Elevating the ordinary

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

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

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

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

Sidewalk radio

When we worked in Abidjan in the early 1980s, we encountered a local expression “Radio Treicheville”. Treichville is a populous, working class neighborhood in Abidjan. Radio Treichville referred to the local rumor mill. When asked where a piece of information came from, the answer would often be “Radio Treshville”. The local equivalent of “I heard it on the grapevine.” Today, there is an actual Radio Treshville.

Then when we worked in the Congo, the expression changed to “Reed Radio”, after the reeds lining the Congo River in Kinshasa that constantly russled in the wind. It was also known as Sidewalk Radio and was such a potent force that the country’s strongman president Mobutu Sesse Seko had to pay attention to it while he was in power. The term was even picked up and used by a British historian.

I have seen rumors almost destroy programs to translate the Bible, or ruin the reputation of a perfectly good translation. With social media and the internet, sidewalk radio has more ways of spreading.

The grapevine, the rumor mill, radio Treichville, reed radio, sidewalk radio, bush telegraph, the word on the street, a little birdie told me, buzz; whatever words we use, it is part of life. No wonder the Bible says so much about it.

Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy; do you really want junk like that in your belly? – Proverbs 18:8

Like candy, it’s tempting and tastes sweet at first, but it ultimately fails to nourish. In the middle of this pandemic, Christians must beware of the sweet tasting tidbits coming from sidewalk radio.

Baby dedication

Working in Abidjan in 2016

Back in June 2016 when we were living in Abidjan, there was a baby dedication at the church we were attending. The pastor announced the husband’s name and he came forward quickly followed by his wife and a nanny (or perhaps friend) with the baby. Without being called, a group of family members and friends also came to the front. There were about 20. They had dressed to the nines for the occasion. Some of the women had dresses made out of the same cloth. The mother was all decked out in a stunning African dress, large jewelry and a decoration in her hair (not really a hat, but something small). Her hair was all done up. It was obvious that this was a big event for the couple and for the whole family. Some had traveled to be at the dedication. The baby had been born on March 12, so it was three months old.

Abidjan

The pastor announced the name of the child and everyone applauded loudly and for quite a while. There were also cries of joy. Evidently, this was when the name of the baby was first announced.

Many West African cultures have formal events / ceremonies where new babies are presented to the family and community. In Ghana they are called “outdoorings” because the mother and baby stay inside without visitors until the outdooring. So it’s the first time the baby is brought outdoors where everyone lives. (In traditional society people don’t live in their houses, but rather outside.) So going outdoors is to become part of the community.

The baby dedication had many of the same elements as a traditional outdooring – a family event attracting family members from afar, a community event involving the families’ neighbors, announcing the name of the baby, a celebration worthy of dressing up, etc. My guess is that no one sat down and thought about how to incorporate elements of an outdooring into baby dedications. Instead, it just happened. I probably witnessed the result of spontaneous contextualization.

Contextualization gets a bad rap and sometimes it deserves it. But often it involves adapting outward forms into Christian practice without changing or undermining Christian belief. Sometimes it even helps. The fact that many family members come to baby dedications, probably makes them a good opportunity to share the gospel, for example.

Life is fragile

In 2016, I took a short assignment in Cote d’Ivoire. Because Dayle had to stay in the US I was alone for several weeks before she joined me. The time difference meant that I would get up in the morning and look at the videos of my grandchildren that had arrived during the night. Then I would go to work.

So it was that one morning after enjoying my grandchildren’s antics, I went to my office and opened an email from one of our national translators. It informed me that he had lost one of his grandchildren after a short but severe illness. My buoyant mood was shattered.

Unfortunately, I have experienced this far too often. Endemic tropical diseases and weak healthcare systems leave children (and adults but especially children) at risk. The translator in question had chosen to live in a rural area because that is where the translation is happening. He is an educated man and many Africans with his level of education would not live in remote rural areas precisely because they lack good services such as health care.

Taking the Bible everywhere has risks. Are the risks too high? Let me answer the question this way. This man was living with exactly the same risks as the people he was serving. They live with those same dangers day after day, year in and year out. For many bibleless peoples, life where they live is fragile and they regularly experience that in very painful ways. The only way to be certain to avoid their risks is to cease to minister to them.

