What I learned from Djuki Mala

This Aboriginal dance group did more than entertain me. They reached out to me across Australia’s cultural divide.

Dance isn’t my thing, but Djuki Mala was hilarious, possibly the best entertainment at Perth Fringe Festival this year. These five dancers might be the most entertaining representatives of Aboriginal culture in Australia.

They started by introducing themselves as Yolngu people from Arnhem Land, a culture much older than ours. They built rapport through honesty, acknowledging the clashes between their ancestors and ours, and how Aboriginal people were treated as non-persons (not even able to vote until 1967). They also shared the struggles of their community, and the story of the grandfather who inspired them to dance.

It was breathtaking: traditional dance in moody lighting, with campfire scenes screened on the backdrop. I felt more like a guest than an observer, as if they’d invited me into their culture.


Mid-song, the didgeridoos and click-sticks gave way to Western dance beat, disco lighting, and medleys from familiar musicals like Singing in the Rain. The audience erupted in laughter. The dancers switched from mimicking brolgas and crocodiles to mimicking Broadway. They had Michael Jackson down to a tee, moonwalk and all.

That’s clever choreography. It felt like they had done more than invite me to step into their culture; they had met me in mine. The cultural divide just disappeared. These cultural ambassadors met us in our Western city life, entertaining us with a rollicking presentation of dance from our culture, expressed in their style.


Between songs, the back-screen took us into Yolngu country to meet the dancers and their families, recounted by the elders, the leading Yolngu women.

That’s when it struck me that these guys are imparting hope for cultural reconciliation in Australia. The first step towards reconciling is understanding each other. These master communicators were closing the distance between us, while entertaining us.

Can we learn from them? Churches and theologians can sound deadly serious in proclaiming atonement theology. Some are openly critical of “entertainment” in the church. The gap between Australian culture and the culture of the church continues to widen. Atonement means being at-one. We need fresh ways to embody the ancient message of reconciliation, the message that has power to bring people together as community under Jesus our Lord.

We can’t sit in our own pew and expect people to come to us. Djuki Mala did not expect me to go to the Northern Territory. They crossed the divide, geographical and cultural. They stepped into our cities, and entertained us with dance moves. And they did it without losing their cultural identity.

Transformed by God’s love, we’re called to love as he does. The incarnational model defines who we are and how we engage people.

Here’s how one of the church’s master communicators described it:

1 Corinthians 9:19–23 (The Message)
Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people … I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ — but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. … I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!

So how do we incarnate the message of reconciliation in twenty-first century Australia? Can Djuki Mala help us find the way?


What others are saying

Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 319 (emphasis original):

Contextualizing the gospel not only involves the church’s telling the story but also embodying the kingdom of God within its particular circumstances … living and “loving” the faith. As Jesus “exegeted” (Jn 1:18) the compassionate heart of God when he entered our concrete world and lived among us, so the church must continually incarnate God’s holy love within the specificity of our many cultures and contexts.

I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2008), 151:

Those who make known the gospel and who live as Christians in the world share the reconciling love of the God whose servants they are. They cannot very well preach a gospel of reconciliation to a people with whom they themselves are not prepared to live in peace and love. One cannot shout the gospel across a chasm to people on the other side so that they may have a relationship with God above but not one with those on this side of the chasm.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007), 234:

We are moving away, I think, from the old split in which it was expected that good Christians couldn’t be artists and good artists couldn’t be Christians. We now have, thank God, some wonderful Christian painters, composers, sculptors and even poets who are showing the way forward. … I want to offer a proposal about where the artistic endeavour belongs, where what we loosely call human culture belongs, within the discipline of Christian mission, within the map of creation and new creation.

[previous: Who is “the Servant of the Lord”?]

[next: Out of darkness]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

One thought on “What I learned from Djuki Mala”

  1. What a great post Allen. Yes you’re right – it was a privelege, not just to watch & be entertained (which we absolutely were) but also to be invited to be a guest of the cultural experience, to receive the challenge for reconcilliation, and witness these guys as amazing ambassadors of a rich cultural heritage we know so little about.
    However the challenge you have issued, asking what lessons we in the church can learn from this? – this has struck me in a whole new way. Lots to ponder here – how do we in the church reach out across the cultural divides all around us to bring the message of reconcilliation through Christ? How well are we, the church, doing this (if at all)? Not just to our indigenous neighbours (though I am greatly inspired/challenged about that), but to all our neighbours. Hmmm – lots more conversation to come about this one I think. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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