Babel, Pentecost and today

Pentecost is this coming Sunday. So my blog this week is about Pentecost and where it fits in the Bible’s narrative about language.

The Bible is one story. It’s connected. One of those connections spans the Bible from the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 and on to Revelation. Genesis 11 and Acts 2 recount strange happenings with language. In the first, people who all speak the same language suddenly can’t understand each other. The second is the exact opposite. People who speak many different languages suddenly can understand each other.

When all those people speaking their different languages understood each other, they were amazed and perplexed causing them to ask a question:

What does this mean? (Acts 2:12)

The Apostle Peter gives a long answer that draws heavily on the Old Testament Scriptures. I will summarize his answer in his own words:

“everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:21)

The key word in that verse is “everyone”. The fact that all those present heard “in our own tongues the mighty works of God”, points conclusively to God’s intent that the message is for everyone whatever their language.

Because the events at Babel and Pentecost are opposites, some have suggested that the result of Pentecost is to reverse the effects of the tower of Babel. If Pentecost was a reversal, it was only partial. People still speak the many different languages that spread from the Tower of Babel. Still, the idea of reversal has something to it, but I prefer to think of it as redemption.

At Babel God confused peoples’ languages to keep them from doing the wrong thing. At Pentecost, God used those same languages to transmit a message to direct them to do the right thing. Still today, God is using the Bible, preaching, prayer and worship in those languages to do marvelous things. We see the joy, salvation, and more all the time. It turns out that the languages that prevented people from a bad thing are powerful tools to bring them the best thing.

Pointing

After all these years in Africa, I still struggle to give directions Africans understand, and I don’t understand very well when they give me directions. I am still unsure about the meaning of hand motions, pointing and some body language. When I see police along the road here in Ghana, I get apprehensive that I will misunderstand their hand motions and give them cause to give me a ticket, or worse offend them. In fact, that has already happened to me.

In addition to pointing, there is another behavior of police and parking attendants that I find difficult. They will stand right in front of the car where they want you to drive. They expect you to drive right at them, slowly of course, and then they move out of the way as you approach. It took me a while to figure that out. I would never drive right at a policeman in the US! A policeman standing beside the road motioned me to pull over, but he was standing in the only spot where I could. I stopped for a second, remembered what to do, and drove right at him, slowly. He moved out of the way, but looked puzzled that I had stopped. One parking lot I entered had a barrier across the exit to keep inconsiderate motorists from blocking it. As I was leaving, the helpful parking attendant moved the barrier but then stood right in the middle of the exit. It took me a second, but I realized that I had to just drive straight at him. As I did, he got out of the way.

To help reduce crime, there are sometimes police checkpoints on the city streets at night. The drill is simple: roll down your window, turn off the radio or music, turn on your dome light and greet the policeman who is carrying a flashlight. He will wag the flashlight up and down in minute movements to indicate that you should stop, then wag it left and right, also in minute movements, for you to move along. The movements are to small that the flashlight appears to flicker.

Not long ago I was parking at a very busy place. Helpfully, the business I was patronizing had placed a parking attendant in the street to assist customers with parking and getting back onto the busy street. Nice. Except that when I headed for an empty parking spot, that person pointed at it and wagged his index finger “No” quite vigorously. I stopped. He looked puzzled so I pulled into the parking space and he was happy. In that way, I learned that wagging one’s index finger does not indicate “No”, but rather “Go”. I think it was the equivalent of wagging a flashlight back and forth.

Maybe I’ll finally understand it all if I stay another 40 years. Or maybe not. The Mossi people of Burkina Faso have a proverb:

The foreigner has big eyes, but he doesn’t see anything.

The start of an era

In 1800, of all the languages in the world, only 68 had a translation of the Bible. Today, the number of languages with the whole Bible stands at 670 and another 1521 have the New Testament. A total of 3321 have some or all of the Bible in print. You can find all these facts at http://www.wycliffe.net/statistics.

Most of these translations were done by Western missionaries; making the last two hundred years the era of missionary Bible translation. The missionary approach has been very successful both in terms of the number of translations and in terms of the spread of Christian faith. It will certainly go down as a glorious era in the annals of missions.

