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.

Doing better

When I was in Ghana in July 2018 I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian medical doctor. He is from a part of Ghana where there are very few Christians and where the poverty is not uncommon. He told me that he went out into a rural part of his home area where he met a pastor. The pastor is a man with no formal education, not even primary school. But he had learned to read in a literacy class and avidly reads the Bible In his own language. Like most pastors in Ghana, he is bi-vocational. That is, he receives little or no pay as a pastor and supports himself and his family through other activities. Being uneducated and living in rural Ghana means that he is probably a subsistence farmer, like many of his neighbors.

The doctor said with amazement that the uneducated pastor was clearly doing better than most of those around him who also lack education. He attributed the difference to the Gospel. That’s almost certainly right. There are lots of anecdotes and even at least one formal study linking better life outcomes in rural Ghana to reading the Bible.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13

Pentecost language

Depiction of Pentecost on cathedral ceiling

The Bible continues to surprise me. By that, I mean that I see new things in passages that I know well, especially the narratives. Not long ago, I saw something I had not noticed before in Acts chapter two. Here’s the passage in question:
1 On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. 2 Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. 3 Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. 4 And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave no them this ability.
5 At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. 7 They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, 8 and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! 9 Here we are—Parthians, Medes , Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!”
(Acts 2:1-11 NLT)
This passage tells us that Jerusalem had a diverse population.
At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. (verse 5)
So when the gathered believers began “speaking in other languages“, there were people around who understood the languages they were speaking. They were shocked to hear a bunch of Galaleans speaking everyone’s “native languages.”
The story continues with a list of the places the people all came from, each place with its own language. We don’t recognize many of them because the names of the places have changed or they have become parts of other countries. Some of the languages have even disappeared. But at the time they were important languages from recognized places.
In verse 11, we are told that some of those present were Arabs. They too heard in their own language which means that Arabic was one of the languages the Holy Spirit caused believers to speak.

New thoughts on Old

Early in July 2018, I attended a one-day conference on the subject of the Old Testament in Africa and Christ’s message. We easily forget that Jesus preached exclusively from the Old Testament for the simple reason that the New Testament did not exist yet. The conference was organized by the Ghanaian organization I am on loan to. All of the speakers were from Ghana.

As I have written before, the Old Testament is particularly relevant to African culture. That came out again at this conference. But I learned new aspects of that. Some speakers pointed out that the Old Testament is relevant to the most pressing issues in Christianity in Africa. For example, one speaker showed how the Old Testament is most helpful in guiding the many African Christians who have retained some of their traditional religious practices. Another showed how the Old Testament prophets and Old Testament teaching about prophecy bring a much-needed correction to modern day prophetic ministries in Africa which are rapidly expanding. Yet another pointed out that of the healing of Naaman speaks directly to abusive practices of healing found in some African churches; bringing a healthy correction to them.

Another speaker informed us that there are 650 languages in the world spoken by a half a million people or more (the rest have fewer than that). Of those, 250 have a translation of the New Testament but not of the Old Testament. His point was that at least those languages should have the whole Bible.

The representative of a Western translation organization shared the results of a survey his organization did of churches in Africa and elsewhere asking for translation in their languages. When asked how they would use translations if they were done, the most common response was evangelism. If those, 62 percent said the Old Testament is preferred for that purpose.

I came away with a new appreciation for the Old Testament . As a Ghanaian speaker said, the Old Testament is needed for the spiritual, political and intellectual transformation of Ghana.

Patwa

I have been following the translation of the Bible into the Jamaican language, often called Patwa or Patois. The translation has stirred a controversy that is not typical. New translations of the Bible are often criticized for “faults” in the translation. But that is not what is happening with Patwa. Instead, the critics are unhappy that there is a translation in the language at all. They think that Patwa is not a real language, or not a language worthy of a translation, or they think that people should read the Bible in English instead of Patwa.

