Barrier to bridge

For many people, most perhaps, the fact that there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today is a problem. Wouldn’t everything be a lot easier if everyone spoke the same Language?

Missionaries and churches have sometimes taken the approach that languages are a barrier, refusing to use them for worship or evangelism. Instead they use a regional, dominant, or official language. Dr. Harriet Hill and Dr. Lamin Sanneh have pointed out that this often leads to stagnation of the Christian faith.

It has become more and more common for missionaries to see languages as a bridge rather than as a barrier. In fact, seeing languages as a bridge has become so common that we can speak of a paradigm shift in missions. One very large international mission agency even shifted all of its work away from dominant languages to local languages when the saw the success of the latter approach.

Langauge Map of Ghana

Langauge Map of Ghana

Unfortunately churches lag behind missions in this paradigm shift. Their members may have a vested political economic, educational, tribal, or other interest in maintaining the dominant language. Also they are generally not aware of the successes of ministry based on the idea that every language is a bridge between the people and the Gospel.

In Ghanaian churches we sometimes encounter skepticism of the value of translating the Bible into the lesser known languages of the country. If the problem is that they lack information, they quickly change their minds once they are informed. On the other hand, things are more difficult if they have a vested interest in maintaining the dominant language. Language is often highly political.

So, our goal of mobilizing the churches in Ghana for translation addresses both the need for information and the need to moderate some political positions.

Naaman and healing in Africa

In July 2018, I attended a conference on the topic of the Old Testament in Africa. One speaker, Professor Kpobi, gave examples of how the Old Testament brings helpful corrections to some problems and excesses that are arising in Christianity in Africa. Among the examples he gave was the story of the healing of Naaman.

In African traditional culture, the person wanting healing would have to go through an ordeal. The purpose of the ordeal is to show that they are serious. So the healer might ask the person to bring the tongue of lion, or some other very difficult thing. The ordeal might also involve the person drinking something dangerous. But the story of Naaman shows that the prophet demands no ordeal at all. Dipping in the Jordan river is not an ordeal. In fact, it is so much the anti-ordeal that Naaman balks. African Christian healers who demand ordeals may not realize it, but they are borrowing from their African traditional religion and not from the Scriptures.

Professor David Kpobi of Trinity Seminary, Accra, giving his presentation

In South Africa, some people became very ill after a Christian healer told them that they must drink gasoline. The Old Testament stories of healing bring correction to such practices.

Bibles in church

In 2017, the Ghanaian organization I work with (GILLBT) received a letter from a pastor of a congregation composed of believers from the Buli language. Here’s the gist of that letter:

This is to inform you that last Sunday during the Bible study period, we noticed an unusual thing that about half of the adults had their Buli Bible and each was eager to read whenever a reference was made. It was so good and pleasant to see that. I wish to say thank you GILLBT for this wonderful thing you have done. Long live GILLBT.

This is amazing for three reasons.

First, far fewer than half of Buli adults can read. In fact it’s probably less than one in five. It is likely that many of the people in church got there through a literacy class.

Second, the church in question is in Accra, a long distance from the area where the Buli language is spoken. Historically, people moving out of their area to a city learn the language of the city in order to find work and interact with their neighbors. Quite a few people, including pastors planting churches, think that local languages are therefore irrelevant to church planting in cities. It turns out that the opposite is often true – that local languages are very effective in evangelism of people newly-arrived from rural areas.

Third, because these believers can read, they have much better job opportunities. The effects are obvious. Christians do better economically than other recent, uneducated rural people moving to cities.

Lastly, these Christians will not be swayed by false teaching because they check everything the preacher says from their Bibles. By the way, the Buli Bible was dedicated two years ago this week.

Liturgy and translation

I grew up in a non-liturgical church. I was an adult before I attended in service in a liturgical church. When I got to Africa I found that there are quite a few liturgical churches here.

Presbyterian church in southern Ghana

For any of you haven’t experienced a liturgical church, one of their features is that they read a lot of Scripture during the service. In fact, many liturgical churches have a fixed set of readings that take them through much of the bible every couple years. Every Sunday, they read several different types of scriptures. For example, they might read a passage each from the Old Testament , Psalms , an Epistle , and the Gospels. Not long ago, I attended a liturgical church in rural Ghana. In the course of the service, five longish passages were read, first in a regional language, then in the language of the congregation. In another church service, the reading went on for 20 minutes.