But the missionary era is fast coming to an end. While new translations are still starting at a good clip, fewer and fewer of them are started, organized or lead by missionaries. Local people and churches are doing those things. This shift is anything but a sign of failure. In fact, it is the exact opposite – a sign of success. In Ghana where I work, Ghanaians who themselves received the Bible in their languages during the era of missionary translation are now undertaking translation in the languages of Ghana not yet so endowed. This turn of events is healthy – to be expected where God is working.

I work alongside Ghanaians in ways that reinforce what they are trying to accomplish for God’s Kingdom

Missionaries did things in a certain way – one that suited their preferences and those of their organizations. Ghanaians are keeping some of those ways, but in other cases they are mixing things up. I expected they will change more things over the next decades. With others around the world and under God’s guidance, they are inventing the next era of Bible translation.

This new era does not exclude western missionaries, but it does change our roles. Instead of bringing our ways, we learn and encourage innovation as we teach and consult. Encouraging innovation includes going along with new approaches we don’t believe in because sometimes they work. Humility about one’s opinions and experiences is crucial

From job to something bigger

“I came looking for a job but I found a career.”

An employee of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), the organization we are on loan to, said this at an office staff meeting in August 2017. He said it full of joy. Judging from my other conversations with him, I know that he is not looking to spend his life working for GILLBT. So by “career” he did not mean lifetime employment. He meant “vocation” or even “call”. He has talked to me more than once about how missions is evolving so that he can plan a career in missions after his employment at GILLBT ends.

He was hired when he answered an announcement at his church about a job opening in GILLBT. At the time, he was just looking for a job; money to live on. But as he learned about translation he began to feel a call.

Ed and other staff member in Abidjan preparing information for the recruitment of a new director

I have heard similar stories from other Africans involved in Bible translation. One told me how he met missionaries translating into his language and started working with them. He showed a flair for translation, so the missionaries asked his church to release him from his position as a pastor to work with on the translation full time. They agreed. Eventually he went on to do advanced studies in translation and become the leader of a program training African translators. He said he knew that it was all part of God’s call in his life.

One of the best roles of a missionary is to be some part of God calling others to being a doctor, a human-right lawyer, a teacher, a Bible translator, or whatever, That is how ministry will continue through the next generation.

Leverage

Old Presbyterian church in Abetifi

About two centuries ago, German church leaders, business people and others seized an opportunity. They sent missionaries to evangelize and translate the Bible into the languages of the Gold Coast, now called Ghana. Some came with their coffins in tow and a number died while carrying out their work. Some lost children. But they bent German economic-industrial and theological prowess to the task. They trained select Gold Coast citizens in the world’s best seminaries of the day – German seminaries – under the best theologians of the day – again German. They did language development, translation, literacy education and evangelism in the languages of the Gold Coast using some of the best linguistics training of the day from German universities. They created dictionaries and grammars of Ghanaian languages which are still highly regarded, even definitive. They produced world-class Bible translations in the languages of the southern half of Ghana. As the translations were completed, they were forced to leave because of World War I. At that point, their evangelistic efforts had only yielded modest fruit as the Gold Coast was then less than 5% Christian.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity expanded rapidly, but only where there were translations. Where they existed, mother tongue translations enabled Christianity to penetrate all classes of society. Men with minimal education but who read the Bible in their mother tongues became church leaders, pastors, and evangelists. With their mother tongue Bibles they grew the church in a relatively hostile environment. Some of those churches now have millions of members and thousands, even tens of thousands, of congregations. Schools founded by the missionaries trained the people who went on to militate for and then gain Ghana’s independence and lead its businesses and industries.

Meanwhile, the transformation did not take place in areas where there was no translation. Ghana was decisively transformed where German missionaries translated the Bible, and left untouched elsewhere. Let us remember that their efforts were initiated, organized and financed by German churches and that those churches were being empowered by their members who were both creating and benefiting from 19th century Germany’s emergence as a world theological, industrial and economic power. When church members stand behind missions, amazing things happen.

Praying for the Cedi

Poster for a recent Duncan-Williams event

Recently, a storm of criticism erupted on social media when a week of prayer and fasting was declared in Zambia to fight a cholera outbreak. The idea was mocked and ridiculed, even by some Christians, because they would prefer to see efforts directed toward better public sanitation. A similar thing happened a few years ago when the Ghana currency, the Cedi (pronounced see-dee), was losing value against the dollar. A falling Cedi causes inflation in Ghana. Everyone was talking about it and it was constantly in the news.

