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.

No new understanding

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

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

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

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

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

Ghana statement

The Ghanaian organization I work with recently issued the following statement:

We believe mother tongue literacy and the word of God in our mother tongue is the most effective way to build vibrant churches and transform our societies.

Because I work with organization, I thought it would be good to unpack it. After all, my work (like that of all the staff) is predicated on this belief and contributes toward accomplishing the things it implies.

The statement is important because some Ghanaians think that their languages are of little importance or use. Some even think that their languages only serve to promote the backward practices of the past. Those with that opinion mostly live in the cities and haven’t seen the impact of translation and literacy in the rest of the country. It is a sad thing, but a number of Africans believe that their languages and traditions have nothing to contribute to the Gospel or the good of their continent. They believe this to their detriment. This is especially sad when pastors insist on preaching and teaching in a language not adequately mastered by their congregations. So there is a need to help them understand things differently. I used to be a lot more involved in communicating this message but it is now in capable Ghanaian hands.

Note also that the statement includes both spiritual (vibrant churches) and temporal (transform our societies) elements. I believe that these are stated as two elements because in English there aren’t words to combine them. The Ghanaians I work with see both as one inseparable process. If the church is vibrant, society is being transformed. They both grow from the same root. The light of a vibrant church cannot be hidden. But the light of a church using a language people don’t master is usually dim, not vibrant.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5:14-16

Note also that the statement sees two things as fundamental to transformation:

  • The Bible in the mother tongue
  • Literacy in the mother tongue

My Ghanaian colleagues like to say that literacy is the key that unlocks the Bible. Without it, translations have limited impact. Fortunately, running adult literacy classes in the mother tongue is relatively easy and cost-effective.

Finally, note the idea of transformation. All Africans I have met want their continent to change. They are dissatisfied with how it is, all while most are proud to be African. My Ghanaian colleagues see this happening as transformation (build on what is good, carefully replace what is not), not as revolution (throwing out the old and replacing it with entirely new things).

It’s like one of my favorite jokes.

A man was lost driving in New England. He stopped at a small store to get directions. When he said where he was going, there was a pause and then the proprietor said: “Well, if I were going there, I wouldn’t start here.”

Just like you have to start a trip somewhere, so a community can only move toward Christ from the place it finds itself. When that move starts with something fundamental to the community (their mother tongue), and enabled by helpful imports (literacy and the Bible) good things happen.

The fire

Old Presbyterian church in Ghana

For over a week, every time I looked at the news I saw something about the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Presidents and newspapers made pronouncements about the significance of the cathedral and therefore the depth of the tragedy. With a few notable exceptions, the pronouncements spoke almost exclusively of Notre Dame’s artistic, cultural and historical significance. It’s spiritual or religious significance were downplayed or even completely overlooked, especially by the mainstream media.

And yet I don’t blame the media. They are reflecting the secularization of the media and of Europe (even though they are out of step with continuing religiosity in the US and most of the world). European tourists entering Notre Dame very rarely do so to think about God or faith. They are primarily interested in Notre Dame’s history and architecture.

This points to a simple fact – Churches don’t perpetuate our faith. There’s nothing wrong with church buildings. But there is something wrong with us if we expect from them what they cannot or should not offer.

Open-air church meeting

When addressing the religious and intellectual leaders of Athens, Paul said of God:

Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. Acts 17:23-24

Buildings will eventually crumble. Seminaries and Bible schools will close. The languages in which they teach might even die, rendering the books in their libraries antiquities of interest only to scholars who consult them in tightly controlled academic libraries. All that we construct, whether churches or organizations, will eventually disappear. Only two things in this world are eternal: people and God’s Word. Those two things carry faith to the next generation. They should be our primary ministry focus because the rest is just going to burn up.

Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. – 2 Peter 3:11-13

God because…

The genocide in Rwanda started 25 years ago this month. About one million people were systematically killed. The anniversary is sparking reflection and comment across Africa and beyond. What went wrong? How could it have been prevented? Whose at fault? Those are valid questions, but I’m not going to address any of them.

Some say that the evil in the world is proof that there is no God. I think the opposite – it shows that there is a God.

Romeo Dallaire is the Canadian General who was in charge of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. His warnings that a genocide was impending, his pleas for changes UN policy and for more troups were all rebuffed by those above him. So he ended up helplessly observing the terrible events he wanted so much to prevent and stop. That experience forever scarred him as it did others. Of it, he wrote:

“I know there is a God, Because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and therefore I know there is a God.”

