Black Elijah

harris-book-cover

During the growth of Christianity in Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a phase where African “prophets” appeared. One of them was William Wade Harris, a Liberian man who had fallen out of favor with the church and had even spent time in prison where he had a vision from the Angel Gabriel telling him to preach repentance and the destruction of objects used in traditional African religion; then baptize those who received his message. So in July 1913 at the age of 53, he set off on foot with a small entourage for the neighboring French colony. He was not backed by any church or missionary agency.

They ended up walking across the whole coast of what is now the country of Côte d’Ivoire and on into what is now Ghana. They must have been quite a site in their bare feet, white garments with and crosses, especially Harris who always carried a large staff with a cross on top in his right hand and a Bible in his left. They walked all the way to what is now the country of Ghana. It is estimated that 200,000 people heeded Harris’ preaching and abandoned their traditional religious practices. This was a sizable portion of the total population.

His message was often opposed by traditional religious leaders, leading to power encounters reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament such as Elijah on Mount Carmel. Harris would triumph and large scale destruction of the objects of traditional religion would follow. Some of these events were recorded by French colonial administrators.

Prior to Harris, small churches had started in some towns, but they had little impact. Harris spoke in local languages and stripped western trappings from Christianity while targeting his preaching at the heart of traditional beliefs and practices. It got him in trouble with the French colonial administrators. He was arrested several times. He apparently made a miraculous escape from jail in Grand Lahou, the colonial capitol at the time. It is said that he pronounced a curse on the capitol when he left. Today, it is a deserted ghost town.

Harris instructed converts to worship on Sunday, to pray in their own languages, to keep the Sunday for worship, to pray in their own tongues, and to praise God with their own music. He named local elders and he told people that white missionaries would come later can give them the Bible in their languages. When Methodist missionaries arrived, they found churches full of believers waiting for them.

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Today, the Harrist church is found across the area where Harris ministered. It still uses local languages and still has solid teaching, for the most part. Early Western missionaries falsely considered it a cult, probably because of its different worship practices, which you can see in the photos below. Where the Bible has been translated into the local languages, the Harrist church uses those translations avidly. Unfortunately, more than 100 years after Harris started his trek, a number of those languages still don’t have translations of the Bible. Harris’ promise has not yet been fulfilled, although slow progress is being made.

During the months we spent in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016, we were privileged to be in a position to help the translations in some of those languages on their way.

Village theology

Theologie et vie chretienne en Afrique

I have blogged before about this book written by Africans about theology in their countries and churches. The articles have a common theme – making the teachings of the Bible known and making them clear. One of the authors is a Congolese friend of mine, Dr. Bungushabaku Katho. These are my favorite quotes from his article:

“There are many resources in our villages for the understanding of the Bible and the transformation of our communities.” pg 74

“The illiterate masses can understand the Bible if we know how to reach them. Very often we realized that the experience of villagers became much more enriching for our understanding of the Bible; well above the bookish methods of the seminary hall.” pg 74

Dr. Katho has acted on these observations and that has taken him in a very interesting direction. He and his colleagues go out to discover how ordinary Africans understand the Bible in their languages. He calls this the “Village Academy”.

“But the type of education we [theologians] received keeps us from going out to discover these resources [villagers]. We think that good resources are those are found only in our libraries, in books that come to us from elsewhere. We want to read the Bible for villagers rather than with them. The experiment of the “Village Academy” is teaching us that a theologian must keep his ear tuned to the community in which he lives. In this sense, theology must cease to be a speculative discourse done for the pleasure of a few specialists.

Katho

Why this change? It’s simple. Dr. Katho is interested in real, tangible, transformational change in and for people at the grassroots.

“To have impact on on Christian living, the practice of theology in Africa must place the Bible at the center of its activities and be capable of speaking to Africans in their real situations.”

As you might expect, Dr. Katho is a big supporter of translating the Bible into African languages. After all, without translations into the languages of the people, his approach is impossible. But I like it also for another reason – it rings true to the Gospel. God sent his son to be born in the a food-trough for animals. He announced that birth to pagan stargazers and shepherds, rather than to the proper religious leaders of the day. Then his son worked as a skilled laborer before taking on a grassroots ministry with a group of uneducated men. By this method he changed the world. So standing the traditional, academic approach to theology on its head and starting with the Bible-inspired theological reflection of ordinary people in African villages strikes me as something God himself would do; or rather does, in fact.