This kind of worship is very well adapted to places where many of those attending church do not know how to read. For them, the liturgy is the only time during the week that they hear the Scriptures. In contrast, those attending a non liturgical church may hear only a few verses each Sunday, and they may get no overview of Scripture in spite of attending church for years.

In places where the Bible has not yet been translated, liturgical churches read the Bible in another language which sometimes is not well understood by the congregation. These churches are often the most ardent supporters the translation effort

.

Persevere, or not

I have seen missionaries and national Bible translators persevere through incredible difficulties to complete their translations. They have braved physical difficulties, deprivation, even danger. It’s very inspiring.

But I have also seen another kind of perseverance; one that keeps using older methods after better, faster and cheaper methods are found; one that stays around when it would be better to pass the baton to the next runner.

I discovered that sticking to something is only as good as the thing being stuck to. I also discovered that it is not really perseverance when I stick to something because it’s comfortable or because changing takes effort.

While I was making those discoveries, I found an article in the Financial Times entitled, “Why quitters are not failures but a sign of success”. The article cites cases of employees quitting for better jobs, and people leaving dying companies to work for growing enterprises. The author claims that these quitters help create economic growth.

Unfortunately, Bible translation does not have the incentives to update and change that are found in business. For example, a country might have only one translation agency, giving it a monopoly on Bible translation. In such cases, people who want the Bible in their language only have one choice. So it’s do it as that agency says or not at all.

Today, that is changing. People from over 75 countries are involved in translating the Bible around the world. They bring different ideas. There are more and more agencies as well and almost all the new agencies are in developing countries. They tend to develop innovative approaches. This can create tensions. But creating tensions where there is the wrong kind of perseverance is generally a good thing.

Since 2011 I have had the privilege of working with in a Ghanaian organization that is bringing positive change to Bible translation.

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven
….
A time to keep and a time to throw away. – Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

The primary transformation

Traditional cultures enforce unity through social sanctions like shunning, withdrawal of social support, ostracism or even threats and violence. People who break the group’s norms pay a price. This encourages those who support the norms and tends to keep those who would break them in line. The result is a unity that is enforced by the whole of the group, not just its leaders.

The first Christians in the group may be seen as threats to group unity, bringing them under intense pressure to abandon their newfound faith. I met the son of one of the first Christians in a people of northern Ghana. He was in his 50s when I met him. But he told of remembering a childhood of persistent social pressure from neighbors consisting of condemnation, blame, threats, and ostracism. Nevertheless, his family stood fast and after many years the social pressure was much reduced.

However bad this sounds, changing a whole society belongs to those who break norms that need breaking, form solidarity with others doing the same, continue to politely but firmly speak and act against the norm, and persist through the resulting social pressures. In fact, these are the very actions the Bible recommends to us.

The movement to abolish slavery in the United States went through exactly these steps and was the target of the same social pressures described above. It’s meetings were stormed and broken up. Its leaders were targeted, not by government but by pro-slavery citizens. They were denounced, shunned, threatened and ridiculed. But slowly the tide turned. The obolitionists even convinced some slave holders to give up their slaves. Most of the early abolitionists who persisted through the worst public reaction were Christians coming out of the Second Great Awakening – a revival.

It is understandable that some Africans feel that they cannot change inherited cultural norms and practices they find abhorrent or just counterproductive. But they can and do when they have confidence. Research into the effects of translating the Bible into local languages in Ghana and some other places has shown an increase in confidence; including a willingness undertake new things, and to stand against wrong practices. I am coming to the conclusion that this might be the primary transformation because it is a manifestation of faith and because confidence helps generate all other transformations.

