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.

Empathy and mission

I have mentioned several times my favorite blogger, Seth Godin. In 2014, he posted this as part of a short blog entitled Tone Deaf:

Great marketers have empathy.
They’re able to imagine what it might be like to have a mustache or wear pantyhose. They work hard to imagine life in someone else’s shoes.
“What’s it like to be you?” is an impossible question to answer. But people who aren’t tone deaf manage to ask it.

Doing Bible translation well includes being able to imagine what it is like to be part of a bibleless people. In fact, the primary skill of someone ministering the Gospel across cultures might be imaginative empathy. Mastery of linguistics or translation skills is crucial when translating the Bible, but if they are wielded without empathetic understanding, they are not ministry.

A basic knowledge of cultural anthropology also really helps in cross-cultural ministry, but if I employ it without empathy, people will feel like mere objects of study or even curiosities. I might go to another culture and imagine that I know how to solve their problems, but until I make the effort to understand those problems the way they do, my efforts will almost certainly fail.

Pray for us and for others working in Bible translation — that we will have imaginative empathy.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)

No no no

The Apostle Paul wrote:

I have always tried to preach where people have never heard about Christ (Romans 15:20 CEV)

John Piper calls this a Holy Ambition. Piper is far from alone in getting inspiration from the Apostle’s desire to take the good new about Jesus to places where it has not yet been announced. The website JoshuaProject.net is dedicated to listing all the peoples and languages of the world and the degree to which each has heard the good news. As is evident from perusing the website, intentionally taking the good new to new places requires research. One cannot just strike off in a random direction and hope to encounter a people who has not heard of Jesus.

I have colleagues who have spent a good part of their lives going out into the field and finding out where languages are, how many people speak them, if the people in one location can understand the people in another and if the language is dying out or perhaps growing. One of them is Ted Bergman who was an engineer before getting involved in Bible translation. After spending a couple decades training, organizing and leading small teams of researchers across Africa, he set out to find out how many places there in the world where there are no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible in the language of the people — a triple no.

The purpose of the research, of course, is so that people will know of those places and take action to remove one or more no. He found 138 such places. There are none in North America, South America or the Pacific. There is only one in Europe. The majority are in Asia but there are also a number in the Middle East and 18 in Africa. Just three countries have over half of the 138 places, but 19 countries have at least one. You can look at the list yourself, just ignore the columns of codes only missiologists understand.

I was a missionary for a while before I fully appreciated that missions requires research. Not the kind of research one does in a lab or on a computer, but rather the kind where one goes out among the people, talks to them, and seeks to understand their situation. What language do they speak? Have they ever heard an adequate presentation of the good news? Are there missionaries working among them? How many of them are Christians, if any? What religion do they follow? Is there a Bible in their language? This research is seeking out every niche where the good news of Jesus is still missing. A few months back, I was involved in an inter-agency committee in Ghana where we looked at research, made inquiries and came up with a list of all the remaining Bible translation needs in Ghana. What’s cool about that is the efforts now being made to shrink that list until it has nothing on it.

Area near the town of Goz Béïda in Chad which is near the Dar Sila Daju language area, one of the places with no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible

 

 

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.

Boils

This is a page from our son Matthew’s baby health book from Burkina Faso. There are a number of cases of boils in over a period of six months. Because the official language of Burkina Faso is French, the baby book is in French. So you see mention of “furoncles” – boils in French. Notice the s on the end of the word. Matthew did not have a boil each time, but multiple boils. Each time he had antibiotics, and that cleared up the boils, but not for long. In one sequence, he was given antibiotics for 10 days on September 7 (7.9.85 on the health card). They cleared up, The course of antibiotics ended on the 16th, and on the 19th the boils came back worse than ever. If I remember correctly, he woke up with 8 or 10 boils on the 19th.

The doctors had no answer other than to give repeated and frequent courses of antibiotics. One doctor told us that the staff germ that caused the boils was found in the soil and in the dust. In short, it was everywhere. The boils were painful and Matthew began to dread going to the doctor. Then we told a missionary couple with another organization. They said that we should treat him aggressively for prickly heat including bathing him with certain soap we could find at the pharmacy and applying a specific lotion for prickly heat after his bath. They also said that we should give him children’s vitamins with zinc. The prickly heat rash causes small breaks in the skin through which the infection can enter, they said. There were no children’s vitamins with zinc in Ouagadougou, so we got family to buy Flintstones Vitamins with zinc in the USA and send them to us. While waiting for them to arrive, we began washing him with the soap and treating him with the lotion for prickly heat. It was not a complete cure, but the cases of boils immediately became less frequent. After the vitamins came, they stopped altogether. When Mark came along, we gave him the vitamins and washed him with the special soap and he never had boils.

