On losing authority

Missionaries get respect. We are held in high esteem in many churches in the USA. Plus missionaries are respected in many places in Africa. Officials, local people, even those who follow other religions give us deference. However, our ministry of Bible translation undermines our authority, as Yale historian Lamin Sanneh says:
“Often the outcome of vernacular translation was that the missionary lost the position of being the expert.”

In fact, translating the Bible is the perfect way for a missionary to lose the position of expert, even if he or she is still appreciated.

Otabil’s church starting to fill up on Sunday – 2nd service

Earlier this year, I took American friends to the very large church of well-known Pastor Mensah Otabil in Accra, Ghana. He said that his ministry focuses on raising up leaders. He defined a leader as a self-directed individual. I took that to mean someone who takes responsibility before God for his or her actions. Someone who is not dependent on others in an unhealthy way. Someone who has confidence in God and in the Holy Spirit within. Otabil said that he did not want the members of his church to depend on him for every little thing.

Church of Pentecost Council 1954

Church of Pentecost Council 1954 including McKeown, courtesy Church of Pentecost Canada

A famous missionary to Ghana, James McKeown, often told new Christians who tended to depend on the him as their missionary for everything:

I have not come to create beggars but to make men Sons of God.

The members of the church McKeown founded still quote that today to encourage themselves to take hold of the responsibilities God has given them.

Research into the impact of translating the Bible into African language has found that those who read the Bible in their own language take more initiative. They are more likely to witness to their neighbors and to start small businesses. Women speak up more in their families and churches. They are more likely to resist pressure from the proponents of traditional religious practices. They become self-directed individuals, as Otabil put it, or children of God as McKoewn put it.

When we translate, we joyfully and deliberately undermine our authority by putting people in direct contact with a much better authority.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ Ephesians 4:14-15 (NLT)

New thoughts on Old

Early in July, I attended a one-day conference on the subject of the Old Testament in Africa and Christ’s message. We easily forget that Jesus preached exclusively from the Old Testament for the simple reason that the New Testament did not exist yet. The conference was organized by the Ghanaian organization I am on loan to. All of the speakers were from Ghana.

As I have written before, the Old Testament is particularly relevant to African culture. That came out again at this conference. But I learned new aspects of that. Some speakers pointed out that the Old Testament is relevant to the most pressing issues in Christianity in Africa. For example, one speaker showed how the Old Testament is most helpful in guiding the many African Christians who have retained some of their traditional religious practices. Another showed how the Old Testament prophets and Old Testament teaching about prophecy bring a much-needed correction to modern day prophetic ministries in Africa which are rapidly expanding. Yet another pointed out that of the healing of Naaman speaks directly to abusive practices of healing found in some African churches; bringing a healthy correction to them.

Another speaker informed us that there are 650 languages in the world spoken by a half a million people or more (the rest have fewer than that). Of those, 250 have a translation of the New Testament but not of the Old Testament. His point was that at least those languages should have the whole Bible.

The representative of a Western translation organization shared the results of a survey his organization did of churches in Africa and elsewhere asking for translation in their languages. When asked how they would use translations if they were done, the most common response was evangelism. If those, 62 percent said the Old Testament is preferred for that purpose.

I came away with a new appreciation for the Old Testament . As a Ghanaian speaker said, the Old Testament is needed for the spiritual, political and intellectual transformation of Ghana.

Patwa

I have been following the translation of the Bible into the Jamaican language, often called Patwa or Patois. The translation has stirred a controversy that is not typical. New translations of the Bible are often criticized for “faults” in the translation. But that is not what is happening with Patwa. Instead, the critics are unhappy that there is a translation in the language at all. They think that Patwa is not a real language, or not a language worthy of a translation, or they think that people should read the Bible in English instead of Patwa.

In the reformation era in Europe, controversies of this kind were common. Church leaders, kings and others opposed the translation of the Bible into English in principle. In his book Reformation Europe: 1517-1559, historian G.R. Elton notes one of the reformation-era objections to translating the Bible into English and other European languages:

It ‘put [the Bible] into the hands of the commonality and interpreted no longer by the well-conditioned learned, but by the faith and delusion, the common sense and uncommon nonsense, of all sorts of men.’

But since the reformation, objections in principle to translating the Bible have been rare in the West. But they are surfacing again in Jamaica. Those making the objections probably are mostly unaware that they are saying many of the same things that were said against translation into English before and during the reformation.

Some of the objections are just silly. When the Jesus Film in Patwa was released, a number of people objected that Jesus never spoke Patwa. Of course, those same people have no such objection to the Jesus Film in English. But many sincerely feel that a translation in Patwa is offensive. They cannot imagine any good reason for putting holy, divinely-inspired words into a simple and sometimes reviled language like Patwa.

C. S. Lewis addressed the same concerns about modern English translations. He noted:

Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

His response to their concerns is relevant to the discussion in Jamaica today.

