Elevating the ordinary

In 2017, PBS released a video documentary entitled Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. It notes that not only did Luther start a great religious change, he also started political and societal changes. When his teachings landed him in trouble with the church, we argued his case before the court of public opinion, bypassing the clergy and experts in theology. He circulated his ideas widely using the recently-invented printing press.

He took the same approach to the Bible. He wrote: “I wish that this book could be in every language, and dwell in the hearts and minds of all.”. He was not willing to reserve the Bible for experts, but rather delivered it the common man. He even consulted ordinary people when doing his translation. He wrote: “To translate, we must listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. I sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks.”

I am an heir of Luther’s approach. We translate the Bible into African languages because we trust African Christians to interpret it with the Spirit’s guidance. Our translation process includes a step where we “listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace” and where we are “guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” So we trust Africans with the translation process.

This elevation of the common man and woman, and Luther’s practice of bypassing those in authority, “set in place cultural changes that led to democracy in America and Europe”, according to the documentary. We see similar changes in Africa where ordinary people empowered by the words of Scripture question and change cultural practices they deem backward or harmful. Normally Those changes are more profound and longer lasting than changes ordered by some authority, because they flow from the heart.

My Ezekiel life

Early on in Oregon’s stay home order, I felt an urge to read Ezekiel. I think i was attracted to the outlandish vision of wheels in wheels in the first two chapters. But I found the subsequent chapters fascinating too.

First, there was this verse I didnt remember from chapter 3:

Then the Spirit came into me and set me on my feet. He spoke to me and said, “Go to your house and shut yourself in.

So, I’m not the first healthy person God has shut in.

Then, we sat down to a lunch of sandwiches made from bread made according to a recipe God gave Ezekiel:

“Now go and get some wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and emmer wheat, and mix them together in a storage jar. Use them to make bread. – Ezekiel 4:9

Then I was browsing through southern gospel music and Dry Bones by the Cathedrals began to play.

So I read the vision of the dry bones again (Chapter 37:1-14).

That dramatic vision is about a situation that is without life but which is then infused with life and giving rise to an army. Raising a recently deceased body to life is a miracle. How much more bringing back to life piles of scattered, disconnected, sun-baked bones?! Just getting the skeletons straight would take a forensic anthropologist. Maybe that pretty lady from Bones.

I’m still pondering what the Lord might be telling me through his weird prophet Ezekiel. Could I be in Ezekiel just for the weirdness? Is God saying that sometimes things are weird and he’s in that too? Or maybe even that He’s the author of some of it?

Humans and coronavirus

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:27-28

These verses have great relevance to the coronavirus pandemic. God told us “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.” Theologians call this the Creation Mandate or the Cultural Mandate. God, of course, has the right to run everything. But he has conferred on us the right and authority to be fruitful and govern the earth.

Some have understood those words as commands. They are more like blessings. The confusion comes because we use the grammatical form of a command, such as “Get the silverware”, in blessings such as “Get well soon”. No mafia type comes to a sick person, points a gun at them, and says “Get well soon or else!”.

In fact, we should think of these words as a mandate, which is a combination of a blessing and a granting of authority. When we elect a public official, we give that person a mandate. By virtue of being chosen by the people they have the authority of the people to carry out the specific responsibilities of the position to which they were elected. That’s their mandate. God has given all of us a mandate regarding creation. It comes with a piece of his authority to enable us to carry it out.

Older translations have “replenish the earth, and subdue it”. We actually have a mandate from God to subdue the coronavirus. This is not a magical mandate, but one that requires hard work, ingenuity and sometimes suffering. The coronavirus is a manifestation of Paul’s observation that:

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. – Romans 8:20-21

The virus is bad (a curse) but it is also an opportunity for “eager hope”. That hope is most certainly for the new heavens and new earth with no bad viruses. But it is more than that. It is also an eager anticipation of effective treatment and a vaccine on this earth.

The verses also say that we are made in God’s image. God creates. Because we are made in his image, we also create albeit on a lesser scale. We create our children, for example. But the mandate to be fruitful applies to more than children. We are to create good for our families and communities, wealth to share with others and to not be more of a burden to others than is good, and so on. Some of us are scientists who create new knowledge. One piece of new knowledge would be how to make a safe vaccine for the coronavirus.

Because of our creativity and our mandate, the coronavirus doesn’t stand a chance against humanity. God has given us the tools to knock it way down and perhaps even eliminate it. No previous plague has been addressed so quickly or effectively. Many are in some kind of isolation, but because of technology we still talk to each other and even see each other. Furthermore, the technology allows researchers across the world to collaborate better and faster. Our God-given creativity and mandate have shown up big time.

Of course, the virus will cause a lot of pain before that happens so we also need to deploy the compassion God gives us. Instead, some will go around proclaiming loudly that this is God’s judgment. Helping others and praying for medical professionals and researchers would probably be a better use of much of their time. Such people have their secular equivalents who think that humanity is the source of the planet’s problems. They will say that the coronavirus is nature striking back against our evil exploitation of it. They will talk of saving the planet, not humans. I just saw the following in a religious publication.