We were shocked that none of the doctors we consulted suggested any of the steps that solved the problem. Apparently, they did not know that it could be solved with vitamins containing zinc or by treating prickly heat aggressively. But God knew that we would not find the answer where we were looking, so he sent that missionary couple our way. We ran into them without planning to, and we just happened to tell them about the boils. God set up that meeting. Many times we have found comfort and solutions beyond what science could provide in the people God put around us.

Favorite Verse

YouVersion is a Bible app for tablets and phones. It has the Bible in hundreds of languages and it is very popular around the world. Among its many functions, it allows users to highlight, bookmark and share verses. Because the app works with an Internet connection, the makers of YouVersion can see which verses people are highlighting, bookmarking and sharing. Also, they can tell which country the activity is coming from. This allows them to track which verses get the most attention in which countries.

YouVersion has revealed that in 2016 the same verse got the most attention in 88 different countries. It would be fun to see what verses my readers would guess. Without a doubt, John 3:16 would get lots of votes. In reality, the verse that got the most highlights, likes and shares in 88 different countries in 2016 was this one:

“And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped.” (Zechariah 14:9 NLT)

Perhaps you are now surprised.

Ghanaian woman reading Bible in her language. (Original photo: Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe Global Alliance; effects E. Lauber)

It turns out that what Bible verses people like varies a lot from place to place. That’s because different verses in the Bible speak to different issues and which issues are most important to people depends on their culture, beliefs and circumstances. I can’t assume that someone from another culture and place will find my favorite parts of the Bible most relevant. That’s probably why God had the Bible written over many centuries, in many places, in many different circumstances, and in different cultures. I wouldn’t want someone from another culture to limit me to their favorite food, let alone their favorite Bible verse.

We are involved in the translation of the whole Bible so that Zechariah 14:9 and other verses that you or I would never pick can be someone’s favorite. With the whole Bible, everyone can find the verses that brings them the most hope, encouragement, joy and faith; the ones without which they would never find their way into God’s kingdom.

Small Languages: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series of blogs on why we bother translating the Bible into smaller languages. This is an important question because the overwhelming majority of languages still without a translation of the Bible are spoken by 10,000 people or less and some are spoken by less than 1,000. In Ghana, there are 18 languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers each. The languages without translations in Ghana are mostly smaller languages. So this is a very relevant question.

If 10,000 is too few to translate, then is 50,000, or 100,000 enough? Perhaps one million should be the limit. To answer this question we need to back up and ask why we translate at all. That leads us to ask what God thinks of the fact that there are many languages in the world. Is that part of his plan? Are they a curse? Should we be trying to get rid of them? What place, if any, do these languages have in the plan of God?

Tower of BabelThese questions lead us inevitably to Genesis chapter 11 where we have the story of the Tower of Babel.

At first everyone spoke the same language, but after some of them moved from the east and settled in Babylonia, they said:

Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches to the sky! We’ll use hard bricks and tar instead of stone and mortar. We’ll become famous, and we won’t be scattered all over the world.

But when the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower, he said:

These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.

So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name.
(Genesis 11:1-9 CEV)

Some read this story and come away with the idea that the multiplicity of languages is a curse. And if the diversity of languages is a curse, then maybe we should be trying to get rid of languages and return to all speaking the same language. I believe that thinking springs from a misunderstanding of God’s judgment. Jonathan Martin, author and pastor, wrote:

I do not believe God’s judgment is about retribution, but a manifestation of hard-edged mercy. Judgment is an illumination of the ugliness that lurks within us, bringing to the surface all that we would otherwise bury so that it might be acknowledged, named, repented of, and ultimately healed.

Even if we understand the Tower of Babel as judgment, that does not mean that it is punishment or a curse. Our God is all about redemption, about bringing good out of bad. If people are drifting away from God, he does not punish them to make them suffer for it. No, he does things designed to draw them back. Martin further writes:

sometimes mercy must take on a violent, apocalyptic form

This understanding of God’s judgment shows us a better way to understand the Tower of Babel – not as a curse but as redemption. Dividing mankind into pieces by causing us to speak many different languages is not punishment, but rather a way to help us, to bless us. But how on earth might the multiplicity of languages be a blessing? The Apostle Paul answers that question Acts 17:34 where he is addressing a gathering in the city of Athens. He told them (emphasis is mine):

“From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 34-26-27 NLT)

Remember that when Paul uses the word “nations” he does not mean countries but rather peoples. So God’s purpose in having us live as different peoples with different languages is not to thwart our efforts, but rather so that all peoples would “seek after God.”

