Dis-honorable

I was at a meeting where an African was giving a meditation on the story in Luke 13:10-17 where Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was completely bent over and could not straighten up. The person giving the meditation repeatedly asked his African listeners about this woman’s condition:

Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?

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The workshop

Everyone was in agreement that it was not honorable. I agreed too. But if I had been giving the devotional on that passage I would not have focused on the honor or dishonor associated with the woman’s condition. I would have talked about the woman’s condition being painful or limiting. I think that most of my American friends would do the same. We would feel pity for the limitations or pain that such a condition would cause. If we prayed for someone with that condition, it would be to relieve the suffering and limitations that come with it.

Not many of us would pray for relief from the dishonor. Think about the word we use to use about such conditions. We called them disabilities. The focus in that word is on the (supposed) lack of some ability. It is a dis-ABILITY. But my African friend focused on the dis-HONOR. Honor is so important to cultures here that, in a discussion of what makes for good teamwork, one of my Ivorian friends said that is it important to good teamwork that no members of the team bring it dishonor. If they behave in wrong ways, he explained, others will think that the whole team is bad and thereby lacking in honor.

Different cultures bring different perspectives to the same text. My focus on the pain and limitations is not wrong or right nor was my African’s friend’s focus on dishonor wrong or right. Rather, we each bring a perspective that can enrich and expand the perspective of others.

Voices of the PoorIn this case, the perspective of honor and dishonor is very helpful. First of all, it is almost certain that the woman and the people around her in her day had the same focus as my African friend – considering the lack of honor as important as the lack of ability or the experience of pain. So his perspective helps me to understand the incident more like Jesus and the others who were present at the actual event. Second, at the turn of the millennium, the World Bank asked 60,000 experts on poverty from 60 countries to give their perspective on poverty. These experts were the poor themselves. The results can be found in a book entitled Voices of the Poor. Here’s a quote from one of the experts:

Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair- a poor woman, Moldova.

Voices of the Poor reveals that the poor experience poverty not just as lack of finances. They a feel the lack of respect, the dishonor. When I treat poverty as only a lack of finances, I miss an important way I can fight the effects of poverty – by giving respect to the poor. The same is true for people with dis-abilities, we can counter one of the effects by giving respect.

Jesus brought honor to the woman by healing her. We can’t always heal, but we can follow Jesus’ example by treating with respect those others may disrespect. The person bringing the meditation noted that many of the peoples without the Scriptures are bent into an dishonorable position by poverty, by disdain, or through being marginalized by others. Not infrequently, they see the translation of the Bible into their languages as something that disperses some of their dishonor.

Accolade

Seminar participants

Seminar participants

Recently, I attended the closing ceremony of a training event held near Abidjan. I found my lowly self in a meeting with a number of august people. One of the teachers at the training event was an American friend of ours married to an Ivorian. She has been involved in Bible translation all her life and is now officially retired, but still active. When it was her turn to speak, the African moderator introduced her as:

Our old mother

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Seminar session

Having spent her life in Africa, she knew that this was an expression of both honor and affection. She is greatly respected for her contributions to Bible translation and for her expertise. She is also loved for her friendship and care. So in Ivorian terms, “our old mother” was the perfect thing to call her in an introduction to an august assembly as that phrase reflects both her exceptional professional accomplishments and her personal care and friendship.

She understood that. However, she did tease the moderator that such an introduction would not be well received in the USA.

Respect for others is a universal in human cultures. It is held as a value even by people who could do much better at putting it into practice. However, the words and expressions people use to show respect are anything but universal. I doubt that any Western women reading this would consider “our old mother” an accolade, but here it most definitely is.

Black Hole

UNESCO School statsAccording to UNESCO, 42% of African children will drop out before finishing primary school. Because the dropout rate is so high, many adults don’t know how to read or write. So in most areas where translation is going on or needed, there are high levels of illiteracy. In fact, in most of those areas the dropout rate is well above 42%. So, translating the Bible without doing literacy results in little impact. But the major North American agencies that fund most of translation work are hesitant to do much literacy because they consider it a “black hole”.

By black hole thy mean something one can put lots of money into and never get to the end of it. They are both right and wrong about this.

