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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Too much time and money

Harriet Hill

Harriet Hill

The need for people to have God’s Word in their mother tongue has been recognized throughout the church’s history. Although church growth is influenced by a variety of factors, times of increased emphasis on mother-tongue Scriptures, such as the Reformation, often correlate with times of church growth. Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map.

So writes Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society in an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” which appeared in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. You can download and read the full article here.

Dr. Sule-Saa

Dr. Sule-Saa

Here in Ghana, the impact of translations in local languages is being confirmed in other ways. Before there was a translation of the Bible in the languages, decades of evangelism in some people groups produced few results. Worse, the few converts there were drifted back to traditional beliefs when the outreach impetus from the missionary or Ghanaian church stopped or paused. Ghanaian researcher Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa has shown that after the translation, churches in those same areas not only maintain, but even grow out of their own initiative even when the rest of the community is resistant to the Gospel.

Fare fare people reading the Bible in their language

Fare fare people reading the Bible in their language

Some may wonder about the value of translating the Bible for smaller languages. At least in northern Ghana, when one compares the number of decades and number of people involved in relatively fruitless evangelism before the translation, and the results afterward, one is tempted to conclude that evangelism without translation is what really costs too much time and money.

Metamessages

All these years I thought it was only the pastor who could understand what God was saying. But now I’m reading it, and I can understand what God is saying to me.”
A woman speaking the Moba language of Togo

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film

A Christian leader in a large association of churches here in Ghana once told us a whole series of stories about how people had misunderstood the songs they were singing in church, sometimes even singing nonsense.

When we launched the Jesus film in three languages in the town of Isiro in the Congo, the audience was live with whispered comments in the language in which the film was being shown. They were saying:

“I can understand everything!” and “It is perfectly clear!”

Why? Because it is not an unusual experience for African Christians to not understand what they hear in church. The Bible reading, the sermon and even the songs may be in a language they do not understand, or understand only partially. This circumstance creates strong metamessages.

Definition metamessageA metamessage is an unspoken message that comes alongside the spoken message. It can be true, or it can be false. The person speaking may or may not be aware of the meta-message he or she is creating. They may be intentional or accidental. If I speak in public using fancy vocabulary, I may create the meta-message that I am snob, or my hearers may think that they are unintelligent. I may intend that, or I may not. If I read a older Bible translation, some who hear may think that Jesus himself spoke with archaic language. We create meta-messages almost every time we speak and when we hear; it is a normal part of life.

This Tembo boy, reading Luke in his language, will avoid wrong metamessages

This Tembo boy, reading Luke in his language, will avoid wrong metamessages

When a Christian sits in church year in and year out understanding only partially what is being preached, that person will create meta-messages which fit that reality. For the Togolese woman mentioned above, it was “only pastors can understand what God is saying”. Others will create the meta-message that preaching is magical, or that the Bible is magical – the words have power whether they are understood or not, like abracadabra. They may come to believe that Pastors are necessary intermediaries between them and God. Interestingly, when the Bible was first being translated into the languages of Europe including English, the translators were trying to dispel lots of wrong metamessages which had been created by the use of Latin in the church.

Translation of the Bible into the heart language, the language people really understand, dispels false meta-messages. It returns faith to a personal level, assuring each person that God speaks to them, cares for them. We hear the testimonies of that all the time.

Why I am still a missionary

I was experiencing God’s Word in a totally new, living, transforming way, when George Cowan came from Wycliffe. He presented a way to give to others for the very first time the Word that was changing me – by translating the Bible into their languages. It was captivating. That is why I became a missionary involved in Bible translation.

Nawuri man with the New Testament in his language, Ghana

Nawuri man with the New Testament in his language, Ghana

What brought me into missions was not the command of the great commission, nor the idea of changing the world, nor even the idea of finishing a great goal such as translating the Bible into all the languages of the world. For me, it was more personal. These other motivations came along as confirmations.

This motivation has proved very durable. No matter how many goals we set, how many we reach, or how many we fail to reach, how much we change the world, or fail to change the world; what never loses its luster is the idea of giving to others the Living Word that changes my life.

Over the years, I have added another motivation to my repertoire; one I did not expect. It is one I share with the preacher who started preaching only in prisons because he found that prisoners could often hear the Living Word in a way that respectable people often could not.

