Babel, Pentecost and today

Pentecost is this coming Sunday. So my blog this week is about Pentecost and where it fits in the Bible’s narrative about language.

The Bible is one story. It’s connected. One of those connections spans the Bible from the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 and on to Revelation. Genesis 11 and Acts 2 recount strange happenings with language. In the first, people who all speak the same language suddenly can’t understand each other. The second is the exact opposite. People who speak many different languages suddenly can understand each other.

When all those people speaking their different languages understood each other, they were amazed and perplexed causing them to ask a question:

What does this mean? (Acts 2:12)

The Apostle Peter gives a long answer that draws heavily on the Old Testament Scriptures. I will summarize his answer in his own words:

“everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:21)

The key word in that verse is “everyone”. The fact that all those present heard “in our own tongues the mighty works of God”, points conclusively to God’s intent that the message is for everyone whatever their language.

Because the events at Babel and Pentecost are opposites, some have suggested that the result of Pentecost is to reverse the effects of the tower of Babel. If Pentecost was a reversal, it was only partial. People still speak the many different languages that spread from the Tower of Babel. Still, the idea of reversal has something to it, but I prefer to think of it as redemption.

At Babel God confused peoples’ languages to keep them from doing the wrong thing. At Pentecost, God used those same languages to transmit a message to direct them to do the right thing. Still today, God is using the Bible, preaching, prayer and worship in those languages to do marvelous things. We see the joy, salvation, and more all the time. It turns out that the languages that prevented people from a bad thing are powerful tools to bring them the best thing.

Leverage

Old Presbyterian church in Abetifi

About two centuries ago, German church leaders, business people and others seized an opportunity. They sent missionaries to evangelize and translate the Bible into the languages of the Gold Coast, now called Ghana. Some came with their coffins in tow and a number died while carrying out their work. Some lost children. But they bent German economic-industrial and theological prowess to the task. They trained select Gold Coast citizens in the world’s best seminaries of the day – German seminaries – under the best theologians of the day – again German. They did language development, translation, literacy education and evangelism in the languages of the Gold Coast using some of the best linguistics training of the day from German universities. They created dictionaries and grammars of Ghanaian languages which are still highly regarded, even definitive. They produced world-class Bible translations in the languages of the southern half of Ghana. As the translations were completed, they were forced to leave because of World War I. At that point, their evangelistic efforts had only yielded modest fruit as the Gold Coast was then less than 5% Christian.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity expanded rapidly, but only where there were translations. Where they existed, mother tongue translations enabled Christianity to penetrate all classes of society. Men with minimal education but who read the Bible in their mother tongues became church leaders, pastors, and evangelists. With their mother tongue Bibles they grew the church in a relatively hostile environment. Some of those churches now have millions of members and thousands, even tens of thousands, of congregations. Schools founded by the missionaries trained the people who went on to militate for and then gain Ghana’s independence and lead its businesses and industries.

Meanwhile, the transformation did not take place in areas where there was no translation. Ghana was decisively transformed where German missionaries translated the Bible, and left untouched elsewhere. Let us remember that their efforts were initiated, organized and financed by German churches and that those churches were being empowered by their members who were both creating and benefiting from 19th century Germany’s emergence as a world theological, industrial and economic power. When church members stand behind missions, amazing things happen.

Side effects

The Annual General Meeting last year

The Ghanaian organization I work for (GILLBT) has a general meeting every year where key decisions are made. Other organizations with similar interests send delegations to bring fraternal greetings. At the last general meeting, the Assemblies of God church sent a high-level delegation. When they took the floor they said how much they appreciate the translations of the Bible done by my organization because they allow their churches to succeed. Then the said something amazing:

“Some communities turn to Jesus Christ just because they were taught how to read and write in their mother tongue through GILLBT.”

This was the third time I have heard a very reliable source close to the situation claim that GILLBT’s literacy efforts are effective evangelism. The thing is, the literacy classes were not designed to evangelize. They contain no religious or Bible content. But learning to read in the heart language and having the Bible also in the heart language have an unintended side effect. Unintended but not undesired!

