Babel, Pentecost and today

Pentecost is this coming Sunday. So my blog this week is about Pentecost and where it fits in the Bible’s narrative about language.

The Bible is one story. It’s connected. One of those connections spans the Bible from the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 and on to Revelation. Genesis 11 and Acts 2 recount strange happenings with language. In the first, people who all speak the same language suddenly can’t understand each other. The second is the exact opposite. People who speak many different languages suddenly can understand each other.

When all those people speaking their different languages understood each other, they were amazed and perplexed causing them to ask a question:

What does this mean? (Acts 2:12)

The Apostle Peter gives a long answer that draws heavily on the Old Testament Scriptures. I will summarize his answer in his own words:

“everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:21)

The key word in that verse is “everyone”. The fact that all those present heard “in our own tongues the mighty works of God”, points conclusively to God’s intent that the message is for everyone whatever their language.

Because the events at Babel and Pentecost are opposites, some have suggested that the result of Pentecost is to reverse the effects of the tower of Babel. If Pentecost was a reversal, it was only partial. People still speak the many different languages that spread from the Tower of Babel. Still, the idea of reversal has something to it, but I prefer to think of it as redemption.

At Babel God confused peoples’ languages to keep them from doing the wrong thing. At Pentecost, God used those same languages to transmit a message to direct them to do the right thing. Still today, God is using the Bible, preaching, prayer and worship in those languages to do marvelous things. We see the joy, salvation, and more all the time. It turns out that the languages that prevented people from a bad thing are powerful tools to bring them the best thing.

From job to something bigger

“I came looking for a job but I found a career.”

An employee of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), the organization we are on loan to, said this at an office staff meeting in August 2017. He said it full of joy. Judging from my other conversations with him, I know that he is not looking to spend his life working for GILLBT. So by “career” he did not mean lifetime employment. He meant “vocation” or even “call”. He has talked to me more than once about how missions is evolving so that he can plan a career in missions after his employment at GILLBT ends.

He was hired when he answered an announcement at his church about a job opening in GILLBT. At the time, he was just looking for a job; money to live on. But as he learned about translation he began to feel a call.

Ed and other staff member in Abidjan preparing information for the recruitment of a new director

I have heard similar stories from other Africans involved in Bible translation. One told me how he met missionaries translating into his language and started working with them. He showed a flair for translation, so the missionaries asked his church to release him from his position as a pastor to work with on the translation full time. They agreed. Eventually he went on to do advanced studies in translation and become the leader of a program training African translators. He said he knew that it was all part of God’s call in his life.

One of the best roles of a missionary is to be some part of God calling others to being a doctor, a human-right lawyer, a teacher, a Bible translator, or whatever, That is how ministry will continue through the next generation.

Leverage

Old Presbyterian church in Abetifi

About two centuries ago, German church leaders, business people and others seized an opportunity. They sent missionaries to evangelize and translate the Bible into the languages of the Gold Coast, now called Ghana. Some came with their coffins in tow and a number died while carrying out their work. Some lost children. But they bent German economic-industrial and theological prowess to the task. They trained select Gold Coast citizens in the world’s best seminaries of the day – German seminaries – under the best theologians of the day – again German. They did language development, translation, literacy education and evangelism in the languages of the Gold Coast using some of the best linguistics training of the day from German universities. They created dictionaries and grammars of Ghanaian languages which are still highly regarded, even definitive. They produced world-class Bible translations in the languages of the southern half of Ghana. As the translations were completed, they were forced to leave because of World War I. At that point, their evangelistic efforts had only yielded modest fruit as the Gold Coast was then less than 5% Christian.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity expanded rapidly, but only where there were translations. Where they existed, mother tongue translations enabled Christianity to penetrate all classes of society. Men with minimal education but who read the Bible in their mother tongues became church leaders, pastors, and evangelists. With their mother tongue Bibles they grew the church in a relatively hostile environment. Some of those churches now have millions of members and thousands, even tens of thousands, of congregations. Schools founded by the missionaries trained the people who went on to militate for and then gain Ghana’s independence and lead its businesses and industries.