The experience of missionaries and of churches shows over and over again that local languages and cultures are wonderful vehicles for faith and redemption. Where they have been seen as a problem – as in some mission efforts to native North Americans – missions has often had little result. Where the church has tried to promote a common language, as was the case for Latin in Europe, the result has been weak and distorted belief. Paul’s teaching that we are divided into different peoples and languages so that we would seek God works itself out in evangelism and missions every day and year after year. God s purpose, that the division of people into many peoples and languages would help them find him, is more than a theoretical bit of theology. It works in practice, on the ground, in the real world.

Why do we translate into smaller languages? Because it works. It works because God made those languages so that the people who speak them could find him through them. Can a language be too small for that to be a good thing? 

All bad, all good, or

There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:

  • It’s all wrong
  • It’s all good
  • There’s truth in failure

Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.

The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.

The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.

Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).

That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.

One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).

If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.

Vowel symmetry

This is a cross-section of the human articulatory apparatus. It consists of your mouth, nasal cavity and parts of your throat. All sounds in human languages are made by manipulating this apparatus in specific ways. They have all be studied in detail by linguistics and phoneticians. I learned studying linguistics that there is amazing symmetry in the sounds in human language. The symmetry is striking when we look at the place in the mouth where vowels are produced. Different vowels are produced by varying the position of the tongue in two principle ways – the height of the tongue and how far forward or back it goes. If we make a chart using those two axes and then we plot the principal vowels we find in human language on that chart, we get a V.

Not only do we get a V, it is almost always symmetrically filled. That is, if the language has i (the ee sound) it will have a u – the sound of oo in boot. If it has only five vowels, they can’t be just any five; they have to fill the V in a regular way. So Spanish has i, e, a, o and u, making a perfectly balanced V. If I am studying a previously unwritten and unstudied language and I find the sound ɛ (like the e in get), then I know that I have too look for ɔ (like the ough in sought) because if there is a vowel on the front of the V in the language, it will have its corresponding vowel in the back of the V at the same height and vice versa. There are similar symmetries with consonants. This makes the job of a Bible translator working on an unstudied language a lot easier because we know in advance that the language will not contain just any random selection of sounds.

There are explanations for this symmetry that don’t involve God and there is much more to vowels than I have presented here. Nevertheless, I find it a big leap of faith to conclude that human language with such symmetry was created solely by a long accumulation of random events.

Outsider churches

I used to think that the meaning of “missions” was clear. I have learned that different people mean different things – very different things. Some months back, I asked someone who teaches missions in several Bible schools and a seminary in Africa, what new students thought of missions when they started the course. The answer did not surprise me even though it dismayed me. Those from one particular denomination often think that missions means going to a place where there is no church of that denomination but to which people who grew up in that denomination have moved, and starting a church of that denomination by gathering them together.

imageLet’s back up a bit. Some churches have been limited to some parts of some countries. The Southern Baptist Convention is a good example in the USA. The same thing happens in Africa, but there it causes something else. Africa has at least 1,800 languages and ethnic groups. So if a church is found only in one part of a country, it will necessarily be associated with the ethnic group(s) in that part of the country.

Let’s say that church CH has become associated with ethnic group EG because that church was started by CH missionaries in the EG area. It has church services in the EG’s language and its pastors necessarily come from EG. Now lets say that some people who are members of church CH and who are also part of the EG move out of the area. Perhaps they are government officials or teachers and they are assigned to another part of the country. Or maybe they move to another part of the country because of economic opportunities. Anyway several move to the same town where there are no Christians and no church. So, they ask church CH to send a pastor. The church does, and of course the pastor is from the EG. He unites the displaced members of EG into a CH church with services in the EG language.

This new congregation has been established by outsiders to resemble the churches in the place the outsiders came from. Services are conducted in the language of the outsiders. The church and its members have very little connection with local people. This kind of church has very little hope of bringing Christ to the community around it. It is quite good, on the other hand, at giving people from EG living far from family and friends a taste of home every Sunday.

exclusiveNaturally, this new congregation becomes known in the community as something for people from another ethnic group. After all, only people from ethnic group EG are members and the services are conducted in their language. If this situation is repeated in several towns in one part of the country, and no churches are established that reach out to local people or use the local language, local people will eventually conclude that church and therefore Christianity are not for them.

Once that happens, it is very hard to reverse. The people have been inoculated against Christianity by a church that effectively excludes them. This the challenge of some places in Ghana. By translating the Bible into the language and working with national church offices wanting to plant churches that are part of the community, we are starting to see a breakdown in the misconception that Christianity is only for others.