Beyond mere understanding

I was intrigued by one story I got recently from Ghana. It was about an older man who followed his traditional religion. He offered sacrifices to his gods on a daily basis and had no interest in Christianity. The churches in his area used trade languages or English, but never his language. He thought that a god that did not speak or understand his language was not worth worshiping. After all, he prayed at his shrines in his own language.

One day, while walking to his fields he heard a gathering of Christians speaking his language. Out of curiosity, he stopped, listened and asked what was happening. They told him that they were reading the Bible in their language – his language. He abandoned his old religion and became a believer on the spot.

This story illustrates one of the reasons why we translate the Bible. It is not just so people will understand. Being easy to understand doesn’t mean much if people don’t listen to or read the Bible. This translation caught this man’s attention first. Understanding came next.

We translate the Bible so that God’s words will carry the intimate authenticity and life they had when God first spoke them in the heart language of the people being addressed.

Process and results

Tunesia (courtesy NASA)

Bible translators are very concerned about method and process, and rightfully so. Long experience tells us that following a rigorous process yields a good translation most of the time. Whereas ignoring process almost always results in a poor translation. One of the quickest ways to improve an under-performing translation effort is to examine the translators’ process and make changes to bring it in line with best practice.

Because a healthy obsession with process works so well, translators can be tempted to try the same process approach in other areas. One of those is the use and impact of the finished translation. This is fueled by research into what causes some translations to be widely used while others to pile up in storerooms. While that research is helpful, it’s easy to turn that research into a process and then believe that rigidly following it will guarantee that the translation will be enthusiastically received by slavish adherence to the right process and then bring spiritual revival.

But the research tells us that what creates impact and transformation varies. It also seems to tell us what is necessary to promote acceptance and use, but not what will guarantee those desired results. If I don’t put gas in my car, it will stop. But if I do put gas in it, it will stop anyway if something breaks. Gas is necessary but not sufficient.

Jesus said:

The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8

In my understanding, this verse means that there will never be a sure-fire process for results in missions. There are no magic bullets. We shouldn’t say “If we do this, then we will see results” like a some kind of strange combination of social science and Harry Potter incantation.

Chile / South America (courtesy NASA)

There’s a great illustration of this where deserts meet the ocean. One would think that it would be impossible to have a desert next to a large body of water, but it happens with some frequency in places as diverse as Chile, Mauretania, Namibia and the Arabian Peninsula. Likewise, We can bring the water of our well-studied ministry process next to people and still end up with a fruitless desert.

Effective ministry requires listening for the Spirit speaking into, even sometimes breaking into and disrupting, our well-engineered processes. On occasion, I have sometimes seen amazing results when the experts’ processes were intentionally dropped in favor of a process proposed by people who had no experience at all in translation but who knew their context.

Arabian Peninsula (courtesy NASA)

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.

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.

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible

A while back, a friend pointed me to an article about translating the Bible in Africa by one of Africa’s most well-known theologians – John Mbiti. Before launching into the main point of the article, Mbiti briefly assesses the impact of translations of the Bible in African languages. He writes that:

Reading the Bible in their language

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible read.

Thus, through its translation… the Bible is very present in Africa. In some ways, we find our traditional life reflected in it… It is wielding a tremendous impact on the Church and beyond… It is generating Biblical Christianity and invigorating Oral African Theology.

The Bible has found a home in Africa, and Africa has become a Biblical continent. Statistically the Bible has become very much an African book. Many African readers and hearers of the Bible spontaneously identify themselves with the Bible through its content of (ancient) Jewish culture, family traditions, farming, history, pastoral (livestock) life, persecutions, suffering, death rituals, and religiosity…

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Our neighbor reading the Bible in Bambara

At a deeper level, the translation from Biblical languages into local languages encourages creativity and the proliferation of oral theology. This has already been happening (in the field) spontaneously among the Christians, the laity and clergy, young and old, women and men, through their composition and use of local hymns, songs, and music, instead of, or in addition to imported Western hymns translated in Kiikamba. They sing everywhere with or mainly without instruments – in the fields, in buses, walking, fetching water, herding, at school, in Churches and market places. They say or give spontaneous prayers (at home and Church services), sermons or meditations, religious education (in schools, Sunday School and their homes), all produced in one’s mother tongue.

It is easy to visit churches in the big African cities, and even a number of the smaller ones, and conclude that Christianity in Africa is doing quite well using English or another European language. But the reality is different. Christianity in Africa has its roots in the Bible in African languages even if a number of Christians are now educated and practice much of their public worship in English or another European language. The goal of getting the Bible into all the languages of Africa is still relevant even as English spreads.

No new understanding

After the dedication of the Jamaican New Testament in Jamaica, a ceremony was organized in London to introduce it to the sizable Jamaican community there. The organizers didn’t know what kind of reaction they would get. After all, those attending would have an excellent command of English. In addition, some have been critical of doing a translation in the Jamaican language also called Patwa. Critics contend that the language is too crude and undeveloped for a translation.

As part of the ceremony in London, they read some short passages from the translation. The Jamaicans present shouted with joy. They all stood. They waved their arms and jumped some with eyes full of tears of joy.

This reaction is a bit surprising. After all, they were hearing passages they had heard in English many times. There was nothing new. They were not getting a first, new or better understanding because the passages are so well-known in English. The passages nevertheless had a dramatic, fresh effect when packaged in the heart language – their mother tongue.

That is interesting and moving, but is it important? I think so. After all, Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, implying that the soul and heart are as important as our understanding. Words that activate our emotions – that touch our hearts – are more likely to change our behavior and our thinking – to align our hearts with God’s. Without those effects, understanding isn’t worth much.

