Deep and wide

Ed addressing the workshop

Ed addressing a regional workshop

A few months back, I attended a few sessions of a training event for African church leaders. The topic was the use of African languages in the ministry of the church. That includes translations of the Bible in African languages, of course. The focus of the training was on getting faith deep into hearts and minds so that influences all of life. Some have remarked that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is common for Christians and churches to split along ethnic lines during ethnic conflicts.

mandela-his-languageI know of cases where Christians have tried to harm, even kill, other members of their own church who were from the “enemy” ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in parts of African where there are many Christians. Serious Christians and church leaders are asking what is wrong and how to fix it. What is lacking in the preaching of the Gospel? What are churches not doing or doing wrong? How does faith get to the level of changing a person’s values, actions and allegiances? I have heard African Christians and their church leaders ask discuss these questions. The leaders of the workshop, themselves Africans, were proposing that deep faith that changes a person often involves the person’s mother tongue, even if it involves other languages as well.

At the end of the workshop, one of the participants, the leader of a large church in the country, told the group that he realized during the workshop that:

We win lots of souls, but we don’t give them what they need to grow in their new faith.

After the event, he asked for help planning a literacy effort for the Christians in his churches so that they could read the Bible in their own languages. We sent him a literacy specialist to help him get started. In Great Commission it is obvious that Jesus was giving instructions to do much more than “win lots of souls”. Jesus said to teach people “to observe all that I have commanded”. So we commend the church leader who wants to see the people in his churches grow in their faith.

We are doing Bible translation so that Christianity in Africa will be as deep as it is wide.

Old Testament Gap

ekem-and-ansre

Participants talk in between sessions

Last month in Accra, I attended a consultation on accelerating Old Testament translation. It was attended by people with wide-ranging interests: Bible agencies, organizations training people in biblical and modern Hebrew in Isreal, and church leaders. One of the topics was the Old Testament gap; that is, the gap between the number of languages which have a translation of just the New Testament and those that have the whole Bible. There are 1,442 languages in the world with a translation of only the New Testament. Of those, 1,188 have no active translation work on the Old Testament. Of those, approximately 300 are in Africa and about 90 have more than 500,000 speakers. Some languages have had the New Testament for many decades and still have no translation of the Bible and none in progress.

The gap is due to several factors. One is training. Many translators and consultants who work on New Testament translation lack the skills to be involved in Old Testament translation, especially the Hebrew language. One of the saddest parts of the gap is that when the translation of the New Testament in a language was completed and the missionaries left, the churches were often left without anyone qualified to translate the Old Testament even if they wanted to continue on their own.

The biggest gap, in my opinion is the transformation gap. Most sermons in African churches are based on Old Testament texts. The Old Testament deals with issues which most Africans face every day. I call this is impact or transformational gap – the gap between the transformation which could be happening with a translation of the whole Bible and the lesser impact that is happening now. Did you know that during the Reformation, there was a major push for more just and democratic government and that a lot of the ideas that created that movement came from the Old Testament? You can even download the Geneva Bible which preceded the King James translation and see the footnotes on fair and just government it contains.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how a sermon on the first chapter of Genesis brought a lawyer to faith.

The consultation called for a number of actions to remedy the situation. Some of them, like training more people to help with Old Testament translation, started not long after the consultation closed.

Ideophones and prayer

Some time ago, I was at a training event where an African was praying in her language. In the middle of the prayer came a rapid, staccato “dedede” (pronounced day day day). The person was using very common kind of word in African languages – an ideophone. When linguists first encountered these words in African languages they said that the words were “painting with sound”. And that’s how they came to be called idea-sounds, which is what ideophones means. (Not to be confused with idiophones which is a class of musical instruments. If you remember onomatopoeia from your English classes in school, you may wonder if ideophones are just onomatopoeia. Actually, ideophone is a broader term. Onomatopoeia are a kind of ideophone.)