Not only that, it works. For example, one issue in Africa is tensions between ethnic groups. But academic theology doesn’t address the issue in spite of the fact that the Bible is full of stories about ethnic conflict. However, African villagers reading the Bible in their languages have spontaneously started preaching and teaching on the issue having discovered what fancy, erudite theological seminaries have long overlooked. And it’s an issue critical to the health of both their churches and their countries.

Western Christmas in Africa

One of my Ghana colleagues and friends tells of Christmas in his village when he was a child. It was a big celebration. Most of the year people didn’t eat meat. It was a luxury. But at Christmas, my friend’s family butchered and had lots of meat. It was a real treat. Also, children got new clothes or even a pair of shoes. The adults’ Christmas parties involved unrestrained drunkenness.

Ideas about Christmas had leaked into my friends village from surrounding areas, mostly the western secular idea that it was a time to party. But the Christmas story was unknown.

Decorated palm branches

Nowadays, there is a translation of the New Testament in my friend’s language. That has changed how Christmas is celebrated. Families gather colorful flowers and weave them into palm branches that they attach to their doorframes for everyone to see. Children still get new clothes and everyone eats special meals. But now Christmas Eve is a time to go to church. The party has turned into a focus on Christ. People know who he was and what he did. They have allegiance to him.

Whereas secular western traditions of Christmas borrowed from British colonizers debased Christmas for my friend’s village, the Bible in the people’s language elevated it. In the process, the Bible has replaced secular western cultural influence with the real story of that amazing Middle Easterner named Jesus and the salvation he brings.

Bibleless Peoples part 3 – Controversy

This is part three of a series on the bibleless peoples. In this part, I want to look at the political controversy that often surrounds the languages they speak.
Fear of disunity and conflict is one of the main drivers of political controversy over language. Some people worry that having different communities speaking different languages will result in tensions between those communities that will eventually create enough conflict to tear a country apart. That is the view from the national level. People with this view will sometimes propose that everyone in the country speak the same language.

The view from within a small language community in a nation is very different. They often hear the proposals that there be only one language as a threat – not to their language but to their very identity and existence. So they often react with opposition to the proposals.

Ironically, proposals that there be only one language often create the very political tensions they are designed to end. Recently this exact scenario was played out in India when a prominent person proposed that all India should speak one language. Opposition from those whose mother tongue is another language was strong and swift. Even when they already spoke the proposed language! They said it was an attempt to enslave them and “a war cry” against them. The controversy continued even after the proposal was backtracked. So a proposal made to create unity created tensions instead. Something similar happened over omitting a language on a plaque.

To understand the political reaction against one-language proposals, we need to move away from understanding language as simply a means of communication. Instead, ethnic groups often use the individual threads of their language, their culture, their history, and their religion into weave a cloth that constitutes their identity. They perceive that they cannot lose any one thread, say language, without unraveling the whole cloth. So their language is not just their means of communication, but rather an integral and cherished part of who they are. For this reason, bibleless peoples often feel that their identity is threatened when their language is threatened.

Professor B Y Quarshie says:

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity

And Professor Lamin Sanneh wrote:

Language [is] not merely a tool fashioned to achieve limited and temporary goals. It [is] also a dynamic cultural resource, reflecting the spirit of the people and illuminating their sense of values.

And a recent article in a Nigerian newspaper stated:

Language is more than spoken words. It is the bedrock of any cultural and traditional society. Take away the language, and the core spirit of heritage and history is lost.

Ghanaian with his Bible

People’s attachment to their language showed up recently in South Africa when the daughter of TV stars would only speak English and not her parents’ African language. Many South Africans criticized her for abandoning her true identity. They were fine with her speaking English, but thought she should speak her African language too. I could continue with unending examples of the fierce attachment people have to their language because it is part of their identity.

