Today, I commemorate a man you probably never heard of who did something unheard of. I wrote about it last year. Read, or re-read it here:
The word for the day is ethnodoxology - the art of making praise songs in local languages. Praise should come from the heart, so it is best given in one’s heart language.
Right now, my friend Joseph Gyebi, worship leader, pastor, aficionado of Ghana Gospel music, and student of engaging culture for Christ, is helping the Nkonya people of Ghana develop new praise songs in their language.
Ethnodoxology, it’s what will happen in heaven.
Some people celebrate an alternative to Halloween based on something that happened on this day (October 31) in 1517.
Monk and scholar Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the church door at the Wittenberg Castle, Germany. This event sparked a giant controversy which resulted in profound religious and political changes that are with us to this day. On the paper, Luther had written 95 statements reflecting his opinions about practices in the church during his day. They are often called the “95 theses”.
Many societal reforms we take for granted would probably have been impossible without Luther’s opinions. Some people celebrate the event as Reformation Day, complete with very cute costumes (see below). In the spirit of a day celebrating documents that changed the world, one family made a Declaration of Independence costume.
It is a natural outcome of Luther’s theses that he went on to translate the Bible into German. He held the opinion that everyone should read and interpret the Bible for himself or herself. That could not happen until people had a Bible in a language they knew. Translating the Bible into the minority languages of the world continues that thinking. So, Bible translation and the day on which Halloween falls are linked in a round-about way.
The textile industry and Bible translation came together to produce one of the best and most controversial translations of the Bible. Back when it was illegal to own, buy or sell a Bible in English, a group of believing textile merchants backed an outstanding scholar, William Tyndale, to do a translation into English on the sly. Tyndale had to hide and eventually flee before being caught and executed. Despite the opposition, the financial and other support from the textile merchants never flagged. Their support, as much as Tyndale’s brilliant work and perseverance, was responsible for the widespread impact of the translation.
The unprecedented recent progress in Bible translation has been possible because of the many who have been the patrons of Bible translation for minority peoples. Just as, Jesus himself had financial patrons behind his ministry. Unlike Tyndale’s wealthy patrons, many modern patrons of Bible translation give out of modest means.
It is unfortunate that the role of the translator or missionary has been elevated above that of supporter or patron. We remember Tyndale, but not the textile merchants. The translations of the Bible which have so benefited the English-speaking world would never have been produced without the dedicated support of their patrons. The same is true for translation in the remaining languages – it won’t happen without the financial support of God’s people. To date, most of the patrons for Bible translation in Ghana have been from North America and Europe. That support was right and good and it needs to continue. But we need to add to it because things have changed. Some in Ghana have the means to provide for the remaining translations in their country, and eventually beyond. So, our work in Ghana includes mobilizing those God is calling to add to the existing patrons for Bible translation in Ghana – Ghanaian churches and individuals.
What do we mean when we say that the Bible is “holy”? I hope that we mean that it is God’s word and that we therefore take it seriously. But some people mean something else – that the language itself is holy. In an essay on translating the Bible, C. S. Lewis reminds us that:
Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street
But we do not need to go back five centuries to find this opinion. Today it is flourishing in many places including Jamaica. There, the translation of the Bible into Jamaican is causing quite a stir. Those opposing it are saying pretty much the same things that were said by those pious people in the sixteenth century.
But, in order for the truth to break through, a specific kind of false “holiness” needs to be lost. Lewis goes on to say that losing that kind of holiness is no loss at all.
The only kind of sanctity that Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language…
Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.
Some oppose translation of the Bible into minority languages, or consider it to be a waste of time, for a similar reason – that the languages are too lowly. In other words, they are not holy enough. That point of view misunderstands the nature of the Bible — and the nature of minority languages. In addition, it runs counter an observation of the Apostle Paul – that God likes to work through what the world considers weak and plain and common.
