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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.