Artwork courtesy of Alain r via Wikimedia Commons

Artwork courtesy of Alain r via Wikimedia Commons

They are right because of the statistics I cited above. Africa’s population is growing and many children drop out of school. So every year hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Africans become adults not knowing how to read. Even if a literacy program reached all of them, the next year more would be added. A charity could spend millions of dollars for decades and not solve the problem. The metaphor of a black hole fits. But, the metaphor is also wrong. Literacy is only a black hole if you try to solve it once and for all. There are lots of low-cost things we can do to help people learn to read their newly translated Bibles without trying to “solve the literacy problem”.

Reagan - everyone can help someoneMany people could be blessed by spending a fraction of the money spent on translation on well-conceived literacy efforts. Many churches in Africa could run such programs at very low-cost and some, if informed and trained, could cover the costs themselves. It’s a modern malady – if we can’t solve something definitively we feel discouraged and don’t want to do anything about it. But Jesus didn’t call us to solve the world’s problems definitively, just to love our neighbor. The idea that we must fix a problem can prevent us from obeying that simple injunction. For me, calling literacy a black hole is a great example of that.

A Ghanian woman demonstrates her newly writing skills by writing in the sand. It's very low cost - no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no chalk.

A Ghanaian woman demonstrates her newly acquired writing skills by writing in the sand. It’s very low cost – no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no chalk. (photo courtesy of GILLBT)

Hmong alphabet

Today is International Literacy Day. So my blog today is about literacy, and it will be about literacy next week too.

Hmong alphabetThis is a wood carving in the Hmong language. It uses a writing system developed in about 1959 by Shong Lue Yang, a Laotian peasant farmer. He may be the only person in history who was killed for creating an alphabet. Writing their language in an alphabet developed by one of their own, the Hmong people began to have pride in their identity. These developments cause some to perceive Shong Lue Yang threat, so they had him assassinated in 1971.

I know of similar situations in Africa. In one case, a people dominated by another began to assert their rights after the development of an alphabet for their language and the start of the first literacy classes. The group that had dominated them reacted with violence. They even attempted to burn down the buildings of the organization doing literacy.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Literacy is about learning to read and write, but its effects go well beyond the realm of reading. Christians in Ghana who learn to read and write their languages become more active in their churches, so much so that some churches now recognize the ministry of uneducated lay people who have learned to read and who read the Bible in their languages. Women who learn to read and write are more likely to undertake new initiatives or businesses and to speak out in their communities and churches, even though the literacy classes don’t teach any of those things.

Literacy among minority peoples is a very neglected but effective form of Christian ministry. As I have written before, through literacy a person can touch many aspects of life: spiritual, economic, social and even political.

PS: The photo of the Hmong alphabet comes from Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets Project. They have a gift shop with some very beautiful and unusual gifts.

Put the most important last

Consider these two sentences:

Why she married him I really don’t know.
I really don’t know why she married him.

The first carries a lot more emotional content than the second. If the person speaking wanted to make clear their complete disagreement with the woman’s choice, the first sentence works better. It puts “why she married him”at the front whereas it would normally come at the end – something grammarians call fronting.

But not all languages use fronting for emphasis. Languages here do the opposite. My boss in Ghana and the Director of the national organization we work for, GILLBT, says that the organization has a three-fold heritage – language development, literacy and Bible translation. On more than one occasion I have heard him mention to other Ghanaians that it is important to put Bible translation last because it is the most important. That’s because in Ghana, the most important words come last. It was the same way in Congo – the most important words came at the end.

Consultant advising translators to put "blessed" at the end

Consultant advising translators to put “blessed” at the end

Recently, I sat in for part of a workshop on the translation of the book of Romans. A translation consultant was giving instructions to translators from five languages. One piece of advice he gave concerned the following verse:

Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (Romans 14:22)

He asked the translators to think about how to translate this verse, specifically where they would put the word “blessed”. They indicated that they would put it at the end, something like:

The one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves; he is blessed

Why? Because the important bit needs to come at the end in the languages here. The consultant warned them not to weaken the verse or make the translation awkward by keeping the word “blessed” at the front. He mentioned that the same thing applies when translating the beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
(and so on) (Matthew 5:2-12)

Blessed with emphasis are the first words in English. In the languages of Ivory Coast, the last words are the ones so blessed.

