Being a bibleless Christian 

Photo Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe

We think of peoples without the Bible as being without the Gospel. While that is often the case, it is sometimes the case that people are evangelized using a language they understand to some degree. Churches are formed that use the other language. This situation can go on for a long time without the Bible being translated into the language of the people.

What is it like to be a biblesss Christian – a Christian who has to read the Bible in another language, or for whom there is no Bible in any language he or she speaks? I really don’t know because I grew up with the Bible in my language. But, I have talked to bibleless Christians and read things they said. So here’s what I have learned.

A older Congolese Christian told me he never thought his language would be written and therefore the Bible would never be translated into it. In one language in Burkina Faso, people walked for miles to see the first literacy class because they did not believe that their language could be written. Many were Christians. It is not uncommon that bibleless Christians believe that their language is defective and that is why it is not written like “real” languages.

If the language is defective, then perhaps it is not suitable for communication with God. Thomas Atta-Akosah reports that:

An indigenous Ghanaian Christian from a minority language group prayed: “God in heaven, we thank you for all the good things you have done. But you know that I do not speak Akan well and I know you do not speak my language. So I am finished. Amen.”

That Christian knew that the Bible had been translated into Akan and that Akan was therefore suitable for praying.

The opposite also happens to bibleless Christians. They have no doubt that their language is suitable. Perhaps they have never questioned its suitability, but existing churches insist they worship and pray in another language. One African wrote that his people had to push back for decades to worship in get their language and get the Bible translated into it.

Christians in dominant groups that have translations may not see the need, or they may worry that the church will be divided. One of my colleagues had a church leader tell him that with his translation he was trying to divide the church. Since that comment was made the Bible has been translated into several smaller languages in that area with no sign of dividing the church. But, a group did split off that speaks the same language and uses the same Bible. I have witnessed quite a few situations where church leaders and even missionaries oppose worship and translation in a local language.

So bibleless Christians often have struggle through barriers to translation they either erect for themselves or that others throw up in their path. Prayer is our most powerful tool for overcoming those obstacles because they are based in the heart.

Development by giving hope

The traditional approach to development work has been to provide things for people. If people lack education, we build them schools. If they are unhealthy, we build them hospitals. If their children suffer from repeated bouts of Malaria, we give them bed nets. If they don’t have clean water we drill a well. Providing things is always appropriate and necessary following disasters. But simply providing things in other cases can fail to truly transform. Today, few who are serious about sustainably improving the lot of the poor think that giving things is enough or even primary.

But to define development as an improvement in people’s well-being does not do justice to what the term means to most of us. Development also carries a connotation of lasting change. Providing a person with a bednet or a water pump can often be an excellent, cost-effective way to improve her well-being, but if the improvement goes away when we stop providing the bednet or pump, we would not normally describe that as development. (From an article What Development? by Owen Barder)

The key to development that ends poverty resides in the capacity of human beings to create lasting, positive change. It is therefore crucial that they believe that they can change things. Indeed, every time we provide something, we may be sending a subtle message to the recipients that we believe they are incapable of providing for themselves. By only providing things we may be reinforcing an inferiority complex among the poor.

Good development organizations understand this. Along with providing some basic resources that allow children to progress farther in school, Compassion International’s child-development efforts instill aspirations, character formation, and spiritual direction. In short, it tries to make actors and givers instead of passive receivers. The best development creates an environment where people solve their own problems.

Some laugh at the idea of giving poor people the Bible in their language, saying that what  they really need is concrete things. This criticism reflects a simplistic understanding (misunderstanding actually) of development. Many of the poor know this. They do not define their poverty strictly in material terms. Furthermore, the Bible brings hope. It encourages people to act in faith that God is with them. Without the hope that things can change, people wallow in passive fatalism – in poverty of hope.

    An evaluation of the literacy and Bible translation programs of the Ghanaian organization I work with, GILLBT, demonstrates that those who read the Bible in their own languages are more likely to take initiative, such as starting new businesses, than those who do not. Why? Because they have new hope and confidence. They believe God will bless their efforts. That kind of development is so much better, so much more sustainable, so much more affirming of them as persons, than just giving them things. Want to support efforts to reduce poverty that are centered on empowering people? Then support Bible translation. 

    Leviticus as humor

    Humor can be macabre. The Darwin Awards are a good example. I’ve seen people laughing almost uncontrollably when reading the stories most of which involve someone dying, often in a gruesome manner. This kind of humor happens often enough that we have an phrase for it – gallows humor. There are articles where people share how humor helps with grief and serious articles debating the value and ethics of this kind of humor, some of which defend it.