Meanwhile, the transformation did not take place in areas where there was no translation. Ghana was decisively transformed where German missionaries translated the Bible, and left untouched elsewhere. Let us remember that their efforts were initiated, organized and financed by German churches and that those churches were being empowered by their members who were both creating and benefiting from 19th century Germany’s emergence as a world theological, industrial and economic power. When church members stand behind missions, amazing things happen.

Praying for the Cedi

Poster for a recent Duncan-Williams event

Recently, a storm of criticism erupted on social media when a week of prayer and fasting was declared in Zambia to fight a cholera outbreak. The idea was mocked and ridiculed, even by some Christians, because they would prefer to see efforts directed toward better public sanitation. A similar thing happened a few years ago when the Ghana currency, the Cedi (pronounced see-dee), was losing value against the dollar. A falling Cedi causes inflation in Ghana. Everyone was talking about it and it was constantly in the news.

One day, I saw in the news that a well-known charismatic preacher had prayed for the Cedi, commanding it to stop falling in value. Most newspapers and radio stations carried the story. I heard conversations between Ghana Christians on the topic.

The critics said the government should exercise more fiscal responsibility; that praying for a miracle was not the right way forward. Others expressed their support. Being a fiscal conservative, I thought the criticism raised some valid points. But I also thought that criticizing prayer was unnecessary. That’s because I don’t have any confidence in the understanding or desires of those who pray, including leading pastors or even myself. But I do have confidence in God. He will hear the prayer and respond based on his infinite wisdom and from his heart of righteousness and love.

It strikes me as both unnecessary and prideful to try to get our prayers exactly right. But insisting that others get their prayers right strikes me as dangerous – something likely to reduce faith and discourage prayer. God is all-wise. So why do we think people have to pray exactly the right thing? The critics expected the people praying to understand the factors that influence exchange rates and pray for the right factor(s) to change. Of course, even economists disagree on what should be done, so good luck getting that one right. I prefer to count on God.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words, (Romans 8:26)

Maybe my old age is making me lazy, but I now like to pray for things that bother me even when I don’t understand the issues at all.

PS: I accidentally sent out this post by email some months ago. My apologies to those who are getting it for the second time.

Mother tongue fraudsters

In January 2018, a New Deli newspaper reported a pattern of con men speaking to their prospective marks in their mother tongue to gain their confidence. One criminal gang actually trained its members to speak various Indian languages and even their dialects in different places for the purpose of getting access to the bank accounts of people who speak those languages.

That might not seem like a very good advertisement for the mother tongue – what I call the heart language. But it is. Speaking to someone in the language that is the most closely connected to their identity is indeed an excellent way to gain someone’s trust. Whether that trust is rewarded or betrayed is another matter. The mother tongue is powerful whether put to noble or ignoble purposes. It does indeed connect at the deepest level.

If grifters learn languages in order to hurt people, certainly missionaries, pastors and evangelists can learn them and translate the Bible into them in order to bless.

Why, why, why?

In his excellent book about Ghanaian culture entitled Ghana in Retrospect, Peter Sarpong dedicates a chapter to Ghanaians’ belief in the supernatural. He tells an imaginary story of two schoolboys killed by a falling tree while walking to school. He notes that scientific Westerners would explain the event by noting that recent heavy rains had loosened the tree’s roots. He says that Ghanaians might accept that explanation all while seeking a supernatural explanation beyond it. They do that by repeatedly asking why. Why were the boys walking by the tree at the moment it fell? Why didn’t the tree fall earlier, or later? Why did the boys take that route to their school? Why were the boys walking together? Why didn’t they see it starting to fall and run away? Why did the heavy rains come? And so on.

If you keep asking why about an event, you will eventually come to the end of scientific explanations, at least the obvious ones. At that point, many Ghanaians will insert a supernatural explanation, says Sarpong. Perhaps a witch cast a spell at the behest of an enemy of the family.

