Mesrop Mashtots

Painting of Mesrop Mashtots with his alphabet

Painting of Mesrop Mashtots with his alphabet

Every year, Armenian Christians celebrate Mesrop Mashtots who passed away on this day (February 17) in the year 440. He was an Armenian theologian, linguist and hymnologist, best known inventing the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD.

He was born to a noble family and had a classical education, but left his privileged position to preach the Gospel in Armenia. He had great difficulty establishing people in faith because Syriac was the only language used in church services and few Armenians understood it. Mesrop wanted to minister in Armenian, the language of the people. There was a problem; the Armenian language did not have an alphabet. It has never been written.

Mesrop enlisted the support of the King for this endeavor to create an alphabet for Armenian. As soon as he finished the alphabet others translated the Bible into Armenian using the new alphabet. He then started schools in Armenian to drive learning down to everyone.

Armenian alphabet carved in stone

Armenian alphabet carved in stone

The very first sentence written in the new Armenian alphabet was the first verse of the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.” Even today, Armenians consider Mesrop’s creation of the Armenian alphabet one of the most important events in their history. Not only did it enable the translation of the Bible, it also caused an explosion of writing in Armenian. Literature abounded.

Such was the religious, social and cultural impact that there is hardly a town in Armenia which does not have a street named after Mesrop.

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots

It is odd to think about Europeans as illiterate peasants speaking languages without writing – people needing to climb the tall hill of learning another language to get education or have access to the Bible. But it was really like that. In that context, which is the same as that or most bibleless peoples today, Mesrop did not see developing an alphabet as an academic exercise. Rather he saw it as fundamental to anchoring Armenians in the faith and to having an informed society. It is this same motivation that even today keeps people developing alphabets for unwritten languages, organizing literacy and translating the Bible.

Driving information, and the ability to store and process information, down to the grassroots is not a paternalistic endeavor where the missionary seeks to “civilize” local people. Rather, it is a way to give people the tools that enable them to make their own decisions and promote the changes they want. It is a missionary method that believes that the through the Bible the Holy Spirit will guide new converts to make the right choices. It is quite different from an approach where the Christians at the top expect people at the grassroots to learn the language of those at the top to get access to the Bible. Or one where the VIPs tell people at the grassroots what they should believe and do.

This table shows the codes for using the Armenian alphabet on computers. In a few short clicks I put the Armenian keyboard on my computer and typed this: աբգդէֆքհիճկլմնոպխրստըվւցեզ. Mesrop would be pleased.

Table showing how the Armenian alphabet is encoded on computers

Table showing how the Armenian alphabet is encoded on computers

Respect

When he was about 4 or 5, our son Matthew was at our neighbors house in Ouagadougou – a wonderful Burkina Faso family who befriended us. They had an outhouse and indoor plumbing. He needed to use the bathroom, and he chose the outhouse. But he opened the door to find the man of the house inside. He quickly closed the door and went back to play and wait.

When the man came out, he scolded Matthew for opening the door without knocking. Matthew followed our careful instructions about what to do when an adult talks to him –stand there, look the adult in the face and listen. The man was furious with his behavior and complained.

In Burkina Faso, we had often seen children running from parents reprimanding them. We had taught our children “better”. And that was the problem.

When the lady of the house brought Matthew’s behavior to our attention, we learned something – that when a child runs from an adult, that child is showing respect; but when a child stands there, looks the adult in face and takes it, that child is defying the adult. Matthew’s behavior, which we had carefully taught him, was perceived as defiant and disrespectful.

Matthew with Morelle and Susanne, the lady mentioned in the story

Matthew with Morelle and Susanne, the lady mentioned in the story

As I have noted before, we tend to think of culture as the stuff you can see – the food, the houses. But culture defines behavior. The same action that is respectful in one culture can be disrespectful in another. Respect and disrespect are universal – every culture has them. But what actions and words show them is anything but universal. The greatest commandments – that we love the Lord our God and our neighbor – are universal, the things we do to show that love are culturally determined. Being a Christian in another culture means loving and respecting people on their terms, not on mine.

PS: We managed to smooth the waters with our neighbors, in fact, we are great friends to this day.

Why Cyrillic?

Have you ever wondered why the alphabet for Russian is not called Russian, but rather Cyrillic? Well, that is because it is named after a missionary name Cyril who died on February 14 in the year 869.

Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius

In 862 Cyril and his brother Methodius moved from Rome to Moravia to evangelize. They were not the first missionaries to Moravia. But, they are the most remembered because they did things differently. They wanted worship and preaching in the language of the people, instead of Latin. Some in the church opposed that. They wanted everyone to learn and use Latin because that was the language of unity, education and progress.

But Cyril and his brother were not deterred, but they did run into a problem – the language had never been written. Cyril set out to produce an alphabet that suited the language. He did not finish, but those working with him did. That alphabet fit the language really well. In fact, it fit other Slavic languages as well. It was later modified to become the Cyrillic script which is still used in many Slavic languages, including Russian.

Places using Cyrillic Script

Places using Cyrillic Script

Eventually the objections to the use of the local language were overcome and the liturgy Cyril and Methodius developed was formally authorized for use in the churches. Cyril died in Rome on February 4, 869, but he and his brother are still celebrated every year on May 11 in Bulgaria. That celebration includes spelling bees.

Cyril was one of the first in what has become an important, if unnoticed, contribution of missionaries. Did you know that missionaries developed the alphabets of most of the languages in the world? But Cyrillic might be the only one named after a missionary. Writing is probably the most foundational element of learning and transformation, and Christians have promoted it for all languages, even in places where others have opposed it. The benefits are so pervasive that it seems unjust to call the development of an alphabet a “by-product” of Bible translation. Let’s not forget that Cyril’s alphabet documented the discoveries and engineering of a successful  space program.

Cyrillic alphabet

Cyrillic alphabet

It is ironic that the Cyrillic Script, having been developed by a missionary was then used as a tool for an atheist political philosophy, Soviet communism. But that did not last, of course, and Bibles printed using the Cyril’s alphabet now flow freely throughout Russia and other Slavic countries.

About 70% of the worlds living languages have alphabets, most developed by missionaries working in the tradition of Cyril. But there are still about 1900 languages without an alphabet. It looks like people motivated by Christian faith will develop alphabets for those in the coming two or three decades. Time is running out for anyone with Cyril’s holy ambition.

Sustainability and Language

This week, I continue with observations about the Northern Outreach Program. If you missed the introduction, you can read it here.

At least two Ghanaians and an Australian have done research into the impact of translations of the Bible into the languages of northern Ghana. One Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa wrote a doctoral thesis on the topic and another, Dr. Thomas Atta Akosah, produced several papers.

Rural church

Rural church

To understand the results of their research, we need to understand the context they studied. The peoples of northern Ghana have low levels of education. Those who do receive an education, then leave the area to find work. So rural churches in northern Ghana often have few members who have finished high school or even primary school. Where there is no translation in their language and no literacy, discipling local believers into leadership roles is a long task. Many do not know how to read. Even if they learn to read, the Bible is only in a language they do not know. Everything depends on a pastor as few others can lead a Bible study or teach a Sunday School class. The most foundational tool for Christian growth, the Bible, is inaccessible to most believers. Their context is full of information about their traditional beliefs, but it is meager in information about their new, Christian faith.

Dr. Sule-Saa research reveals that where there are translations of the Bible in the language, churches sustain themselves and even expand of their own initiative, but other churches where there is no translation in the language of the people need constant help from outside and even then they might stagnate. I have noted this result in other blog posts.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Dr. Atta Akosah’s research explains one of the reasons why this is the case. He shows that the translation of the Bible in the heart language (mother tongue) results in the emergence of effective and widely respected local church leadership; something that does not happen where there is no translation. When local people start reading the Bible in their language, some of them emerge as leaders. Applying their literacy skills and using the Bible as their textbook, they begin answering key questions – questions they ask themselves and questions being asked in their communities. They become known as sources of good advice and help.

Learning to read

Learning to read

In one area, an illiterate young man came to a Bible translator, asking to learn to read his language. So the translator taught him. He used his skill to read the Bible in his language. He went on to learn English, and become a pastor. He stayed in his home area where he started a church where he preaches in the his language. The church is composed almost entirely of converts from another world religion. He has a reputation in the community for answering the questions people have, so much so that other local pastors and even the leaders in other religions call him “the teacher”. People of all faiths come to him for answers. He even has a Bible question and answer program on a local FM radio station in his language.

