God’s agent(s)

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

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

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 Many African cultures believe that God has withdrawn.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

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

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

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

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.

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

Personal loan

I have written before that culture is not just the outward stuff – food and clothing. Nor is it just the art – dance, music, carving, etc. Culture governs human relationships. Anyone working in a culture not their own is wise to learn and continue learning about that culture.

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Let’s imagine a situation where I give someone a small personal loan. But that person never comes to me to repay it. After a long while, I get frustrated and confront the person that the loan is long overdue. my debtor is offended and our relationship is now strained. If this imaginary scenario took place in some places I have worked, I as the creditor would be responsible for the bad outcome. The reason for this is one small but crucial difference between my culture and the local culture when it comes to personal loans.

In some places where I have worked, the person who receives the loan is not expected to spontaneously repay it. Instead, it is expected that the person who gave the loan will go to the other person and ask for repayment. In fact, if the person giving the loan does not ask take the initiative to ask for repayment, the person who got the loan will probably assume that the loan has been forgiven.

So in the story above, my debtor probably assumed that the loan had been long forgiven, and was then shocked to learn that I considered it long overdue. He feels badly treated. He feels that if I were polite and respectful, I would have come and asked for repayment when I expected or needed it instead of waiting till I felt it was overdue. For him, my behavior is unpredictable, and lacking ordinary human courtesy.

I now have strained or broken a relationship because I gave out a personal loan without taking the time to understand how personal loans work in the culture. This is just one of the ways that studying culture helps a missionary be a good person as defined locally.

Titles and emotions

The street in front of our home in Ouagadouogu

The street in front of our home in Ouagadouogu

In Ouagadougou on the street where we lived, I was known as “Matthew baba” – Matthew’s father. A few people knew my name, but everyone knew Matthew baba.

In his book “The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives Through African Eyes“, Joe Kapolyo writes about how Africa’s feel about this practice:

We feel very dignified when upon the birth of our first child all our relatives and acquaintances cease to address us by the use of our name and instead use the term ‘father or mother of …’ In later years, the names of grandchildren add even greater dignity.

Antoine Yegbe who became known as

Antoine Yegbe who became known as “Our consultant” during this workshop on translating Romans

I have seen this over and over. It is part of a general preference in many places in Africa for titles over names. During a workshop on translation, the workshop leader might come to be referred to as “our consultant”. If there is a way to call a person by a title instead of a name, my African friends will find it. And the titles don’t have to be official. They’ll invent one, like “our consultant” for the occasion.

Culture determines the emotional content of behavior. As Kapolyo writes “We feel very dignified …” It is my experience that titles often add elements of affection, belonging, and/or dignity.

The leader of a workshop isn’t just “consultant” but “our consultant”. The titles “father of” or “mother of” are very personal titles, unlike “president” or “major”.

the-human-conditionWe Americans experience titles as stuffy and formal. While Africans can and do use titles to show formal respect, they also use them in informal and family settings to show a combination of personal attachment and loving consideration that is hard to replicate in my own culture. I see newly arrived Americans (and unfortunately some who have been around for long enough that they should know better) react to African use of titles as if they carried the same formality as titles do in American culture.

In one case that became infamous in the place where it happened, an American woman reacted severely to being called “our mother” by retorting “I’m NOT your mother!”. But there, as in many places in Africa, mother, father, aunt and uncle are widely used as terms of loving inclusion and respect far beyond their strict biological meanings.

Understanding culture and living harmoniously in it is not just about understanding it in our heads. It’s about getting into the emotional content of its practices. And that sometimes mean rewiring our emotions to experience a cultural practice the way the people do, or at least making an effort to do so.

No more activists

In February 2018 I flew from Accra in southern Ghana to the north of the country. In the waiting area at the Accra airport and then on the plane I sat next to a friendly Ghanaian woman with her adorable, six-week-old baby daughter. Once she got seated on the plane, she started breastfeeding her baby in the matter-of-fact way I have seen so many times on this sensible continent. No complexes. No hint of embarrassment. No effort to be extremely discrete.

None of the other passengers, almost all Ghanaian and overwhelmingly male, paid her action the slightest attention. To say that the passengers approved would be to attribute to them far more agency in the matter than they actually exercised. When you drive your car do you consciously approve that the wheels go round and round?

Having spent most of my adult life in a place where breastfeeding in public is an unremarkable and assumed part of life, I am amused when it makes the news and has vocal advocates in the West.