We have abused Mother Earth. The locust invasion in Kenya was a warning smoke that something was wrong.

There are scientific and historic answers to such claims, but there is also a case to be made against them based on the creative nature and mandate God gave us.

There’s reason to be concerned about our neighbors and ourselves. But let’s not wrap up our minds in a doomsday scenario that will make it even harder for us to help others. Let’s announce good news to those trapped in such scenarios.

Learning from Luther

In the last few days, I have been reading over and over Martin Luther’s pastoral letter Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague. He wrote it in the middle of an outbreak of the plague in his town after bring asked whether Christians should flee the plague. It is wonderfully nuanced. On the one hand, Luther saw in the Bible that, all other things being equal, the fear of death is normal. So people who flee danger are acting wisely.

To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor

He answers those who think it is wrong to protect one’s self against an epidemic with this observation.

By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also a punishment from God. Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to a divine punishment.

So Luther thought it reasonable that people flee the plague in his town. We can’t really flee the corona virus, so the equivalent for us is social distancing, even self-isolation. Luther puts a condition on protecting one’s self, however, and it’s a big one.

unless it be against God and neighbor

In his view, we should not protect ourselves if that involves abandoning our responsibilities toward others.

A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor. He will always reckon with the possibility that doing so will bring some disadvantage and damage, danger and loss.

Luther deals with the biggest reason why people abandon others in the face of danger – fear. He wrote:

When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles. We would sin thereby against God and man; that would be the devil’s glory and delight. Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.

The writer of the book of Hebrews says of Jesus that

… he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. – Hebrews 2:15

Fear enslaves us when it prevents us from fulfilling our obligations toward others in order to protect ourselves.

Here’s a nice summary of Luther’s thought from his letter.

Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.

Luther noted that Christians don’t take precautions for selfish motives, but to protect others. A person who gets the desease might infect others, and he or she will require medical care, taking up resources that could have been used on others. So sensible precautions are a way we love our neighbors.

Here’s the advice I think Luther would give about the corona virus.

  • Trust God. Don’t be enslaved by fear.
  • Don’t hoard or profiteer as that hurts others. Being reasonably prepared is not hoarding.
  • Do a sober assessment of your risk given your age and health. Take the commensurate precautions as recommended by experts. Do this even if you feel no strong need to protect yourself, but do it to protect others.
  • If you have family or professional obligations, ask God for the courage to fulfill them. Understand your professional obligations as a vocation from God. Seek to be fulfilling that vocation when you die. If you have high risk and obligations, you might seek a way to hand them off or delay them in a way that does not abandon others.
  • Don’t criticise those who choose to take risks to serve others. Don’t feel condemned by their actions.
  • Don’t engage in self-agrandizing heroism.
  • Don’t engage in reckless behavior because by doing so you are endangering others, not just yourself.
  • If you feel God wants you to take risks to serve, don’t criticise those who take a more cautious approach.

You can read Luther’s letter here.
Here’s a good article on historic Christian responses to pandemics.
And here’s a good article with practical guidance.

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.

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.

Loyalty

For a few years I served on the board of an international non-profit incorporated in North Carolina. The board chair had an attorney come can tell the board members what North Carolina law says about the duty of board members. He said that the primary duty of a board member is loyalty and that all other duties flow from that duty.

By loyalty, the law means that board members have to do what’s best for the organization. They can’t be loyal to themselves and use the organization for personal gain. Nor can they be loyal to anything else to the detriment of the organization on whose board they sit. If they find themselves in such a conflict of interest, they have to declare it and if necessary recuse themselves.

As board members we had to put the interests of the organization first in all our deliberations.

I have been writing in the paragraphs above about the duty of loyalty to the organization, but the attorney said that the board’s loyalty was not to the organization, but rather to the mission of the organization. All non-profits exist for a purpose – they have a mission. If that mission can best be accomplished by dissolving the non-profit organization, for example, then the board members must make that decision. They cannot be loyal to the organization itself above its purpose or mission.

That made sense to me. In fact, it caused me to realize, belatedly, that putting my loyalty to purpose/mission ahead of organization had caused me problems in the past, especially when I assumed that others automatically see the difference. A person loyal to the mission can be perceived as disloyal to the organization.

It’s easy for a missionary to become loyal to certain people, to a place, or to their organization, even when one of those loyalties starts to undermine the mission’s very purpose and spiritual life. Some people even become loyal to a methodology whereas loyalty to the purpose/mission of the organization demands that outdated and less effective methods be replaced. I have seen all of these loyalties and some of them recently again. I have seen them all compromise the purpose, the effectiveness and sometimes even the existence of Christian organizations, and occasionally even a person’s loyalty to our Lord. Missionaries are as susceptible to misplaced loyalty as anyone.

