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 When they are sung in English that is out of date, as in The Messiah, they become all the more spiritual to me.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.

Sustainable consulting

On June 23, I wrote about changes that came out of the conflict and civil way in Côte d’Ivoire. Those changes have sparked some interesting conversations in my temporary role as country director. Ivorians and other Africans are doing most of the translation checking. Translation checking is a quality control process where a person with high level training and lots of experience looks over a translation verse by verse to check that it is faithful to the original and that it is clear and natural.

One of the Africans doing that is doing it part-time. He has a very good job doing something else, but that job  allows him time to check translations and train translators. Someone expressed the opinion that this indicates that he is more interested in money than in translation. Historically, translation checking has been done by full-time Western missionaries or consultants with the Bible Societies. It is new that Africans are doing it part-time while making their living at other jobs. It is not the first time that a colleague has expressed to me a similar opinion.

Seeing part-time translation experts as less than ideal encounters some problems:

  • First, we are short of consultants and we don’t have the money to hire more. So part-time consultants actually fit better. In fact, there are other Ivorian who could be part-time consultants with a little more experience or training, but that hasn’t happened out of concern that it we trained them we wouldn’t have money to hire them. There is enough money to bring them into part-time positions.
  • Second, and more importantly, that is how Africa works including the church in Africa. I meet a good number of Africans who have good jobs or small businesses who also serve as pastors to local churches who cannot afford to hire a full-time pastor. In fact, one is on a committee giving me advice in my temporary role. A Bible College in the Congo found that the churches made most of its graduates headmasters at church schools because the schools receive a government subsidy for headmasters and teachers. The graduate then pastors a church on a part-time basis. Whether we think that this way of doing things it good or bad, it is the way things work.

Historically, the most of the first Bible translations done in European languages during the reformation were done by part-time translators. John Wycliffe, who did the first translation into English, did his translation while teaching at Oxford, lecturing and pastoring. Martin Luther did his translation into German while employed as a priest and university lecturer. Even the King James translators were not employed full-time on the translation. People serving part-time in translation is a long-standing practice in the church worldwide, even if it has been eclipsed by full-time translators in the last 200 years.

Dr. Sherwood Lingenfelter, an anthropologist and friend of Bible translation, came to Africa and taught on partnership. He told us that we ought to be doing “organisational exegesis” with our African partners. That is, we need to understand how African churches and other partners work – how they make decisions, how they pay staff, etc.  It seems to me that a serious look at the church in Africa reveals that having part-time staff is a regular part of how it operates. Because of that, it seems inevitable that as the church here exerts more decision-making in Bible translation, more part-time staff will become part of the picture.

We westerners who are used to the full-time-ministry model need to stop thinking of those who work part time as less than fully committed.

What is really needed

Two weeks ago, I wrote about an incident where a missionary raised money for something that was not needed. You can read it here: https://heartlanguage.org/2016/07/07/when-understanding-fails/.

It is extraordinarily difficult for an American to understand what people in the developing world really need. A church audience was easily convinced and their hearts moved so they opened their wallets. I love their hearts, but that doesn’t make their action effective. In his book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers wrote: “The poor deserve more than gifted amateurs with their hearts  in the right place”.

Ebola in Africa - MapLet me give you an example of something that has proven really useful, but probably doesn’t look that way to most Americans. That is the new rapid test for Ebola. During the recent Ebola outbreak in some countries of West Africa, researchers were looking for a rapid test for Ebola. Eventually one was discovered and put into use. It takes 15 minutes. You might imagine that it would be nice to know if you had Ebola or not in minutes rather than days. But it is even more important than you imagine. In fact, it was the game changer, in my opinion.

You may have heard that people resisted the efforts of the public health officials trying to combat Ebola. In fact, in local mobs in Guinea killed some. People attacked ambulance drivers and paramedics. They hid sick relatives from the authorities. Crazy you say? Well, you’d be wrong. Their actions were quite understandable, at least they were before the quick Ebola test.

Ghanaian newspaper

Ghanaian newspaper

Let’s say you have a child with symptoms that might be Ebola. At the outset, the symptoms of Ebola are like those of many common diseases. So you can’t know what the child has. Before the rapid test, if you took your child to a Ebola center for treatment, they would examine him or her, and if the symptoms could be Ebola, your child would have blood drawn to check for Ebola. But the test took several days. Because of the danger of contagion, they won’t let you take your child home. Instead he or she is held in an isolation ward with other sick people who are also waiting for their Ebola test results. That means that your child will be housed with sick people some of whom almost certainly have Ebola. If your child doesn’t have Ebola, he or she could well contract it at the Ebola center. That’s why people resisted sending their family members and friends to Ebola centers.

