). One missionary to East Africa classified the Swahili terms mganga ("a shaman or witchdoctor") and mchawi ("a witch") in the same category, calling these practitioners "peas out of the same pod." From a Christian perspective this was justified since both of these animistic practitioners use magical powers which a follower of God would classify in the realm of Satan. Yet this analysis overlooks the differentiation that the language makes by using two terms for these practitioners. The mganga uses spiritual power for benevolent purposes, and the mchawi uses the same power for malevolent purposes. From the perspective of the African traditionalist the two types of practitioners belong in different categories.

As missionaries evangelize in animistic contexts, they must realize that they are outsiders to the cultures who must learn the categories of animistic thought as formulated by cultural insiders. They must learn how insiders classify animistic practitioners, how these practitioners determine the will of spiritual powers, what personal and impersonal spiritual powers are thought to impact the animist, and what conceptions of sin and salvation already exit in the animistic context. Missionaries enter cultures which have already existing animistic categories. These categories must not only be understood by the missionary but he must also learn to communicate God's eternal message within the contexts where animistic worldviews are present.


Each of the methodologies of culture learning designated in this chapter is identificational. The new missionary is learning culture as he begins to actively evangelize on the field, interrelating with the people in their environment and in their language. A missionary cannot learn a culture from a book or from meeting people in a Western institution.

When I first arrived on the field, I did not know how to learn culture in an organized way. I struggled for years and picked up cultural views piece by piece. Newer missionaries using methodologies similar to those in this chapter have been much quicker to perceive culture and thus preach the word more effectively.


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