March 23, 2011

The Lord's Prayer Through Primitive Eyes

Gottfried Oosterwal; Pacific Press Publishing Association, Nampa, Idaho; 2009; 160 pages; paperback; US$13.99. Reviewed by J. T. Shim, assistant professor of business at Southwestern Adventist University.

The Lord’s Prayer. We can repeat it by rote; but what does it really mean? What impact does it have on us personally or corporately, or on our mission?

In The Lord’s Prayer Through Primitive Eyes Gottfried Oosterwal tells gripping stories of living as a missionary in the remote Bora-Bora culture in New Guinea, and how he grappled to reveal the concepts of the Lord’s Prayer to them. With new insight he applies what he learned to us.

Nabak was a boy struck by blindness and paralysis, abandoned by his people lest the curse of the god Nabarssof also afflict them. Oosterwal dared to defy the curse of their god. He fed and cared for Nabak, and he himself became mysteriously stricken with blindness and paralysis. But Oosterwal’s recovery within a week prompted people to ask about his powerful God. A separate incident precipitated an existential crisis that prompted the tribesmen to request, “Teach us to pray.” That’s when Oosterwal decided to teach the Bora-Bora the Lord’s Prayer.

2011 1509 page29Imagine explaining the Lord’s Prayer to someone in a primitive setting. On the back cover of the book the question is asked: How does one translate “kingdom” to people who have no political power structures? What would “our daily bread” mean in a society with no bakeries; where people gather grass, hunt, and fish to eke out a marginal existence?

Although Oosterwal could communicate in eight languages, it took him three years to find a way to translate the prayer in a way that was meaningful to the Bora-Bora tribe.

In the book Oosterwal deconstructs the Lord’s Prayer theologically. For example, when we say “our Father,” that automatically makes us siblings. Then is God “Father” only, or is He also “Mother”? Oosterwal explains that the meaning of the term Abba refers to the feminine aspects of fatherhood—caring, nurturing, showing compassion, tenderness—reminding readers that God made humanity in His image; male and female He created them.

Another component of intimate relationships is how we address one another. As Oosterwal points out, in the New Testament the Jews considered it so inappropriate and intimate to call God “Father” that they considered Jesus blasphemous. Matthew, licensed by the Holy Spirit, targeted his Gospel to the Jews and included the distancing phrase “who art in heaven,” in deference to their Jewish sensitivity. Matthew knew how to reach people in their limited theological paradigms, and Oosterwal was learning to do the same.

One of my colleagues describes the book succinctly as “intriguing both theologically and anthropologically.” I concur. For example, Oosterwal gives an in-depth analysis of the three versions of the Lord’s Prayer without inflicting upon the reader a long analysis of the original biblical languages.

It’s taken Oosterwal 20 years of meditation on the Lord’s Prayer to bring us this book, so we can take a Sabbath afternoon to read it. (If you answer the five reflection questions at the end of each chapter, it might take longer.) Thoughtful readers will find in its 160 pages a clearer picture of God that can be shared in conversations, Bible studies, and small groups. Oosterwal’s book teaches global awareness, cultural sensitivity, and how to recognize and retain the positive values of others without attempting to unnecessarily change their culture.

If we can learn about the power of the Lord’s Prayer from a “primitive” people’s perspective, perhaps we can share it with others in our sophisticated twenty-first-century setting. We are asked to make God’s will our own, for we are called to an intimate relationship with a God who expects us to share actively.