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

Elections Ghana style

This year is an election year in Ghana. There will be general and presidential elections on December 7. In recent years, Ghana has had several peaceful elections followed by peaceful changes of presidents, making it an example of hope for emerging African democracies.

I took the photos below during the 2012 campaign. As you can see, some Ghanaians are very colorful and ardent in their support for their party and their candidates.

Democracy has done something unexpected in Ghana. It has increased the importance of local languages. A candidate for parliament who does not speak in the language of his constituency is less likely to be elected. Previously, this was not the case. I hope and believe that this change is making politicians more accountable to their constituencies and making people more knowledgeable about how their country is governed.

Democracy is not the only trend boosting local languages. Liberalization of the regulations governing radio stations has resulted in an explosion of local FM stations most broadcasting mainly in local languages. These stations are looking for local content, so they host programs which read the Bible in local languages. The stations are also hungry for health, financial and other content in local languages. This revitalizes the language and gets useful information to people. In Ghana, radio is becoming a key way to get the Bible into people’s ears.

Pray for the peace of Ghana as elections approach. The photos below are fun, but there is always potential for violence and fir Ghana’s fragile democracy to regress. Pray too for Ghanaian translators that they would make full use of the opportunity presented to them.

Pray for kings and others in power, so that we may live quiet and peaceful lives as we worship and honor God. 3 This kind of prayer is good, and it pleases God our Savior. (I Timothy 2:2-3 CEV)

Hover over a photo to enlarge it. Click any photo to see a slideshow.

Learning from Luther

In the last few days, I have been reading over and over Martin Luther’s pastoral letter Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague. He wrote it in the middle of an outbreak of the plague in his town after bring asked whether Christians should flee the plague. It is wonderfully nuanced. On the one hand, Luther saw in the Bible that, all other things being equal, the fear of death is normal. So people who flee danger are acting wisely.

To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor

He answers those who think it is wrong to protect one’s self against an epidemic with this observation.

By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also a punishment from God. Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to a divine punishment.

So Luther thought it reasonable that people flee the plague in his town. We can’t really flee the corona virus, so the equivalent for us is social distancing, even self-isolation. Luther puts a condition on protecting one’s self, however, and it’s a big one.

unless it be against God and neighbor

In his view, we should not protect ourselves if that involves abandoning our responsibilities toward others.

A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor. He will always reckon with the possibility that doing so will bring some disadvantage and damage, danger and loss.

Luther deals with the biggest reason why people abandon others in the face of danger – fear. He wrote:

When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles. We would sin thereby against God and man; that would be the devil’s glory and delight. Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.

The writer of the book of Hebrews says of Jesus that

… he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. – Hebrews 2:15

Fear enslaves us when it prevents us from fulfilling our obligations toward others in order to protect ourselves.

Here’s a nice summary of Luther’s thought from his letter.

Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.

Luther noted that Christians don’t take precautions for selfish motives, but to protect others. A person who gets the desease might infect others, and he or she will require medical care, taking up resources that could have been used on others. So sensible precautions are a way we love our neighbors.

Here’s the advice I think Luther would give about the corona virus.

  • Trust God. Don’t be enslaved by fear.
  • Don’t hoard or profiteer as that hurts others. Being reasonably prepared is not hoarding.
  • Do a sober assessment of your risk given your age and health. Take the commensurate precautions as recommended by experts. Do this even if you feel no strong need to protect yourself, but do it to protect others.
  • If you have family or professional obligations, ask God for the courage to fulfill them. Understand your professional obligations as a vocation from God. Seek to be fulfilling that vocation when you die. If you have high risk and obligations, you might seek a way to hand them off or delay them in a way that does not abandon others.
  • Don’t criticise those who choose to take risks to serve others. Don’t feel condemned by their actions.
  • Don’t engage in self-agrandizing heroism.
  • Don’t engage in reckless behavior because by doing so you are endangering others, not just yourself.
  • If you feel God wants you to take risks to serve, don’t criticise those who take a more cautious approach.

You can read Luther’s letter here.
Here’s a good article on historic Christian responses to pandemics.
And here’s a good article with practical guidance.

The multitudes

A Ghanaian colleague told me of a case where an interpreter translated
“When Jesus saw the multitudes”
From English into his language. But the word-for-word translation meant
“When Jesus saw many animals

The whole church broke out in laughter.

Jesus feeding the multitudes

Words are strange. Some imply something else. Herd implies livestock but crowd implies people, for example. We can figure out what” herd of people” or “crowd of cows” means, but those are strange turns of phrase. In English, we can say multitudes alone, but the interpreter’s language required that “of people” be added. We know that Jesus meant multitudes of people because the English word multitudes strongly implies people. It would be strange to say multitudes for animals, or nails, or cars.

