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

Ghanaian mustard tree

In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus gives a series of parables about his Kingdom. We might consider them an window into God’s action in this world. Here are two of them.
Then Jesus said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” He also asked, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” – Luke 13:18-21

These parables present God’s action in the world as something that starts small and grows big, and as something that starts small and then permeates everything. This contrasts to the idea that God’s action in this world consists of big spectacular events. Big spectacular events are like tsunamis; they create lots of change. But even more change is created by the slow ebb and flow of water that causes erosion, digs riverbeds, carves gullies and canyons, and builds deltas. The tsunami seems more powerful only because it happens fast. .

Religious map of Ghana: Green is most Christian, red is least

Missionaries first came to Ghana in the early 19th century. They struggled. Not many Ghanaians were receptive to their message. But the missionaries learned the languages, translated the Bible, and trained the few that responded. They published the Bible in the Ga language in 1866, followed by the Twi Bible in 1874, and the Ewe Bible in 1914. By that time they had been in Ghana for about 80 years and still few had responded to the Gospel. Things begin to change in the early 20th century. And change they did. From 1900 to 1960 Ghana went from 5% to 60% Christian. The percentage is much higher still in the areas where the Bible had been translated.

The process looked nothing like a tsunami. The day-to-day changes were almost imperceptible. Certainly the hour-to-hour changes were. Nevertheless, the mustard seed has grown into a very large tree and the yeast has permeated the whole loaf, just as Jesus explained.

Can’t pray

Some time ago I talked to a man from the South West of Ghana who speaks the Anyii language. Even though it is a larger language group churches do not hold services in the Anyii language. Instead, they use English and more dominant Ghanaian languages. These practices have led to unintended and regrettable effects on many Anyii Christians.

The man told me that he was in a group of four Anyii men having a conversation in Anyii. They decided to pray. But none of them prayed in Anyii. They all switched to another language. It was clear that they thought other languages are more suited to prayer. It was as though, of all the languages of the world, the only language God doesn’t understand is Anyii. The man said:

We enter church with our tongue clipped.

If this were just an oddity, I wouldn’t be concerned. But history shows that where Christian faith bypasses the language of the people, it doesn’t go deep, and it often becomes superstitious and corrupt, as it did when it stuck to Latin in Europe.

Missions and curiosity

Village in northern Ghana. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

Working as a cross-cultural missionary requires that I understand the Gospel and the culture where I am ministering. If I understand only the gospel I will end up misconstruing it because I will communicate it in ways the culture will misunderstand. So I have to be curious about the culture in which I am serving and clear about the Gospel I am presenting.

My favorite biblical example of curiosity by a missionary is found in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul studies the idols of Athens and quotes an Athenian poet in order to explain the Gospel.

My favorite statement about curiosity comes from blogger Seth Godin who wrote:
“You can’t be curious and angry at the same time”

True curiosity about other people comes from love. When I love, I want to understand you. This is very different from idle curiosity – the kind that turns people into curiosities – things we are interested in only because they are different or exotic. If I’m truly curious about people not like me, I can’t be angry, distant, gruff, or dismissive; even when I disagree with what I find. Some mistakenly call this approach appeasement. Appeasement exists, but seeking to truly understand is not it.

God fully understands everyone and seeks out each of us where we are. So we should not be afraid to fully understand those to whom we are ministering. We should avoid using straw-man tactics and instead use steel-manning to avoid superficial understandings and convenient stereotypes.

When we do that, we imitate God’s approach to us. Plus, our presentation of the Gospel becomes clearer as do our translations of the Bible.

Naaman and healing in Africa

In July 2018, I attended a conference on the topic of the Old Testament in Africa. One speaker, Professor Kpobi, gave examples of how the Old Testament brings helpful corrections to some problems and excesses that are arising in Christianity in Africa. Among the examples he gave was the story of the healing of Naaman.

In African traditional culture, the person wanting healing would have to go through an ordeal. The purpose of the ordeal is to show that they are serious. So the healer might ask the person to bring the tongue of lion, or some other very difficult thing. The ordeal might also involve the person drinking something dangerous. But the story of Naaman shows that the prophet demands no ordeal at all. Dipping in the Jordan river is not an ordeal. In fact, it is so much the anti-ordeal that Naaman balks. African Christian healers who demand ordeals may not realize it, but they are borrowing from their African traditional religion and not from the Scriptures.

Professor David Kpobi of Trinity Seminary, Accra, giving his presentation

In South Africa, some people became very ill after a Christian healer told them that they must drink gasoline. The Old Testament stories of healing bring correction to such practices.