Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review

The Cross in the Land of the Khukuri, by Norma Kehrberg, Kathmandu: Ekta Books, 2000. Rs 250.

Reviewed by Mark Johnson

It is always fascinating to read the experiences of a senior missionary in Nepal. The author, who first worked in Nepal in the late 60's and 70's, recounts her early days in Nepal with highlights from her life as a teacher in Amp Pipal. She also has a keen interest in the folk music of Nepal especially the tradition sung by the wandering minstrels called Gaine. Several translated Gaine songs are included. In the second chapter the author describes her encounter with the bewildering diversity of Nepalese customs. trying to fit her observations into some kind of systematic understanding of Hinduism proved to be a real challenge that will strike a chord with any sensitive reader. The third chapter summarises the main events in the history of the Nepali church.

Church Growth Survey

The book's main purpose, however, is not to be a historical or cultural study of Nepal but rather to be a report of a 'church growth survey' conducted by the author herself with the help of several Christian Nepali assistants in 1998. The interviewers used a standard questionaire to elicit information about the conversion and discipleship experiences of 530 first-generation Christians from various parts of the kingdom. the data were then analysed statistically and results tabulated under a number of headings.

Certain of the results stand out as particularly significant. 98% of respondents could recall the year of their baptism (p. 137). The author, rightly in my mind, deduces that the act of baptism is a very significant personal event. Why is it so significant? Is it because of the spiritual blessings received through the ordinance or might it be because of the social repercussions experienced? Whether the ordinance should bear such a weight or not would be a very important topic in development of Nepali theology.

The incidence of polygamy among respondents is remarkably high - fully one third of all the women interviewed were married to polygamous husbands (p. 173). We are not told what percentage of men reported more than one wife. One wonders whether they could feel free to share such a thing even if they were asked. Were a proportionately high number of wives interviewed for this survey or do victims of martial infidelity naturally gravitate to the church?

There seems to be some confusion over whether or not the church in Nepal is representative of the population as a whole. The author states that Christians represent 'a cross-section of the economic strata of Nepal' (p. 146) and that the 'church reflects societal norms' (p. 171). At least in the fields of education and economy, however, there seems to be a huge disjunction. Only 45% of the sample identified themselves as farmers compared with 80% nationally (p. 145). The author strangely finds this unsurprising. Furthermore, the literacy rate of the respondents (82%) was much higher than that of the national average (officially 39% in 1991) (p. 139). Might the under-representation of respondents from mid and far-western regions account for a skewed result? Or is it, as the author suggests, because churches, with their high emphasis on the reading of the Bible, have been at the forefront of adult literacy efforts. Again, a more detailed study might be able to shed light on this important subject. One suspects that the above two results are products of a sample that was unrepresentatively skewed by a higher than general proportion of urbanites.

One area in which the Christian community is reported to be different from societal norms is that of caste. What exactly does the author mean, though, when she writes that 'Although [caste] is not observed among the Christians, there is a strong interest in caste identification among [sic] the Christian community' (p. 140)? Surely there is a contradiction here. The issue is whether the Christian community's practice of caste is different from that of other communities? Could it be that a 'caste' dummy has been constructed to effect a positive contrast for Christian community? If not, it is up to author to explain more clearly what she means.

The author is well aware of accusations of conversion for material gain that have been brought against Christians (p. 157). In a guarded statement she admits that 'International Christians and Christian groups ... do occasionally provide resources, sometimes indiscriminately ...' (p. 172). How seriously are we expected to take such a comment when we see a pastor driving a luxury fourwheel-drive jeep?

When asked whether they become Christians in their village 72% reported in the affirmative (p. 174). One wonders how an urbanite Newar would have understood such a question. Furthermore no question was asked as to whether those same individuals were still in their village. Such a question might have been very revealing.

Only one third reported that they were not the first to become Christian in their family (p. 174). This is not at all surprising when one reads of the great offense that new converts must give to their families. 'Baptism ...' we are told 'marked leaving the previous religion and joining the Christian community' (p. 107). Again, 'The new life in Christ spiritually was also a new life socially. New Christians were ripped away from the fabric of their society and family. Christianity was their choice, the decision was made personally, and yet, in living in that decision there was a heavy price to be paid. All aspects of role and place in family ... was [sic] altered' (p. 116). Such a position is hardly conducive to winning other family members.

Culture Change

The author asserts that 'To be a Christian in Nepal, enormous changes are required related to culture ...' (p. 157). 100% of those interviewed reported that they had stopped participating in Dasain and Tihar but only 4% had stopped celebrating Tij (p. 158-9). These figures are open to such misunderstanding that they must be considered to be virtually meaningless. Tij is only followed by Parbatiya women so a much smaller percentage of the population had anything to stop. It is highly unlikely, moreover, that 100% of the sample were participating in Dasain and Tihar before conversion. Many ethnic groups in Nepal have had only a loose attachment to these festivals even before minority activists began encouraging them to abandon their involvement, Besides, when all the interviewers are Christian and understood to be agents of Kathmandu's powerful church leadership, it would be a brave soul indeed who admits to having a pleasant time with his family at festival time. Such considerations lead one to take the results of this survey with a heft fistful of salt.

The above observations beg for further research into the quality of discipleship of Nepali Christians. This reviewer is highly suspicious that a large number of those interviewed have been extracted from their homes due to insensitive and over-zealous leaders who have not allowed them the freedom to work out their discipleship within their own communities. Such people end up in the cities where they are more likely to get a job outside of the traditional agricultural sector - particularly in 'full-time ministry'.

