Limits of reason

God gave us reason as one of our faculties.

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” – Isaiah 1:18

But reason has its limits. When groups of missionaries work together on Bible translation, they have to make decisions together. So we try to reason through which decision is best. This works pretty well a lot of the time. But when it comes to translation programs the options are so numerous that reasoning through them becomes difficult. Take a literacy program for example:

  • Should it be for adults or children?
  • Should it be for the whole community or only the church?
  • Should teachers be paid or they should should they be volunteers?
  • Should primers be sold or given away? If sold, for how much?
  • How should teachers be recruited? Trained?
  • Should the classes be at night or during the day?
  • Should arithmetic be included?

And on, and on, and on.

If any one of these questions is contentious, discussions can stall. Factions can form. Each side develops more reasons to bolster its position. The situation resembles the following chart.

We have reached the limits of reason and persuasion, but nobody has noticed. All evidence to the contrary, both sides still think they can reason their way through the issue.

The reasonable (pun intended) thing to do is experiment. Try A and B, then evaluate the results. Sometimes we find God’s will by doing, in addition to praying and thinking. After all, it’s called walking with God.

I am tying a remote assignment. I work in Bible translation in Ghana, but live in the USA and make several trips a year to Ghana. I’ve asked around. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Why is a bit of a mystery. So we’re trying it then we’ll evaluate.

On losing authority

Missionaries get respect. We are held in high esteem in many churches in the USA. Plus missionaries are respected in many places in Africa. Officials, local people, even those who follow other religions give us deference. However, our ministry of Bible translation undermines our authority, as Yale historian Lamin Sanneh says:
“Often the outcome of vernacular translation was that the missionary lost the position of being the expert.”

In fact, translating the Bible is the perfect way for a missionary to lose the position of expert, even if he or she is still appreciated.

Otabil’s church starting to fill up on Sunday – 2nd service

Earlier this year, I took American friends to the very large church of well-known Pastor Mensah Otabil in Accra, Ghana. He said that his ministry focuses on raising up leaders. He defined a leader as a self-directed individual. I took that to mean someone who takes responsibility before God for his or her actions. Someone who is not dependent on others in an unhealthy way. Someone who has confidence in God and in the Holy Spirit within. Otabil said that he did not want the members of his church to depend on him for every little thing.

Church of Pentecost Council 1954

Church of Pentecost Council 1954 including McKeown, courtesy Church of Pentecost Canada

A famous missionary to Ghana, James McKeown, often told new Christians who tended to depend on the him as their missionary for everything:

I have not come to create beggars but to make men Sons of God.

The members of the church McKeown founded still quote that today to encourage themselves to take hold of the responsibilities God has given them.

Research into the impact of translating the Bible into African language has found that those who read the Bible in their own language take more initiative. They are more likely to witness to their neighbors and to start small businesses. Women speak up more in their families and churches. They are more likely to resist pressure from the proponents of traditional religious practices. They become self-directed individuals, as Otabil put it, or children of God as McKoewn put it.

When we translate, we joyfully and deliberately undermine our authority by putting people in direct contact with a much better authority.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ Ephesians 4:14-15 (NLT)

Ashamed

Apostle Opoku-Oninyah

A couple of years ago, I was in a meeting of the Ghana Evangelism Committee. Most of those present were representing Ghanaian churches. As the name of the committee suggests, it was discussing evangelism. But at the end of the meeting one of those present raised a hot button moral, social and political issue. He wanted to see action taken so he asked that the committee discuss what that might be. The man leading the meeting responded, “Just preach the gospel.”

He had full confidence the gospel was enough to solve the problem. I know the man and I know his church. It is one of the largest churches in Ghana but it was founded by a lone missionary who espoused an unusual mission strategy – that as a missionary would only preach the gospel. That is, he would not undertake any social endeavors such as medical work. He believed that if he founded a solid the church that church would develop social ministries. And that is exactly what happened. Today, the church he founded, The Church of Pentecost, has schools clinics, programs to reduce poverty, and more.

So the man’s confidence that the social and political issue could be solved by just preaching the gospel has deep roots in the history and experience of his church, not to mention in his faith in the power of God.

