In doing grassroots evangelism and leadership training among the Karen in Thailand for more than two decades, Hans Christoph Bär has observed how the Karen’s animistic background and worldview affect their understanding and practice of the Christian faith. His article draws out implications that the animistic context may have on teaching the Bible

Hans Christoph Bär

Hans Christoph Bär (DMin) has been a missionary with OMF in Thailand from 1982 to 1998 and 2006 until present, working among the Sgaw Karen people as church planter, Bible teacher, and leadership trainer. He has written a booklet titled, Animistic Worldview and Its Implication on Teaching God’s Word, which can be downloaded from http://missiologie.org/forschung.html. Hardcopies can be ordered at http://www.publish2day.org/shop/category/english-mission-8.

Teaching God’s Word to a People from an Animistic Background

Mission Round Table 13:3 (Sep-Dec 2018): 20-24

“Ideas have consequences,” was a key sentence in Dr. Mel Louck’s lectures on modern worldview. This is true, not only for western thinking and its theology, but also for the animistic worldview of the Karen people in the mountains of North Thailand. Their ideas about God, good and bad spirits, power, cause of illnesses and accidents, meaning of dreams, or meaning of body and soul have consequences in their lives.

In doing grassroots evangelism, as well as leadership training among the Karen in Chiang Mai and Tak province (Thailand) for over twenty-five years, I have made some observations about the way the Karen’s animistic background and worldview affect their understanding when they hear Christians talk about spirits, the power of the Holy Spirit, God the Father, and God’s Son, as well as other aspects of essential teaching from the Bible.

In this article, I will endeavor to draw out implications that the animistic context may have on teaching the Bible.

1. Using points of contact: traditional stories, sayings, and poems (hta)

Karen mythology has some amazing stories about God (Y’wa). One story that the Karen refer to is about the lost book. At the beginning of time, God gave a golden book to the white man, a silver book to a Burman or Thai, and a parchment book to the Karen. While the white man treasured this book and learned from it—and similarly for the Burman or Thai with their silver book—the Karen went to work and left their book unattended. A pig tore it up and chickens ate it.[1] Since the chickens and the pig ate the book, the Karen have used chicken bones and the gall bladder of the pig for divination.

But the Karen were also expecting the white man—who is their youngest brother in their mythology—to come back and bring the Golden Book to them. This story, together with another prophecy that the white man would come back on water,[2] have had a great impact on the Karen in Burma. When the British arrived in Burma on naval ships, and the American Baptist missionaries brought the Bible—the Golden Book—with them, many Karen saw their old prophecies fulfilled. A mass movement happened at that time, the fruit of which can still be seen today.

The first five years of our field service, we lived in the Karen village of Sop Lahn. I went visiting villages with Mr. Dipae. He was a leader and a keen Christian who had learned to read in his advanced age. The people were eager to hear his stories as he compared them with the teaching of the Bible. He could tell the story of the fall of man in Karen terms, since the Karen have a very similar story in their mythology to the Genesis 3 account. He then read the story from the Bible and pointed out that it is God’s Word which is true. It is the lost book that has come back.

I once challenged Mr. Dipae to tell a story from their mythology which might not be in agreement with biblical truth so that people could see that there is a difference compared to their mythology. He looked at me and then he said, “You can do that!” This makes sense, if one knows that the highest value in Karen culture is harmony. This value, of course, provides further points of contact with the important theme of reconciliation in the Bible.

One of the main themes in old Karen stories is the orphan. He is poor, without advocates and support, but makes his way to success because he learns to overcome obstacles and to rely on his wits. The Karen often identify with the orphan and see themselves in that role. It touches their hearts when they hear how God cares deeply about widows and orphans.

“One of the sayings of the elders is, ‘All things in heaven and on earth, O children and grandchildren, Y’wa created them. Never forget Y’wa, pray to him every day and every night.’”[3] No wonder the Karen love to hear the creation story and they love to pray. When I asked the father of my language helper why so many Karen are open to the gospel, he answered, “The stories the missionaries have come to tell us do not sound foreign to us.”

We find the Karen Y’wa tradition not only in old stories, but also in many poems they sing or that speak of him. The Karen call the poems hta. The hta are a unique form of Karen poetry about many areas of life. They are sung on New Years’ Day, at weddings, funerals, or on other occasions when rituals are performed. The hta are part of the old Karen tradition and as such are to be seen as first class cultural documents.[4]

Even though the Karen’s knowledge of stories and hta has diminished, it is still an excellent tool to reach out to them with the good news. It also gives us the opportunity to ask the Karen about their knowledge of hta which then can lead to interaction, instead of ignoring their knowledge about Y’wa. Some Karen teachers[5] and missionaries[6] have collected a great deal of hta and have used them successfully. Besides conveying spiritual truth about God they also help us to be accepted by animistic Karen. “In everyday negotiation, appropriate use of proverbial expressions, metaphors, and stories are appreciated as a mark of a leader.”[7] Therefore, using hta and stories of the Y’wa tradition in teaching about God is an excellent tool.