As serpents

I recently developed a new understanding of a saying of Jesus that I’ve always found a bit odd:

“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16 ESV)

APN front page - colorizedI am serving as interim Director of translation and language development work in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). A few weeks after arriving, I started getting small indications that there was something not quite right in our cooperation with churches in some of the languages where translations are in progress. I found that we have written agreements those churches. In some cases, we have written agreements with local associations that represent the churches. On a hunch, I started studying the articles of incorporation of those associations. My head was full of phrases about Annual General Meetings, Executive Committees, Internal Auditors, quorums and so on. I also got a copy of the standard articles of incorporation and by-laws recommended by the government for the sake of comparison.

The articles of incorporation for the association for the Nghlwa language (cover pictured above) are exemplary. But in a couple of cases, while the associations pretend to represent their members (churches and interested people), key parts of the standard documents had been changed so that the associations are effectively controlled by a small number of individuals and in one case by only one person. No wonder some churches and key people were starting to say that they were being frozen out.

Dedication of representative translation committees in three Ghana languages, 2014

We have known for a long time that involving local churches in decision-making is a key element in the success of a translation. Yet I found that we are working with associations purporting to represent churches but which in reality are controlled by a small number of people who are making all the decisions. If allowed to continue, this will limit the use and impact of the translations, perhaps severely. I guess that being “shrewd as snakes” includes checking to see if articles of incorporation have been carefully crafted to be something other than what they appear on the surface.

Now, I need a substantial shot of serpentine circumspection to set things straight.

Two Theologies

Theologie et vie chretienne en AfriqueA couple years ago, African theologians and church leaders got together at a conference. One of the realizations that came out of that conference was that there are two theologies developing among Christians in Africa. One is an official and academic theology. It is taught in Bible schools and theological seminaries. But it often doesn’t spread beyond those. The other is a people’s theology. It is found among ordinary Christians. The official and academic theology happens in the official language, but the people’s theology is created and discussed in local languages. So the two don’t interact. The people’s theology is created when people talk to each other about how to deal with issues coming out of their traditional beliefs such as spirits, sorcery, and their fears The official theology often fails to touch those issues or to take them seriously.

Unfortunately, few missionaries taught on such things other than to quickly issue a general condemnation. In that gap, people filled in their own theology. They sit in church and listen, and not hearing something that answers their questions, they may leave church and go to a practitioner of traditional religion where they do find answers, not good answers, but answers nevertheless.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

My Congolese friend and theologian, Bungushabaku Katho, has been experimenting with what he calls “The Village Academy”. He gets ordinary people in Congolese villagers to read the Bible in their languages, then he and other theologians interact with them about what they read and what they think that it means for them. Of that experience he wrote:

“Very often we realized that the experience of villagers became much more enriching for our understanding of the Bible; well above the bookish methods of the seminary hall.”

The experiment of the “Village Academy” is teaching us that a theologian must keep his ear tuned to the community in which he lives.

KathoWhat kind of Christianity will we find in Africa in 25 years, or 50? Will it be split in two with a academic part stuck in theological seminaries and a people’s part in the pews and the streets but which is less and less recognizable as the Good News taught by Jesus and the Apostles? I hope not.

Feeding birds

Around Abidjan Center

A view of the area around the building where we work in Abidjan

A man living around the place where we work in Abidjan feeds the birds morning and evening. When one of our office staff asked him why, he said that it brings him good luck and increased income. In fact, he spends 2,000 CFA francs per day feeding the birds, which is about $3.50, or about $105 per month. Many Africans believe in mystic or magic causality. In this way of thinking, the causes of good and bad things in our life is solely related to what happens in the spirit realm. It is not dissimilar to ideas like karma.

These beliefs would be quaint, but they keep people from what really creates wealth as recommended in the Bible. The book of Proverbs teaches hard work, honesty, being wise in relationships, getting good advice, being generous and trusting in God.

Unfortunately, many churches in Africa are getting caught up in the Prosperity Gospel. Some forms of the Prosperity Gospel teach purely mystic causes of prosperity. In this teaching financial stability or success comes from tithing, blind faith, and direct divine intervention, but not from hard work or the other teachings of the book of Proverbs. In some cases prosperity teaching effectively erases the teachings of the book of Proverbs. It’s another reason to translate that book into more African languages.

I have a small collection of humor about the mystic prosperity gospel as one finds it on Facebook. Here’s one.

Fill out this to get money

Transcendent language

At Vatican II, the Catholic Church decided to start saying mass in local languages. Until then it had always been said in Latin. I was only 13 when Vatican II concluded, but a Burkina Faso friend of mine said that many of the more educated Catholic lay people in that country were unhappy with the change. They felt that hearing in everyday language removed the mystery, the transcendence, indeed the religiousness of the experience.