The rise of empowered lay leadership also happened in the Northern Outreach Program. The emergence of this new level of lay leadership, reminds me of Jesus disciples who were called “uneducated, common men“. It is certainly a very good sign for sustaining the relatively new churches stated among the peoples of northern Ghana whether in their home areas or in the cities.

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

When I attended the celebration of 25 years of the Northern Outreach Program, I found a large hall full of representatives of churches established by the program, few educated, all with their Bibles in their languages.. When we spoke to them about the rise of local, respected lay leadership through literacy and the Scriptures in the heart language, we got a chorus of verbal affirmation, as we did when we told our observations of other results. We were not telling them anything new, just affirming what they were experiencing.

One of the reasons we are involved in Bible translation is the sustained results it achieves. That is why the byline for this blog contains the words “lasting impact.”

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. (John 15:16)

Coverdale and transformation

Coverdale Bible

Coverdale Bible

Today in 1569, Myles Coverdale died. His translation of the Bible into English was the first complete Bible in English to be printed thanks to Gutenberg’s invention. Previous translations were hand copied.

While Coverdale was known as a translator, translation was his method, not his goal. Like many reformers of the time, he wanted wholesale changes in the church, in politics and in society. It was an era were church services and Bibles were in Latin, the language of education and the elite. Politics was controlled by a few. Coverdale wanted to break down the language barrier and give the Bible and all sorts of information to ordinary people in their ordinary language, English. When that happened, he believed that change would come from the grassroots.

It took decades to see the beginning of the changes he wanted, and longer to see their full conclusion. The flight of believers to the New World is a testament that the grassroots changes were underway and that there was opposition to them from above.

One Ghanaian researcher has noted that through Bible translation, biblical interpretation ceases to be the property of professional theologians. People begin to question prevailing teachings and practices in the light of the mother-tongue Scriptures. That is exactly what Coverdale wanted for England and what eventually happened. Through translation, people cease to be pawns in their religious and political systems.

Girls reading Bibles in their languages

Girls reading their Bibles

In the end, Bible translation is not about translating the Bible. It is about creating an environment ripe for transformation – one rich in the information people need to decide for themselves, one where the Holy Spirit illuminates them individually and empowers them to produce changes. Evaluations have shown that where Bible translation and literacy has been carried out in Ghana, people take more individual initiative and start movements to undermine harmful traditional practices. In addition, church leaders have noted the emergence of a new level of local church leadership which is solidly grounded in the communities and in the cultures, but also solidly grounded in the Bible. The changes are slow, as some measure speed, but they tend to be permanent.

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

At the dedication of the Bible in Lelemi (Buem), as the new translation was being read. Dayle heard someone behind her exclaiming with deep emotion,

“Ooooooooooh, so sweet. (pause) So sweet!”

One speaker, Dr. Elias Kwaku Asiama, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, said:

The launch of the Buem Bible is a turning point in the history of the Buem people.

When translation is over, the sweet revolution begins! That’s why I’m in Bible translation.

Valid even here

This week I continue observations of the Northern Outreach Program which uses literacy in the heart language to carry out urban evangelism. If you missed the introduction, you can find it here.

Christians brought to faith through the Northern Outreach Program listen to the Word together in a city in southern Ghana

Christians brought to faith through the Northern Outreach Program listen to the Word together in a city in southern Ghana

Many have observed the rapid rate of urbanization in Africa and around the world. There is obviously a need for effective evangelism and mission in the urban environment. Urbanization brings together people from many languages and creates a favorable environment for the emergence of a lingua-franca, a common language which serves them all. The spread of Twi in Ghana, of Dioula in the southwest of Burkina Faso, of Bambara in Mali, of Hausa in the north of Nigeria, of Lingala in the Congo, of Swahili in east Africa and of other languages in other places, all point to the emergence of lingua-francas as important languages of communication.

Drummers from northern Ghana provide accompaniment to the worship of northern Ghanaians in a town in southern Ghana

Drummers from northern Ghana provide accompaniment to the worship of northern Ghanaians in a town in southern Ghana

The emergence of a lingua-franca is so obvious that it leads Christians, pastors, church leaders and missionaries to make the untested assumption that the heart language (people’s mother tongue) is irrelevant to the church and evangelism in cities and towns. But the Northern Outreach Program uses literacy and Scriptures in the heart language and that approach has been very successful. It is important to note that other approaches to evangelizing migrants from the north in Ghana’s cities have failed, or had only very modest success. They have not been successful in stemming the predominant trend of conversion to other religions. The significant difference between the failed approaches using a lingua-franca and the Northern Outreach Program is precisely the heart language, which the Program uses in its literacy program, in its evangelism, in its teaching and in its worship.