Information about this ideophone from "The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese", Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Information about this ideophone from “The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese”, Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Cock-a-doodle-doo is an ideophone. While English has ideophones, there are not nearly as many as there are in African languages, nor are they used as frequently. In English, they are limited mostly to sounds made by animals and machines. In African languages ideophones are used for many other things such as the way something moves, its shape, or its position. One of my favorites means “gigantic, unwieldy blob of a thing”

In African languages, ideophones have the same sounds (consonants and vowels) as other words in the language, but they put them together in ways other words do not. They are also different because they don’t take prefixes or suffixes.

We can say that the rooster was cock-a-doodle-dooing, or that he cock-a-doodle-dooed, but African ideophones can’t add things like “ing” and “ed” the way we do in English. These features make ideophones a separate class of words in African languages.

But the most important thing about ideophones is that they paint mental images that stir up feelings, visual memories, or sensations. Their use in a prayer is a sign that the the person praying is saying something straight from their heart. In fact, the person is saying something that would require a whole phrase or sentence to say without the ideophone. An ideophone is a like a very compact, and therefore powerful, dose of images.

Praying 1

Prayer in a church in Congo

But ideophones are somewhat in danger. Many educated Africans don’t say them often. Perhaps they have been influenced by the official language, English or French, they learned in school. Or, they may mistakenly consider them primitive. So when an educated African Christian uses an ideophone in prayer in front of other educated people, that person is showing an attachment to and respect for their language that goes beyond the ordinary. It also shows that they are conveying to God thoughts and emotions that come straight from their heart.

We work in Bible translation, but our concern is wider than that. Through translation, we want people to know that they can use all of their language to connect to God, so that they will connect to him from the deepest part of their being. The person praying was doing just that. – Woo woo woo woo woo!!!

John Paton

John Paton

John Paton

John Paton died this coming Saturday (January 28) in 1907. His story is the kind of dramatic and terrifying tale that makes for a great missionary biography.

In 1858, he arrived on Tanna Island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). What makes that dramatic is that he set sail for Tanna Island a mere 14 days after his wedding, and the first Christian missionaries to the islands had been killed and cannibalized minutes after their arrival. Back home, people had told Paton he was a fool for going to such a place, especially with his new bride. Then his story gets worse. His first child was born during his first year on Tanna Island. Baby and mother died days of the birth. He buried them with his own hands. For four more years, he struggled on seeing little results for his sacrifice, until the people of the island drove him off.

He returned to Scotland where inspired many to become missionaries and go to the New Hebrides. I have to wonder what he said, because he had nothing but misery to show for his own missionary endeavors.

vanuatu-mapHe remarried and returned to the New Hebrides, this time to Aniwa island. There he lost four more children in early childhood. He was often in poor health and the people of that island threatened him. Under these conditions and for 41 years, he preached and translated the New Testament into one of the many local languages.

It is not until near the end of his life that results started to appear, and even then only slowly. At his death in 1907, there were missionaries on 25 of the 30 islands. Today, Vanuatu today is estimated to be 90% Christian, but that took many decades after Paton’s death. The translation of the New Testament he worked on is still in use.

Those of you who follow this blog will have noted a recurring theme in my blog posts – Bible translation is a mission endeavor that takes time to produce results, but when the results come they also last. This is reflected in the by-line for this blog – Connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact. The story of Paton’s perseverance and suffering in the face of ill health and hostility is challenging. But let’s not let that great story hide the story of the extraordinary spread of Christianity that took place after his sufferings were long over.

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Adapted from a blog posted by Wycliffe Bible Translators UK.

What do we do

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language - a step in language development

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language – a step in language development

I work in Bible translation. I find the complexity of language and translation intriguing. I love the linguistic and cultural sleuthing required to find exactly the right word to translate biblical concepts like salvation and righteousness. But that is not my real passion. If Bible translation were only that, it would not be enough. This came home to me in while I was part of the process of recruiting a new director for the translation work in Côte d’Ivoire. Part of that process included interviews with selected candidates. One of those interviews stayed with me.