I am not a missionary because I have something extraordinary to bring to people. God has that. So do all Christians. Rather, I am still a missionary partly because where I go, people are open to the Word of God. They receive it and make it their own. They understand it in their context. They understand that it is for them and they act on that. Even before they have it, while the translators are working, they expect that it will be theirs, that it will show God to them.

Ghanaian men consult their Bibles

Ghanaian men consult their Bibles

I am not saying that I am a missionary because I see more results overseas than at home. I’m not even sure there is a reliable way to measure that! No, I am a missionary because when people in Africa accept God’s Word for what it is. They interpret it through the lens of their circumstances. When they explain what they understand in God’s Word, I see things that I had not understood, or that had I understood with my head but not with my soul.

I love the piece in Handel’s Messiah where a soloist sings “Make straight in the desert, a highway for our God. The crooked straight and the rough places plane.” I might even like that part better than the Hallelujah Chorus. But the Bible verse that solo comes from was given a new power when I was in Burkina Faso. A town which was served by a very bad road invited the President. He accepted their invitation, and immediately the roads department set about repairing the road for the president. I understood in a new way that I was to set about eliminating the sins in the desert of my heart if I was to expect the King to show up and be happy.

Congolese discuss what they have read in their Bibles

Congolese discuss what they have read in their Bibles

But it is not really about understanding the Bible better, or differently. No, through the eyes of African brothers and sisters I see and experience God differently. From my privileged position as a middle class, white American male, the biblical God who brings liberation to captives escapes my comprehension. I might even fear that saying “liberation” will slide me into bad theology. But when I see the liberation God brings to my African brothers and sisters, I understand better his character, his passions, his vision for this world. This God experienced by my African brothers and sisters is my God, but not the dimmer version of him I had known before. Sometimes, it’s like I’m hearing the Gospel for the first time.

In short, I am still a missionary because God keeps revealing himself in new ways in what I do. You don’t have to be a missionary to experience that. Rather, God will keep revealing himself in new ways to anyone who injects his grace and truth into this world.

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What makes for great results

Pastors holding NT together, Ghana

Pastors holding NT together, Ghana

For decades, organizations doing Bible translation did little evaluation of the impact of their work. The fact that translating the Bible into a language for the first time has impact, is not in question. The anecdotal stories are too numerous to doubt that. But the lack of evaluation did mean that we did not know what enhanced impact and what hindered it.

Fortunately, more and more evaluation is being done. Some patterns are emerging. One pattern came out clearly in an evaluation carried out by OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors translation. It found that when a translation program is controlled by the local church and community, it is more likely to produce great impact. By “controlled”, we mean that local churches appoint their own committees, select the translators, and decide on the how, when and where of each step involved in translation. This is not the first time an evaluation has resulted in similar findings.

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Let’s be clear. This means that others cannot be making those decisions – not the missionary involved, not the translation agency (Wycliffe or another), and not churches back in the US supporting the project with finances. This may seem easy, but it is actually quite hard. Not that long ago I talked to a missionary who proclaimed his disagreement with a local choice and vowed to overturn it. He did. We all think that we know what is best.

The findings of the evaluation carried out by OneBook confirm an ongoing initiative in which we are involved. That initiative aims to strengthen local decision making. We are doing that by:

  • Michael Serchie, who helps organize and train language committees

    Michael Serchie, who helps organize and train language committees

    Bringing onto the local committees people who are more representative of local churches and the local community

  • Making sure that local translation committees are recognized by churches
  • Putting more decisions in the hands of local translation committees
  • Giving translation committees representation at national meetings
  • Helping translation committees develop a clear mandate and responsibilities
A traditional cheif and GILLBT Director

A traditional chief and GILLBT Director

Dr. Michel Kenmogne with the Wycliffe Global Alliance wrote:

“The recommendations arrived at make sense to me. The emphasis on church participation and local ownership, as well as the crucial role of functional literacy, are not negotiable if we want to achieve holistic transformation.”

I agree. We do not carry out translation for the sake of translation. We do it to see lasting impact, and that means putting more decisions in the hands of local churches.

Prayer of dedication for three language committees in Ghana

Prayer of dedication for three language committees in Ghana