    I’ve seen a streak of gallows humor in Africa, although not everyone is comfortable with it. When we were in Côte d’Ivoire last year, I wanted to go see the famous crocodiles at Yamoussoukro. But I learned they were no longer there because they ate their long-time caretaker when he slipped feeding them. Some of my Ivorian colleagues laughed and giggled as they told me the story as if it were hilariously ridiculous that anyone would take a job that involved walking among crocodiles holding raw meat.

    When we were working on the translation in the Cerma language of Burkina Faso, Dayle was shocked when local people laughed as she told them that I had come home all scratched and scraped from a fall off my motorcycle. They already thought it was odd and silly that white people did not own a car. During that time, we wrote down a number of traditional Cerma folk tales. One involved characters who acted badly toward each other then suffered a series of disasters. People would laugh loud and long when hearing of the disasters.

    A colleague told me that one of the people helping with a translation found the Egyptian plagues hilarious. He also found the Israelites’ mistakes during their wanderings in the wilderness and God’s reactions quite humorous  For him, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy contain no small amount of material for laughter.

    There seems to be a link between all these incidents of gallows humor — some people think it’s very funny when evil or imprudent people have their evil or reckless deeds come back and bite them with poetic justice. In such cases, laughter is probably not about making light of the situation and perhaps it does exactly the opposite. Could it be the nervous laugh in recognition that they too could end up reaping the consequences of their actions? One thing is sure: when the translation helper laughed at the repercussions God’s people suffered for their misdeeds, he was showing that he understood very well that their problems were the consequences of their own actions. The translation communicated. 

    Ghanaian taxi

    Leviticus?

    By Philip De Vere, via Wikimedia Commons (license CC 3.0)

    Recent research shows that when local people have a say in how the Bible is translated into their language, it will be more widely read and have greater impact. So translation programs in Ghana now include consultations with local people, pastors and community leaders. When asked what book of the Bible they wanted to translate next, pastors and key lay leaders in the Delo language community in Ghana said that they wanted Leviticus. According to them, Leviticus will be most useful for evangelism, discipling believers, preaching, teaching and personal reading.

    Delo translators with model of the Tabernacle

    One Delo Christian pointed out that many of his people still follow traditional religion with practices very much like those described in Leviticus. He said that it is from Leviticus that he can build an effective bridge to the Gospel. I don’t think very many Americans Christians would name Leviticus as the book of the Bible they need most or first. Nor would they be likely to cite a verse from Leviticus when  talking to others about their faith. 

    One of the realities and challenges of working in another culture is that what is most relevant might be different than you think. It’s not that the truth changes, not at all. But which part of the Bible is immediately relevant changes a lot.

    By the way, did you know that the inscription on the Liberty Bell includes part of a verse from Leviticus?  The inscription reads in part:

    Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof

    Apparently those who designed the bell thought Leviticus was relevant to their political views. 

    Mary’s song

    Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

    Mary’s song of praise is part of the story of Christmas. It is found in Luke 1. 

    Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
    How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
    For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
    and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
    For the Mighty One is holy,
    and he has done great things for me.
    He shows mercy from generation to generation
    to all who fear him.
    His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
    He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
    He has brought down princes from their thrones
    and exalted the humble.
    He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.
    He has helped his servant Israel
    and remembered to be merciful.
    For he made this promise to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and his children forever.

    Luke 1:46-55 (NLT)

    This is quite a display of sophisticated theology for a simple peasant girl! Mary weaves her understanding of the Bible into her understanding of history, her circumstances, God’s promises and their fulfillment.

    Lamin Sanneh, a professor at Yale, has written:

    The Christian approach …. [contends] that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and [targets] ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.
    Lamin Sanneh. Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

    We see this at work in Africa where large and successful churches were started and led by people with low or no education but who devoured the Bible in their own languages. In fact, that is still happening today. Let none of us think that we are too ordinary to grasp or announce great Bible truths, or that others are too ordinary. The first translations of the Bible into English sprang from that same democratic ideal – that ordinary people would understand. When we translate the Bible into the languages of ordinary people we show that we have the same confidence in them that God has in them and in us. 

    That’s actually a Christmas message because Christmas shows us that God has confidence that ordinary humans will understanding his ultimate message when it comes down. 