I am in Bible translation to see God work amazing things in people and languages that others consider insignificant and, yes, even unholy. God’s Word is holy in the way God made it holy, not with the artificial “holiness” people sometimes try to add.
What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important (I Cor 1:28 CEV)
Tomorrow, people around the world will celebrate a very unusual happening on a Jewish festival some 2000 years ago. Read the account here.
But let’s back up a bit. One can read the Old Testament as the story of a tribal religion. By “tribal” I mean proprietary – belonging to a specific group of people. The religion of the descendants of Abraham came to them in their language, it is full of their stories about their God.
There are many tribal religions which also belong to people of a common ancestry, who share the same customs and usually the same language. Most tribal religions respect other peoples who have their own gods and religious practices.
A careful reading of the Old Testament shows that God had universal ambitions when he choose to start with Abraham and his descendants. Which brings us to the first festival of Pentecost after Jesus was crucified. Something happened there which shook to the core the idea that Jesus had come to fulfill the aspirations of only a limited group of people – everyone started hearing about the glory of God proclaimed in their own language. Tribal religions are almost always locked up in one language. Here was something different.
From that day, Christianity has been a religion which is not tied to one culture or one language. Instead, it permeated Roman society and the Greek language, breaking free from any tribal identity. Other events, such as those Peter experienced with Cornelius came along to confirm and seal the breakout. The Apostle Paul wrote against those who wanted to tie Christianity to tribal roots. Occasionally some try again to make Christianity a tribal religion – attempting to tie it to a particular language, nation and/or customs. But it never lasts.
There are two ways to be a universal religion. One is to assimilate everyone into your tribe. In this method, everyone will eventually have the same customs, perhaps speak the same language, have the same religious practices, and believe the same religious teachings. The other is the path God has taken Christianity where the person at the heart of the religion, Jesus, comes into languages and cultures and they develop an allegiance to Him while continuing to speak their languages and practice their culture – building houses as they did, singing the same kind of music they always did, being proud of their people’s history and achievements, and so on. Christianity does not seek to assimilate all cultures, even if some of its proponents sometimes mistakenly try to do that. Christianity translates itself into the languages and cultural forms of people.
Christianity does not erase culture, but weaves itself into the culture to create a rich tapestry – Rev. Prof. J D Ekem
If God had hired the most successful advertising agency to put on an event to illustrate that faith him is not a tribal thing, that agency could not have come up with a more convincing and significant event than the one described in Acts chapter 2. All those people, who had been assimilated into Judaism and had come to the center of that faith, Jerusalem, to worship each heard in their own languages – languages hitherto reserved for their tribal religions. Amazing.
I have written before about Solomon Sule-Saa, a Ghanaian who has done extensive research on the impact of translating the Bible into the Konkomba and Bimoba languages of northern Ghana. In a summary of his research presented to a conference in September, he said of the Konkomba and Bimoba peoples:
“The Bible now provides the key to understand the world”
I have heard my share of sermons on Romans 12:2
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”
But I do not think that I have heard a better description of one way to put that verse into practice – that the Bible should be the key through which I interpret the whole world.
Translating the Bible into new languages is often billed as effective evangelism, and it is. But it is much more than that. Beyond bringing people to Christ, these translations are transforming individuals and communities through renewing people’s minds.
During an ethnic conflict which was so serious the Ghana army had to intervene, the Bimoba lost confidence in the neutrality and good will of the Ghana government. They saw no way forward but to continue fight for their rights. In a war council, several leaders quoted from the translated Bible, arguing that that Jesus way is the way of reconciliation. So, abandoning their own wisdom they agreed to engage in peace talks moderated by the government they no longer trusted. It worked. They got what they were seeking through negotiation. Now that is faith – following the teachings of the Bible when your life and your livelihoods are at stake. This story shows that the Bible in these languages is doing more than influencing the decisions of individuals. It is also affecting the decisions made by the chiefs for the whole group. Now that is being transformed.