Let’s say that you live in an area where there is no Ebola center, but you do have a local hospital. People who are suspected of having Ebola are keep there while awaiting the results of their Ebola tests. Do you want to go to that hospital? Send your child there? One of the side effects of the Ebola outbreak was the people died of treatable diseases because they were afraid to go to clinics and hospitals.

Ebola poster I saw in GhanaBut the rapid test changed that. In 15 minutes Ebola could be diagnosed or excluded. People came, got tested and left or were admitted. Public health crews going door to door could administer the test on the spot, eliminating the need to take every sick person to the hospital.

The rapid test was not just a rapid test, it was a tool that changed the relationship between the public health officials and the public. It is possible, I think, that the changed dynamics between officials and the public was what eventually brought an end to Ebola outbreak. We use the phrase “game changer” too loosely, but the rapid test was a real game changer. Not only is it rapid, it also works without electricity so it can be deployed anywhere.

I see the same thing in Bible translation, the things that have profound impact (small literacy programs, printing orthography guides in local languages, courses for pastors to teach them how to read in their own languages…) don’t sound like much to many American ears. I have heard the representatives of US-based translation agencies say they don’t fund those things because American Christian donors aren’t interested.

Like I said, I think that it is extraordinarily difficult for people in one place to understand what will change life for people in another place. Be honest, if you had wanted to give to the fight against Ebola and you had been presented with three choices – contributing to the development of a rapid test, to a Christian doctor or nurse traveling to effected countries to help, or giving money to support an Ebola center – which would you have chosen?

Foreigner

Definition of foreignerI’m living and working in Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony where the official language is French. Here, I am an “étranger”. That word is ambiguous because it has two meanings: a person one does not know or a person from another country. Asking Google to translate foreigner into French and then asking it to translate stranger into french both result in the same translation: étranger.

But the word in West African languages which is commonly translated foreigner means neither, although it is closest to foreigner. It means a person who is from another place (not necessarily another country) , who has come to take up residence. The community welcomes and harbors the person, lending him land for housing and farming or other economic activity. If the foreigner is a man, someone in the community may give him their daughter as a wife as a way of making him part of the community or even to exercise some control over him.

No matter how long the foreigner stays, he remains a foreigner. His children and grandchildren are still foreigners. However long they live on the land lent to them, it is still a temporary residence. The best translation of the term is “resident alien” (but not an alien of the science fiction type).

Only people from that place are not foreigners. They consider themselves the original inhabitants, even though that is often not the case in historic fact. In fact, if a person considered an original inhabitant moves far away, he is still considered an original inhabitant of his “home” area as are his children, grandchildren and so on. After all, where they now live they are resident aliens. Such people stay original inhabitants even through they may have never been “home”. They are not foreigners if they come “back”. I have asked Africans in big cities where they are from, and I sometimes find out in the conversation that they have never been to that place.

I think that some Americans are adopting some of the same way of thinking. Don’t some of us consider some people”foreigners” if they are culturally different from us even if they have citizenship?

When understanding fails

An African friend told me about a trip he made to the USA. In the course of the trip he was the guest of a missionary who works in his country and the missionary took him to a church meeting where the missionary was speaking. The missionary made quite a point of the bad relationships between different ethnic groups. He cited instances where he saw and heard people from different ethnic groups insulting each other. The missionary explained that he planned to help with reconciliation through the Gospel. The church audience was very moved and gave a large offering.

My African friend was shocked. He didn’t say anything during the meeting, afterwards he spoke to the missionary. He told him about a common cultural practice in West Africa known as “joking relationships“.

Chief in the Ghana's Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

Chief in the Ghana’s Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

I ran into joking relationships early in my missionary career. We had traveled from our village to a nearby town to buy supplies. We went into a little restaurant for lunch. At one point, a man came in and started insulting two of the patrons. They began insulting him back. It looked serious. I thought that a fight was about to break out, so I was gathering my things to leave when they all started laughing and the man who had just came in sat down with them – all friendly like nothing had happened.

When I told an African friend about the event, he explained that there is a joking relationship between some ethnic groups in which they insult each other, each trying to find the wittiest insult. The insults are given and taken in fun. It reminded me of how relationships between men can work in the US. The right way to give a complement to a manly man in some circles is backhanded – in the form of a disparaging remark such as “I’ve seen worse” or “Who would have thought you could do good work like that?”

It turns out that the joking relationship in Africa can be the foundation for overcoming conflict and producing reconciliation.

So, that missionary didn’t understand the joking relationship, thought that the insults were for real and raised money to solve a problem that didn’t exist.

I am reminded again that as an outsider, I need to take time to understand and consult local people before coming up with my own ideas about what needs to be done. In recent weeks, I made at least one mistake because I didn’t do that.