It is likely that in most cultures there are points of contact with the gospel. It is important to get to know them. People will notice that we take them seriously. It gives us opportunities for interaction on a wide range of issues. Values, stories, and poetry/art may give us a great tool for (pre-)evangelism. But in order to give people a firm foundation for their faith in Christ, more than this is necessary

2. Teaching God’s redemptive plan chronologically using stories from the Bible

Teaching God’s redemptive plan chronologically has been a great tool that we have used for the last twenty-five years.

At the end of the seventies and throughout the eighties and nineties, the Karen Christian community grew quickly. In many remote villages, Karen became Christians but they were hard to disciple because there was a lack of roads and teachers.

Therefore, we started teaching Bible courses in Omkoi, a small district town and market place. The courses lasted for two days and nights. It was great to see thirty-five to forty men from different villages come for the teaching. One of the main leaders cautioned my enthusiasm and said, “Usually, Karen come two or three times and then they quit.” But this time it was different. Teaching God’s redemptive plan chronologically fascinated the Christians. We taught about 150 lessons in four phases to the men. In addition, we used pictures to explain the stories and each village from which people came to learn received a set of pictures so that they could teach others what they had heard.

McIlwain’s program “Building on Firm Foundations”[8]—especially phases I and II—are an excellent tool to teach those who are interested in knowing God or have already decided to become Christians. The material has been adapted by Don Schlatter, a missionary with New Tribes Mission who had it translated into Thai. We decided to use this tool and translated it into the Sgaw Karen language.

A year later we taught the material which we had translated into Sgaw Karen in one month. The following year we did two months in a row. We then added phases III and IV over time. Phase III teaches about the Holy Spirit and Acts. We worked out Phase III by ourselves. In Acts, when the story is told about a new church being planted, we point to the NT letters which that church later received and we give a short introduction to it so that the students can connect the different parts of the Bible. Phase IV, which teaches about the church, was done by Don Schlatter. Mainly young people came for these short-term Bible school courses, while the men came several times a year for two days.

The benefits of teaching God’s redemptive plan chronologically can be summarized under seven points: [9]

  1. It teaches creation with special reference to God’s characteristics. Karen like to hear the creation story and McIlwain uses it very well to show who God is. This is an excellent tool to counter wrong images of Y’wa. Since Karen Buddhists and Karen animists use Y’wa as the word to refer to their images of god, it is essential to build a solid foundation of who God is.
  2. The redemptive plan gives a structure that is helpful for understanding God better. The bits and pieces which have been handed down through tradition or some Bible teaching will fit together into a more complete picture about God and his plan.
  3. When we teach God’s redemptive plan chronologically, the Karen get to know the Bible as one book with one message which helps them to understand that the Bible is the lost book that has been found.
  4. It emphasizes grace in contrast to a legalistic view which animists in general are prone to hold.[10] According to the Karen missiologist Saw Hay Moo, one of the main problems in reaching the Karen with the gospel is that they do not have an understanding of sin. “It is a fact that because of the rich religious culture of the Karen, it is not pleasant to speak about sin. … They may want to hear only positive things about themselves and their culture.”[11] He then goes on to say that “The Karen people feel they are righteous on their own right. They may argue that they are moral and upright.”[12]

I have not found holiness to be considered a characteristic of Y’wa. Could it be that the lack of understanding of “holiness” is the reason that there is no understanding of sin? For a Karen animist, “sin” may have to do mainly with performing a ritual in a wrong way or breaking an ethical taboo which, of course, will have grave consequences for him. This misunderstanding of sin—because there is no divine perfection against which to measure human imperfection—then leads to a lack of understanding of grace. Again, Phase I of McIlwain’s chronological teaching is helpful for correcting this misunderstanding, since through all the stories he again and again points to God’s holiness, the sinfulness of man, and the judgment of sin by God.