In Romans 1:16, the Apostle Paul wrote that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God. I have always heard that this means that the Apostle was not embarrassed to speak the Gospel. But there is another way to be ashamed of the Gospel. That is by not having confidence in its power to solve real problems in this world.

Political and social action have their place but they should not displace our trust in the Gospel as the power of God to save eternally and from all kinds of problems here on earth. So, there are two ways to be ashamed of the Gospel:

  • Bring embarrassed to witness
  • Having lost confidence in its real power of the Gospel

I would go so far as to say that if you have a political view on how to solve a problem but not a parallel Gospel view, you might be ashamed of the Gospel. So if you have a political opinion about terrorism, but don’t have equally ardent desire to support Christian ministry to the places from which terrorists come, then maybe you are ashamed of the Gospel.

Last month in Ghana, I heard a leading pastor say that he was asked how the church can contribute to national development. His answer? Through obeying the Great Commission. He went on to talk about how evangelism transforms.

It seems that confidence in the power of the Gospel can be found throughout Ghana.

 

 

It’s news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary Message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else! God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: “The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives.” – Romans 1:16 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans1:16&version=MSG

Staying awake

Siwu translators at their translation desk

Back in February, we visited the area where the Siwu language is spoken. Siwu is a small language surrounded by a much larger language, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay). So everyone speaks both Siwu and Ewe. We spoke to the two men translating the Old Testament into Siwu. (The New Testament appeared a few years ago.) I asked what caused them to be interested in translating the Bible into their language. One said that previously he was a pastor and he used to preach in Ewe. But he occasionally preached in his own language. When he did, people did not fall asleep. In fact, they were very attentive.

So when it was announced that there would be a translation into his language he jumped at the chance.

What preacher, I thought, wouldn’t jump at the guarantee that his audience would all stay awake.

Corruption conundrum

Banner for change Attitude Ghana

During the five weeks I’m in Ghana, I’m renting a room from a man who is a leader in a Ghanaian organization called Change Attitude Ghana. It is fighting corruption, which a continuing problem. As its name indicates, Change Attitude Ghana seeks to solve the problem by a personal change of attitude in Ghanaians. I applaud this approach.
Laws have their place, but they can rarely eradicate widespread societal problems, as I noted in my post about FGM. One of the ways corruption is embedded in culture came up in a conversation I had with a Ghanaian passenger on my flight to Accra. He noted that people put pressure on the politicians and civil servants who come from their region, people or clan demanding jobs or other benefits the civil servant controls. If the civil servant does not comply, he or she becomes known as an evil person who does not take care of their own. This is a very potent charge because sharing and generosity is are highly valued and people without those traits can be considered as bad as murderers. The passenger noted that even if the civil servant does not want to be corrupt, the pressure from his friends, family and clan may push him or her into it anyway.
What makes this more insidious, is that those putting on the pressure often consider their actions virtuous. After all, they are looking out for the well-being of their family, clan or region. They might even cite I Timothy 5:8:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:8
So tackling corruption must include a change of attitude in the people, not just the civil servants and politicians. A narrow approach won’t work.
It is no coincidence that the man who is a leader in Change Attitude Ghana is a solid Christian who is active in his church and various Christian organizations. He is the leader of the Christian Business Men’s association for my part of Accra, for example. He knows the power of God to change people in profound ways. He believes that profound change is key; that Christianity in Ghana must produce people with new attitudes. He does not want Christianity
having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. – 2 Timothy 3:5
All that is why he is also in favor of translating the Bible into all the languages of Ghana. As the tag line for our website says, translation is “connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact.”

New thoughts on Old

Early in July, I attended a one-day conference on the subject of the Old Testament in Africa and Christ’s message. We easily forget that Jesus preached exclusively from the Old Testament for the simple reason that the New Testament did not exist yet. The conference was organized by the Ghanaian organization I am on loan to. All of the speakers were from Ghana.