The person’s knowledge of the organization and Bible translation was impressive, even though they had not worked in Bible translation or been closely associated with it. The person described our goals and the nature of our work with a level of detail that I did not expect from someone who had not worked in the organization. This candidate talked knowledgeably about the role of language development in Bible translation, for example. He had obviously taken time to study the organization.

changeBut there was something missing. For this candidate, translation work had great value because it preserved an important part of African culture – the language. It kept languages from dying out, he said. But there was something big missing – something that came out in the interviews with the other candidates; even those who did not cite our goals in such great detail. They all talked about the transforming effect of translating the Bible into African languages. This candidate did not mention that.

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Where the Bible has been translated into the heart languages of the people, change has followed and sometimes very big change. Churches sprang up in places were there was longstanding resistance to the preaching of missionaries; churches spang up or held on under intense persecution; believers got newfound joy, peace and fruitfulness in their lives; societal ills like drunkenness declined. In some cases translation was an important contributor to the creation of political and religious freedom.

Translation is what we do, but transformation is what we pursue … lasting, authentic, God-fashioned transformation.

PS: The candidate in question is still has the same job he had before the interview.

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Troubled places

A while back, I was talking to another American working in Bible translation in Africa. They had put a lot of effort into getting something going and then turning it over to Africans. But it was not continuing as well as they had hoped. It dawned on me that there were places where someone had put effort into the same thing and it was continuing very well with Africans in charge. The difference? In the places where there were lots of difficulties and economic hardship it is doing well. In the easy places, it’s struggling.

trouble-signIn fact, this is general true wherever people are translating the Bible for the very first time in Africa. There is more interest in the translations in the difficult places, and less in the easy places. I can think of dozens of contrasting examples. Dayle and I were recently serving temporarily in Côte d’Ivoire. The southern parts of the country are more prosperous, have better schools, roads and health care. The northern parts are behind on all those counts. But it is in the northern parts that new translations are more widely read. In the north, local people volunteer to teach others to read and they are enthusiastic to help the translation effort by volunteering their time in other ways In the south, that doesn’t work so well and more people expect money to do those same things. I listened to several Ivorians from the south lament the lack of volunteering to help in translation or literacy in their communities.

One of the best parts of the road

One of the best parts of a long road I once traveled

There are exemptions, but in general translations done in more challenging environments are more widely used, benefit from more local support and have greater transformative impact.

The places in Africa to which a person can easily go on mission – those within a short drive on a good road from an international airport – are generally less likely to produce big impact and less likely to sustain the impact for a long time. But go to a place for which the US government regularly issues travel warnings, or where getting there takes some doing, or where there is some other difficulty, and your mission is more likely to have significant, lasting impact.

That’s for others

Langauge Map of GhanaThere are some large, unreached people groups in the north of Ghana. They have been resistant to various attempts by missionaries and churches to reach them with the Gospel. In recent years however, small congregations have started springing up here and there. These people groups have low education and literacy rates coupled with high poverty, which is quite a contrast to the southern parts of Ghana.

A number of Ghanaian churches have outreach in the north. They have have had modest success in evangelism and church planting. As Bibles were translated into the languages, some of them began literacy programs for members of their churches so that the Bibles could be used.

They funneled money from their churches in the south for to support the literacy effort. Literacy has had effects no one really expected, and those effects have been so big that two of the churches have changed their strategy for growing their churches in the north.

Keep in mind that most of the rural Christians were poor, subsistence farmers with little or no education. Prior to learning to read, their only participation in church was to sit and listen. Neither they nor church leaders thought that they had any role to play. When church leaders organized literacy classes, their hope was that these believers would be able to grow in faith through reading their Bibles. That happened, but much, much more.

Christians in the Northern Outreach Program read the Bible in their languages

Lay preachers from northern Ghana reading their Bibles at a church conference

Some of the Christians who attended literacy classes started seriously reading the Bibles in their languages. I’m not talking about reading a few verses a day. One man told me how he read the New Testament clear through 5 or 6 times in the month following the dedication. Where the whole Bible has been translated, some of those previously uneducated and illiterate peasant farmers used their newly acquired literacy skills to read their Bibles through multiple times in short order and then to continue reading it through every few months. They became known in their communities as Bible experts.