Language will probably always be a hot political issue given the competing demands of national unity and local identity. But the attachment people have to their language makes it a great medium for transmitting the Gospel. Those announcing the Gospel do themselves a great disfavor if they see language as divisive, or as only a utilitarian issue of communication rather than as a God-given door to peoples’ hearts.

We take the latter approach, and so we call this blog Heart Language.

Bibleless Peoples part 2, language myths

I recently read “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. Douglass wrote it in 1845. It contained a number of words I did not know. Take this passage, for example.

His carriage-house contained three splendid coaches, three or four gigs, besides dearborns and barouches of the most fashionable style.

I had to look up gigs, dearborns, and barouches, having never had occasion to be around or talk about these types of horse-drawn wagons and coaches. I knew of covered wagons and stage coaches because I have seen those and heard them called by their names, but everything else was just a wagon to me.

Choir in Congo singing AIDS prevention song in their language

That brings me to bibleless peoples. They are often accused of having impoverished, substandard or unscientific languages. These accusations are bolstered by pointing out that the languages do not have words for modern things. But in Frederick Douglass’s day, even English did not have the word “microbe”. Was his language therefore impoverished? Was mine impoverished because I didn’t know barouches? Not having words for something is a silly way to judge someone’s language. Many common words today were unknown to Shakespeare and it is ridiculous to call the English he spoke and wrote impoverished or substandard. In fact, such accusations are misplaced for any language because languages adopt or invent new words for the things they encounter. Vocabulary is a function of context rather than a sign of adequacy or inadequacy. All languages can and do develop – acquiring new words as needed. Did you know that “vegan” wasn’t invented until 1944 and remained obscure for decades after that? When we were involved in translating AIDS information into Congo languages, we had to find ways to say HIV, AIDS, seropositive, virus and many other things. Those doing the translations always found good translations of all the terms and even had them approved by medical professionals.

Unfortunately, sometimes bibleless peoples believe the negative statements made about their languages. They can even believe that the lack of certain words will make it impossible to translate the Bible. Sometimes we have to convince church leaders who fear that the Bible will be degraded by translating it into “substandard” languages. It’s all part of mobilizing churches in Africa for Bible translation.

But when the translation produces the joy of salvation and the fruit of godly living, the language myths are often dispelled. Besides, dare we call any language “impoverished” in which God speaks to people?

Publications in many topics in Ghanaian languages

The Bibleless part 1 – Hidden

The United Nations has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This prompts me to write a short series of blog posts about a related topic – the peoples around the world who still don’t have the Bible in their language – the bibleless peoples.

The bibleless peoples and their languages are almost invisible. That is, you only notice them if you look. Unlike the things in life that force themselves into our perception whether we want them or not – potholes, polluted air, loving hugs from family and friends – most of us could live our whole lives without encountering someone from a bibleless people, or not noticing if we did. In this way, the bibleless peoples are very much like the one lost sheep from among the 100 that the good shepherd took pains to locate.

Being an imitator of Jesus means more than responding with love and the gospel to the people and circumstances that we find clearly in our vision. It also means going and looking for cases we don’t readily see. That’s the point of the parable and indeed of Jesus life – he came looking for us even while we were hidden (lost), far away and not looking for him.

We owe a debt to those who have located and made known the bibleless peoples. They embody Jesus’ seeking spirit.

I remember vividly a chief of the Nawuri people expressing how hidden his people felt until they had the Bible. Raising high the newly-printed New Testament in Nawuri, and with emotion in his voice he said:

Politicians don’t know us, but now God knows us.

Jesus said of himself:

For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” – Luke 19:10

Jesus seeks, actively searches for, the lost. He didn’t and doesn’t wait for them to find him. To be true to Jesus, our mission endeavors should also spend effort searching for those who would normally remain hidden.