My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry.
(James 1:19 CEV)

Mediation

A few weeks back I had a very interesting experience. I was sitting in a meeting with Africans and Westerns discussing ways to reconcile a conflict. We were all Christians, but the differences in the approaches of the Westerners and the Africans was stark.

I went away thinking about the conversation and trying to understand the different points of view. I did a little research on the web and found a very pertinent article by Mark Davidheiser: Special Affinities and Conflict Resolution: West African Social Institutions and Mediation. It turns out that he teaches both cultural anthropology and conflict resolution. In part of the article, he tells of research he did among the Mandinka people who are found in Ivory Coast and Guinea. He writes:

The Mandinka generally view mediation as a matter of persuading disputants to end their conflict and reconcile, rather than as a structured process of facilitated problem solving and negotiation.

There was the answer! We Westerners were engaged in problem solving. We went straight to trying to find a common way forward through the issues that separated the two parties. In hindsight, it seems obvious to me that we did that without even thinking about what we were doing. The Africans just wanted to produce reconciliation and they did not need to deal with the underlying issue. I don’t think that we or them could have described our different approaches, much less understand how the other’s was different.

I’m not yet sure if or how this insight will help me, but it sure explains a lot.

The Picture Window

A Particular Glory - John PiperJohn Piper has written a book about the Bible entitled A Particular Glory. I find the book fascinating partly because it echoes some of my experience with the Bible that I have not been able to articulate, and partly because it offers a very fresh break from the “battle for the Bible” that has dominated Evangelical teaching and writing about the Bible for more than a few decades.

Piper shifts the focus of the discussion to the view of things (of god, of human beings, and of creation) presented in the Bible. That view, he says, is compelling because it is rich in the glory of God.

As I said at the beginning, the Bible has not been for me like a masterpiece hanging on the wall of an Alpine chalet but rather like a window in the wall of the chalet, with the Alps on the other side. In other words, I have been a Christian all these years not because I had the courage to hold on to an embattled view of Scripture, but because I have been held happily captive by the beauty of God and his ways that I see through the Scriptures.

I have stood in front of this window all these years, not to protect it from being broken, or because the owner of the chalet told me to, but because of the glory of the Alps on the other side. I am a captive of the glory of God revealed in Scripture.

John Piper is a well-known pastor and theologian with a seminary degree. He has written numerous books. This book, A Particular Glory, has received endorsements from leading evangelicals.

But poor, uneducated, subsistence farmers in northern Ghana (among others) beat him to the idea and to the experience. It is only in recent years that the Bible has been translated into the languages of northern Ghana (and not yet all of their languages). But when it was, many of them accepted it and the truth it contains, not because they had some fancy, logical defense of its inspiration and historicity, or because of who brought it (they had long rejected the Christianity brought by Western missionaries), but because what it says gives them a compelling new way to see God and all of life.

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa, who did his doctoral research on the impact of new Bible translations in northern Ghana, told a conference in 2012 that for those peoples in northern Ghana:

The Bible now provides the key to understand the world.

Before John Piper wrote his book, those poor farmers were already standing in front of the large and clear picture window which is the Bible in their language, joyfully compelled by the glorious view it provides. At a church meeting in Ghana in 2014, I saw their joy they read and talked about the Bibles in their languages they all held in their hands.

76 year gap

Reading Mono translation

Reading Mono translation

In the remote city of Bili in northwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a congregation listens quietly as their pastor reads from the book of Mark in Lingala, a trade language in this region. When the same passage is read again – this time in Mono, the people’s mother tongue – the listeners sit up, smile and begin to laugh. They hear this story as though for the first time. (Source: Wycliffe News Network)

Long road in Mono area

Long road in Mono area

Although I was not present at this occasion, the story is familiar to me. Over and over I have witnessed the first exposure of Christians to the Bible in their own language during a church service. The reading often disrupts the service. In his book A Peculiar Glory (free PDF download), John Piper writes that the Bible is a window to God’s glory – a big picture window. What the Mono people in that church service experienced was the window changing from frosted to clear.

The article goes on to say:

The Mono people first heard the gospel from an African evangelist in the 1940s and many became followers of Jesus.

Here we are, 76 years after the Mono people first heard the Good News, and they are just getting the Bible in their language. Unfortunately, this situation is not rare in Africa. In Ghana, three translation programs started in the last 2 years concern languages where the people have had the Gospel for over 100 years.

Church in the Mono area

Church in the Mono area

The 2.2 billion Christians in the world speak an estimated 3,000 languages. Of those, less than 600 have a translation of the whole Bible. Is this a problem? In many cases it is. Without the Bible in the language of the people, aberrant beliefs can creep in, traditional religious practices may continue even in the church, as people peer at God through frosted glass. There is no shortage of historical cases where Christianity disappeared after some time where the Bible was not translated, and cases where it stuck in spite of persecution where it had. Furthermore, the problems are most acute for the more marginalized in society – women, children, the uneducated, the poor; the very kind of people Jesus prioritized. Leading African Christians have stated that translations of the Bible in the languages of the people are necessary for Christianity to flourish in Africa.