Literacy took them way beyond being able to grow in their personal faith – they became a faith resource for others. People came to them asking questions about the Bible and about Christianity. They started teaching Bible and Sunday school classes in their language. Some became lay preachers in their churches. A few have weekly FM radio broadcasts in which they explain the Bible or have a call-in segment where listeners can ask questions. In some cases, clerics from other religions come and ask them questions.

Learning to read

Learning to read

Not that long ago, these local Bible experts were simple pew sitters. Churches have realized that they need to recognize these lay preachers and include them in their pastoral staff, both because that seemed reasonable and because they are more effective than the more educated pastors sent to the north from other parts of Ghana who have to learn the languages. But these newly-literate lay preachers have provoked yet another change that goes way beyond the church to affect their whole community. Before, many people from northern Ghana considered that Christianity was not a religion them.

They thought that Christianity was the religion for the more educated peoples of the south of Ghana. But now the local lay preacher is from a family that has lived in the community since before anyone can remember, is widely respected, and preaches and teaches in the language of the community. Faced with that, people change their mind about his religion being only for people from somewhere else.

Bible translation and literacy for believers is radically altering the perceptions about Christianity, they are changing it from being generally considered a foreign import to something that is becoming an accepted part of the community – an understandable and acceptable choice. This hasn’t happened everywhere yet. There are still communities where the churches have not organized literacy classes. There, Christianity remains a religion for others.

The Picture Window

A Particular Glory - John PiperJohn Piper has written a book about the Bible entitled A Particular Glory. I find the book fascinating partly because it echoes some of my experience with the Bible that I have not been able to articulate, and partly because it offers a very fresh break from the “battle for the Bible” that has dominated Evangelical teaching and writing about the Bible for more than a few decades.

Piper shifts the focus of the discussion to the view of things (of god, of human beings, and of creation) presented in the Bible. That view, he says, is compelling because it is rich in the glory of God.

As I said at the beginning, the Bible has not been for me like a masterpiece hanging on the wall of an Alpine chalet but rather like a window in the wall of the chalet, with the Alps on the other side. In other words, I have been a Christian all these years not because I had the courage to hold on to an embattled view of Scripture, but because I have been held happily captive by the beauty of God and his ways that I see through the Scriptures.

I have stood in front of this window all these years, not to protect it from being broken, or because the owner of the chalet told me to, but because of the glory of the Alps on the other side. I am a captive of the glory of God revealed in Scripture.

John Piper is a well-known pastor and theologian with a seminary degree. He has written numerous books. This book, A Particular Glory, has received endorsements from leading evangelicals.

But poor, uneducated, subsistence farmers in northern Ghana (among others) beat him to the idea and to the experience. It is only in recent years that the Bible has been translated into the languages of northern Ghana (and not yet all of their languages). But when it was, many of them accepted it and the truth it contains, not because they had some fancy, logical defense of its inspiration and historicity, or because of who brought it (they had long rejected the Christianity brought by Western missionaries), but because what it says gives them a compelling new way to see God and all of life.

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa, who did his doctoral research on the impact of new Bible translations in northern Ghana, told a conference in 2012 that for those peoples in northern Ghana:

The Bible now provides the key to understand the world.

Before John Piper wrote his book, those poor farmers were already standing in front of the large and clear picture window which is the Bible in their language, joyfully compelled by the glorious view it provides. At a church meeting in Ghana in 2014, I saw their joy they read and talked about the Bibles in their languages they all held in their hands.

76 year gap

Reading Mono translation

Reading Mono translation

In the remote city of Bili in northwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a congregation listens quietly as their pastor reads from the book of Mark in Lingala, a trade language in this region. When the same passage is read again – this time in Mono, the people’s mother tongue – the listeners sit up, smile and begin to laugh. They hear this story as though for the first time. (Source: Wycliffe News Network)

Long road in Mono area

Long road in Mono area

Although I was not present at this occasion, the story is familiar to me. Over and over I have witnessed the first exposure of Christians to the Bible in their own language during a church service. The reading often disrupts the service. In his book A Peculiar Glory (free PDF download), John Piper writes that the Bible is a window to God’s glory – a big picture window. What the Mono people in that church service experienced was the window changing from frosted to clear.