Made for leaving

I think I always knew it, but my friend and the person who has overseen most of my work in Ghana, Paul Opoku-Mensah, clarified it for me:

Missionaries are temporary

Or as I like to say, missionaries are made for leaving. By that, I do not mean that they are forced to leave. Rather, I mean that missionaries are temporary by design. Leaving is what we are built for. We see this clearly in Jesus ministry which lasted roughly three years. We see it in the Apostle Paul’s missionary journies during which he went many places, stayed some time, then moved on. But when I say that missionaries are made to leave, I am not speaking primarily about the length of their ministry, but more about the conditions that end it. A missionary might move to an area to translate the Bible into the language there, then move on or return home when the translation is complete. That might take quite a long time, but it is still destined to end if and when the missionary succeeds. A mission that has not ended is, therefore, one which has not yet succeeded.

There’s an irony in the fact that a mission which succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise. But it goes further than that. A mission that does not end stifles new life.

Paul Opoku-Mensah taught me that it is good and natural that missionaries have different ideas than those who come to faith through their ministry. The missionary who founded The Church of Pentecost in Ghana, James McKoewn, only did evangelism and discipleship, but he was pleased when, after his retirement, the very successful church he planted branched out into medical work, schools and more. He saw these changes as a sign of his success. But many missionaries resist changes to ministries they start. I remember a person highly respected among his people telling us that a particular missionary had to go. The missionary had not done anything wrong except keep control too long.

If a missionary translates the Bible for people, those people may develop their own vision for what comes next. They will want to make sure that the translation is reprinted and on sale for the next generations. They might want to have their language used in the first few years of primary school to help their children get better grades. They may want lots of literacy classes. Or maybe they will want to translate their church’s liturgy. There’s no telling what things they will want to do to that the missionary didn’t do.

In order for this to happen well, the missionary must leave, or at least relinquish his or her hold on the ministry, so others can take it new directions.

To really succeed, a missionary must create the conditions that bring an end to his or her ministry.

Fraud

money-on-mouse-trap

Quite a few years ago, I was following a national organization doing Bible translation in a particular African country. Their board let their director go and brought in a new director. He brought in new top-level staff and they set about making some changes to the organization.

In the course of making the changes, they found that one of the translation project leaders was embezzling funds. They fired him and set about finding a new project leader. They also informed the US organization which was funding that translation project. That organization wrote back that they were stopping funding because of the fraud. They did not suspend funding pending a resolution of the issue, but rather stopped it permanently.

Now, I can understand stopping funding as a gut reaction. But I wondered if they really thought about the impact of what they were doing.

First, the people group still needed a translation. The embezzlement didn’t change that. Should they not get a translation because one person acted badly?

Second, they stopped funding to an organization that was undergoing reforms that had caught the problem. That didn’t seem like the right way to reward reformers who were fixing things.

Perhaps stopping funding gave a good feeling to the leaders of the funding organization or perhaps it made them look tough on fraud in front of their donors. But I could not think of any positive effect for the kingdom of God where the translation was happening. There, reformers were a bit disheartened and the people group saw their translation stop.

However, the reformers did go on to put in place a system where well-chosen local committees had oversight over the translation, and that put a virtual end to problems with missing and miss-spent money for translations.

Transformational parnership

When I worked in Congo, we partnered with another organization to translate Luke and produce the Jesus’s Film in ten languages.

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film in their language at the dedication ceremony

It went pretty well until we got past the recording stage and were working on planning the showing of the films. The representative of the other organization for Congo informed us that most people only view the Jesus Film once. Because of that, he said, it is very important to to make sure that there be a system to identify and counsel people who make a decision for Christ, similar to what is often organized for evangelistic campaigns. For the same reason, distribution should be tightly controlled. The representative preferred that the film be given only to trained protection teams who would travel with projection equipment from place to place. Our Congolese church partners would have to implement this phase, but they had other ideas. They thought that people would watch the film many times, so they preferred that many copies be given away for free. Besides, this approach would cost far less. The other organization strongly opposed these ideas.

So, we have a large Christian organization with decades of experience showing the film insisting on one plan, but churches with no experience wanting a very different plan. It seemed crazy to argue that we should abandon the advice of an organization with so much experience in favor of a untested idea from those with no experience. But that’s what we did.

In the end, DVDs of the film were distributed widely for free. People watched it multiple times. In fact, some watched it so often that they memorized it. We had reports of illiterate adults and even children quoting Jesus’ words verbatim in response to something happened. We had every indication that the film was getting Jesus’ teaching deeply into society and people’s minds and hearts.