The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) … is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort fo Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. … It is a sort of ‘basis’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preaching in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

We sometimes run into this same objection in Africa. Christians in African countries were English is the official language and who are used to the time-honored phrases of the King James Version, can find the translation in their language too commonplace, lacking solemnity. The same happens in French-speaking countries with the revered Louis Segond translation. As Lewis points out, the supposed “solemnity” is an invention, something that did not exist in the original New Testament, but something that we have added. The expectation that God speaking will be in a more solemn and holy language than ordinary is aided and abetted when we use an older translation. The archaic language sounds flowery and solemn leading some readers to associate that style with Scripture. We forget that God came down in very, very ordinary form and that we should expect his Word to be the same.

So, in order to see translations widely used, we sometimes have to address the concerns of those who find them too commonplace, especially if they are in positions of authority. It’s not a part of being in Bible translation that I expected. I’m following the developments in Jamaica to see how proponents of the translation answer the critics. I might borrow some of their arguments. On the other hand, it looks like maybe the positive impact of the translation in peoples’ lives will be more powerful than any logic.

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.

Why, why, why?

In his excellent book about Ghanaian culture entitled Ghana in Retrospect, Peter Sarpong dedicates a chapter to Ghanaians’ belief in the supernatural. He tells an imaginary story of two schoolboys killed by a falling tree while walking to school. He notes that scientific Westerners would explain the event by noting that recent heavy rains had loosened the tree’s roots. He says that Ghanaians might accept that explanation all while seeking a supernatural explanation beyond it. They do that by repeatedly asking why. Why were the boys walking by the tree at the moment it fell? Why didn’t the tree fall earlier, or later? Why did the boys take that route to their school? Why were the boys walking together? Why didn’t they see it starting to fall and run away? Why did the heavy rains come? And so on.

If you keep asking why about an event, you will eventually come to the end of scientific explanations, at least the obvious ones. At that point, many Ghanaians will insert a supernatural explanation, says Sarpong. Perhaps a witch cast a spell at the behest of an enemy of the family.

The thing is, this is not as strange as it seems to Westerners. Let me illustrate.

On November 2, 2001 America Airlines flight 587 crashed in New York after encountering wake turbulence from the airplane in front of it. Crash investigators asked why. Early in the investigation, the vertical stabilizer (tail fin) was found some distance before the crash site, indicating that it broke off first and that caused the crash. So the investigators asked why it broke off. An examination showed that the attachments had broken. So the investigators asked why they broke. Further examination showed they were not corroded or weakened nor was the wake turbulence strong enough to shear them off. So they asked why there was such great force applied to the stabilizer. The black box revealed that the pilot had moved the rudder all the way back and forth quickly while the plane was at speed, resulting in stresses that far exceeded design limits, causing the attachments to fail and the vertical stabilizer to break off crashing the plane. But the investigators still asked why. Why did the pilot move the rudder so violently? They found that he learned it in his training, where instructors recommended it to counter wake turbulence. And so the investigation ended with changes in the training.

Even in as rigorous an endeavor as air crash investigation, it is important to keep asking why – to not settle for the first second or third explanation. It seems that the Ghanaian approach of asking why beyond the first natural explanation has good precedence. By the way, the crash investigators did not ask why the training was as it was. I wonder.

Also, if many pilots received the same training, why wasn’t there a crash sooner? Or why wasn’t there a non-fatal incident that revealed the flawed training? One that bent the attachments rather than shearing them off, for example. The crash investigation neither asked nor answered any of these why questions.

In light of these observations, I think that it is a mistake to simply write off Ghanaian beliefs by labeling them superstition. By admitting that their why questions have some rational basis, we keep ourselves from smug superiority and condescension; things that would severely limit the impact of our ministry. Besides, admitting that there is some rational basis does not imply that the beliefs are right, aligned with the Bible or helpful. On the other hand, it does admit that there are some questions beyond science, and that is an open door to the message of the Bible.

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. 

    Mary’s song

    Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

    Mary’s song of praise is part of the story of Christmas. It is found in Luke 1. 

    Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
    How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
    For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
    and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
    For the Mighty One is holy,
    and he has done great things for me.
    He shows mercy from generation to generation
    to all who fear him.
    His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
    He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
    He has brought down princes from their thrones
    and exalted the humble.
    He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.
    He has helped his servant Israel
    and remembered to be merciful.
    For he made this promise to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and his children forever.

    Luke 1:46-55 (NLT)

    This is quite a display of sophisticated theology for a simple peasant girl! Mary weaves her understanding of the Bible into her understanding of history, her circumstances, God’s promises and their fulfillment.

    Lamin Sanneh, a professor at Yale, has written:

    The Christian approach …. [contends] that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and [targets] ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.
    Lamin Sanneh. Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

    We see this at work in Africa where large and successful churches were started and led by people with low or no education but who devoured the Bible in their own languages. In fact, that is still happening today. Let none of us think that we are too ordinary to grasp or announce great Bible truths, or that others are too ordinary. The first translations of the Bible into English sprang from that same democratic ideal – that ordinary people would understand. When we translate the Bible into the languages of ordinary people we show that we have the same confidence in them that God has in them and in us. 

    That’s actually a Christmas message because Christmas shows us that God has confidence that ordinary humans will understanding his ultimate message when it comes down. 

    Merry Christmas - animated banner

    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)