As I have written before, the Old Testament is particularly relevant to African culture. That came out again at this conference. But I learned new aspects of that. Some speakers pointed out that the Old Testament is relevant to the most pressing issues in Christianity in Africa. For example, one speaker showed how the Old Testament is most helpful in guiding the many African Christians who have retained some of their traditional religious practices. Another showed how the Old Testament prophets and Old Testament teaching about prophecy bring a much-needed correction to modern day prophetic ministries in Africa which are rapidly expanding. Yet another pointed out that of the healing of Naaman speaks directly to abusive practices of healing found in some African churches; bringing a healthy correction to them.

Another speaker informed us that there are 650 languages in the world spoken by a half a million people or more (the rest have fewer than that). Of those, 250 have a translation of the New Testament but not of the Old Testament. His point was that at least those languages should have the whole Bible.

The representative of a Western translation organization shared the results of a survey his organization did of churches in Africa and elsewhere asking for translation in their languages. When asked how they would use translations if they were done, the most common response was evangelism. If those, 62 percent said the Old Testament is preferred for that purpose.

I came away with a new appreciation for the Old Testament . As a Ghanaian speaker said, the Old Testament is needed for the spiritual, political and intellectual transformation of Ghana.

Misalignment in understanding

About a month ago, I wrote about alignment. Some of you understood me to mean that I was leaving Wycliffe. That is not the case. In fact, I am very proud of Wycliffe, it’s mission and its accomplishments. Like all human organizations, it has the problem of being composed of people, including me. I wrote about a lack of alignment I encountered in one particular place in Wycliffe. I ended up moving on to a different place, still in Wycliffe.

Alignment is still something I think about, however. I wonder if I am aligned with God’s action in the world and specifically in Bible translation. Or if I might be more aligned with my own desires and ideas. I am on loan from Wycliffe to a Ghanaian organization (GILLBT). That only works because Wycliffe, GILLBT and I find ourselves in alignment on a set of principles, goals and priorities. Lots of other parts of Wycliffe and GILLBT can be out of alignment with each other but if the central pieces are aligned, it works anyway. In fact, it would be a bad thing if a Christian organization based in the US and one based in Ghana were perfectly aligned on every point. If that were that case, then one of them would be out of alignment with its context.

Alignment, it seems, is not an absolute good. The trick is to align only what requires alignment.

Patwa

I have been following the translation of the Bible into the Jamaican language, often called Patwa or Patois. The translation has stirred a controversy that is not typical. New translations of the Bible are often criticized for “faults” in the translation. But that is not what is happening with Patwa. Instead, the critics are unhappy that there is a translation in the language at all. They think that Patwa is not a real language, or not a language worthy of a translation, or they think that people should read the Bible in English instead of Patwa.

In the reformation era in Europe, controversies of this kind were common. Church leaders, kings and others opposed the translation of the Bible into English in principle. In his book Reformation Europe: 1517-1559, historian G.R. Elton notes one of the reformation-era objections to translating the Bible into English and other European languages:

It ‘put [the Bible] into the hands of the commonality and interpreted no longer by the well-conditioned learned, but by the faith and delusion, the common sense and uncommon nonsense, of all sorts of men.’

But since the reformation, objections in principle to translating the Bible have been rare in the West. But they are surfacing again in Jamaica. Those making the objections probably are mostly unaware that they are saying many of the same things that were said against translation into English before and during the reformation.

Some of the objections are just silly. When the Jesus Film in Patwa was released, a number of people objected that Jesus never spoke Patwa. Of course, those same people have no such objection to the Jesus Film in English. But many sincerely feel that a translation in Patwa is offensive. They cannot imagine any good reason for putting holy, divinely-inspired words into a simple and sometimes reviled language like Patwa.

C. S. Lewis addressed the same concerns about modern English translations. He noted:

Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

His response to their concerns is relevant to the discussion in Jamaica today.