One day, I saw in the news that a well-known charismatic preacher had prayed for the Cedi, commanding it to stop falling in value. Most newspapers and radio stations carried the story. I heard conversations between Ghana Christians on the topic.

The critics said the government should exercise more fiscal responsibility; that praying for a miracle was not the right way forward. Others expressed their support. Being a fiscal conservative, I thought the criticism raised some valid points. But I also thought that criticizing prayer was unnecessary. That’s because I don’t have any confidence in the understanding or desires of those who pray, including leading pastors or even myself. But I do have confidence in God. He will hear the prayer and respond based on his infinite wisdom and from his heart of righteousness and love.

It strikes me as both unnecessary and prideful to try to get our prayers exactly right. But insisting that others get their prayers right strikes me as dangerous – something likely to reduce faith and discourage prayer. God is all-wise. So why do we think people have to pray exactly the right thing? The critics expected the people praying to understand the factors that influence exchange rates and pray for the right factor(s) to change. Of course, even economists disagree on what should be done, so good luck getting that one right. I prefer to count on God.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words, (Romans 8:26)

Maybe my old age is making me lazy, but I now like to pray for things that bother me even when I don’t understand the issues at all.

PS: I accidentally sent out this post by email some months ago. My apologies to those who are getting it for the second time.

Mother tongue fraudsters

In January 2018, a New Deli newspaper reported a pattern of con men speaking to their prospective marks in their mother tongue to gain their confidence. One criminal gang actually trained its members to speak various Indian languages and even their dialects in different places for the purpose of getting access to the bank accounts of people who speak those languages.

That might not seem like a very good advertisement for the mother tongue – what I call the heart language. But it is. Speaking to someone in the language that is the most closely connected to their identity is indeed an excellent way to gain someone’s trust. Whether that trust is rewarded or betrayed is another matter. The mother tongue is powerful whether put to noble or ignoble purposes. It does indeed connect at the deepest level.

If grifters learn languages in order to hurt people, certainly missionaries, pastors and evangelists can learn them and translate the Bible into them in order to bless.

Why, why, why?

In his excellent book about Ghanaian culture entitled Ghana in Retrospect, Peter Sarpong dedicates a chapter to Ghanaians’ belief in the supernatural. He tells an imaginary story of two schoolboys killed by a falling tree while walking to school. He notes that scientific Westerners would explain the event by noting that recent heavy rains had loosened the tree’s roots. He says that Ghanaians might accept that explanation all while seeking a supernatural explanation beyond it. They do that by repeatedly asking why. Why were the boys walking by the tree at the moment it fell? Why didn’t the tree fall earlier, or later? Why did the boys take that route to their school? Why were the boys walking together? Why didn’t they see it starting to fall and run away? Why did the heavy rains come? And so on.

If you keep asking why about an event, you will eventually come to the end of scientific explanations, at least the obvious ones. At that point, many Ghanaians will insert a supernatural explanation, says Sarpong. Perhaps a witch cast a spell at the behest of an enemy of the family.

The thing is, this is not as strange as it seems to Westerners. Let me illustrate.

On November 2, 2001 America Airlines flight 587 crashed in New York after encountering wake turbulence from the airplane in front of it. Crash investigators asked why. Early in the investigation, the vertical stabilizer (tail fin) was found some distance before the crash site, indicating that it broke off first and that caused the crash. So the investigators asked why it broke off. An examination showed that the attachments had broken. So the investigators asked why they broke. Further examination showed they were not corroded or weakened nor was the wake turbulence strong enough to shear them off. So they asked why there was such great force applied to the stabilizer. The black box revealed that the pilot had moved the rudder all the way back and forth quickly while the plane was at speed, resulting in stresses that far exceeded design limits, causing the attachments to fail and the vertical stabilizer to break off crashing the plane. But the investigators still asked why. Why did the pilot move the rudder so violently? They found that he learned it in his training, where instructors recommended it to counter wake turbulence. And so the investigation ended with changes in the training.

Even in as rigorous an endeavor as air crash investigation, it is important to keep asking why – to not settle for the first second or third explanation. It seems that the Ghanaian approach of asking why beyond the first natural explanation has good precedence. By the way, the crash investigators did not ask why the training was as it was. I wonder.