The Bible in the mother tongue goes so much deeper than mere understanding – just imagine those Jamaicans in London waving their arms and dancing around with eyes full of tears.

Too literate

Literacy class (photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard)

Those of you who follow this blog know that I write frequently about the impact of adult literacy in northern Ghana. Ever since I arrived in Ghana in 2010, I have heard all sorts of Ghanaians (farmers, doctors, pastors, clerks, doctors, and more) extoll the positive impact of adult literacy in northern Ghana. It is credited with effects as diverse as the spread of the Gospel, better opportunies for women, better education outcomes for schoolchildren, less conflict, and increased income. Many people who live in places where it has had great effects have pleaded for a resumption of the widespread literacy programs which were run in the 1990s.

It was way back in the early 1800s that widespread reading revolutionized the United States. For example, by 1822, more Americans read newspapers than anyone else. There were hundreds of newspapers with the largest having a circulation of about 4,000 readers. And the number of readers kept growing. From 1832 to 1836, the circulation of daily papers in New York City exploded from 18,000 to about 60,000. At that time the city’s population was less than 300,000, so one paper was sold for every five people – probably about one per family. Americans became the most literate people not just in the world but also in history.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

We have been so literate for so long that we have forgotten what it is like to live in a pre-literate society; where key information is only available to you by word of mouth from someone who got it the same way, where you can’t track down the original source to verify the information, where you can’t read the Bible for yourself, where there are only a few people who can tell you what the Bible says and you might not know any of them, and where you can’t jot down a piece of information you will need later. I could go on and on.

Wycliffe and other translation agencies say that it is difficult to raise money for adult literacy. That’s probably the case, at least in part, because we are so literate that we can’t imagine the lives of those who can’t read and therefore we can’t imagine the benefits.

Efficiency’s limits

Efficiency is a mark of good missions and good charities. They use their money well. In biblical terms, they are good stewards of their resources. They take pains to measure their efficiency. A homeless shelter will count the number of people who use it. A mission doing Bible translation will count the number of languages into which it translates the Bible. A single translation program will track how many verses and books have been translated.

While efficiency is good, it is not nearly enough. For example, an addiction treatment center needs to track how many of its patients recover, not just how many go through the program. It is no good for it to say that it’s program is less expensive if few of its patients stay clean. That’s a waste of money too. Efficiency is no good without effectiveness.

It is good that we translate the Bible into more and more languages. I have always tried to make translation go faster and cost less. But more translations done faster and for less money must take second place to doing things so that those translated Bibles transform the communities for whom they were done.

The biggest factor determining whether a translation will be read and have impact is also the most difficult to influence – the attitudes of the people and their leaders toward the language. One study found that if church and mission leaders support the translation effort it will have wide impact, but if not people probably won’t ever even read it. The reasons why leaders and people might not favor a translation are so many and varied that can’t list them all, so here’s one example.

People might think that the language is defective or not unholy, as some Jamaicans believe about the Jamaican language, also known as Patois. This is not as uncommon as you might think. In the 14th and 15th centuries some people believed that English was not worthy of a translation.

In any case, there is no sense doing a translation into a language people think defective unless you are willing to put time and money into an effort to change those attitudes. We have a less serious version of this issue in Ghana where some church leaders and pastors think that translation into Ghanaian languages is quaint and useless, even though people at the grassroots support it. So the Ghanaian organization I work for focuses communication showing the benefits on the leaders. It’s working.

Writing the language in a way that is easier to read makes impact more likely

In other cases, efficiency and effectiveness align. Doing a translation faster, for example, generally results in people looking on the translations with favor. I have seen translation programs advance so slowly that people started making fun of them.

In general, the Ghanaians I work with are more concerned about effectiveness than are Westerners like me. While Westerners are more focused on efficiency. This sometimes results in tensions between the Ghanaians I work with and Westerners who fund translation. The side with the money has the advantage, causing efficiency to sometimes get more attention than effectiveness.

Getting to know the “other”

One of the most commonly proposed solutions for prejudice and bigotry is getting to know “the other”. This solution presupposes that we are suspicious of those we don’t know, or that false ideas about others will be dispelled by getting to know them. There is no doubt that this works for individuals. I have heard people say that their fear or concern about people of a different race or religion was dispelled when they got to know someone personally.

As well as this seems to work in individual cases, it fails with whole populations. There are many examples. The genocide in Rwanda was perpetrated by Hutus on Tutsis. But the Hutus and Tutsis live side by side. They speak the same language and are mostly indistinguishable. In many cases, Hutus killed their Tutsi neighbors they had known well for decades.

Furthermore, this is not an anomaly nor is in confined to Africa. In most of the cases of violent conflict between groups of people in Africa with which I am aware, are characterized by close contact and mutual knowledge. The book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov documents a case in Europe. Bartov is a professor of history at Brown University. He notes that the close relations between two groups can actually be part of the problem.

“You can take a society in which people had lived together for centuries, and that very proximity, that very relationship between neighbors can have a dynamic of violence and self-justification,”

Knowing the other is sometimes the problem. Just ask couples going through an acrimonious divorce. So getting to know the other is a naive bromide, perhaps even snake oil.

But there is something that works, at least in Ghana. In the southern parts of Ghana, the north has a somewhat deserved reputation as a place of conflict between its many peoples, of which there are about 30. In some cases those conflicts have turned deadly. In recent years, some of those peoples have received the first ever Bible in their languages. Dr Solomon Sule-Saa has done research into the effects of those translations. He found that people who read the Bible in their language are much more likely to promote non-violent solutions to conflicts over land or other resources. The result is less conflict. Where close contact generates conflict, the Bible is helping to calm it.

By the way, there is a widespread belief in Africa that if everyone spoke the same language there would be less conflict. That belief is also contradicted by the facts.