The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) … 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, it is written in the sort fo Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. … It is a sort of ‘basis’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative 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 preaching in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

We sometimes run into this same objection in Africa. Christians in African countries were English is the official language and who are used to the time-honored phrases of the King James Version, can find the translation in their language too commonplace, lacking solemnity. The same happens in French-speaking countries with the revered Louis Segond translation. As Lewis points out, the supposed “solemnity” is an invention, something that did not exist in the original New Testament, but something that we have added. The expectation that God speaking will be in a more solemn and holy language than ordinary is aided and abetted when we use an older translation. The archaic language sounds flowery and solemn leading some readers to associate that style with Scripture. We forget that God came down in very, very ordinary form and that we should expect his Word to be the same.

So, in order to see translations widely used, we sometimes have to address the concerns of those who find them too commonplace, especially if they are in positions of authority. It’s not a part of being in Bible translation that I expected. I’m following the developments in Jamaica to see how proponents of the translation answer the critics. I might borrow some of their arguments. On the other hand, it looks like maybe the positive impact of the translation in peoples’ lives will be more powerful than any logic.

Its starting 

A very special event took place last November – something we have been working towards with others for a few years. Ghanaian Christians organized a fundraising event in support of translating the Bible into all Ghana’s languages. To date, almost all the money for Bible translation in Ghana has come from Christians in the West. The Ghanaians we work with and others want to change that. If they do, Ghana will become only the second county in Africa, after South Africa, to fund translation mostly or fully from within the country.

The event was special in several ways. The one that most impressed me was that it was organized by Ghanaian business people who are not dirrctly involved in translation. Two of Ghana’s leading Christian business people organized the event and invited their friends.

One hundred and fifty thousand dollars were raised in cash or pledges. That’s way beyond what has been raised in any year to date. It is not yet enough to cover all the translation projects in Ghana for one year, however. To be effective this needs to be a start, not a one-time thing, and it needs to grow.

It has been amazing to see the impact of simple activities like getting out basic information about translation and working with Christian leaders who influence others. The Spirit blessed those efforts in amazing ways.

Now our Ghanaian colleagues are involved in follow-up; another simple, if time-consuming, activity. I’m asking God to multiply their efforts.

Two blessings; two mandates

Through the ages, Christians have noted that the Bible gives humans two great mandates:

* The dominion mandate in Genesis 1:26-28, also called the cultural mandate or the creation mandate
* The great commission found throughout Scripture, and summarized in Matthew 28:18-20

The dominion mandate concerns the place and role we have in creation. The text reads;

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:27-28

Some have read this text as a command, but it is more properly understood as a blessing and a mandate, after all the text says “God blessed them.” To be sure, we can fail in fulfilling our mandate or in reaching God’s intended blessing, and we do. But this text is less like a mother telling a reluctant child to go clean their room, than it is like a proud parent telling their child that they have potential to develop into whatever they put their mind to. Some have understood “be fruitful and multiply” in relationship to having children. While it certainly includes that, I believe that the mandate to be fruitful is much wider. When we raise children to be productive members of society, create businesses that serve the needs of the community, do our work with a view to serving our fellow human beings, or act in politics and civic organizations for the benefit of all, we fulfill this primary mandate. We make our heavenly father proud because these are all ways that we can be fruitful by creating good.

Sin came along, tarnishing and deforming this mandate; severely limiting man’s ability to achieve it. Laziness, unwarranted dependency on others, greed, narcissism, workaholism, crime, addictions, and oppression are among the ways the blessing is thwarted and the mandate distorted by sin.

Enter the second mandate. It. reads:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

This text is sometimes read as a command to evangelize, and that is included. But the verbs are “teach” and “make disciples”. Fulfilling Jesus words brings a salvation that frees people to fulfill the first mandate – pulling them out of greed, materialism, addictions, oppression and belief systems that dehumanize; making them truly fruitful.

Formal evaluations and ordinary observation of the effects of translating the Bible into Ghana’s languages confirm that effects are not limited to personal salvation. Women, for instance, have gained a greater voice in their families and communities, and the are more likely to undertake new initiatives such as small businesses. They spend less money on traditional religion, and they are more likely to cooperate with others in economic activities. Their children are more likely to be enrolled in school. These changes come in addition to seeing more women in church in joyful and enthusiastic praise to God. Translating the Bible, it turns out, is a way to fulfill both mandates.