April 30, 2015 by Geek Goddess
(The following is a guest post from a person who currently lives and works in Papua New Guinea)
Papua New Guinea is a treasure trove of cultural and ethnic diversity. More than 800 different languages and groups of people live in this land, one of the few remaining places on the planet where anthropologists and naturalists can reasonably expect (and do) find new species of animals, plants, and cultural discoveries.
It is also a place that, from its earliest days of human contact, has been visited by a number of missionaries, largely Christian, and now is an extremely ‘Christian Country’ – with references to Christianity within its constitution.
Not all of this is ‘Good News’. As an observer in PNG, I notice a lot of Christian sects, that many would find to be somewhat extreme or fringe, thriving in this environment. Faith healers regularly make stops in town, as do a number of aggressive evangelists, prising into their collection plates whatever few Kina the largely impoverished population have remaining in their pockets. Personally, I am someone who is very much a fan of the notion of the separation of church and state, while I value religious freedom and believe it is important that people are free to practice whatever faith (or lack thereof) they have. But I find it rather bizarre that a country so rich in its variety of cultural traditions that religion seems to have become quite homogenous – at least homogenous within a variety of Christian denominations.
According to the 2000 census, 96% of people identify as some flavour of Christian. Considering no foreigner had set foot in PNG until the late 16th century, and no one really paid the country much attention until the 1800s, this is a rather dramatic success story of replacing a treasure trove of tradition with much more conventional and far less culturally interesting stories.
Recently, certain parts of PNG’s current government have embarked on rather dramatic and further saddening cultural pillaging. The Parliamentary Speaker of the House pushed through a bill requiring the removal of the traditional carved figures that decorated the Parliament House, as being ‘Pagan’. Not only were these removed, they were destroyed, without anyone pausing to contemplate preserving them in a museum, or even offering them to museums or private collectors for preservation. These carvings were not particularly old, nor were they artifacts, having been made in the 70’s when the Parliament was built. However, the reason behind the purging causes me to cringe. Similar cultural purges are commonplace in other parts of the world where religiously fuelled wars are being fought. This speaks of a certain intolerance of the Papua New Guineans OWN cultural heritage, which is saddening. http://www.janesoceania.com/png_cultural_practices/index.htm
Currently, there are reports that this same speaker is travelling to the US state of Indiana (with an entourage) where he is being gifted with a 400-year-old King James Version of the Bible. He intends to house it in the Parliament building, as some sort of symbolic demonstration of the foundation of PNG governance being the Bible. Not just any Bible, but a particularly old-school Bible (although, that Bible being a relatively modern translation of however many translations preceded it). To begin with, the expense of this trip is patently ridiculous. The government of PNG is seriously cash-strapped, having revenue generating problems to fund its continued aggressive development, and suffering from a drop in commodity prices. PNG has experienced massive economic growth in recent years, but the brakes are being clamped on rather tightly at the moment with recent gold, copper and oil price drops. Splashing out on what could only be described as a frivolous expense at this time doesn’t speak to the Government of PNG’s fiscal prudence.
Likewise, the source of the Bible is not particularly evident nor forth-coming. It has been reported locally that the gift is ‘From the United States’ or from ‘The State of Indiana’. However a quick Google search of Indiana news reveals no coverage to suggest this is some sort of official gift. The best I can find is that it is a gift from an undisclosed Indiana ‘Businessman’. Just a hunch, but I suspect this same businessman probably provided a lot of the campaign funding for the so-called ‘Religious Freedom Act’ proposed and recently toned-down legislation in that fine state.
The gift itself is touted as being ‘priceless’, or worth ‘Millions of Kina’. However, 1611 versions of the KJV Bible are not unknown and they are available to collectors from time to time. Based on my own research, assuming it is a 1st edition KJV Bible, if one came to auction, a collector could probably own it for about $100,000. More, if there was some incredible provenance to it, but estimates indicate that there are a couple of hundred of these books known to exist and a number of them are in private hands. So – surely such a gift could’ve been procured by PNG and shipped in, if the Government of PNG felt it was important to acquire such a thing. It seems like the cost of picking up the gift may actually exceed the market value for the commodity!
Finally, of what cultural relevance is a 1611 KJV Bible to the Government of PNG? At the time of the Bible’s printing, very few Europeans were even aware of the existence of the country. The missionaries hadn’t begun to arrive in PNG. I would think it would be far more important to the Government of PNG to found their country steeped in the rich and diverse beliefs of its own people, rather than the translated Bible of another country. PNG society has developed and evolved in a unique, mysterious and anthropologically exciting way. Why should the people of PNG be forced to adopt some rather milquetoast and banal view of God, to supplant the 800+ different versions they themselves have, or at least used to have before the arrival of some people’s view of ‘The Truth’.
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