I used to think that loyalty was hard, but it’s easy. In fact, it’s natural. What’s hard is knowing when to put aside lesser loyalties, and most importantly being loyal to the right thing and especially the Right Person.

If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26 NLT)

Made for leaving

I think I always knew it, but my friend and the person who has overseen most of my work in Ghana, Paul Opoku-Mensah, clarified it for me:

Missionaries are temporary

Or as I like to say, missionaries are made for leaving. By that, I do not mean that they are forced to leave. Rather, I mean that missionaries are temporary by design. Leaving is what we are built for. We see this clearly in Jesus ministry which lasted roughly three years. We see it in the Apostle Paul’s missionary journies during which he went many places, stayed some time, then moved on. But when I say that missionaries are made to leave, I am not speaking primarily about the length of their ministry, but more about the conditions that end it. A missionary might move to an area to translate the Bible into the language there, then move on or return home when the translation is complete. That might take quite a long time, but it is still destined to end if and when the missionary succeeds. A mission that has not ended is, therefore, one which has not yet succeeded.

There’s an irony in the fact that a mission which succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise. But it goes further than that. A mission that does not end stifles new life.

Paul Opoku-Mensah taught me that it is good and natural that missionaries have different ideas than those who come to faith through their ministry. The missionary who founded The Church of Pentecost in Ghana, James McKoewn, only did evangelism and discipleship, but he was pleased when, after his retirement, the very successful church he planted branched out into medical work, schools and more. He saw these changes as a sign of his success. But many missionaries resist changes to ministries they start. I remember a person highly respected among his people telling us that a particular missionary had to go. The missionary had not done anything wrong except keep control too long.

If a missionary translates the Bible for people, those people may develop their own vision for what comes next. They will want to make sure that the translation is reprinted and on sale for the next generations. They might want to have their language used in the first few years of primary school to help their children get better grades. They may want lots of literacy classes. Or maybe they will want to translate their church’s liturgy. There’s no telling what things they will want to do to that the missionary didn’t do.

In order for this to happen well, the missionary must leave, or at least relinquish his or her hold on the ministry, so others can take it new directions.

To really succeed, a missionary must create the conditions that bring an end to his or her ministry.

Criticism of translations

Domenico Ghirlandaio : Saint Jerome in his Study (1480 — Church of Ognissanti, Florence)

It is fascinating to see how translations of the Bible are recieved. Books are written about translations of the Bible into English extolling their virtues or exposing their weaknesses. Some give new translations kudos and other castigation. This kind of reception for new translations is not at all new. In fact, the history of what was said about new translations reveals a pattern.

In 382 AD, Euseius Hieronymus, later known as Saint Jerome, was asked to produce a new translation of the Bible in Latin to replace the Old Latin Version which some considered divinely inspired – once for all delivered for all believers. Jerome was highly qualified for the task. But, when his translation appeared it was not widely accepted. It took some time, but his translation was finally recognized for what it was – a work of great accuracy, beauty and skill.

But that was only after Jerome’s death. Then people started saying about his translation exactly the opposite of what its critics said when it first appeared. In fact, they said that Jerome’s translation had all the qualities — accuracy, eloquence, clarity — an earlier generation said only belonged to the Old Latin Version.

In the late 1800s, the Swiss theologian Louis Segond did a translation into French from the original languages because the existing French translations were all over 100 years old. When it first appeared in 1880, it encountered a firestorm of criticism from French protestants, especially from more conservative churches. Nevertheless, it eventually it became the standard translation, occupying a place similar to the King James in English. Revisions in 1978 and 2007 are still the most popular Bibles among French protestants, while the revision done in 1910 is still widely used in French-speaking Africa. When newer translations in French started to appear in the late 20th century, many protestants defended Segond’s translation, saying that it was more accurate whereas their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, often members or leaders of the same churches, had criticized its accuracy.

When the King James Version first appeared in 1611 many Puritans continued to use the Geneva Bible, even printing it after that was outlawed. As late as 1800, almost 200 years after the King James was first published, some Puritan families were still using the Geneva Bible. In fact, it was the Geneva Bible that the pilgrims brought to the New World, not the King James. After the first publishing of the King James Version a renowned Hebrew scholar named Hugh Broughton became its strongest critic. Upon receiving a courtesy copy of the first printing, we wrote a blistering critique. But the opposition died away and the King James Version became synonymous with the Bible for English speakers.

So, it is entirely predictable that when a new translation appears, there will be claims that a well-established older translation is better because it is more accurate, more beautiful and/or more holy.

The same thing is happening today in Ghana. The first translations of the Bible appeared into the Ga, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay), and Twi languages in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Bible Society did revisions in the late 20th century, but some people still come to their sales points asking for the original versions because they believe that they are more accurate, beautiful or holy.

The same will happen, alas, to the translations in which we have been involved when they are revised.

If you liked this, you might also like Why New Translations.

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.