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Traditional Religion in Melanesia

Introduction | Melanesian GodsBetween polytheim & monotheismWorld of idols | Page 1 in PDF format | Page 1 in PDF format | Page 2-3 in PDF format | Pages 4-5 in PDF format | Pages 6-7 in PDF format |

Traditional Religion in Melanesia:  Introduction

By:  Theo Alerts
Port Moresby, University of Papua New Guinea press, 1996
ISBN 9980-84-068-4

The present volume on "Traditional Religion in Melanesia" and its companion volume on "Christianity in Melanesia" were written for various occasions.  In the first collection of essays we do suggest that the question, whether Melanesians were traditionally religious or not, definitely deserves a positive answer. Instead of merely concentrating on the old search for monotheism, I would think that there were many religious models at hand.  In fact, some of these configurations (such as that of the self-sacrificing dema-figure) show most interesting contact points with the Christian beliefs introduced, say, a century ago (1). 

As a side concern - or by way of supplement - I searched the anthropological literature for traditional prayers, as signs of this old religion.  As a matter of fact there are in the existing prayer collections only very rare texts quoted for the whole of Melanesia.  Herewith, I want to submit some 120 "pagan prayers" in English translation. What more is needed to prove this second point (2). 

At times people have wondered how it was possible that Christianity caught on so well in Melanesia, so that - according to the latest census in Papua New Guinea - over 96 percent of the people profess now to be Christians, and that this fact is even enshrined in the state's national constitution.  We have, therefore, given in a third essay not so much the many cultural equivalents between the Bible and Melanesian religiosity, but rather indicated how the missionaries' coming suited local expec- tations.  As a consequence, we believe, even the New Testament can be better understood when seen against the backdrop of traditional religion - as perceived in particular in the well known "Cargo cults" or "new religious movements" which occurred in the last decennia (3).

The companion volume of essays consider rather the coming of a foreign culture, Christianity, in Melanesia, and the effects it has brought. In a chapter on "The Old Testament through Melanesian eyes" I checked the often made statement that the indigenous people feel so at home in the Bible. I listed, therefore, several problems regarding the concepts of place and time and societal structures, of oral traditions and literary expressions (including 15 Melanesian myths), and even of certain matters of belief and morality which all show definite affinities with the missionary message.

As to the people's reception of Christianity, I thought it worth while to give in an other volume an overview of how the missionaries' message has been accepted, as indirectly shown in the visual arts from Melanesia, from its earliest beginnings till the present day. In addition, a contribution on "Art and Adaptation", pays special attention to the apparent misunderstandings of the Christian preaching which often times occurred in the course of this process of reception.

Finally, I have added a few essays about on one particular Christian mission which came to Papua New Guinea with French Marist Fathers, as early as 1845. The fact is that the ensuing Catholic Church well showed that, although its first concern, too, was "to save souls", the theme of integral human development was not far below the surface. This is illustrated by the Church's involvement in the economic field in just one diocese of Papua.

In addition, Catholics were not that loath to pass on responsibilities, as shown in their many, often fruitless attempts towards localizing its ministry. The final chapter of the present collection also shows some of the results of the Catholic Church's many decades long preaching and teaching, as attested through its kind of theological language used today in the most widely used language, Tok Pisin.

Most of the articles collected here were published in journals intended for various audiences. The research this required came about as a sideline to the teaching Sacred Scripture at the Bomana seminary. The results of this work basically aimed at "adapting" or "indigenizing" the often so foreign message of the Bible.

The present text has been revised for the collective publication - not really by updating the various studies and adding information which was not available at the time of first publication. Any changes made are rather minor, and mainly aimed at streamlining the collection, at cutting out duplications, and also at making some transpositions.

The nature of the studies which follow requires a rather long bibligraphy, most of which titles are used only once. Hence it was thought to be more convenient for the reader not to include a single consolidated list of books etc., but to add the special references immediately after each set of notes. The general bibliography in this volume contains only works of interest for more than one reason.

By:  Theo Alerts
Port Moresby, University of Papua New Guinea press, 1996

to be continued

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