The thing is, this is not as strange as it seems to Westerners. Let me illustrate.

On November 2, 2001 America Airlines flight 587 crashed in New York after encountering wake turbulence from the airplane in front of it. Crash investigators asked why. Early in the investigation, the vertical stabilizer (tail fin) was found some distance before the crash site, indicating that it broke off first and that caused the crash. So the investigators asked why it broke off. An examination showed that the attachments had broken. So the investigators asked why they broke. Further examination showed they were not corroded or weakened nor was the wake turbulence strong enough to shear them off. So they asked why there was such great force applied to the stabilizer. The black box revealed that the pilot had moved the rudder all the way back and forth quickly while the plane was at speed, resulting in stresses that far exceeded design limits, causing the attachments to fail and the vertical stabilizer to break off crashing the plane. But the investigators still asked why. Why did the pilot move the rudder so violently? They found that he learned it in his training, where instructors recommended it to counter wake turbulence. And so the investigation ended with changes in the training.

Even in as rigorous an endeavor as air crash investigation, it is important to keep asking why – to not settle for the first second or third explanation. It seems that the Ghanaian approach of asking why beyond the first natural explanation has good precedence. By the way, the crash investigators did not ask why the training was as it was. I wonder.

Also, if many pilots received the same training, why wasn’t there a crash sooner? Or why wasn’t there a non-fatal incident that revealed the flawed training? One that bent the attachments rather than shearing them off, for example. The crash investigation neither asked nor answered any of these why questions.

In light of these observations, I think that it is a mistake to simply write off Ghanaian beliefs by labeling them superstition. By admitting that their why questions have some rational basis, we keep ourselves from smug superiority and condescension; things that would severely limit the impact of our ministry. Besides, admitting that there is some rational basis does not imply that the beliefs are right, aligned with the Bible or helpful. On the other hand, it does admit that there are some questions beyond science, and that is an open door to the message of the Bible.

Side effects

The Annual General Meeting last year

The Ghanaian organization I work for (GILLBT) has a general meeting every year where key decisions are made. Other organizations with similar interests send delegations to bring fraternal greetings. At the last general meeting, the Assemblies of God church sent a high-level delegation. When they took the floor they said how much they appreciate the translations of the Bible done by my organization because they allow their churches to succeed. Then the said something amazing:

“Some communities turn to Jesus Christ just because they were taught how to read and write in their mother tongue through GILLBT.”

This was the third time I have heard a very reliable source close to the situation claim that GILLBT’s literacy efforts are effective evangelism. The thing is, the literacy classes were not designed to evangelize. They contain no religious or Bible content. But learning to read in the heart language and having the Bible also in the heart language have an unintended side effect. Unintended but not undesired!

These Christians were reached through literacy classes in their languages. Here they are reading Bible in their languages at a church meeting.

This side effect is common enough that some churches in Ghana have created very effective evangelism programs whose core component is literacy classes in people’s heart language. In fact, the next man to speak at the general meeting represented the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. He said that his church holds literacy programs for the purpose of evangelism. Those literacy classes are like GILLBT’s with primers made by GILLBT and staff trained by GILLBT. In fact, I helped them expand that program. Even though the literacy classes are just literacy classes, the result is churches full of newly literate new believers avidly devouring the Bibles in their heart languages.

I love side effects! Well, at least this one.

All or nothing

For most of my career, agencies involved in Bible translation have had a binary approach to deciding which languages get a translation of the Bible. After a field survey, we declared that some languages needed s translation and others did not.

Languages determined to need a translation received significant resources, often a highly trained missionary-linguist for a significant period of time, sometimes for decades. The others got nothing.

Relatively early in my career, it became obvious that this binary approach did not fit reality. Languages do not group themselves nicely into those whose speakers don’t know any other language and those whose speakers all speak another language perfectly. Or into languages that will quickly die and those which will continue for another thousand years. There are all kinds of gradations. There are languages which show signs of dying, but not strongly or not everywhere. It is not easy to know what percentage of a people speak another language well enough to understand the Bible in that language. Besides, how well is that anyway? Then we have cases where translations in the mother tongue produced transformative impact even though the people all knew another language and read the Bible in it for decades without the same positive changes.