Church service in rural Ghana

Contingencies

Way back in early 2009, we were working in the Congo along with other Wycliffe colleagues. A civil war was ending which had caused all missionaries to flee. We were slowly trickling back into the country. In order to move back safely, we needed to develop a contingency plan. Contingency planning is a well-defined process for identifying and ranking the dangers in a specific environment, finding ways to mitigate them and then making plans for each important danger in case it happens.

Contingency planning participants

We decided to do the planning together with the staff of a Christian University, all Congolese. That worked out well because they foresaw things we didn’t. The first part of exercise involved making a list of disruptive events that might happen. We were all together in a room and each person was calling out disruptive events as they thought of them. One of the Congolese offered “a riot by the police or military”. It stopped me in my tracks. One of my Wycliffe colleagues questioned the item. All of the Congolese firmly defended it being on the list. So on the list it went.

Once we had listed all the disruptive events, we proceeded to estimate the likelihood that each would occur at least once in the coming five years. The Congolese all agreed that there was a 100 percent chance that the police or military would riot in the coming five years. It was less than two years afterwards that there was a riot by the military in the very town where we held the planning.

Working with Congolese clued us in to an event we would not have anticipated. I thought of this recently when I saw a newspaper article about police and military fighting each other in the streets of Haiti. Living in a country where the forces of order are governed by law is actually not that common in this world. Seeing the police or military riot was so far from my experience that I would have missed it completely were it not for the Congolese helping us with contingency planning.

The plague

Have you ever wondered what happened to the plague? I don’t mean plague in the generic sense of an epidemic or pandemic. I mean, of course, the black death also called the bubonic plague. This is the desease that, after ravaging other continents, arrived by ship in Europe in 1347 and proceeded to killed one third of the population of Europe over the next five years, then periodically crop up in certain towns for another 300 years.

Northern Congo

When I worked in northeastern Congo, I learned that the World Health Organization registers about 2,000 cases of the plague worldwide every year, of which half occur in northeastern Congo. So I worked in plague alley, so to speak. Was I brave or foolhardy to work there? Hardly. The risk was very low. Our contingency plan said that there was a 100% risk of an outbreak of the plague and a zero percent chance it would affect us.

Why? Because the plague is treatable with any of a variety of inexpensive and widely available antibiotics. Virtually the only people at risk are those who contract it but do not seek treatment until the desease is advanced. Those who do seek timely treatment suffer no long term effects and return to health quickly. So we could walk plague alley with little concern.

There are still several regions where rodents carry the plague and sometimes pass it to humans. That includes most of the Western United States. If that’s where you live, and you’re just now learning that it’s a place where the plague is endemic, be assured, your fear of the plague should be the same as before. Rank it with polio.

The desease that struck fear in the hearts of all Europe now gets little attention except to make funny scenes in Monty Python movies. The thing that was furiously fought with the best methods known at the time, is now easily defeated with a simple treatment. Insignificance; that’s what happened to the plague.

Cubes

My sisters refrigerator makes ice. Two kinds of ice, no less. The display panel offers cubed or crushed. I chose cubed. This is what I got. I don’t know if this three-dimensional shape has a name, but if it does, it’s not a cube. Yet this is an ice cube. And I was not at all surprised, disappointed or indignate when I selected “cubed” and got this. I didn’t feel mislead or duped. I’m perfectly happy with my ice cubes that aren’t cubes at all. The ice cube trays (There’s that word again!) of my youth produced ice in the shape of cubes, roughly speaking. I suppose that’s how chunks of ice made for human use came to be called cubes.

How did it happen that we are happy to call something a cube that’s not at all a cube? Well, “ice cube” ceased to be a combination of two words each with its own meaning and instead developed one meaning. We still write it like two words, and we can take it apart into two words, but the two words together have one meaning. We recognize ice cubes that are not even remotely shaped like cubes proving that “cube” has lost its independent meaning when found in the combination “ice cube”. There are lots of such cases, like “the White House”. It’s still white, but it’s quite unlike most houses.

The correctness of considering ice cube as one word is shown by the fact that in other languages it is one word. In German it’s a compound word (like icecube), but in French it is one word (glaçon) that is not composed of two parts. Glaçon is derived from the word for ice but it has nothing to do with cubes.

When translating or interpreting the Bible, we can’t pull phrases like “ice cube” apart to determine their meaning. In fact, we should be a bit sceptical when preachers make a big deal of subjecting words and phrases to great scutiny especially when the result is a novel interpretation. God spoke to us in ordinary language which is subject to ordinary understanding. So don’t think you need deep scrutiny of words to understand. Or you might be like someone convinced by fancy reasoning that my sister’s refrigerator doesn’t make ice cubes. Or that a quarantine is not a real quarantine unless it last 40 days.