It struck me that the best end point for true advocacy is not repeated  (let alone shrill or virtue-signaling) statements in favor of the advocated change. It is not everyone standing up and agreeing. Instead it’s the blasé acceptance manifested by the passengers on that plane.

It also caused me to reflect that just as advocacy for public breastfeeding is irrelevant in Africa, so there won’t be advocates or activists clamoring for our attention in the new heavens and the new earth. Won’t that be refreshing!

Missions and curiosity

Village in northern Ghana. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

Working as a cross-cultural missionary requires that I understand the Gospel and the culture where I am ministering. If I understand only the gospel I will end up misconstruing it because I will communicate it in ways the culture will misunderstand. So I have to be curious about the culture in which I am serving and clear about the Gospel I am presenting.

My favorite biblical example of curiosity by a missionary is found in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul studies the idols of Athens and quotes an Athenian poet in order to explain the Gospel.

My favorite statement about curiosity comes from blogger Seth Godin who wrote:
“You can’t be curious and angry at the same time”

True curiosity about other people comes from love. When I love, I want to understand you. This is very different from idle curiosity – the kind that turns people into curiosities – things we are interested in only because they are different or exotic. If I’m truly curious about people not like me, I can’t be angry, distant, gruff, or dismissive; even when I disagree with what I find. Some mistakenly call this approach appeasement. Appeasement exists, but seeking to truly understand is not it.

God fully understands everyone and seeks out each of us where we are. So we should not be afraid to fully understand those to whom we are ministering. We should avoid using straw-man tactics and instead use steel-manning to avoid superficial understandings and convenient stereotypes.

When we do that, we imitate God’s approach to us. Plus, our presentation of the Gospel becomes clearer as do our translations of the Bible.

Parking under mango trees

Mango trees make great shade

A Ghanaian colleague of mine was making contacts in a rural area for Bible translation. In one particular village, he didn’t know anyone. So he parked his pickup under a handy mango tree for the shade. He made his contacts and left.

He learned later that the village chief had passed away some time earlier and that two men were vying for the position. The mango tree under which he had parked belonged to one of them. That man then said that the vehicle parked under his tree showed that he had received an important visitor.

He used that as a reason why people should support his bid for the chieftancy. My colleague unwittingly got involved in a bit of political intrigue.

Working in cross-culture ministry means acting with insufficient information, especially at the beginning. You never know how people are going to interpret your actions. So some missionaries start out with a lot of trepidation that they will make a big mistake and ruin their ministry. That is highly unlikely. In any case, there’s not much you can do about it.

Actually, there’s a lot we can do. Pray that missionaries will have wisdom and good relationships. When I trust God and have his wisdom I can live my life without worrying if I’m parked under the wrong mango tree.

 

The primary transformation

Traditional cultures enforce unity through social sanctions like shunning, withdrawal of social support, ostracism or even threats and violence. People who break the group’s norms pay a price. This encourages those who support the norms and tends to keep those who would break them in line. The result is a unity that is enforced by the whole of the group, not just its leaders.

The first Christians in the group may be seen as threats to group unity, bringing them under intense pressure to abandon their newfound faith. I met the son of one of the first Christians in a people of northern Ghana. He was in his 50s when I met him. But he told of remembering a childhood of persistent social pressure from neighbors consisting of condemnation, blame, threats, and ostracism. Nevertheless, his family stood fast and after many years the social pressure was much reduced.

However bad this sounds, changing a whole society belongs to those who break norms that need breaking, form solidarity with others doing the same, continue to politely but firmly speak and act against the norm, and persist through the resulting social pressures. In fact, these are the very actions the Bible recommends to us.

The movement to abolish slavery in the United States went through exactly these steps and was the target of the same social pressures described above. It’s meetings were stormed and broken up. Its leaders were targeted, not by government but by pro-slavery citizens. They were denounced, shunned, threatened and ridiculed. But slowly the tide turned. The obolitionists even convinced some slave holders to give up their slaves. Most of the early abolitionists who persisted through the worst public reaction were Christians coming out of the Second Great Awakening – a revival.

It is understandable that some Africans feel that they cannot change inherited cultural norms and practices they find abhorrent or just counterproductive. But they can and do when they have confidence. Research into the effects of translating the Bible into local languages in Ghana and some other places has shown an increase in confidence; including a willingness undertake new things, and to stand against wrong practices. I am coming to the conclusion that this might be the primary transformation because it is a manifestation of faith and because confidence helps generate all other transformations.

Challenging identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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