I’ll start with the cute. NewsOK, a Oklahoma on-line news site, has a great article entitled Who Wrote the Bible. It’s not what you might think. Instead of a dry theological treatise, the author gets the answer from children from ages 8 to 10. Smart kids. You’ll enjoy it.
Also in the fun and informative category is Wycliffe’s new website – Road to Transformation. It opens with a nice infographic and you can stay there or dig into more details. Believe me, the process is exactly like we do it.
The former Governor of the Bank of Ghana, stood up in church, asked a question and then answered his own question with “Here, I feel the Gospel in my bones.”
We were coming to the close of a very animated church service in a suburb of Accra. It had already lasted a few energetic hours. I was seated in a section next to a women’s group dressed in the same yellow and green cloth. They were teaching me how to worship. Praise songs (in their language) were sung with gusto, twirling of white handkerchiefs, dancing and occasional trills. I could not help but smile and join in.
Accra is a city of almost two million. In addition to Professor Ansre, many highly educated people attend this church. So it all could have been in English. (Ghana has more than 60 languages. English, the official language, is spoken by less than half the population, and for almost all of them it is a second, third or even fourth language.) But much of the service, and almost all the singing, was in an important language of Ghana – Ewe (pronounced ee vee). In the 19th century, German missionaries first wrote Ewe and translated the Bible into it. It is still widely used in some churches to this day, even by people who could worship in English if they wished.
The education level of the congregation, and hence its economic status, showed in the new, but unfinished building in which we were worshiping. (I thought that the absence of windows and doors was probably an advantage in the humid heat.) It was near the end of the service that the former Governor of the Bank of Ghana, stood. He said that he lived in another part of town, but he drives quite a way to this church. So people ask him why he drives so far. After all, there are churches in the part of town where he lives. His answer, “Here, I feel the Gospel in my bones.”
You see, his mother tongue is Ewe. When he worships in Ewe, it touches him deeply even though he has a perfect command of English.
This is why we translate the Bible into the many languages of Africa. It is not enough to touch the mind. Jesus said that we are to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. For that we need the language that touches the heart and the soul – or in the words of the former Governor of the Bank of Ghana – the language that we feel in our bones.
Over 70% of Ghanaians have a mobile phone. There are 17 million mobile phones in this country of 24 million. That means that the only big group without a phone is young children.
In late August, I had just finished 3 1/2 days of communications strategy. But Kwame, a cab driver I met, was teaching me the real marketing lessons. When I rode with him, he took my number and he calls every few days to say hi and remind me that he is available when I might need him. And, if you had not heard, mobile banking is big in Africa, and it is not being led by the banks, but by the mobile phone companies. And they did not plan for it. Africans generated the idea at the grassroots. Some think that it will result in increased access to financial services for the poor and thus help reduce poverty.
Because some places are covered by one network and different places by another, a number of people started carrying two phones. No more. Here is a phone I bought for about $50 and which can be on two networks at once because it has two SIM chips. The back is off and you can see the two shiny doors for each SIM chip. Like most people here I have a prepaid account, no contract and the cost is VERY reasonable.
So, why is a a guy involved in Bible translation going on and on and one about mobile phones? Well, I do like technology. I also try to understand the place where I work. But there is more! It is possible to put the Bible on many mobile phones.
Bible Is offers the Bible on iPhone and Android. They already have the New Testament available in hundreds of languages and plan to have it in 2,000 by the year 2020! Can Africans afford expensive iPhone and Android phones? They don’t have to. There is a China-made Android phone selling in Ghana for $80 – with no contract to sign! But Scripture can be put on some phones that cost as little as $40.
There is work to do on the details, but I think that in five years there will be more copies of the Bible in Ghanaian languages on mobile phones than are printed. Because there is no printing, the cost will plummet. The plan I am helping with will definitely include getting all the Bibles in all the languages of Ghana on mobile phones.
If you like this, you might also like my blog about mobile phones making Ghana more colorful?Share On Facebook