How local beliefs play into our work {Book Club}

While we have talked about many aspects of Fieldwork: a novel by Mischa Berlinski, we have one rock left to turn over. And it’s a fairly big one, so I left it as a stand alone discussion.

Before we dive into talking about the belief in Rice, I had to keep reminding myself this isn’t real, Berlinski made this upBut didn’t he do a fantastic job writing about Rice, the rituals, and how it influenced the Dylao’s daily life? I really enjoyed the Walker’s translation of Psalm 23 — and thought it was clever of Berlinski to even give it footnotes!

I am Wu-pa-sha’s bi’na-ma; there is nothing I want. 
He brings me to sleep in the soft grass of the green rice fields.

I love the familiarity and comfort of this passage brings and the way it can be translated to speak directly to a group.

Obviously the more the Walkers understood the Dylao, the more their work could penetrate hearts and lives. But it is equally obvious repentance, for all of us, involves some form of turning from aspects of a culture. I’d imagine you’ve lived that tension in your own life — whether it’s playing cards, watching TV, getting a tattoo, or having an alcoholic beverage. Part of our walk of faith are very clear (do not have an affair), but many are gray and left to our own conscious, convictions and the guiding of the Holy Spirit.

Martiya felt so strongly about the role Rice played in Dylao culture, she was willing to kill. She believed she was protecting an integral and sacred part of their culture. The fact that her lover was going to leave her probably factored in, as well as some form of evil spiritual element. Could the Dylao still be the Dylao without Rice? How would giving up Rice impact their culture and identity?

Where have you encountered local beliefs? When is OK to adapt customs without much change? And what is our role as “outsiders” in helping our new brothers and sisters navigate those decisions? I look forward to wrestling over this with you in the comments.

Thanks for a great time discussing our first novel! As to our next book — we will start it the first week of March and I’ll announce it next week. During the month of February we will talk about all things books and even have an interview with an author! It’s a chance to share book recommendations and add to our to-read lists. Fun, fun!


P.S. if you’ve missed any of the discussion on Fieldwork you can read them here: week oneweek two, and week three

Photo credit Traveller_40 via flickr


  1. Kimberly Todd January 27, 2014

    This is such an interesting rock to look under. I’ve been waiting for this one. =) At many points I thought this book could belong in intercultural studies courses, particularly as a multi-faceted case study. I appreciate the creative approach that takes an existing Christian something and makes it accessible (like the Dylao version of the 23rd psalm). Speaking the heart language of the people is more than mastering the linguistics. In the reverse, taking an existing tenant (like Rice) and redeeming it for something that expresses belief in and worship of God is complex but worthy work. I tend to think forbidding an embedded cultural festival or ritual is a flawed approach. It needs at least to be replaced with something equally as meaningful to the people. I wonder what might have been different for Martiya or even what she might have been able to contribute to redeeming or reconstructing the influence of Rice.

    1. Mikkin Helvig January 28, 2014

      I think you are right on about not forbidding an embedded cultural festival or ritual.  If Rice had been modified in some way to be acceptable in a Christian context, there may not have been a backlash.  Though, as I write this I am struggling to remember if there was any backlash at all from the Dyalo.  Because if it is really just Martiya, her actions seem likely no matter what happened with Rice.

  2. Danielle Wheeler January 28, 2014

    A fascinating study of Scripture is to examine how Paul crafted each of his messages to the culture of each of his audiences.  Contextualization was expected. But how often do we take the message we know, the way we know it, and expect others to connect the same way?  I loved the Dyalo version of Psalm 23.  I especially appreciated reading it at the end of the story, after I’d come to “know” the Dyalo.  It was obvious how and why this would connect with them.

    I agree with Kimberly, an embedded cultural festival or ritual can’t just be thrown out.  God’s in the business of redeeming.

  3. Jenny February 3, 2014

    I hadn’t really thought about Martiya’s actions being an attempt to preserve culture… that’s a really interesting point that I need to think about more. And I agree that adapting embedded cultural traditions is ideal. I heard someone say once that Christianity is the only religion/worldview that transcends culture- most other systems require you to change your culture (Islam, Hinduism, even western secularism) in order to express your belief. As you said , Danielle, I love that Jesus is in the buisniess of redeeming!

    Culture where I live is not so starkly different from American culture, yet it’s easy to subtly adapt too far. I have been living with nationals (though their are other factors), and lately, those who have been here more long term than I have been pointing out how “Swedish” my thinking has become and not always in good ways. We talk a lot about looking for Biblical culture within our home cultures and new cultures and focusing on what is Biblical rather than our cultural preferences which is helpful. I think the spiritual battle here is much more subtle and seen in an increasing apathy and adaptation to the humanist culture rather than “obvious” as it was with the Daylo. This post is becoming more of my verbal processing than book discussion- but I love that Fieldwork brought up these topics and provided fodder to “chew on”!

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