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

This feeling about language is widespread. Indeed, proponents of the King James Version cite the grandeur of its words. Many want their religious experiences to be infused with the feeling of transcendence so they like cathedrals, liturgy, clergy in special clothing, and stained glass windows. They may also want the Bible read from a translation that also seems transcendent. I identify. I love the poetic passages from the Psalms and from Isaiah. They send my spirit soaring. When they are sung in English that is out of date, as in The Messiah, they become all the more spiritual to me. Africans have more exuberant ways of experiencing transcendence.

Official_Languages_-_Africa_HL colorsI occasionally meet Africans who object to translating the Bible into their languages because they want to keep the mystery and the religious experience of reading and hearing in the official language (French, English or Portuguese depending on the country.) To them, the Bible in their language just seems way too simple and down-to-earth to be truly religious.

But what are we to make of this common human yearning for special religious language? After all, not all human religious yearnings are endorsed by the Bible. Is this yearning good or bad?

My favorite statement on this issue comes from C.S. Lewis. Writing about the objection to modern translations that their language is too “everyday”, he wrote:

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. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which 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, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety.

If God himself thought that it was okay to have the Apostles leave classical Greek aside and write the New Testament in the common language of the day, why would we think that we need something else? God’s big concerns appear focused on something other than provoking blissful awe through the use of religious-sounding language.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:27)

I still listen to The Messiah and it still transports me, but I don’t expect that it will do the same for everyone else, or consider them less if it does not. I certainly do not expect that such transports fulfill my obligation to practice true religion nor that they replace listening to God in the everyday words of my heart language.

Sustainable consulting

On June 23, I wrote about changes that came out of the conflict and civil way in Côte d’Ivoire. Those changes have sparked some interesting conversations in my temporary role as country director. Ivorians and other Africans are doing most of the translation checking. Translation checking is a quality control process where a person with high level training and lots of experience looks over a translation verse by verse to check that it is faithful to the original and that it is clear and natural.

One of the Africans doing that is doing it part-time. He has a very good job doing something else, but that job  allows him time to check translations and train translators. Someone expressed the opinion that this indicates that he is more interested in money than in translation. Historically, translation checking has been done by full-time Western missionaries or consultants with the Bible Societies. It is new that Africans are doing it part-time while making their living at other jobs. It is not the first time that a colleague has expressed to me a similar opinion.

Seeing part-time translation experts as less than ideal encounters some problems:

  • First, we are short of consultants and we don’t have the money to hire more. So part-time consultants actually fit better. In fact, there are other Ivorian who could be part-time consultants with a little more experience or training, but that hasn’t happened out of concern that it we trained them we wouldn’t have money to hire them. There is enough money to bring them into part-time positions.
  • Second, and more importantly, that is how Africa works including the church in Africa. I meet a good number of Africans who have good jobs or small businesses who also serve as pastors to local churches who cannot afford to hire a full-time pastor. In fact, one is on a committee giving me advice in my temporary role. A Bible College in the Congo found that the churches made most of its graduates headmasters at church schools because the schools receive a government subsidy for headmasters and teachers. The graduate then pastors a church on a part-time basis. Whether we think that this way of doing things it good or bad, it is the way things work.

Historically, the most of the first Bible translations done in European languages during the reformation were done by part-time translators. John Wycliffe, who did the first translation into English, did his translation while teaching at Oxford, lecturing and pastoring. Martin Luther did his translation into German while employed as a priest and university lecturer. Even the King James translators were not employed full-time on the translation. People serving part-time in translation is a long-standing practice in the church worldwide, even if it has been eclipsed by full-time translators in the last 200 years.

Dr. Sherwood Lingenfelter, an anthropologist and friend of Bible translation, came to Africa and taught on partnership. He told us that we ought to be doing “organisational exegesis” with our African partners. That is, we need to understand how African churches and other partners work – how they make decisions, how they pay staff, etc.  It seems to me that a serious look at the church in Africa reveals that having part-time staff is a regular part of how it operates. Because of that, it seems inevitable that as the church here exerts more decision-making in Bible translation, more part-time staff will become part of the picture.

We westerners who are used to the full-time-ministry model need to stop thinking of those who work part time as less than fully committed.