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

Many observers fail to notice that the urban environment is not homogenous. It is certainly homogenizing, but it is not yet homogenous. It may be on a course to become homogenous in two or three generations, but today the urban environment in Ghana, and in many other places, is made up of ethnic, religious and linguistic niches which often keep their identity in the face of the homogenizing influences of the urban environment.

The success of the Northern Outreach Program, predicated on the heart language, shows that the heart language is an effective tool for reaching those niches.

Especially as approaches based on lingua franca, the homogenizing language, have proved much less successful.

What literacy stops

There are lots of contrasts between the northern parts of Ghana and the southern regions. The northern areas are semi-arid savanna while the south is lush tropical forest. The north is much poorer and has less infrastructure. Christianity is new to the north while it has been around for well over 200 years in the south. The Bible was translated into the languages of the south almost 100 years before the languages of the north, and a number of languages in the north still do not have the Bible.

Mosque in Accra

Mosque in Accra

One of the results of these contrasts is that quite a number of people from the north move to the cities in the south to find employment. They find themselves outside their traditional setting and religion. Many of them become Muslims within a year of moving to a city, if they were not already.

Seeing this, and knowing that recently completed Bibles in some languages of the north were having great impact, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana and others started the Northern Outreach Program, some 25 years ago, to present the Gospel to northerners moving to cities in the south.

It does this through literacy classes in their languages. Literacy is interesting because it offers a skill that improves their chances of getting employment. The fact that literacy is offered in their languages gives them a tie to their home communities, and that was also attractive. The literacy program includes a component of introduction to English, which is highly valued. Bibles in the languages and Scripture-based materials are distributed in the literacy classes.

People from northern Ghana dance and sing in worship

People from northern Ghana dance and sing in worship

It’s pretty amazing what is happening – vibrant churches full of northerners worshiping in their languages and reading the Bible in their languages, planted in the middle of southern cities. I am going to do several blogs in the coming weeks on the lessons we can draw from the Northern Outreach Program.

This week, I want to write about something the literacy component of the Northern Outreach Program stops and not something it does.

It is in the form of a little story which I heard at the General Assembly of the Northern Outreach Program which I attended last September in Korforidua. The room was full of delegates from the churches established by the program. For the most part they had little education, yet most had the Bible in their language with them. On several occasions, one of them read from their Bible while others followed along in their languages. One of the older men told a story. He said:

Christian and Islamic zones in Africa - MapA friend of mine left our village for the city while he was still a young man. At the time he left, he was attending a Christian School and called himself a Christian. When he came back 15 years later, he was a wealthy Muslim. He went on to build mosques in several villages.If that young man had been given the opportunity to attend a literacy class in his language in the city where he went, like we we all were under the Northern Outreach Program, he would probably have stayed a Christian and might have returned to build churches.

Literacy in the mother tongue, offered with the Scriptures in the mother tongue is breaking the longstanding trend of urban conversions to Islam.

On this day in 1604

King James

King James

On this day in 1604, King James agreed to order a new translation of the Bible into English. It was finished in 1611, a little more than 200 years after the first translation in English started a long-lasting controversy that now seems silly – whether the Bible should be translated into the language of ordinary people or not.

Love and Ender’s Game

Ender's game book coverYears ago, I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I was reading serious science fiction, including that written by C.S. Lewis. So when Ender’s Game came out as a movie, I had to see it. The movie, like the book, poses two moral dilemmas. The one more in tune with our culture is highlighted. The other is only mentioned – understanding one’s enemy. Ender, the protagonist, is trying to understand an alien species that had attacked earth so that he can defeat them. I’m not sure what was said in the movie, but it was something like the book which reads:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them …”

Orson Scott Card has captured a truth. When we engage our enemy, or opponent, to truly understand them, some empathy and love usually results. We might find out that some of what we believe about our opponent is only partly true. Even if that is not the case, we get inside their head, which causes us to see things from their perspective, even if we disagree with that perspective. At the moment when we see things from their perspective, we care for them.