People make a big deal of Bible translations being accurate, and rightfully so. By accurate they generally mean that the translation is faithful to the original text. For example, a translation from German to English must be faithful to the German original. But a translation from German to English must also be faithful to English – it should use words the way English uses them, not in some un-English or German way. Sometimes, that means adding a word or two to keep the meaning the same, or perhaps just to keep people from laughing.

Beyond mere understanding

I was intrigued by one story I got recently from Ghana. It was about an older man who followed his traditional religion. He offered sacrifices to his gods on a daily basis and had no interest in Christianity. The churches in his area used trade languages or English, but never his language. He thought that a god that did not speak or understand his language was not worth worshiping. After all, he prayed at his shrines in his own language.

One day, while walking to his fields he heard a gathering of Christians speaking his language. Out of curiosity, he stopped, listened and asked what was happening. They told him that they were reading the Bible in their language – his language. He abandoned his old religion and became a believer on the spot.

This story illustrates one of the reasons why we translate the Bible. It is not just so people will understand. Being easy to understand doesn’t mean much if people don’t listen to or read the Bible. This translation caught this man’s attention first. Understanding came next.

We translate the Bible so that God’s words will carry the intimate authenticity and life they had when God first spoke them in the heart language of the people being addressed.

The ideal body in Ghana

Typically, African painting is highly stylized. (Image courtesy of MaxPixel)

I was stopped at a stoplight in Accra where hawkers were selling things to the motorists. Two men were carrying poster-sized, framed paintings of African women, one woman in each painting. They were in a style I would call boudoir; that is they sexualized the female form without nudity. The ladies had on dresses that covered them in terms of what was covered, but not how it was covered. The fabric was clingy and thin. They were obviously intended to be alluring. But the ladies were quite different from those in such paintings or photos found in the US. First the women were decidedly plus sizes. Firm muscle was not in evidence, nor were six-packs. The ladies’ hips and thighs were especially ample and took a prominent place in the paintings.

The paintings depicted the ideal feminine form according to most Ghanaians.

When I saw those paintings, my thoughts went to an article I had just read stating that most young ladies in the US feel bad about their bodies. I wondered if those young ladies know that the the perfect body is not an absolute, but is defined by fickle culture. If they lived in a different place or time they would measure their own physique against a very different standard. It’s actually sad to put oneself into voluntary slavery to any societal standard without question.

Romans 12:1-2 calls us to transform our thinking. Part of that is seeing this world’s standards and judgments as fancies and fads that change from place to place and from time to time.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:2

Dante and the heart language

The history of language is full of odd stories. In the Middle Ages in Europe, almost all poetry was written in Latin. By this fact, it was only available to the very affluent and the very educated. In about 1300, an Italian poet started writing his poetry in Italian instead. He was an advocate for writing books in Italian, including writing a book extolling the virtues of writing in everyday language entitled “On Eloquence in the Vernacular”.

image-2

Dante in a painting by Domenico di Michelino, 1465.

One of his poems became one of the landmark works in Western literature and the greatest work of literature ever written in Italian – The Divine Comedy. His name was Dante and almost all of my readers will know the phrase “Dante’s Inferno” which refers to the first part of the The Divine Comedy.

There is a great irony in all of this because those who promoted the use of Latin thought that writing in other languages – Italian, French, German, and English, among others – was a useless endeavor.

They thought that no one of importance could or would read those languages, whereas everyone of importance could read Latin. So they thought that a writer could not become well-known or well-read if he wrote in any language but Latin. Yet Dante wrote in Italian and he became one of the most well-known poets in all of history. His name is still known world-wide, but only academics know the names of poets who wrote in Latin.

Official_Languages_-_Africa_HL colorsThere’s something similar happening today in parts of Africa. The languages of the colonial powers – English, French and Portuguese – have stayed long after the colonial period ended. Some Africans think that these languages represent the future of their countries, and their churches. Only a few writers write in African languages. The reason given is essentially the same as in Dante’s day: few read in those languages and no one of any importance, so a writer cannot not become well-known or well-read if he writes in an African language.

These kind of ideas seep into the church, causing some African Christians to think that the translation of the Bible into African languages is of little or no value because those languages only have local influence – as though the only things that matter are those that have international influence. Jesus was born into a minority people under the rule of a foreign power. God chose Abraham and made his descendants into his people, even though they have always been one of the world’s smaller peoples and their language never has had worldwide influence.

Besides, staying with the language of international influence isn’t always the road to fame, as history teaches us through Dante and his world famous poem.