In hindsight, it seems that the other organization had proposed a way to distribute the film that fit well in places where people have many films available in their language (watch it once or twice), but couldn’t predict how people would use the film when it is the only film in their language (watch it over and over). Also, the organization saw the film as having impact in evangelism, but its actual impact was in discipleship of believers. Note that none of the languages involved had a translation, so the Jesus Film, which is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke was the most available Scripture.

In the same vein, I read a report of an international evaluation undertaken by a US-based Christian ministry. One of the ministry’s overseas partners was not running their program according to norms; so much so that the ministry was about to sever relations. But the evaluation showed the program run the “wrong” way by the “faulty” partner got the better results than any other program around the world. Furthermore, the evaluator concluded that the excellent results were attributable to the supposedly incorrect methods of the partner.

From my Congo experience and others, and from reading the evaluation, I propose the following conclusions which are also challenges to Western missions and churches partnering with churches overseas.

  • If a Western mission has a partnership with church or ministry in another country, and that partnership is not transforming the Western mission, then the Westernern mission is probably not as effective as it should be. It might not be engaged in true partnership.
  • If the western agency is always doing things the way they know will work, even when partners on the ground in another country want something else, then it is probably not as effective as it should be. The western agency needs to find a way to open itself to risky new ideas, to experiment.

Criticism of translations

Domenico Ghirlandaio : Saint Jerome in his Study (1480 — Church of Ognissanti, Florence)

It is fascinating to see how translations of the Bible are recieved. Books are written about translations of the Bible into English extolling their virtues or exposing their weaknesses. Some give new translations kudos and other castigation. This kind of reception for new translations is not at all new. In fact, the history of what was said about new translations reveals a pattern.

In 382 AD, Euseius Hieronymus, later known as Saint Jerome, was asked to produce a new translation of the Bible in Latin to replace the Old Latin Version which some considered divinely inspired – once for all delivered for all believers. Jerome was highly qualified for the task. But, when his translation appeared it was not widely accepted. It took some time, but his translation was finally recognized for what it was – a work of great accuracy, beauty and skill.

But that was only after Jerome’s death. Then people started saying about his translation exactly the opposite of what its critics said when it first appeared. In fact, they said that Jerome’s translation had all the qualities — accuracy, eloquence, clarity — an earlier generation said only belonged to the Old Latin Version.

In the late 1800s, the Swiss theologian Louis Segond did a translation into French from the original languages because the existing French translations were all over 100 years old. When it first appeared in 1880, it encountered a firestorm of criticism from French protestants, especially from more conservative churches. Nevertheless, it eventually it became the standard translation, occupying a place similar to the King James in English. Revisions in 1978 and 2007 are still the most popular Bibles among French protestants, while the revision done in 1910 is still widely used in French-speaking Africa. When newer translations in French started to appear in the late 20th century, many protestants defended Segond’s translation, saying that it was more accurate whereas their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, often members or leaders of the same churches, had criticized its accuracy.

When the King James Version first appeared in 1611 many Puritans continued to use the Geneva Bible, even printing it after that was outlawed. As late as 1800, almost 200 years after the King James was first published, some Puritan families were still using the Geneva Bible. In fact, it was the Geneva Bible that the pilgrims brought to the New World, not the King James. After the first publishing of the King James Version a renowned Hebrew scholar named Hugh Broughton became its strongest critic. Upon receiving a courtesy copy of the first printing, we wrote a blistering critique. But the opposition died away and the King James Version became synonymous with the Bible for English speakers.

So, it is entirely predictable that when a new translation appears, there will be claims that a well-established older translation is better because it is more accurate, more beautiful and/or more holy.

The same thing is happening today in Ghana. The first translations of the Bible appeared into the Ga, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay), and Twi languages in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Bible Society did revisions in the late 20th century, but some people still come to their sales points asking for the original versions because they believe that they are more accurate, beautiful or holy.

The same will happen, alas, to the translations in which we have been involved when they are revised.

If you liked this, you might also like Why New Translations.