Understanding, then love and empathy come from hours of dialog

Understanding, then love and empathy come from hours of dialog

If our faith is weak, the empathy might cause us to stray from that faith. But the other way is equally dangerous to faith. That is to make caricatures of our enemies, which allows us to demonize them. We then risk defeating only the demonized caricatures in our own minds. Plus, we fail to follow Christ in loving our enemies. The route to love for someone very different from myself almost inevitably runs through the hard work of understanding them.

Cross-cultural mission involves trying to understand the other culture. We imitate Christ who left heaven to live like us, become like us, empathize with us, experience our reality. One way we can celebrate Christmas is to imitate that same method – reaching out, crossing boundaries and empathizing the way Jesus did.

This principle applies to all kinds of situations, not just ministering in cross-cultural situations. Whether we are dealing with another culture, people of a very different political ideology, opponents of our faith, or radicals from another religion, it behooves us to understand them to the point of love and love them enough to want to understand them.

Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. (Luke 6:35, NLT)

 

 

 

 

Translation and identity

I am an American. Sometimes people in Ghana asks me where I am from. I tell them the United States. I have not yet had someone ask me where that is. I have a national identity which is recognized worldwide by almost everyone.

The road to Baglo

The road to Baglo

It is not so for many who speak the smaller languages of the world. Some of you reading this might have to ask about Ghana were someone to tell you he is from Ghana. But what if someone told you he was Buem, Nawuri, Nafaanra or Sekpele? Those peoples have an identity, but it is not widely known. Even officials in their own countries may not know who they are. At the presentation of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, a prominent chief of the Nawuri said:

“Politicians do not know us.”

What would it be like to have an identity which officials in your own country do not recognize? Many peoples who do not have a Bible in their language are in exactly that situation. They feel it. I have heard some of them wonder if they are cursed by God, or wonder why God would have them born into a minority. Does God have something against them? Some feel divided about their identity. On the one hand they speak their language and identify with others like them, but on the other they want the advantages and recognition that come from being part of a more well-known identity.

The crowd

The crowd

I recently attended the dedication of the Bible into the Buem (also known as Lelemi) language. There, I heard a lot of comments about identity. Some of the quotes can only be understood in the context of the unknown status of their Buem identity, such as:

When God confused the languages at Babel, the Buem were there.

The Buem understand this to mean that their language is not some unfortunate mistake.

God intended the creation of the Buem language. So their identity as Buem is not a curse, a mistake or an oversight. When the Apostle Paul was preaching in Athens, he said:

From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.

People with their Buem Bibles

People with their Buem Bibles

If you think about it, that is a very strange thing to say in evangelistic preaching – for an American that is. Yet the Apostle considered it a key thing to preach to Athenians – that God created all peoples, that he decided what their status should be at various points in history. The Buem spoke this message to each other at the dedication. If the Buem language was created at the Tower of Babel, then it is God’s deliberate and good creation; not a curse or an unfortunate oversight. God himself created the Buem language and identity. Another Buem person said:

We are gaining our identify in God’s people.

When I quoted the Nawuri chief above, I left out the end of his statement. Here’s the whole:

“Politicians do not know us, but God know us! We have now been included among the People of God!”

Daniel Asiama, MP

Daniel Asiama, MP

A translation of the Bible necessarily represents both the language in question and God. It is, therefore, an identity bridge. Through the translation of the Bible into their languages, smaller language groups around the world are weaving their ethnic and linguistic identities into an identity with the people of God. And this is not new. The Apostle Paul spent a whole chapter on identity in his letter to the Romans, including this quote:

For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many peoples.” (Romans 4:16b-17)

Cheifs

Cheifs

All those who have Abraham as their father have a common identity. The dedication of the Bible into Buem attracted ordinary people, ministers of the Gospel, choirs, politicians, business people, and traditional chiefs. Why, because here is something very important – the most published and translated book in the world and the holy book of the largest religion in the world – in the language of their identity.

“Let’s all be happy, because the Bible we receive today is more than food and drink to us.” -Daniel Asiama, Ghana Member of Parliament from the Buem constituency

Cheering the Bible as it is presented for the first time

Cheering the Bible as it is presented for the first time

As God came down to be born in human form, now the Word has come down into Buem form. That act offers to all Buem the wonderful opportunity to weave the thread of their identity into the rich, colorful and varied cloth that is the people of God – to become one of the peoples who have Abraham as their common faith father. They can connect their small (by the word’s standards) identity to the largest and most permanent of all human identities – that of the faith children of Abraham.

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