Language and Ideas

A couple years back I attended a public lecture in Accra. It was given by a Ghanaian academic. The thing is, he is also a village chief. One of the things that is different about Ghana is the fact that a number of chiefs are highly educated. They might be academics as this man, or high level civil servants, or business people. Apparently, some villages in Ghana want their chief to be able to interface with the outside world.

At one point, the lecturer talked about language. He said that some of his subjects come to him speaking English and say things like “Your Highness”. He responds by asking them to say that phrase in their language, but they can’t. He said that if one of this subjects cannot translate things they say in English into their language, this is a good sign that they really don’t understand the thing that they are saying.

I have actually seen this first hand. I was helping a young man study for an exam he had to pass to get a diploma. As is the case for many Africans, he was studying and learning in the official language which was not his mother tongue and he was learning that language as he learned the other subjects. He would read and study in the official language, then come to me with things he didn’t understand. One day he came to me with a question in a sample exam. He knew the answer, but there was still a problem. He said that he knew that the answer was “The earth turns on it’s axis every 24 hours.” The thing is, he said that he had no idea what that meant. He knew that he could go to the exam an get questions like that right, but he also knew that he really wouldn’t understand what he was writing. As I started explaining, I found that I had to back all the way up to the fact that the earth is a sphere. I think, or at least hope, that he went away knowing what his answers meant.

Because many people go to school and learn in the official language which they don’t speak at home or in their community, and they are learning that language as they learn other subjects, then can learn to say something that they don’t understand, misunderstand or only partially understand. So it is possible to carry on an intelligible, coherent conversation with someone and find out later that they didn’t understand it, or understood it differently than you did. People can learn religious jargon without understanding it or without understanding it well. If you ask then to say the same thing in their language, they can’t. If someone doesn’t know how to say “Jesus is Lord” or “human rights” in their language, that’s a sign that they might not really understand the phrase when they say it in the official language.

Mind you, there is a layer of educated people who understand perfectly what they say in the official language. But that layer can be very thin in some places.

The lecturer-chief is on to something. He saw clearly the limitations of the official language. The lecture was in the official language, so obviously he thinks that it has it uses. But he is not naive enough to think that “Everyone speaks English”, because he knows that some who appear to speak English and who think they do, really don’t. We can’t build solid Christians and churches on a language people only seem to master.

Unprecedented

That’s my new unfavored word. Today, I saw it misused again in a publication that should know better. It should mean something that’s never happened before. In these narcissistic times, it seems to mean something we have never experienced, or perhaps even something the person saying it has not personally experienced.

We don’t need to go back very far in time to find plagues that clearly eclipse even the worst case scenarios for Covid-19. We only need to go back a few years and to a place that is a direct flight from DC and NY (West Africa) to find a much deadlier plague – the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Guinea. Ebola kills between 40 and 90 percent of its victims including the healthy young.

I personally lived through AIDS spreading in Africa before there was treatment. An acquaintance came to see me. He showed me the thrush in his mouth and told me about his weight loss and constant diarrhea; a constellation of symptoms that presume AIDS according to experts. I could help him a bit, but do nothing to stop the illness. About a week later, he was gone. We knew a couple both diagnosed with AIDS. They had two children who ended up orphans. Colleagues took charge of them.

I lived through a meningitis epidemic that killed multiple thousands all around us. The hospital grounds were strewn with patients laying on the ground, their IVs hung from trees. We had no fear because we were vaccinated. We had helped some friends get vaccinated, but one nevertheless lost a baby too young for vaccination.

I don’t think that I am callous. Instead, I have had a unpleasant truth about life and the world shoved into my view; a truth from which many Americans have been shielded, most thankfully. That shield allows them to believe that events are unprecedented when they were in fact common to human experience throughout history, and they are still part of life in some places even today. Some bibleless peoples experience these “unprecedented” events on a regular basis. Plagues are not events lost in ancient and Bible history.

Does it matter? So what if we think things unprecedented when they aren’t? In a way, it doesn’t matter. But you should reconsider your assessment if it scares you that a situation seems unprecedented. Be assured that God has taken those he loves through problems as bad and worse. In fact, he does so regularly. He’ll be there this time too.

Let me suggest: https://www.christianpost.com/news/jd-greear-god-is-using-coronavirus-to-wake-us-up-to-fragility-of-the-world.html