Abstract:The Lisu of southwest China were evangelized 100 years ago by missionaries from the China Inland Mission, and adopted Christianity in a people movement that permeated nearly their entire society. But despite the missionaries’ creation of a Lisu written language, translation of the Bible into Lisu, and elevation of Scripture as the focal point of Christian devotion, Lisu culture remained heavily oriented toward oral thought patterns. While the Lisu viewed their Bible as the authoritative Word of God, they read it only in ritualistic contexts, and not for personal Bible study or in devotional settings.
This led to the question: how can Christianity, with its long literate tradition and its focus on the written Scriptures, be sustained among a people who have the Bible, but do not read it? A people whose thought patterns and behaviors are primarily oral? How are the more abstract theological concepts—such as grace, sanctification, and forgiveness—of such a religion as Christianity that highly values the written word, translated into the oral context of the Lisu?
For the Lisu, such biblical abstractions are mediated through song. The hymnbook was the bridge between the written Word as sacred object, and the lived, spoken, and sung words of the people. If the Lisu Bible was an icon, sacred and revered, the hymnbook, the second item in this two-book set, was the religious handbook. Singing the written words of the hymns brought the two realms—oral and literate—together.
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.