Reviewed by Walter McConnell
“Hymns of the Everlasting Hills: The Written Word in an Oral Culture in Southwest China”
PhD dissertation by Aminta Arrington, Biola University, 2014
Mission Round Table vol. 11 no. 1 (January 2016): 32-33
Read this edition of Mission Round Table (2.5 MB)
One of the highlights of the history of the China Inland Mission was the great turning of the Lisu tribe of Southwest China to Christ in the early decades of the twentieth century. This people movement, well recorded in the pages of China’s Millions and the works of Leila Cooke and Isobel Kuhn, impacted the whole of Lisu society so that entire families and villages turned from the worship of demons to the worship of Christ. Today, of the approximately 700,000 Lisu who live in China, at least half profess to follow Jesus. Many more Christian Lisu can be found in Thailand, Myanmar, and India.
The evangelization of the Lisu was so Scripture based that early believers were often known as “students of the book.” J. O. Fraser’s development of a phonetic script for this people who previously had no written language prepared the way for the Bible to be translated into Lisu as well as a catechism and a series of hymn books. Hymn singing—in four-part harmony—quickly became one of the distinguishing marks of this movement. In a recent PhD dissertation, Aminta Arrington has examined the reality that even though the Lisu have been taught that the Bible is the authoritative word of God, believe that it is central to the Christian faith, and possess a translation in their own language, they remain at their core an oral culture and thus read Scripture for liturgical rather than personal or devotional purposes.
What, she asks, sustains the spiritual life of a people who have the Bible but rarely read it as individuals? How can major theological concepts like grace and sanctification and forgiveness be passed on in an oral context? Her answer is that these things are mediated through song. As she puts it, “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” (ii).
Potential readers need not fear that since this is a doctoral dissertation it will be way over their heads. Arrington usually writes in a narrative style that, while sometimes a bit repetitive, is often marked by striking verbal imagery that draws us into the history of the Lisu church and current state of the church along the upper Nujiang (Salween) valley where she did her field work. That said, many readers may prefer to give chapter 2, “Methods and Procedures,” a miss, unless they want to bone up on ethnographic technique.
The study begins with a narrative of a modern Easter festival when more than 400 Lisu Christians assembled for worship and moves on to four chapters devoted to a history of their church. While much of the historical information emerges from the accounts recorded by early missionaries, Arrington provides some details of the “quiet years” when many Lisu moved out of the Nujiang valley and some reported that they stopped believing because it was illegal. She then discusses the reestablishment and growth of the church after 1980. Readers will be puzzled by the claim (made by the Lisu themselves) that no one believed during the years 1958–1980. We are left wondering whether there was an actual suspension of belief or if only the open practice of the faith was curtailed. As the author does not pursue this issue, further research is desperately needed.
Lisu singing “Hallelujah Chorus” at the 109th anniversary in 2019
Three chapters address how Lisu social structure has impacted its relationship with Christianity. While group solidarity is well known to have been an important factor during the original people movement, we are shown that more recently conversions have come through individual decisions. Nevertheless, the importance of group identity is confirmed. One sign of this is the prohibition of smoking and drinking which should not be understood as legalism but as a sign of solidarity that sets Lisu Christians apart from the surrounding culture.
The final major section of the work turns to ethnodoxology—the study of a culture’s worship. Here the author addresses orality, ethnic identity, and especially hymnody which she finds to be perhaps the most important aspect of Lisu church life. As they learn to sing they learn to read their own language and have the door opened to reading the Bible—even if that only takes place during formal services.
Their singing enhances solidarity with other believers. And since few of them read the Bible for study or devotions, their songs connect this oral people most closely with the textual world of Christianity and remain the main source of their theology. The significance of this conclusion cannot be underestimated. And yet, as helpful as this is, one would like more information about the role of group dancing within Lisu worship and their identity as Christians. From the liturgical reading and preaching of the text of Scripture, to the singing of their faith, to acting it out through dance, the Lisu live out their Christianity using multiple modes of communication.
I will gladly recommend Arrington’s study to those who work in tribal settings or with members of other predominantly oral cultures. It will help many thinking through the intricacies of orality and textuality navigate through dangerous eddies. As it constructively fills in some blanks about the Lisu church, it pushes us beyond concentrating on one tribe to considering how God may work in similar cultures. While hymnody translated from Western sources played a critical role with the Lisu, it may not be major feature used by God in the growth of other churches. And for that reason, we should resolutely aim to discover whatever methods God might use to bridge the gap between oral cultures and our inescapably textual faith and make sure to apply the right methods to our situation.
Read about the amazing story of God’s work among the Lisu:
The article focuses on one of the most familiar stories in CIM/OMF history told in the biographies of J. O. Fraser and books by Leila Cooke and Isobel Kuhn. Are we familiar with the other missionaries who labored among the Lisu? This article tells some things in a new way through its overview of the many missionaries who served the Lisu church in China before 1952.
CIM/OMF books on the Lisu church
Leila R. Cooke, Fish Four and the Lisu New Testament (London: CIM, 1948).
_____, Honey Two of Lisu-land (London: CIM, 1933).
Eileen Crossman, Mountain Rain (Sevenoaks: OMF, 1982; Paternoster, 2001).
Isobel Kuhn, In the Arena (Chicago: Moody, 1958).
_____, Nests above the Abyss (Philadelphia: CIM, 1947).
_____, Precious Things of the Lasting Hills (Chicago: Moody, 1963).
_____, Second Mile People (Sevenoaks: OMF, 1982).
_____, Stones of Fire (Singapore: OMF, 1984).
Geraldine Taylor, Behind the Ranges (Chicago: Moody, 1964).
Phyllis Thompson, King of the Lisu (London: CIM, 1956).
Theses on the Lisu church
Walter McConnell, J. O. Fraser and Church Growth among the Lisu of Southwest China (MCS Thesis, Regent College, 1987).
Shen Xiaohu (申晓虎), The Propagation and Influence of the China Inland Mission among the Lisu of the Nujiang (中国内地会在怒江傈僳族中的传播与影响) (PhD Dissertation, Sichuan University, 2011).
Yi-Deh Yao (饒以德), From Yunnan to Northern Thailand: The Transition of China Inland Mission’s Lisu Evangelical Work in the 1950s (從雲南到泰北: 一九五零年代中國內地會傈僳族傳教工作的轉向) (Master’s Thesis, National Taiwan University, 2014).