  1. It demonstrates that God’s redemptive plan is anchored in history and in a country in which we can find the places mentioned until today. In that way, it helps prevent the Karen from viewing Bible stories as mythology on the same level as their tribal tradition.
  2. It brings out very clearly that Jesus is the unique Son of God because in Phase I the need of a redeemer is shown very clearly. Then the prophets promise a redeemer. When it comes to the stories of the Gospels, the redeemer, Jesus Christ, is revealed. In no other religion is there such evidence of fulfilled prophecy as in Christianity.
  3. It results in a biblical basis of mission. Our age is the age of missions until Jesus returns.

Pathi Dipae of Sop Lahn church (Omkoi) once told me: “We have known that there is God (Y’wa) but we did not know him. Now we know him through the missionary’s teaching of the Bible.”

For the last twenty-five years, we have usually taught the Bible course for two months of every year. More than 500 young people have come for at least one month. Many have done the whole four-month course within two years. Some of them wanted to learn more and have attended a long-term course in a Bible school afterwards. In many villages, those who have done the courses are now elders, teachers, and leaders of the churches.

But using traditional stories and sayings and teaching Bible stories may not be enough. Animists want to experience power!

3. The relevance of kingdom theology for animists[13]

We need to understand that an animist is looking for power. Therefore, the message about confession of sin and individual conversion may not be well understood nor attractive. A message that is relevant to the animist will also be about Jesus coming into this world to destroy the works of the devil. It is about the truth that God reigns, as David proclaimed, “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps 103:19). Or as John saw: “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down” (Revelation 12:10).

The kingdom of God has a cosmic dimension which needs to be proclaimed among animists. Already in the Old Testament, we find the word “king” over forty times. There is a clear thread through the Bible that God reigns.[14] The Gospel of Matthew refers to the kingdom of God very frequently, especially in the parables in chapter 13. Besides, Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom of God (Matt 4:23–24) and he says “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt 12:28). Casting out demons is a sign of the coming of the kingdom of God. David Burnett writes:

Christians from a background of folk religion need to develop a worldview and theology that acknowledges the demonic, but does not continue to captivate them. They, like all Christians need to have their eyes fixed upon the Lord Jesus Christ who has all power and authority. We all must be aware of the radical nature of the Kingdom of God that manifests not merely the power of God, but the shalom of God that transforms people and societies.[15]

Kingdom theology does this. The young Christians among the Karen usually speak a lot about the devil (mue-kaw-li). It is their world of spiritual experience and source of fear. The more mature Christians speak and teach more about God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. They are still aware of the evil spirits, but the devil does not captivate them anymore.

Kingdom theology offers the animist a worldview which he can easily understand. Worship of the highest God who has made heaven and earth belongs to the kingdom of God. Bad or ambivalent spirits belong to the kingdom of Satan. Demon possession, magic, and divination belong to Satan’s dominion. But God protects his children from evil spirits. “The devil and fallen angels relate to people by possessing and consuming them. The angels of God, on the other hand, bless people, encourage people to be other-centered, to love, and to know the Truth.”[16]

Kingdom theology introduces God’s authority and power to the believer and gives him the power to overcome the power of darkness through Jesus Christ.

Kingdom theology does not open a gap between the natural and the supernatural. God controls the physical and the spiritual world.

While a theology of conversion focuses on the individual, kingdom theology aims to influence the whole culture. Not only should the individual believer give himself to God, but traditions and laws which have been distorted by the influence of Satan need to be renewed under the authority of Jesus Christ. The dominion of Christ should be seen in all areas of life, not only in one’s personal life.

What excites the animist most is that Christ—the triumphant One—has overcome all dominions and powers, “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:14–15).

Conversion therefore is not only to be saved personally, but it is the redemption from all evil powers. There is a danger of triumphalism, but without God’s power, the animist cannot be freed from the powers of Satan. Since Christ’s triumph has been accomplished through his own suffering on the cross, it is in itself a help to not fall into the trap of triumphalism.

4. How has this worked out in practical terms among the Karen?

From the beginning of the work in the southern Omkoi district, the Karen have seen God at work. In 1975, the headman of Sop Lahn and five other families became Christians. Soon afterwards, the missionary, Jim Morris, went on home assignment. He left them some tapes to listen to. He taught them to pray and told them that if someone gets ill they should pray for healing. When Jim came back, the headman told him that God had healed his wife through their prayer to Christ. From the start, they experienced God’s mercy and power without having to sacrifice animals anymore. In 1978, two OMF missionary families—the Mayers and the McIvors—went to live in Sop Lahn village. In the next two years, no one in the village died. This could not be simply explained by the medicine the missionaries had brought with them, but it was clear to the small Christian community that God had answered their prayers.

Until today, when we dispense medicine, we often pray to God to heal the patient. Many have come back to witness that God heard our prayers and answered. Many times, we have been astonished or could hardly believe how God had intervened far beyond our thoughts and faith!