The article goes on to say:

The Mono people first heard the gospel from an African evangelist in the 1940s and many became followers of Jesus.

Here we are, 76 years after the Mono people first heard the Good News, and they are just getting the Bible in their language. Unfortunately, this situation is not rare in Africa. In Ghana, three translation programs started in the last 2 years concern languages where the people have had the Gospel for over 100 years.

Church in the Mono area

Church in the Mono area

The 2.2 billion Christians in the world speak an estimated 3,000 languages. Of those, less than 600 have a translation of the whole Bible. Is this a problem? In many cases it is. Without the Bible in the language of the people, aberrant beliefs can creep in, traditional religious practices may continue even in the church, as people peer at God through frosted glass. There is no shortage of historical cases where Christianity disappeared after some time where the Bible was not translated, and cases where it stuck in spite of persecution where it had. Furthermore, the problems are most acute for the more marginalized in society – women, children, the uneducated, the poor; the very kind of people Jesus prioritized. Leading African Christians have stated that translations of the Bible in the languages of the people are necessary for Christianity to flourish in Africa.

The ministry of Bible translation is often presented as pioneering – working among people who have not heard the Gospel. In a significant number of places in Africa it is a ministry to those who have already claimed Jesus but don’t have access to his words. Even then it has an element of outreach. An evaluation of the impact of translations in northern Ghana found that Christians with the Bible in their own language spoke of their faith more often to their neighbors of other religions. The evaluation also found that Christians who did not have the Bible in their language did not speak of their faith to others because they felt that they knew less about their faith than followers of other religions knew about theirs.

(Photos courtesy of the Wycliffe News Network. If you have trouble seeing the photos, go to http://www.wycliffe.net/photos?album=Story5860PerseveringInTheHopeForScripture.)

Hymns

Baby on back of choir memberChoirs in African churches often differ from choirs in the US. For one thing, they often function as small groups for Bible study and mutual support. But the aspects I want to focus on today is that they often sing in African languages and they very often write their own songs, sometimes regularly introducing new songs. Coupled with high rates of illiteracy found in many parts of rural Africa, choirs can be an important way to get the Bible to people.

I’m reading a book about theology and Christian life in Africa. Each chapter has a different author, all African. They write about what Christians in Africa believe and how that affect (or not) their behavior. Here’s a passage from a chapter written by a church leader from Mali:

Theologie et vie chretienne en AfriqueIn all the churches, the availability of the Bible or New Testament is a source of inspiration for composers of Christian songs in their mother tongues. Whereas the first missionaries translated their English or French hymns into Malian languages, Malian Christians composed their own hymns using their musical styles. The songs composed by Christians who do not read the bible are full of moral exhortations which differ only from the songs of non-Christians because the name of Jesus appears a few times. On the other hand, composers who read the Bible are a minority, but they write songs enriched by the Word of God.

Choir_4This is another example of how the translation of the Bible into the language of the people enhances faith and people’s experience of church.

As most people memorize songs more quickly and easily than we memorize plain text, many people memorize what they sing in church. What a pity if those songs don’t have much content!

But if the songs are full of Bible content, then that content gets into people minds and from their into their hearts. So, to get new translations used, we target choirs, choir directors and people who write songs for churches. We might hold a small workshop for them, for example. They idea is to encourage them to write based on the Scripture in their language.

choir with handkerchiefsAs they sing these songs, and often the congregation sings along,  the Bible will get into the heads of people who may never learn to read. That’s important because of high rates of illiteracy in Africa, especially in rural Africa.

Worship in churches in Africa is known for its enthusiasm and vibrancy. Those are good. When the words of the songs are full of Bible content, then worship will have as much substance and truth as it has vivacity  – the best of both.