The author laudably argues that the church in Nepal must grapple 'with cultural issues in order to formulate a theology appropriate to Nepal ...' (p. 183). A good beginning would be the wearing of tika. The author's own statements on this theme could serve as a starting point. Her statement that 'Its application holds different meanings' (p. 74) is refreshingly at variance to the usual reductionist answer one hears in Christian leaders. If it's application conveys various meanings, which patently the case, is it not possible that a follower of Christ might be allowed to wear it without coming under condemnation?

Another issue the author addresses is that 'to worship in an eastern style, removing one's shoes and sitting on the floor with men and women seated on opposite sides; not using pews as already adopted in parts of India, their former home. The music was Christian words set to Nepali folk tunes' (p. 100). So far so good. But is it not more likely to be a translation of an English chorus today? Whatever happened to the folk tunes? The author does on to describe a contemporary worship meeting thus: 'Long praise sessions, where everyone prays out loud at the same time, are a standard part of the worship service in all churches' (p. 120). Somehow this is regarded as an indigenous form. If it is indigenous why doesn't one see such a style practiced by Hindus or Buddhists? What this not a worship style that was introduced by a British visitor in the mid-70s?

One wonders why 'The general characteristics of the churches regarding theology, organization and structure are similar ...' (p. 175) if, as the author asserts, 'the Christian church in Nepal ... was, and still is, free to be an indigenous church, to identify its own leaders and theology' (p. 33). Surely if the latter were so such a broadly pluralistic society would produce structures and theologies that are dissimilar? Having 'ripped' converts out of their communities the church in Nepal feels it must impose a set of cultural forms on its members if it is to define for itself a community of its own. Till today there has been no place for those who will question that uniformity. One fears that if those who are daring to think differently attempt to get a consensus on contextual issues, as the author suggests, they will get nowhere at all. Brave ones will have to move ahead through the storm of criticism that is sure to come.

the book contains a number of factual errors; Gopal Singh Nepali's shaky South Indian origin of Newars (p. 41) is rejected as untenable by modern scholars [1]; the Newar festival of Mha Puja is never called Maha puja (pp. 74 & 86 fn. 16); Hinduism, in the sense that the word is used today, did not exist at the time of Aryan migration (p. 75) [2]; the Capuchin fathers left the Valley in 1768, not 1759 (p. 103) [3]; if I remember right the gathering that took place soon after the restoration of democracy in 1990 was held at the Royal Nepal Academy (p. 112); the author states that part from the NCF, AGAPE and AG church groupings there are few other groups of churches (p. 119) but by late nineties it was clear that there were in fact several groups that had emerged independent of the above; several churches would surely be reluctant to identify themselves as charismatic (p. 120); and, finally, the Rai are not descendants of the Licchavis (p. 141) but are thought to be related to the Kirati of Nepal's ancient history [4].

Another minor problem with the book is in the transliteration of Nepali words. A book of this sort would be better if it had followed some standard transliteration such as found in a Nepali/English dictionary. It is hoped that any reprinting on the book would iron out such problems. It is not clear to me, however, how the quantitative approach to church growth research can ever overcome its difficulties. What is needed is a sound, qualitative, ethnographic study of a few congregations. Such a study would require a researcher or, better, a team of researchers, living with the focus groups for a year or more in order to better understand their situation. Only when such research is published will we have a more realistic measure of health of the Christian community in Nepal.


  1. D. N. Gellner, 1991. 'Hinduism, Tribalism and the Position of Women: The Problem of Newar Identity' Man (N.S.) 26: 111-112
  2. K. K. Klostermaier, 1990. A Survey of Hinduism (Indian edition) Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal pp. 30-45.
  3. Father Giuseppe, 1801. 'An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal 1768-71' Asiatick Researches 2:321.
  4. D. N. Gellner, 1996. 'A Sketch of the History of Lalitpur (Patan) with Special Reference to Buddhism' Contributions to Nepales Studies 23 (1): 129.


Further contextualization of the Gospel in Nepal may not occur until the next generation of Christians takes leadership of the church.
Norma Kehrberg

We invited this response from Norma Kehrberg

Thank you for the opportunity to make a few comments regarding your review of The Cross in the Land of the Khukuri. The relevant chapters in the Nepalese language will be available from Samdan Publishing in June 2002.

As stated in the book, selection of the study population for the church growth study was problematic. There was no recording or listing of Christians in Nepal in 1999. The majority of the interviews were held outside urban centers (Kathmandu Valley and Pokhara); so much to my surprise only 45% of the interviewees identified themselves as farmers. this can be partially understood by noting that some women identified themselves as housewives rather than "farmers" as suggested in the study. Those who identified themselves as elderly most likely could be classified "farmers". This difference from the expected also can be explained by considering how the 80% agrarian statement is made for the country as a whole. No doubt, this is a household determinant based on primary residence and/or source of income whether in kind or cash, rather than the participants' self identification of their "work".

Until the advent of democracy in 1991, nearly all, regardless of social grouping observed Dasain and Tihar. In recent years, with the increased sensitivity to ethnicity and social customs and increased freedoms of self-expression found in democracy, there are some observed groups that do not celebrate these primary Hindu festivals. However, I must also add that my knowledge, no one who works in the government refrains from taking work on those days no matter what ethnic or religion group.

Thank you for finding the typographical error on page 103 listing an incorrect date for the time when the Capuchin Fathers left Nepal. it is correctly stated as 1769 on page 122 as taken from documents shared by the head of the Roman catholic community in Nepal. The difference of one year from the source quoted by the reviewer is probably no a major problem.

With these comments come my best wishes for the launching of this journal. The introductive editorial sets the context for many fruitful and lively interactions in the future. It will be essential to include Nepalese writers in this venture as soon as possible.

Norma Kehrberg
May, 2002

Mark Johnson is the pen name of a missionary working in Nepal. He is also the editor of Voice of Bhakti.

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty