God’s agent(s)

The big religious question in the West is whether God exists. But that is not the issue in Africa. Everyone knows that God exists. An Akan proverb says that you do not need to show God to a child. By this proverb, the Akan people mean:

God is everywhere and we can know him through his creation which even children can see. Hence, even children don’t need anybody to point out that there is a creator (obooadee) who is the Supreme Being. This is a pervasive Akan world view that is so strongly held that it is the rare Akan who does not believe in God. Saying that even children do not need anybody to tell them that God exists suggests that it is foolish for an adult to claim He doesn’t.

But the belief in an almighty Supreme Being who created all we see is not the end of theological questions. Quite the contrary. Many African cultures believe that God has withdrawn. He is no longer directly involved with the world but is instead like an absentee landlord. The theological question of importance, then, is not whether God exists but rather whether he is to be invoked directly (the Christian teaching) or instead contacted through his agents who act on his behalf (traditional African teaching). God’s agents include various spirits and ancestors who are actually running things in God’s place, according to traditional beliefs.

The traditional teaching has a strong foothold. A Ghanaian friend told me that his uncle was an upstanding member of a prominent church, yet he also did traditional religious sacrifices. His uncle explained that he was covering all the bases just in case. His case is hardly unique.

Unintentionally, the missionaries who first translated the Bible into Akan reinforced the traditional view. Finding no plural for God, they invented one. The history of translation is littered with disasters where translators invented words where one supposedly did not exist. The invented plural “gods” in Akan is one such disaster. Had the translators used the plural for lesser divinities (abosom) Christians would probably have learned not to go to these lesser divinities instead of going directly to God.

In any case, defending the existence of God is useless in most of Africa because it is answering a question people don’t ask; wouldn’t even think to ask. It would be more faithful to the Bible to talk about the role, or lack of role, for God’s agents, a question we in the West don’t ask much.

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.

Liturgy and translation

I grew up in a non-liturgical church. I was an adult before I attended in service in a liturgical church. When I got to Africa I found that there are quite a few liturgical churches here.

Presbyterian church in southern Ghana

For any of you haven’t experienced a liturgical church, one of their features is that they read a lot of Scripture during the service. In fact, many liturgical churches have a fixed set of readings that take them through much of the bible every couple years. Every Sunday, they read several different types of scriptures. For example, they might read a passage each from the Old Testament , Psalms , an Epistle , and the Gospels. Not long ago, I attended a liturgical church in rural Ghana. In the course of the service, five longish passages were read, first in a regional language, then in the language of the congregation. In another church service, the reading went on for 20 minutes.

This kind of worship is very well adapted to places where many of those attending church do not know how to read. For them, the liturgy is the only time during the week that they hear the Scriptures. In contrast, those attending a non liturgical church may hear only a few verses each Sunday, and they may get no overview of Scripture in spite of attending church for years.

In places where the Bible has not yet been translated, liturgical churches read the Bible in another language which sometimes is not well understood by the congregation. These churches are often the most ardent supporters the translation effort

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Challenging identity

A couple years ago, I worked with a church in Ghana on a program to reach out to the Gonja and Dagomba peoples of northern Ghana. They constitute the two largest unevangelized people groups in Ghana, comprising 1.2 million speakers. 100 years of outreach to these people groups has so far had minimal impact.

Identity is s good part of the reason. The Dagomba and Gonja have wolven identities for themselves that exclude them from Christian faith. Almost all of them follow another world religion and they believe that religion is part of their identity. Their ethnic identity and their religion are rolled onto one package. There are several facts that sustain this belief.

  • Their rival people groups in southern Ghana are largely Christian while the Gonja and Dagomba are not. Before Christianity and other world religions came to Ghana, each group had its own variety of African traditional religion as most African peoples do. So it makes sense to them that each group has its own religion.
  • The rival, largely Christian people groups of southern Ghana have started churches in the Dagomba and Gonja areas. But those churches were built for Christians from southern Ghana who have moved to the north for work. Those attending them are often civil servants posted to the north. The churches are lead by pastors from the Christian peoples of the South and they hold their services in the languages of the southern transplants, not in Gonja or Dagomba. So it appears that the churches are only for the southerners, and in fact, they are. The logical conclusion is that Christianity is also only for southerners.
  • Furthermore, the churches in question sometimes don’t attempt evangelism or outreach to the Dagomba or Gonja people in whose communities they are situated.

Ghana is not strange in this regard. I remember worshiping on Sunday evening in California with an entirely Anglo congregation located in a Hispanic neighborhood. I learned that the church had no service or outreach in Spanish. It is likely that the church’s neighbors considered Protestantism to be the religion of Anglos and Catholicism their religion. The behavior of the church certainly reinforced that perception, unintentionally I’m sure. So what’s happening in northern Ghana is not all that strange. In fact, I suspect that it happens in many places.

Translating the Bible into Dagomba and Bimoba presents a radical challenge to people who link their ethnic identity to a particular religion. When the Dagomba or Gonja see the Bible in their language, and then churches with services in their language, attended by Dagomba or Gonja people, the idea that Christianity is not for them breaks down. But that can’t happen if the churches keep holding services only in the languages of southern Ghana.

So the program I helped the church plan had the following components:
  • Holding literacy classes for the small numbers of Christians, and in the community for all who are interested,
  • Translating the church’s liturgy into Gonja and Dagomba so that church services can be held in those languages.
  • Translating training materials used to train lay ministers in the church so that Gonja and Dagomba Christians can be trained to lead services and perform other church functions.

Solomon Sule-Saa presenting the program to the regional church business meeting

Recently, I talked to the Ghanaian man, Solomon Sule-Saa, with whom I designed the program. He was all smiles. It is working well, he said. The churches are growing. Incorporating their languages into the church is eroding the walls between Christianity and the Dagomba and Gonja peoples.

Feeding birds

Around Abidjan Center

A view of the area around the building where we work in Abidjan

A man living around the place where we work in Abidjan feeds the birds morning and evening. When one of our office staff asked him why, he said that it brings him good luck and increased income. In fact, he spends 2,000 CFA francs per day feeding the birds, which is about $3.50, or about $105 per month. Many Africans believe in mystic or magic causality. In this way of thinking, the causes of good and bad things in our life is solely related to what happens in the spirit realm. It is not dissimilar to ideas like karma.

These beliefs would be quaint, but they keep people from what really creates wealth as recommended in the Bible. The book of Proverbs teaches hard work, honesty, being wise in relationships, getting good advice, being generous and trusting in God.

Unfortunately, many churches in Africa are getting caught up in the Prosperity Gospel. Some forms of the Prosperity Gospel teach purely mystic causes of prosperity. In this teaching financial stability or success comes from tithing, blind faith, and direct divine intervention, but not from hard work or the other teachings of the book of Proverbs. In some cases prosperity teaching effectively erases the teachings of the book of Proverbs. It’s another reason to translate that book into more African languages.

I have a small collection of humor about the mystic prosperity gospel as one finds it on Facebook. Here’s one.

Fill out this to get money

Transcendent language

At Vatican II, the Catholic Church decided to start saying mass in local languages. Until then it had always been said in Latin. I was only 13 when Vatican II concluded, but a Burkina Faso friend of mine said that many of the more educated Catholic lay people in that country were unhappy with the change. They felt that hearing in everyday language removed the mystery, the transcendence, indeed the religiousness of the experience.

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

This feeling about language is widespread. Indeed, proponents of the King James Version cite the grandeur of its words. Many want their religious experiences to be infused with the feeling of transcendence so they like cathedrals, liturgy, clergy in special clothing, and stained glass windows. They may also want the Bible read from a translation that also seems transcendent. I identify. I love the poetic passages from the Psalms and from Isaiah. They send my spirit soaring. When they are sung in English that is out of date, as in The Messiah, they become all the more spiritual to me. Africans have more exuberant ways of experiencing transcendence.

Official_Languages_-_Africa_HL colorsI occasionally meet Africans who object to translating the Bible into their languages because they want to keep the mystery and the religious experience of reading and hearing in the official language (French, English or Portuguese depending on the country.) To them, the Bible in their language just seems way too simple and down-to-earth to be truly religious.

But what are we to make of this common human yearning for special religious language? After all, not all human religious yearnings are endorsed by the Bible. Is this yearning good or bad?

My favorite statement on this issue comes from C.S. Lewis. Writing about the objection to modern translations that their language is too “everyday”, he wrote:

A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized 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 of Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety.

If God himself thought that it was okay to have the Apostles leave classical Greek aside and write the New Testament in the common language of the day, why would we think that we need something else? God’s big concerns appear focused on something other than provoking blissful awe through the use of religious-sounding language.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:27)

I still listen to The Messiah and it still transports me, but I don’t expect that it will do the same for everyone else, or consider them less if it does not. I certainly do not expect that such transports fulfill my obligation to practice true religion nor that they replace listening to God in the everyday words of my heart language.