Stuffing or stingy

Much of the Bible was written in an farming society. The parables of Jesus include many word pictures from the farming practices of his day. The parable of the sower is probably the best known, but there are many others. All of those listening to Jesus would have been well aware of the practices he was referring to, because they were all around. But 80% of Americans live in cities. Even in American agricultural belts more than 3/4 live in cities. So Jesus word pictures based on farming are distant. We may understand them or not. Even when we understand them, they don’t grab us. On the other hand, just over half of the people of Ghana live in cities. But even those have close ties to rural communities. They may have moved to a city after spending the childhood in a farming community, or they may visit, or there may be farming communities very close to the city. They may buy most of their food in a market where the produce comes from nearby farms. When we lived in Ouagadougou, a capital city, the woman next door would winnow grain in her yard; people planted millet, sorghum and maize in vacant lots. So people see traditional farming even in the cities.

For them, Jesus’ farming parables are not just understandable, they are vivid.

One part of many African markets is full of grain crops: rice, millet, maize, sorghum, etc. In traditional markets, the grain is in bags, one of which the seller opens so that buyers can see the quality. On top of grain is a tin. It is full to overflowing with whatever grain is in the sack. The grain is priced by the tin. When you buy it, the seller shakes down and heaps on more gain till the tin is overflowing and then pours the heaping tin into whatever container you brought, maybe even adding a handful for good measure. No “level’ measures here!

Jesus said:

If you give to others, you will be given a full amount in return. It will be packed down, shaken together, and spilling over into your lap. The way you treat others is the way you will be treated. (Luke 6:38)

In the US, we buy things like grain or flour in packages by weight. In fact, cereal boxes may have some empty space in them. So we aren’t used to this idea of buying something and having the seller pack as much as possible into the container. But we do get this treatment at fast-food joints when they often pack as many fries as possible into that little paper thing. So if we change the image from farming to fast food we get:

When we give, God will give back even more, like stuffing as many fries as one can into the holder so that they spill out in the bag or onto your lap and get lost in the gaps between your car seats. The way you treat others will be the way God treats you.

Are we stuffing or are we stingy?

If you liked this, you might also like Translating Obsolete Measures

Doing better

When I was in Ghana in July 2018 I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian medical doctor. He is from a part of Ghana where there are very few Christians and where the poverty is not uncommon. He told me that he went out into a rural part of his home area where he met a pastor. The pastor is a man with no formal education, not even primary school. But he had learned to read in a literacy class and avidly reads the Bible In his own language. Like most pastors in Ghana, he is bi-vocational. That is, he receives little or no pay as a pastor and supports himself and his family through other activities. Being uneducated and living in rural Ghana means that he is probably a subsistence farmer, like many of his neighbors.

The doctor said with amazement that the uneducated pastor was clearly doing better than most of those around him who also lack education. He attributed the difference to the Gospel. That’s almost certainly right. There are lots of anecdotes and even at least one formal study linking better life outcomes in rural Ghana to reading the Bible.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13

Language Committees: Part 3

This is the last in a series of posts on language committees. I’m writing posts on this topic because helping language committees be more effective is currently the focus of my ministry.

In my first post, I explained where language committees fit in the five groups that are all needed to make a translation program successful. In my second, I wrote about the problems that happen when the committee doesn’t do its job well. In this post, I propose that there are three underlying causes of weak language committees.

The first underlying cause has to do with who is on the committee. If there are committee members from various parts of the community, the committee will be more effective. For example, are all the major church denominations are represented on the committee? A committee that represents only a very narrow swatch of the community will almost certainly result in a translation effort that is full of problems.

The second underlying cause of committee ineffectiveness is motivation. When the members of the language committee are deeply committed to the translation and therefore care about its success, the committee will be more effective. A colleague of mine is dealing with three ineffective committees where people became members because they thought there would be money in it. Sometimes this is related to the first point – the wrong people are on the committee. Other times, it is related to the next point.

The last underlying cause of committee effectiveness or ineffectiveness is lack of knowledge. Doing a translation for the very first time in a language obviously means that people will be doing something they have never done before. Unless the committee gets orientation, usually from the translation agency, it will have trouble making good decisions. Lack of information can lead community leaders to select the wrong people to serve on the committee.

As you have certainly noticed, having effective committees is no small matter.

I started out my focus on committees by seeing the issue as being mostly knowledge and the solution, therefore, being mostly orientation or training. Now, my focus has shifted to committee composition as the cornerstone issue. After all, what good would it due to train the wrong or unmotivated committee members? To address those issues I am working with two GILLBT leaders. We are dealing with the issues as a team.

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)