Prior, Randall. 1998. Gospel and culture in Vanuatu: The founding missionary and a missionary for today. Wattle Park, Australia: Gospel Vanuatu Books.

The book comprises two stories, one about John Geddies, the founding missionary of the Presbyterian church in July 1848 at the southern island of Aneityum, in what was then the New Hebrides, and the second is about Graham Loughman, a national Presbyterian pastor, and his son Jack, who represent the culture and Gospel in contemporary Vanuatu.

Prior studied the diaries of Geddie and interacted with the Loughmans in his own work in Vanuatu as a missionary. Geddie, as Prior reports, was a product of his time, seeing many aspects of the traditional culture as evil and Satanic. Some obviously were – the strangulation of a widow after her husband died, cannibalism, the subjugation of women in society and warfare – and had little to commend to the society. But others, such as polygamy, the power of chiefs, not wearing clothes, and marriage customs, were judged as evil from the perspective of the missionary’s own culture. Prior reports on Geddie’s comments on clothing, cannibalism, chiefs, beliefs about death, disease, war and peace, marriage and family life. He comments that Geddie was sensitive to the inferior position of the women and children, but not to the role of chiefs, marriage and certain other practices within the culture that determined and preserved social relationships.

Geddie’s somewhat negative view of the culture changes when he supposes, on the basis of his theological presuppositions, that the Vanuatu people may be associated with the lost tribe of Israel. He teaches them theology and education, encouraging them to turn their backs on past pagan practices. He wants an indigenous church but finds it difficult not to be paternalistic due to his own views on gospel ‘universals’.

The second part of the book reveals the shape of the Presbyterian church in the latter part of the 20th century by focusing on Rev. Jack Loughman and his family. Loughman was responsible for the Training Centre at Ulua that Prior assisted with from time to time Jack’s eldest son made drawings that represented Gospel cultural scenes from the eyes of a Vanuatuan. Graham died at the age of 21 but completed several cultural interpretations: creation, the fall, the birth of Jesus, the life of Jesus and his call to discipleship, the life of Jesus among the people, the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Pentecost and the coming of Jesus. Each drawing includes traditional symbols, such as Jesus seated on a stone to represent chiefly authority, wearing a chief’s belt, holding the traditional leaf depicting peace and pig’s teeth to represent power and wealth. Prior gives a sympathetic view of the nature of symbolism in the church life of the people and a critical review of Geddie, who did not correlate many Aneityumese beliefs with the Gospel, for example the role of ancestors, evil spirits, peace symbols, and the role of men and women in the society.

There are implications for storytelling: the pictures that Graham Loughman drew are associated with Bible stories but are culturally transmitted by means of symbols. A straight recitation of a Bible story would not have the same cultural impact.

Karl Franklin, February 2007

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