Not my religion

MosqueA number of years ago, I helped at a workshop for translators working in a country where the dominant religion is not Christianity. One of the national translators told of becoming a Christian. He had believed all his life that to be patriotic he had to follow his country’s dominant religion. Everyone from his country followed that religion. So religion and national identity were fused. It took him a long time to realize that he could still be a faithful citizen of his country and become a Christian.

In 2012, I attended a conference on evangelism in Ghana. One of the speakers, told a story about William Ofori Atta, one of the founders of modern Ghana. He had traveled to a town in northern Ghana to help with evangelism. With a church member from that city, he was witnessing in the streets. He started talking to someone. The church member stopped him, saying: “Don’t talk to him, he’s a Dagomba”. The Dagomba are one of the larger people groups in Ghana. Almost all Dagomba follow a world religion other than Christianity. The church member, himself a Christian from the south of Ghana and not a Dagomba, considered it natural that the Dagomba people follow a different religion. The Dagomba man thought the same because after listening for a minute, he said: “As for me, I am Dagomba.” Many Dagomba think that being Dagomba means following a religion other than Christianity.

Sisaala chiefs

Sisaala chiefs

Many people in northern Ghana have woven themselves an identity in which language, ethnicity, culture and religion are part of the same cloth. Following a particular religion, speaking their mother tongue and following their ethnic customs are all part of an immutable identity. In their minds, religion is not a matter of personal conviction or choice any more than being born a member of their ethnic group is a personal choice. One particular religion is seen as part of their identity. They cannot imagine being authentic members of their ethnic group while following another religion.

Worse, some Christians from other ethnic groups believe the same, like the man who stopped William Ofori Atta from witnessing.

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity
– Prof B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

Before translation, decades of missions and evangelism in northern Ghana did not change these perceptions of identity and religion. Sometimes, the way evangelism is done aggravates the perceptions – such as when evangelism is done by members of an ethnic group that is mostly Christian and they do it in their language. Or missionaries do evangelism only in the language of one of the largely Christian ethnic groups in Ghana. So, how does one break down perceptions that Christianity is a religion for only some of the peoples of Ghana?

We are working with churches in northern Ghana on a program which has been shown to change those perceptions. The key elements are:

  • Using the heart language (mother tongue) of the people including the Bible in their language
  • Holding church services and evangelism in the heart language of the people
  • Organizing literacy classes for anyone, in their heart language

Research has shown that these methods are effective in breaking down perceptions that Christianity is a religion only for others. Language is also part of peoples’ identity. When a message or teaching is “at home” in their language, people no longer think that it is foreign, or only for others.

We are rolling out this program, including seeking funding for the first three years from Ghanaian Christians. Prayers appreciated!

Our religious world

ReligionsIn 2013 the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Seminary released a results of research entitled “Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission“. One of their findings is that the world is getting more and more religious. The graphic to the right shows the details. The report states:

In 1970, nearly 82% of the world’s population was religious. By 2010 this had grown to around 88%, with a projected increase to almost 90% by 2020.

This finding contrasts sharply with some in the West who seem to believe that religion is dying. Dr. Rodney Stark, internationally known author, and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University is authoring a book entitled “The Global Religious Awakening” because, he says, “there is more religion going on in the world than ever before”.

Rene Padilla, a leading Latin American missions leader has written:

..there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that we are today in the midst of a great religious revival. The order of the day is not irreligiousness but religious pluralism.

It does not surprise me that the Western press seems unaware of growing religiosity in the world, but it does bother me when missions, missionaries and churches don’t take it into account.

Today, most Christians in the world have neighbors who are highly religious. Many live in an environment where there are two or more competing religions.

A colleague of mine working overseas sponsored a young man he met to go to Bible School run by a mission agency. When he returned after the first year, my colleague asked him what courses he had taken. The young man responded that he had taken a course in proofs the existence of God. The thing is, everyone that young knows believes in God, even the non-Christians. Here is a young man taking a course in his first year of Bible school that is relevant to the place the missionaries come from, but which is quite irrelevant to his life and ministry. The world in which we are doing mission is a religious world. All Bible translation programs in Africa are carried out in very religious environments.

Akan proverb (from Ghana): Obi Nkyere Abofra Nyame
Translation: No one points out God to a Child
Meaning: It is obvious even to children that God exists. Even to children, the fact that God exists is self-evident. (Note that this proverb existed before missionaries arrived.)

Christian books, TV broadcasts and Bible school courses designed to reach atheists and agnostics are irrelevant in this context. Films like “God is not dead” which address real issues in the West don’t fit the context in which I work, where I would have to search a while to find someone who believes that God is dead, and many don’t even know that some people think God is dead.

When Dayle and I were last in the US, we ran into publications and believers talked to us about creationism and intelligent design. That is all well and good, but I meet very few Africans who do not already believe that God created everything. That’s just not an issue here.

Historic Mosque

Historic Mosque

In addition to the mission field being a very religious place, many Christians around the world live in places where there are two or more competing religions, and quite a number live in places where Christians are a minority. Christianity has been dominant in the West for so long that Western Christians have little practical teaching to offer to believers who live where another religion is the dominant feature on the religious landscape. Let me even suggest that the church in the US is still figuring out how to react to the fact that the majority culture is increasingly hostile to its beliefs and values. If we haven’t figured that out for ourselves, how will we teach others?

I had an interesting talk with a church leader in Ghana who told of places where the Bible is now in the language of the people and a good number of Christians have taken literacy classes so that they can read. He said that this results in places where those promoting other religions have no success because of ordinary people who read the Bible for themselves and can therefore explain their faith.

Rather than exporting our answers to the issues we face as Western Christians, we need to do mission in a way that is relevant to an increasingly religious world – one where some of the key battles facing the church in the West are not very relevant. Our mission efforts need to help believers develop answers relevant to their environment. The Bible in people’s language is a key resource for that.

Apollo

When we were working on translation into the Cerma language of Burkina Faso, Dayle and I both got pink eye(conjunctivitis). One of our friends saw the condition and told us that we had Apollo. We thought that was a rather strange name for a disease, but what did we know. We asked around and discovered that there had been a widespread outbreak of pink eye in West Africa at the same time that Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. Local urban legend (yes, that happens in Africa too), linked the two events and ever since West Africans have called the disease Apollo.

Blessings come from God's Great Covenant - Hair salon.

Blessings come from God’s Great Covenant – Hair salon.

The association made between the Apollo 11 moon landing and an outbreak of conjunctivitis might seem strange to you, but keep an open mind for a minute. Different cultures have different ideas about the causes of events. We in the West have largely adopted the enlightenment idea that causes are physical, not mystical. We think that science completely explains causes. Many Africans accept mystic causality. If you think that education will change that, you are wrong. Studies have shown a slightly higher percentage of educated Ghanaians accept mystic causality than do uneducated Ghanaians. But don’t roll your eyes. Consider the following illustration of Ghanaian thinking which I have adapted from  well-known Ghanaian churchman Peter K. Sarpong.

A boy always walks to school following a certain path. He always goes with his friend who comes to his house and they walk together. One morning, his friend comes a few minutes later than usual, and so they set off late. As they are walking their usual route, a large tree falls on the boys, killing them.

A westerner will look for a scientifically sound cause for the tragedy.  So we might say that the boys died because recent, heavy rains had loosened the earth around the roots of the tree, so it fell. A Ghanaian might agree, but he would make other observations. He wold note that the boys set off late that morning. If they had been on time, the tree would have fallen after they passed. So what made them set off late? Also, the tree’s roots were loose, but why didn’t it fall an hour before or an hour after? Why didn’t the rain come more slowly in a way that would not loosen the roots? The questions go on and on. It does not take long for such questions to defy answers from a perspective of pure, scientific causality. Many Ghanaians conclude that even though scientific causality explains some things, it cannot bring answers that really satisfy.

This sign asks a question about causality

This sign asks a question about causality

Working effectively across cultures means not dismissing or making fun of what people say and believe about causes, even if at first you just want to roll your eyes. For one thing, people might stop telling you what is really on their minds if you make fun of what they say. And if you think about it, you will find that educated, scientific Westerners are not very different. The not uncommon view that “everything happens for a reason”, for example, cannot be justified by pure science. It is fundamentally a statement of mystic causality. Yet one sees and hears it all the time from educated Americans.

In Jesus’ day, many thought that sin caused all disasters and disabilities. See Luke 13:1-5 to see how Jesus dealt with that.

I find that I have learned from African viewpoints on causality. Besides, I still remember the  shocked look on the African pharmacist’s face when I told him I needed a treatment for Apollo. A white guy is not supposed to know that kind of local legend.