The ministry of Bible translation is often presented as pioneering – working among people who have not heard the Gospel. In a significant number of places in Africa it is a ministry to those who have already claimed Jesus but don’t have access to his words. Even then it has an element of outreach. An evaluation of the impact of translations in northern Ghana found that Christians with the Bible in their own language spoke of their faith more often to their neighbors of other religions. The evaluation also found that Christians who did not have the Bible in their language did not speak of their faith to others because they felt that they knew less about their faith than followers of other religions knew about theirs.

(Photos courtesy of the Wycliffe News Network. If you have trouble seeing the photos, go to http://www.wycliffe.net/photos?album=Story5860PerseveringInTheHopeForScripture.)

Languages matter

It may seem like the smaller languages of the world don’t have any role to play in global events or trends. The interest that missionaries and indigenous groups have in them might seem altruistic and important for matters of faith, but of little import to the grand issues of our day. But this impression is false.

Increasingly, groups that function primarily in a relatively small language such as Hausa or Pashtun, are having national and international impact. These groups use these languages to recruit, to spread their message, and to create a sense of unity and identity. In their homelands, few people know English. So presenting an alternate message in their homelands only in English serves little purpose. But, it is possible to present a different message in the language of the people. In fact, if people in their areas are to have access to different ideas, it will be through the medium of the language(s) they use.

Geopolitics and language - cloudHearts and minds can only be touched through language, specifically the language that goes deep into their hearts and minds – the heart language or mother tongue.

When the two superpowers dominated geopolitics, a handful of languages might have been enough to address the geopolitical ideological environment. Not any more.

Inevitable

While I was home in the US, a church group asked me to speak on issues in translation. They prepared a set of questions they had. One was:

Is contextualization good or bad?

ContextualizeIn missions, contextualization is making the message of the Gospel fit the context. Translating the Bible into the language of the people is a form of contextualization. Translation takes the message and makes it fit that language.

Contextualization is usually understood as a set of deliberate steps taken by the person presenting the Gospel. But it is also what hearers do consciously or unconsciously. When people hear something new, they fit it into their context, clarifying or distorting the meaning.

It also happens for everything, not just for the Gospel. A good example is the push for democracy in Africa. One of my Ghanaian friends has noted that:

We live in a part of the world where the elected become the bosses and the voters become the servants.

So democracy has been contextualized in Africa in ways that my friend and other Africans find undemocratic. No one planned this. It just happened. Those who pushed for democracy didn’t take care to see that it was properly contextualized. Now there needs to be a deliberate process to contextualize it differently.

Ventura quoteThe quote on the right by Michael Ventura gets it almost right. A piece of information is like a dot that floats in the brain of the hearer without meaning until it is connected with other dots. But it cannot stay like that.

It doesn’t float around in the brain without any meaning. Instead the hearer tries to make sense of it, attaches it to other dots and makes a meaning – right or wrong. If the person giving the information doesn’t connect the dot of information correctly to other dots, the hearer will connect it however he or she can. Anyone communicating into another culture who does not pay attention to contextualizing their message is leaving the interpretation of that message entirely in the hands of the hearers. The results might not be what the person wants. You can’t keep the Gospel pure by avoiding contextualization. It’s the other way around.

Some of the translations I have been associated with are being done in places where there was a church for some time prior to the translation being done. When Christians finally have the Bible in their language, they usually find they a number of places where the Gospel message was distorted. The translation effort becomes a process by which the Gospel is contextualized differently – this time more accurately. When they read a passage and exclaim, “Now I understand”, it is often not just that the message is now clear; it is also that the message has now been correctly connected to their context, it now fits; it can now be integrated into their life (context).

In one case, a colleague was working in a language where the people had been evangelized for decades, but they did not have the Bible in their language. He found that the word being used for the manger in which Jesus was laid meant a fancy baby bed. After all, that’s what missionaries used for their babies. The people had nothing like a manger. So the Christmas story got contextualized in a way that distorted it so that Jesus was put in the kind of bed used by the top 1% of the population. My colleague asked what container people used for food for goats or chickens. They responded with a word for a certain kind of basket. When that was put in the Christmas story it had quite an impact. Jesus wasn’t put in the kind of baby bed used by the top 1% of the population, but rather in a bed even poor people would not ordinarily use. It was an eye-opener. Jesus was connected to their context.

That connection is why translations of the Bible into the languages of Ghana have been shown to produce positive changes in behavior even in places where there were churches for decades before the translation.

When I was asked if contextualization is good or bad, I answered: “Yes, but mostly it’s inevitable.”