Endless Congolese forest

My experience is not nearly as dramatic as Dallaire’s, but it points in the same direction. When I worked in the Congo, the Rwandan genocide had spilled over the border. I saw once vibrant cities that had become ghost towns. I heard from some who had fled their homes and lived in the countryside without shelter, many dying there of their deprivations. I became friends with a couple whose son was brutally tortured for days before dying, just because he was from the wrong tribe. I didn’t see the devil as directly as Dallaire, but what I saw increased my faith that there is a God.

But I have another reason to believe that is different from Dallaire’s. In addition to hearing about the devil’s brutal deeds first hand, I also heard about God’s deeds opposing the Evil.

A pastor friend ministered to a congregation with members on both sides of an ethnic conflict. He himself was from on of the opposing ethnic groups. When the militia associated with his ethnic group arrested a member of his congregation from the other, he took the person food (something not provided by the militia). For that, some members of his own ethnic group and congregation considered him an enemy and therefore were trying to kill him. To avoid them, he and his family slept in a different house every night until they escaped the town.

His case was not unique in Congo. Many opposed the militias associated with their ethnic group. Many were not as fortunate as my friend to escape their reprisals

If you read reports of the genocide in Rwanda, you will get hints of similar bravery. You will read that the Hutus killed Tutsis and moderate Hutus. That is, the radical Hutus killed members of their own ethnic group who opposed them. That means, of course, that some of their own group opposed them. It’s a story of bravery and righteousness that doesn’t get told very often.

In the case of my Congolese pastor friend, his actions put his whole family in danger. But his wife never reproached him for that. Instead she stood by his actions even though they put her children at risk. In them, and in many others like them, I see God because I see a display of righteousness so brave as to be miraculous.

Crucifixion or Zealotry

C.T. Studd’s grave in Ibambi

Zealotry is defined as a fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals. These days, the word evokes something negative. But many outstanding missionaries have been full of zeal. I remember standing at the grave of C. T. Studd in the village of Ibambi in the Congo and thinking of what brought him there – his dogged pursuit of taking the Gospel to the geographic center of Africa. At the time, most missionaries stuck to the coasts as travel inland involved long overland treks on foot.

Studd gave up a successful career in cricket for the precarious life of a missionary in the Belgian Congo in the early 20th century, where he died of untreated gallstones in 1931. He was a certain kind of zealot.

Frail but impassioned Siangombe exhorting other translators

It was near Ibambi that I first met Siangombe – a frail shell of a man riddled with health problems who had obviously once been healthy and robust. His decline was caused by his encounters with the Mai Mai militia. Their beloved country had undergone more than a century of brutal rule or interference by outside powers, and they wanted it ended. In fact, they wanted to get rid of all outside influence so that the Congo would be pure. Because Christianity came from outside, the Mai Mai opposed it the same was they opposed everything they considered not purely Congolese – violently.

Because Siangombe was a Christian and, worse, a Bible translator, the Mai Mai repeatedly beat and persecuted him. Miraculously, he survived. The Mai Mai are true zealots in the worst sense of the term. They have a reasonable, even noble, cause – the liberation of their country from foreign powers. But they add two twists:

  • They interpret their cause in a radical way – opposing all outside influences even those that do not seek to control the Congo and those that try to help, and
  • They are willing to hurt and kill others, including other Congolese, to accomplish it.

Some Congolese intellectuals defend the Mai Mai because of their unwavering stand against foreign influence, while excusing their atrocities or issuing weak and infrequent condemnations.

It is easy to think that evil people have evil intentions, but great evil is done by people with good intentions embedded in a political ideology.

Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

With their zealous good intentions embedded in a political ideology, the Mai Mai are brutal even toward people who agree with their basic cause but who disagree with the way they twist it. So poor Siangombe could not avoid Mai Mai wrath even though he too wanted his country to be run by Congolese and according to their wishes.

The crucifixion is the opposite of zealotry. God saw people doing evil things to each other, so he sent his only Son to be falsely accused, slandered and even killed. That’s a very different response to the evil in the world than zealotry. In response to man’s inhumanity to man, God hurt himself.

Similarly, C. T. Studd’s zeal caused him to sacrifice himself, not punish others.

Good Friday is a reminder that God’s approach to evil is not zealotry toward others, and so neither should it be ours.

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. – Romans 12:21

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:18