During our time in the village, some Karen came to our house on a Sunday at midday after church and asked us to go with them to the neighbors’ house. The youngest son of the late headman was seized by fits, lying unconscious on the floor. The house was full of relatives and neighbors and some elders of the church. They asked me to pray for this young man. While I prayed he started to hit me with his legs, but he did not regain consciousness. Then an elder prayed. When he had finished the young lad sat up and asked, “What is the matter?” We praised God that the spirits had left him. It was interesting to see that the same thing had happened to his older brother before and that both of them never had any fits afterwards. I could see God’s wisdom in how he had acted in that situation. It was obvious that the prayers of the Karen elder were answered. In this way, we could encourage the Karen to pray themselves and that they do not need to depend on the missionaries’ prayers.

Looking back, we have learned a great deal from the Karen. Coming from a pietistic background, we learned from the Karen to have faith and expect God to work as he did at the time when the Bible was written. This led me to give greater attention to kingdom theology which provides a good biblical foundation about miracles and wonders, and it is healthy for teaching and practice to come together with the redemptive chronological Bible teaching.

5. Summary

The living God is at work today; he is not otiose,[17] but signs and wonders are signs of the coming of his kingdom. Therefore, teaching and practicing “Kingdom of God Theology” is essential in an animistic context. But there is not just one approach to teaching animistic Karen about God. We have looked at three different approaches.

In the first place, we should use the many points of contact which are available in their rich tradition. It helps them to realize that the gospel is not foreign to them but that they may not have understood it yet.

The many shortcomings by teaching from their traditional stories, can be corrected by teaching the redemptive plan of God by means of stories from the Bible. The unfamiliar concept of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man can be introduced through the many different stories leading to the meaning of the cross, the ultimate sacrifice God has made for us in order to redeem us.

But with any animist, teaching alone is not enough. They need to see the power of the living God as well. When they see that God answers their prayers or when they experience that evil spirits have to leave “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth who came in the flesh,” they are drawn to this new way of life.

[1] The story has also been recorded in hta form (Karen poem) by Hayama Yoko, Between Hills and Plains: Power and Practice in Socio-Religious Dynamics among Karen (Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2004), 284.

[2] “Great Ruler, the ancestors of the Karens charged their posterity thus: ‘Children and grand-children, if the thing come by land, weep; if by water, laugh. It will not come in our days, but it will in yours. If it come first by water, you will be able to take breath; but if first by land, you will not find a spot to dwell in.’” Francis Mason, The Karen Apostle, rev. by H. J. Ripley (Boston: Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, 1847), 18–19.

[3] Saw Hay Moo, “Doing Theology in the Karen Church: The Gospel as Incarnation (John 1:1–14) within the Karen YWA (God) Tradition” (DMiss thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2002), 24.

[4] Roland Mischung, Religion und Wirklichkeitsvorstellungen in einem Karen-Dorf Nordwest-Thailands (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1984), 243.

[5] Rev. Tun Meh, the former principal of Karen Baptist Theological Seminary (KBTS), Insein, Yangon, has collected many hta in two books called “Remember”.

[6] E.g. Ed Hudspith, retired missionary of KBC. Keith Hale (WEC) has produced several CDs with hta which give short explanations on it. He recently has published an evangelistic booklet based on hta.

[7] Hayama, Between Hills and Plains, 282.

[8] Trevor McIlwain, Building on Firm Foundations, Vol. 1–4 (Sandford, FL: New Tribes Mission, 1987–1988).

[9] Cf. Hans-Christoph Bär, Heilsgeschichtlicher Bibelunterricht: McIlwains Programm ‘Building on Firm Foundations’ im Einsatz unter den Karen im Bezirk Omkoi (Nordthailand) (Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 1998), 1289.

[10] Bär, Heilsgeschichtlicher Bibelunterricht, 113.

[11] Saw, “Doing Theology,” 187.

[12] Saw, “Doing Theology,” 188.

[13] See Gailyn van Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 127–42.

[14] Exodus 19:5–6; Deuteronomy 7:6–8; Judges 8:22–23; 1 Samuel 8:1–8; Isaiah 52:7; Daniel 2:44; 7:13–18.

[15] David G. Burnett, “Spiritual Conflict and Folk Religion,” https://www.lausanne.org/content/folk-religion# (accessed 31 Oct 2018).

[16] Ellis Potter, Three Theories of Everything (n.p.: Destinee Media, 2012), 95.

[17] “having leisure or ease, unoccupied, idle, not busy.”

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