Also, if many pilots received the same training, why wasn’t there a crash sooner? Or why wasn’t there a non-fatal incident that revealed the flawed training? One that bent the attachments rather than shearing them off, for example. The crash investigation neither asked nor answered any of these why questions.

In light of these observations, I think that it is a mistake to simply write off Ghanaian beliefs by labeling them superstition. By admitting that their why questions have some rational basis, we keep ourselves from smug superiority and condescension; things that would severely limit the impact of our ministry. Besides, admitting that there is some rational basis does not imply that the beliefs are right, aligned with the Bible or helpful. On the other hand, it does admit that there are some questions beyond science, and that is an open door to the message of the Bible.

The same, but different

On March 16 we arrived in the US for our regular “furlough” – a time when we speak in churches an other groups about Bible translation and our ministry, visit family and even take a little break. Then we go back to our overseas assignments. This time though, things are a bit different. Ed will be going back, but differently, and Dayle won’t be going back at all. We closed up out apartment in Accra and sold our stuff there, but kept our little SUV for Ed to use whenever he’s in Ghana. That’s because he will be making regular trips, including a six-week trip beginning in late June.

Ed’s will continue in his assignment to the national organization to which Wycliffe has loaned us – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. He will be working from the US and making regular trips to Ghana.

Ed has a number of projects on his plate. The biggest of those is coordinating the creation of training curriculum and materials for local translation committees. Each Bible translation has a local committee of volunteers guiding it. A lot depends on that committee functioning well. Experience and evaluations of translation programs tell us that translations will be more widely read and they will have more impact when the committees effectively engage the churches and communities in various ways, including in decisions about the translation, such as the selection of the local translators and which books of the Bible to translate first.

But not all committees work well.

Michael, one of the GILLBT staff Ed works with, addressing a rural church about translation into their language

For some time, Ed has been working with GILLBT staff to put in place more effective committees. The next step is to develop training for them because now there is none. This project is a high priority for GILLBT’s Director who wants to get the translation closer to the people it serves, and make it more responsive to their needs. Ed will be leading the development of the training. He will be working directly with him and with other staff. He hopes to have the training ready for his next trip to Ghana in late June. Then he will help give it to selected committees to test it.

After that, he will revise the training based on feedback, give it to more committees on subsequent trips to Ghana, and then serve as a resource while Ghanaians give the training.

GILLBT Director, Thomas Sayibu Imoro

This is not our retirement yet, but it certainly is a big first step in that direction. We will be looking at that every time we do our annual evaluation with GILLBT Leadership and Wycliffe. Missionaries are made for leaving, and so we want to leave well – in a way that honors the Lord, our supporters and the ministry we have been privileged to undertake. Ask the Lord to give us wisdom

We appreciate so much all those who pray and who provide financial support, especially during this new phase of our ministry. Contact us if you have questions about specific financial needs related to our new mode of ministry.

Side effects

The Annual General Meeting last year

The Ghanaian organization I work for (GILLBT) has a general meeting every year where key decisions are made. Other organizations with similar interests send delegations to bring fraternal greetings. At the last general meeting, the Assemblies of God church sent a high-level delegation. When they took the floor they said how much they appreciate the translations of the Bible done by my organization because they allow their churches to succeed. Then the said something amazing:

“Some communities turn to Jesus Christ just because they were taught how to read and write in their mother tongue through GILLBT.”

This was the third time I have heard a very reliable source close to the situation claim that GILLBT’s literacy efforts are effective evangelism. The thing is, the literacy classes were not designed to evangelize. They contain no religious or Bible content. But learning to read in the heart language and having the Bible also in the heart language have an unintended side effect. Unintended but not undesired!

These Christians were reached through literacy classes in their languages. Here they are reading Bible in their languages at a church meeting.

This side effect is common enough that some churches in Ghana have created very effective evangelism programs whose core component is literacy classes in people’s heart language. In fact, the next man to speak at the general meeting represented the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. He said that his church holds literacy programs for the purpose of evangelism. Those literacy classes are like GILLBT’s with primers made by GILLBT and staff trained by GILLBT. In fact, I helped them expand that program. Even though the literacy classes are just literacy classes, the result is churches full of newly literate new believers avidly devouring the Bibles in their heart languages.

I love side effects! Well, at least this one.