All bad, all good, or

There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:

  • It’s all wrong
  • It’s all good
  • There’s truth in failure

Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.

The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.

The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.

Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).

That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.

One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).

If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.

The most dangerous animal

This week is national mosquito control week in the US. Worldwide, controlling mosquitoes is a big deal because they are, in fact, the world’s deadliest animal. Every 40 seconds, a child dies of malaria transmitted by a mosquito. Dayle and I have had colleagues whose children died of malaria. Here in Ghana, our Ghanaian colleagues in Bible translation regularly take sick days because of malaria or take time off work to go get tested. Some of my African friends involved in Bible translation spend days every year in hospitals with children, spouses or other family members who are very ill with the disease.

In a 2011 survey, 72% of companies in sub-Saharan Africa reported a negative malaria impact, with 39% saying the negative impact was serious. Malaria not only kills, it reduces productivity. Translators’ work suffers when they are extra tired because malaria is depleting their strength but not yet making them sick. Malaria affects the education of their children.

One survey found some poor households spend as much as 25% of their income on malaria treatment. The link between malaria and poverty is widely recognized with malaria being the cause and poverty the result, whereas for many other diseases poverty is the cause and the diseases are the result. T. H. Weller, a Nobel Laureate in Medicine in 1958, wrote:

It has long been recognized that a malarious community is an impoverished community.

In Sri Lanka, an outbreak of dengue fever, another mosquito-born disease, infected tens of thousands and killed hundreds. Dengue is a debilitating illness. When I contracted it, I was not able to work for two months.

When you pray for national translators and others, pray for protection against malaria and other mosquito-born illnesses.

Vowel symmetry

This is a cross-section of the human articulatory apparatus. It consists of your mouth, nasal cavity and parts of your throat. All sounds in human languages are made by manipulating this apparatus in specific ways. They have all be studied in detail by linguistics and phoneticians. I learned studying linguistics that there is amazing symmetry in the sounds in human language. The symmetry is striking when we look at the place in the mouth where vowels are produced. Different vowels are produced by varying the position of the tongue in two principle ways – the height of the tongue and how far forward or back it goes. If we make a chart using those two axes and then we plot the principal vowels we find in human language on that chart, we get a V.

Not only do we get a V, it is almost always symmetrically filled. That is, if the language has i (the ee sound) it will have a u – the sound of oo in boot. If it has only five vowels, they can’t be just any five; they have to fill the V in a regular way. So Spanish has i, e, a, o and u, making a perfectly balanced V. If I am studying a previously unwritten and unstudied language and I find the sound ɛ (like the e in get), then I know that I have too look for ɔ (like the ough in sought) because if there is a vowel on the front of the V in the language, it will have its corresponding vowel in the back of the V at the same height and vice versa. There are similar symmetries with consonants. This makes the job of a Bible translator working on an unstudied language a lot easier because we know in advance that the language will not contain just any random selection of sounds.

There are explanations for this symmetry that don’t involve God and there is much more to vowels than I have presented here. Nevertheless, I find it a big leap of faith to conclude that human language with such symmetry was created solely by a long accumulation of random events.

The culture gear

A while back, I read an article in a Western newspaper saying that those combating FGM have now discovered that laws alone are not enough; cultural beliefs must also be addressed. I had to laugh because it has been obvious from the beginning that the practice would not go away without addressing cultural beliefs. I remember a highly educated man in Burkina Faso telling me that FGM would never be eradicated among his people because all the women believe that it is necessary for sex and procreation. It may seem incredible to many of you, but FGM continues in part because some women want it. In fact, four married women in Kenya were arrested for voluntarily undergoing the procedure which had been “denied” them in their youth. Women who do not have the procedure may be considered unmarriageable whereas marriage may be a woman’s best chance for economic security and social stability.

Yet despite the obvious and entrenched role of cultural beliefs, those combating FGM have mostly chosen to promote a legal approach. That has not worked very well. A number of countries including Nigeria have banned FGM. Even with enforcement of the laws the practice continues because it is driven by powerful cultural and social forces. The Guardian newspaper ran an article entitled “Criminalization will not stop FGM in east Africa“. It cites a study by Oxford University that found that criminalization has not come close to eradicating FGM, that it leads to dangerous underground procedures, and concludes that social norms need to change. A World Vision study found that as FGM decreases, girls in Somalia are more at risk of being married young and leaving school. Cultural beliefs are driving FGM and the law cannot change that.

Dr. Sule-Saa

Moves to eradicate FGM hold a lesson for Christians that is bigger than FGM – there is a force in human societies that is much more powerful than the law. That is the culture and its embedded beliefs. Compliance with laws is very difficult where the laws run contrary to culture. But these facts hold hope for Christians. Change the culture and either the laws will change to follow or the laws will become unnecessary. Which is better, continually enforcing laws that are being undermined by cultural beliefs, or changing the beliefs and the culture so that the laws are easily enforced and not needed very often? Real, genuine, pervasive and lasting changes come from changing the culture. The Apostle Paul said that announcing the Gospel is the “power of God“. The culture can be changed and the Bible’s message is a powerful force for changing it starting with beliefs and moving on to behaviors. Dr. Sule-Saa who has studied the impact of Bible translations in Ghana says that Bible has become the framework through which people understand the world. That is the foundation of a profound change in the culture. Already, it has reduced conflict among many other benefits.

I don’t want to change the world. I want to leave behind the start of change in various cultures what will keep on changing things long after I leave.