These Christians were reached through literacy classes in their languages. Here they are reading Bible in their languages at a church meeting.

This side effect is common enough that some churches in Ghana have created very effective evangelism programs whose core component is literacy classes in people’s heart language. In fact, the next man to speak at the general meeting represented the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. He said that his church holds literacy programs for the purpose of evangelism. Those literacy classes are like GILLBT’s with primers made by GILLBT and staff trained by GILLBT. In fact, I helped them expand that program. Even though the literacy classes are just literacy classes, the result is churches full of newly literate new believers avidly devouring the Bibles in their heart languages.

I love side effects! Well, at least this one.

Eternally Diverse

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducts regular and highly respected research in the US. Their 2016 Values Atlas came up with unexpected findings which show that the denominations that say a lot about diversity are less diverse than denominations not known for their public stances on diversity – by a lot.

More than nine in ten Lutherans (92%) and roughly eight in ten Meth­odists (83%), Presbyterians (83%), and Episcopalians (80%) are white, non-Hispanic. In contrast, fewer than six in ten (58%) Baptists are white, and a sizeable share of members are black (30%) or Hispanic (5%). Similarly, only half (50%) of Pentecostals are white, while one-quarter (25%) are Hispanic, and 17% are black. Protestants who belong to non-denominational Protestant churches are also somewhat diverse: Two-thirds (67%) are white, 13% are black, and 10% are Hispanic.

According to the 2010 census, the US is population is 69% white, non-Hispanic. So Pentecostals and Baptists, at 50% and 58% white non-Hispanic, are more diverse than the general population. The PRRI also found that whites who attend mainline churches are less likely to have close friends of other races than those who attend churches that adhere more closely to historic Christian beliefs.

Woman from a small language in Ghana reading the New Testament in her language. Photo courtesy of Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe Global Alliance

I am not at all surprised by these findings. After all, the churches adhering to historic Christian faith believe that Jesus died for everyone and that God commands us to reach out to all peoples. So they have active outreach in their communities and around the world. Beliefs and actions like that are powerful antidotes to keeping others out of your church or out of your life.

Want real diversity? Join those who read their Bible regularly. There are not many groups of people more diverse than that one; speaking more than 3,300 languages in more than 150 countries, the rich and the poor, insiders and marginalised, educated and uneducated, the praised and the persecuted… I was just among the Siwu people of Ghana; numbering only 14,000 and unknown even in parts of Ghana. I heard them reading the Bible in their language and telling how it changed their entire people.

Join the Siwu and others who read their Bible regularly with faith and be part of a marvelous, diverse, and eternal throng.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:9)

Development by giving hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Leviticus as humor

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

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

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

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

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

    Ghanaian taxi

    Leviticus?

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

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

    Delo translators with model of the Tabernacle

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

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

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

    Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof

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

    Mystic causes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Power interface

    Paramount chief being carried on litter

    Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

    One of my first big surprises in Ghana was to find traditional chiefs who are very educated. The leading newspaper in Ghana recently carried the installation of a new chief of the town of Kwahu Abene in Ghana’s Eastern Region. The new chief is a medical doctor, professor of pathology and medical researcher. I used to think of chiefs as traditional rulers with no or little education, but that is not the trend in Ghana. The Akan King has been a successful businessman in London and Toronto after which he returned to Ghana and started a successful business. When he became king, he revitalized and reorganized the royal court, settling longstanding disputes and creating a focus on education.

    One of the driving forces behind the trend toward more educated chiefs is that people want a chief who has influence outside the language community, who understands how the wider world works, and has connections in that world so that he or she can create a favorable interface with the outside world – attracting economic growth on the one hand and fending off unfavorable developments on the other.