Because we were trying to fit all languages into just two categories, we had endless discussions with colleagues over whether specific languages fit in one or the other. We reclassified some languages several times. I even saw a case where a missionary became distressed after spending a few years learning a language, developing an alphabet, and starting translation only to come to the conclusion that we had put him in a language which did not need a translation. We disagreed with him, but that didn’t help.

Then there are the pastors and Christians who come asking for a translation in their language only to have us tell them that we missionaries thought it was unnecessary.

No one wants to be the one who says that this moment will never happen for a language because the translation is not needed

Fortunately, the binary approach is dying. Encouraged by that, I worked with a Ghanaian colleague to develop a set of graded responses to languages without translation in Ghana. We are dropping the binary all-or-nothing response in favor of four separate responses. One puts high priority on languages where there are very few Christians. In such cases we will put significant amounts of effort, expertise and funding into the translation. Another response is for languages where there are many Christians who are using the Bible in another language. In such a case, we will demand a lot more of the churches. They will have to organize themselves and raise a very significant part of the funds. We will supply training and quality control.

It’s not perfect. We will still find gradations the four responses don’t address perfectly. But they will be fewer and less shocking. Plus, we will probably use kingdom resources a bit better.

When a pear is not a pear

Dayle in the hospital in Ghana, with fresh coconut

When Dayle was hospitalized in Ghana, a Ghanaian friend called to say he was coming to visit and wanted to bring something Dayle wanted. She told him she would like an avocado, but she used the local word for avocado that she uses at local vegetable stands: pear. When he came, he brought actual pears which are hard to find and expensive. It sure was sweet of him but we were embarrassed to have inadvertently caused him the trouble and expense.

When two people in a cross-cultural situation each adapt to the other, the result can be a miss-step like this one. In general, we don’t expect Ghanaians to adapt to us. We are the ones temporarily in a country not our own, so we should be the ones to adapt, even if we don’t always succeed. But Ghanaians are hospitable, so they try to adapt to us. The result can be like ships passing in the night.

When thst happens, intentions matter. When they are taken into account, we end up appreciating each other rather than becoming irritated, disappointed or angry, but we still laugh.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8

Motivation for giving

If you look at the websites and publicity put out by missions and charitable organizations, you will see that many use the “problem” approach to raising funds. That approach emphasizes the lacking, negative or even disastrous aspects of a situation. Then say they need your help to fix it. When I talk to groups about Bible translation, I use several approaches including the problem approach, but I don’t emphasize it nor do I use guilt-inducing emotional appeals, or fear tactics (If you don’t give something disastrous will happen). I prefer an approach which emphasized the beneficial effects and successes of translation, inviting people to join something significant, successful and blessed by God. The Bible says:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. – 2 Corinthians 9:7

Andy Ring, who started the translation into the Buem language, being honored at the dedication of the Buem Bible

Here in Ghana, I have discovered that Ghanaians involved in Bible translation use a fascinating type of motivation. It is based on the fact that dozens of Westerners (Germans, Americans, Dutch, British, etc) came to Ghana to do Bible translation. Many were highly trained. My Ghanaian colleagues often mention this fact, emphasizing that highly-trained missionaries often poured their whole professional lives into translation and they did it in difficult places where most educated Ghanaians would refuse to live or work. Ghanaian Christians find this inspiring. If high-prestige Westerners do this for Ghana, they conclude, then Ghanaians should do as much or even more.

After all, it is their country. This is a motivation based on nationalism, specifically, that Ghanaians should take responsibility for Ghana.

I would have thought that telling the missionary story would demotivate. My logic would have been that if missionaries are doing it, then it is taken care of so Ghanaians won’t need to give themselves or their money. I have heard some of my Western colleagues express that same concern. But we are mistaken. The missionary story motivates Ghanaians very powerfully. It’s a good thing I was not in charge of communication for fundraising.