    Merry Christmas - animated banner

    Supporting Bible Translation

    Sometimes when speaking to a US church or church group, I have been asked what is the most important thing the church can do to support our ministry. The answer is: make the Bible a key part of your life. I am doing Bible translation because studying the Bible changed me. Why would people who are not passionate about the Bible give so that others can have the Bible? Why would they care that there are people who do not have the Bible in their language? On the other hand, people who find life, hope and power in God’s Word understand why others need to have that same Word.

    Besides, it has been shown that the surest way to grow in faith and Christian spirituality is to study the Bible with others. It is even more effective than attending church or reading the Bible personally; not that I am proposing that you stop doing either of those!

    The American Bible Society recommends:

    • Declaring your confidence in God’s living and active Word
    • Renewing your personal daily encounter with God in Scripture
    • Giving the Bible a central place in your life
    • Inviting others to engage with the Scriptures

    If you want to support Bible translation, then the first thing to do is to cultivate a passion for the Bible in your life that encourages and strengthens you. Besides, it will grow your faith. 

    Mystic causes

    In an article on the BBC New website, an African journalist wrote:

    “It is impossible to cultivate a spirit of innovation and transformation when people believe themselves helpless about their plight.” (Source: Is Nigeria being punished by God? by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani)

    In the article, the author tells of a Nigeria state governor who blamed sin for an outbreak of cholera.

    “People have turned away from God… that is just the cause of this outbreak as far as I am concerned,”

    The author goes on to say that this belief is prevalent in Nigeria, not just among politicians. That matches my experience. Many Africans, certainly not all, blame most  problems on supernatural or mystic causes as though unsanitary conditions have nothing to do with outbreaks of disease. Others, like Adaobi, find that approach problematic. Some of them, like some Westerners, think that religion is the problem. 

    But does reading the Bible cause people put their trust in mystic causes or believe that they are helpless about their plight?  Some people mught read the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 and come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do but sit back and trust that God will magically intervene to make them rich (even though the chapter itself contains language that contradicts that conclusion). But is that what usually happens? I don’t think so. 

    The Protestant work ethic was developed by people who were very serious about the Bible, God’s promises, his punishment of sin, and his blessings for obedience. Mensah Otabil, the founder and leader of the International Central Gospel Church in Accra, is also serious about God’s blessings coming through faith, yet he preaches that God calls us to personal responsibility. According to some, his message has given rise to a new entrepreneurial class in Ghana which has also had no small influence on economic growth and politics. Evaluations of the effects of Bible translation in Ghana find that people to read the Bible in their own languages have greater confidence and they are more likely to take initiative including for their own economic well-being. These results are the opposite of what one would expect if the Bible message caused people to kick back and just rely on God giving them mystic blessings.

    In an article in Christianity Today, the renowned American sociologist, Peter Berger, noted that:

    The message that most Pentecostals hear, far from preaching passive acceptance, encourages behavior which requires a lot of effort: hard work, saving, giving up alcohol and sexual promiscuity, and so on. If advocacy of this behavior is linked to a promise of, if not great wealth, at any rate material betterment, this is not a false promise.

    Research by secular scholars has found that African churches preaching faith and against the sins of womanizing, alcohol and “worldly pleasures” are more effective at reducing urban poverty in Africa than the aid agencies operating in the same cities.

    The Seed Company (a Bible translation organization) has found that those who read translations in their own languages feel empowered to take better actions with regard to their problems.

    We translate the Bible because it’s message does the opposite of a mass opiate – it causes people to take eternal responsibility, starting right now.

    Empathy and mission

    I have mentioned several times my favorite blogger, Seth Godin. In 2014, he posted this as part of a short blog entitled Tone Deaf:

    Great marketers have empathy.
    They’re able to imagine what it might be like to have a mustache or wear pantyhose. They work hard to imagine life in someone else’s shoes.
    “What’s it like to be you?” is an impossible question to answer. But people who aren’t tone deaf manage to ask it.

    Doing Bible translation well includes being able to imagine what it is like to be part of a bibleless people. In fact, the primary skill of someone ministering the Gospel across cultures might be imaginative empathy. Mastery of linguistics or translation skills is crucial when translating the Bible, but if they are wielded without empathetic understanding, they are not ministry.

    A basic knowledge of cultural anthropology also really helps in cross-cultural ministry, but if I employ it without empathy, people will feel like mere objects of study or even curiosities. I might go to another culture and imagine that I know how to solve their problems, but until I make the effort to understand those problems the way they do, my efforts will almost certainly fail.

