Arrington, “Christian Hymns as Theological Mediator”

Arrington, Aminta. Christian Hymns as Theological Mediator: The Lisu of South-west China and Their Music.  Studies in World Christianity 21(2): 140-160.

Abstract: The Lisu of south-west China were evangelised a hundred years ago by missionaries from the China Inland Mission and adopted Christianity in a people movement that permeated nearly their entire society. The missionaries recognised that the Lisu were a singing people, and translation of a hymnbook proceeded apace together with translation of the New Testament. Further, many Western hymns were translated using Lisu poetic forms. These translated Western hymns not only became the centrepiece for worship, but were also part of the daily rhythm of life for Lisu Christians. Though the missionaries departed more than seventy years ago, the hymns, still sung a capella in four-part harmony, have remained. While the bible remains somewhat out of reach for the vast majority of Lisu peasant farmers with low reading and writing skills, the hymnbook is well-known and well-worn, its contents easy to find and many of its most familiar hymns memorised. The various functions the hymns provide for Lisu Christians overlap and intersect at various levels of meaning and experience, which can be encapsulated into one central understanding: the Lisu hymns serve as a theological mediator for Lisu Christians, bridging the gap between the text-intensive religion that is Christianity and the oral world of Lisu culture. In the everyday arena, in the practical living out of what it means to be a Christian for a communal and still largely oral-preference people such as the Lisu, the Lisu Christian hymns are the centrepiece of worship and devotion, prayer and penitence.

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