    Globalization-smallerThis points to a situation common to many peoples around the world, including many bibleless peoples. They feel that they don’t fully understand the outside world or they have trouble negotiating with it and getting favorable results. They may feel that forces they don’t want or don’t understand are pushing their way into the lives.  Naming a chief who is both one of their own and who has had success in the outside world is a way of improving their ability to get the outcomes they want in a world where outside forces are a bigger and bigger part of their lives.

    These peoples may be in a similar situation with regards to religion. On the one hand, they may perceive that their traditional religion is no longer be serving them well. On the other, they may be getting confusing and contradictory appeals from Christians and those of other faiths. Translating the Bible into their language puts them back in control. They can judge the claims on their own with full information. Like an educated chief, the Bible in their language gives them a power interface they often lack in dealing with ideas and forces coming from the outside world. In northern Ghana, Christians with the Bible in their languages reported that they felt able to answer people coming into their communities spreading another religion, whereas those without a Bible felt less informed and unable to respond to the claims of other religions. A chief reported that since the publication of the New Testament, so few people are going to the traditional shrine that the path is overgrown and difficult to find. Those people have found a new power interface with the spiritual world.

    Recipe for transformation

    I don’t put much stock in the idea that there is some recipe for doing missions that will make it successful everywhere and always. Doing mission means caring about the people to whom one is ministering. If I care, then I seek to understand the specifics of their situation. But a recipe is meant to work everywhere the same. The danger is that it can remove the need to understand people and their circumstances and by that eventually remove the need to care and then caring itself. On the other hand, we ignore successful mission endeavors at our peril because they point us to ways the Holy Spirit might be working.

    In 2014, OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors Bible translation, did an evaluation of the translation programs they sponsor in nine different countries. The evaluation focuses on whether the translation programs were effective at producing transformation in the communities they served.

    The answer to that question was an unqualified yes, but there was more. Some translation programs had more impact than others. Furthermore, the ones that had more impact had some things in common. They were:

    • Local decision making
    • Adult literacy
    • Immediate distribution of the translation
    • National leadership

    These findings match my own personal observations of dozens of translation programs in Africa.

    The translation programs with the most impact all had a great deal of local decision-making. Churches, for example, had control over who was chosen to be a translator and other key program decisions. Assurance of the accuracy of the translation stayed in the hands of the translation organization, but many other decisions were turned over to the churches (for translation) and chiefs (for literacy). I have seen other evaluations that came to the same conclusion.

    Translation programs which produce significant transformation in the language community also were those conducting small-scale, inexpensive adult literacy programs. These literacy programs often started in churches and were attended by church members wanting to read the new translation. But they then spread to the community at large and then eventually into primary schools. Literacy programs mean that people can read the new translation, an obvious key to the translation having impact. But they have many, many more benefits.  Literacy classes were the main sources of health teachings for the economically poor and those attending had more knowledge and exhibited the best health care practices, Furthermore, 76% of those attending reported having benefited economically, almost as high as the 79.8% who reported spiritual benefits.

    Another key was immediate distribution of the translation. This is a relatively new idea for many translation programs where the translation was not distributed until a whole book was translated and even then some books were not printed and distributed until the whole New Testament or Bible was distributed. It was not unusual for whole books of the Bible, translated and ready for people to read, sat on the translators’ desk for years before being distributed so that people could read them. Immediate distribution does the opposite. As soon as a passage is translated, it is distributed. So the parable of the lost sheep might be distributed as soon as it is translated; before the rest of the chapter in which it appears is even translated. It might be distributed by printing off a few copies and giving them to pastors or read in church, or to literacy classes to read in the class.  Or a translator might quickly record it on their phone and share it with others on their phones via Bluetooth or NFC. In turn, they share it with others causing it to spread rapidly. A constant flow of new passages into the community can have a powerful effect.

    Having the program be lead by a national rather than by a missionary from another country did not create greater or lesser impact, but it did reduce the cost significantly.

    So, here’s one recipe for real gospel transformation of communities. It is the basis for the translation programs in Ghana we are helping to implement. I believe that anyone doing translation in Africa should try it out. It might work other places too, but I can’t speak to that.