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.

Nationalism and Bible Translation

In 2011, I took an assignment in Ghana with a Ghanaian organization – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT).

I started working with Ghanaian Christians committed to seeing that everyone in Ghana has the Bible in their language. They are also very attached to their country. They are nationalists. So are their churches. Church leaders address national issues and say that the church is important to national development.

The mix of Bible translation and nationalism creates some benefits I did not expect. It turns out that the nationalism I found was one that is focused on responsibility. For example, one of the leaders in GILLBT told me:

It was our responsibility to learn from missionaries and take on the work ourselves.

GILLBT’s first translators were missionaries from Europe and North America. My colleague was saying that it was right and good that missionaries came, but that Ghanaians should eventually take responsibility. From other conversations, I have learned that it is a matter of nationalistic pride that Ghanaian churches take financial and other responsibility for Christian witness and ministry in Ghana.

GILLBT board of directors

When Ghanaian Christians learn that most of the money for translation in Ghana comes from elsewhere, their immediate reaction is to want to change that – to have Ghanaians “take on the work” in all its aspects.

Interestingly, the Ghanaian Christian nationalism I have seen is not exclusionary – it does not exclude others. Missionaries and outside money are still welcome, but on the condition that they don’t undermine Ghanaian responsibility. I like this brand of “take responsibility” nationalism. It feels empowered, bold, welcoming and full of faith.

Alignment

I

believe that the vision and values of missionaries need to align with the organization in which they serve. As it was becoming evident that the number of Westerners involved in Bible translation was in decline, and strategies were being put in place for involving more Africans in more roles, we needed missionaries who wanted to be part of that thrust. Specifically, we did not need missionaries who wanted to go it alone.
With the help of others, we developed a profile of the kind of missionary we needed. I even found an expert interviewer who would do telephone interviews with prospective missionaries in their home countries beforehand to see if they fit the profile. In this way we would avoid having missionaries come and be frustrated because their expectations would be mismatched to the situation.
But my fellow missionaries stopped this plan. They felt that:
  1. If a missionary felt a call to work with us, we had no right to say no.
  2. We desperately needed more people, so no one should be turned away.
  3. We should carve out exceptions to our plans for missionaries who want to work in their unique way.
It seems to me that a mission unit which followed my colleagues’ principles:
  • Would not be able to enter into effective partnerships because at any time some of its missionaries could act in ways contradictory to the terms of the partnership, hurting or breaking the partnership.
  • Will develop internal conflicts and problematic interpersonal relationships.
  • Will probably have leadership swings because each leader (a missionary selected from within the unit) would bring to bear their individual vision for the unit. Changes of leader will could easily result in large changes in vision and strategy. When a missionary leaves, the next leader could even tear down his/her work.
I have seen all of these negative effects actually happen.
I’m not writing this because I find that way of working unpleasant or chaotic, although I do. But rather because of its negative effects and the fact that it does not model kingdom values, but rather projects other values into its context.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel,

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