    Pray for us and for others working in Bible translation — that we will have imaginative empathy.

    If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)

    No no no

    The Apostle Paul wrote:

    I have always tried to preach where people have never heard about Christ (Romans 15:20 CEV)

    John Piper calls this a Holy Ambition. Piper is far from alone in getting inspiration from the Apostle’s desire to take the good new about Jesus to places where it has not yet been announced. The website JoshuaProject.net is dedicated to listing all the peoples and languages of the world and the degree to which each has heard the good news. As is evident from perusing the website, intentionally taking the good new to new places requires research. One cannot just strike off in a random direction and hope to encounter a people who has not heard of Jesus.

    I have colleagues who have spent a good part of their lives going out into the field and finding out where languages are, how many people speak them, if the people in one location can understand the people in another and if the language is dying out or perhaps growing. One of them is Ted Bergman who was an engineer before getting involved in Bible translation. After spending a couple decades training, organizing and leading small teams of researchers across Africa, he set out to find out how many places there in the world where there are no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible in the language of the people — a triple no.

    The purpose of the research, of course, is so that people will know of those places and take action to remove one or more no. He found 138 such places. There are none in North America, South America or the Pacific. There is only one in Europe. The majority are in Asia but there are also a number in the Middle East and 18 in Africa. Just three countries have over half of the 138 places, but 19 countries have at least one. You can look at the list yourself, just ignore the columns of codes only missiologists understand.

    I was a missionary for a while before I fully appreciated that missions requires research. Not the kind of research one does in a lab or on a computer, but rather the kind where one goes out among the people, talks to them, and seeks to understand their situation. What language do they speak? Have they ever heard an adequate presentation of the good news? Are there missionaries working among them? How many of them are Christians, if any? What religion do they follow? Is there a Bible in their language? This research is seeking out every niche where the good news of Jesus is still missing. A few months back, I was involved in an inter-agency committee in Ghana where we looked at research, made inquiries and came up with a list of all the remaining Bible translation needs in Ghana. What’s cool about that is the efforts now being made to shrink that list until it has nothing on it.

    Area near the town of Goz Béïda in Chad which is near the Dar Sila Daju language area, one of the places with no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible

     

     

    Public

    For years Africans told me, “Your translation work is not well known. People should know about it.” The thing is, I didn’t know what to do about that. We weren’t trying to keep it a secret. We did tell people what we were doing, so I couldn’t figure out what we might change. In the last few years I have started to see what Africans meant and why it is important, mostly by observing what Ghanaians are doing in the translation programs when they have the full freedom to do it their way.

    When we first arrived in Africa, we were sent to a village in the southwest of Burkina Faso. With help from translators in a neighboring language, we contacted missionaries in the area, met with a few local officials and set to work. While I was briefly acting director in Côte d’Ivoire last year, we officially started the translation into the Abure (pronounced ah-boo-RAY) language. The process was quite different. First, some well-known Christians from the language area were contacted about the translation. They formed a committee composed of representatives of all the major churches. Then they informed all the pastors, chiefs and officials of the plans to do a translation of the Bible into Abure. All of this culminated in a public event to which all the churches were invited and most attended. It was lead by people well-known in the language area. At the ceremony, an agreement was signed detailing how the translation would proceed and how the churches and Bible agencies would cooperate.

    Only after the ceremony, was the translation program considered to have officially started. Having a public ceremony to launch a translation was something I first saw in Ghana in 2012. In found it significant that in both Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire people who didn’t know each other and who were unaware of each others’ actions spontaneously started translation programs the same way.

    Prayer at the launch of translations in three smaller languages in Ghana’s Volta Region

    Public ceremonies, it turns out, are key events for informing everyone that the translation is taking place. I finally figured out that I could spend a lot of time going around telling people about the translation without accomplishing what can be done by visiting a few key people then holding one public event. Because chiefs and leading pastors attend, the whole community sees that they support it; a key to getting others to volunteer. I have also seen them become important fund-raising events. Finally, after the public event, everyone in the community, even those who do not attend, are thought to know about the translation, because the communities are very effective at spreading information by word of mouth.

    But public meetings are about more than spreading information or raising funds. They give the translation program something nothing else can – legitimacy. Programs that are not publicly launched can attract suspicion – what are they hiding; why don’t they make themselves known? But programs that start with a public ceremony are seen to be transparent and have the endorsement of the right people; so people can trust them, contribute to them, and recommend them to others.

    If you liked this, you might also like Making the Right Decision.