Updated: Jul 5, 2020
By Les Henson.
One of the early books that I read on issues of gospel and culture was Kosuke Koyama's delightful book, Water Buffalo Theology. In this, he tells of his experience as a young missionary sent out from his church in Japan to the rural people of northern Thailand. Koyama, who had grown up in the Toyoko and studied theology in America, found himself ministering to a people who spent much of their lives working in wet rice paddies. It was an enormous change for him and quite a revelation!
As he rode around on his motor scooter, he observed, the local people standing hour after hour in the shallow water of the rice paddies tending their rice plants and removing weeds. Or working alongside their water buffalos either preparing their paddies for a new planting season or harvesting the crop. Also, he experienced the monsoon rains when everyone did their best to keep dry.
Koyama decided to begin reading his Bible as one standing in the water of the rice-paddy alongside a water buffalo. In doing so, he discovered many passages in Scripture that spoke about water, which he had never thought about before. Koyama learned that God rules from a place above the rains and floods, and God stays dry! He also writes, "The water buffaloes tell me that I must preach to these farmers in the simplest sentence structure," continuing he says, "They remind me to discard all the abstract ideas and to use exclusively objects that are immediately tangible. 'Sticky rice,' 'banana,' 'pepper,' 'dog,' 'cat,' 'bicycle,' 'rainy season,' 'leaking house,' 'fishing,' 'cockfighting,' 'lottery,' 'stomach ache' - these are meaningful words for them." Such concrete objects became an essential starting-point in his communication of the Christian faith to the people of northern Thailand.
At the end of his book, Koyama outlines his approach to helping this rural community understand the Bible as a whole, he sees it as an interaction between the Bible and the culture and demonstrates the need to engage in a two-way conversation. Thus, he brings together the questions and answers of the culture with the questions and answers of the Bible. And so, interpreting anew what God had to say to these people in their context.
In doing so, he was exegeting the hopes and fears of the people, who worked alongside water buffalo in the rice paddies. We too must learn to do a similar kind of exegesis and engage in comparable conversations, but in the hectic, self-orientated digital culture in which we find ourselves today.