In the reformation era in Europe, controversies of this kind were common. Church leaders, kings and others opposed the translation of the Bible into English in principle. In his book Reformation Europe: 1517-1559, historian G.R. Elton notes one of the reformation-era objections to translating the Bible into English and other European languages:

It ‘put [the Bible] into the hands of the commonality and interpreted no longer by the well-conditioned learned, but by the faith and delusion, the common sense and uncommon nonsense, of all sorts of men.’

But since the reformation, objections in principle to translating the Bible have been rare in the West. But they are surfacing again in Jamaica. Those making the objections probably are mostly unaware that they are saying many of the same things that were said against translation into English before and during the reformation.

Some of the objections are just silly. When the Jesus Film in Patwa was released, a number of people objected that Jesus never spoke Patwa. Of course, those same people have no such objection to the Jesus Film in English. But many sincerely feel that a translation in Patwa is offensive. They cannot imagine any good reason for putting holy, divinely-inspired words into a simple and sometimes reviled language like Patwa.

C. S. Lewis addressed the same concerns about modern English translations. He noted:

Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

His response to their concerns is relevant to the discussion in Jamaica today.

The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) … 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 fo Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. … It is a sort of ‘basis’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preaching in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

We sometimes run into this same objection in Africa. Christians in African countries were English is the official language and who are used to the time-honored phrases of the King James Version, can find the translation in their language too commonplace, lacking solemnity. The same happens in French-speaking countries with the revered Louis Segond translation. As Lewis points out, the supposed “solemnity” is an invention, something that did not exist in the original New Testament, but something that we have added. The expectation that God speaking will be in a more solemn and holy language than ordinary is aided and abetted when we use an older translation. The archaic language sounds flowery and solemn leading some readers to associate that style with Scripture. We forget that God came down in very, very ordinary form and that we should expect his Word to be the same.

So, in order to see translations widely used, we sometimes have to address the concerns of those who find them too commonplace, especially if they are in positions of authority. It’s not a part of being in Bible translation that I expected. I’m following the developments in Jamaica to see how proponents of the translation answer the critics. I might borrow some of their arguments. On the other hand, it looks like maybe the positive impact of the translation in peoples’ lives will be more powerful than any logic.

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.

Development by giving hope

The traditional approach to development work has been to provide things for people. If people lack education, we build them schools. If they are unhealthy, we build them hospitals. If their children suffer from repeated bouts of Malaria, we give them bed nets. If they don’t have clean water we drill a well. Providing things is always appropriate and necessary following disasters. But simply providing things in other cases can fail to truly transform. Today, few who are serious about sustainably improving the lot of the poor think that giving things is enough or even primary.

But to define development as an improvement in people’s well-being does not do justice to what the term means to most of us. Development also carries a connotation of lasting change. Providing a person with a bednet or a water pump can often be an excellent, cost-effective way to improve her well-being, but if the improvement goes away when we stop providing the bednet or pump, we would not normally describe that as development. (From an article What Development? by Owen Barder)

The key to development that ends poverty resides in the capacity of human beings to create lasting, positive change. It is therefore crucial that they believe that they can change things. Indeed, every time we provide something, we may be sending a subtle message to the recipients that we believe they are incapable of providing for themselves. By only providing things we may be reinforcing an inferiority complex among the poor.

Good development organizations understand this. Along with providing some basic resources that allow children to progress farther in school, Compassion International’s child-development efforts instill aspirations, character formation, and spiritual direction. In short, it tries to make actors and givers instead of passive receivers. The best development creates an environment where people solve their own problems.

Some laugh at the idea of giving poor people the Bible in their language, saying that what  they really need is concrete things. This criticism reflects a simplistic understanding (misunderstanding actually) of development. Many of the poor know this. They do not define their poverty strictly in material terms. Furthermore, the Bible brings hope. It encourages people to act in faith that God is with them. Without the hope that things can change, people wallow in passive fatalism – in poverty of hope.

    An evaluation of the literacy and Bible translation programs of the Ghanaian organization I work with, GILLBT, demonstrates that those who read the Bible in their own languages are more likely to take initiative, such as starting new businesses, than those who do not. Why? Because they have new hope and confidence. They believe God will bless their efforts. That kind of development is so much better, so much more sustainable, so much more affirming of them as persons, than just giving them things. Want to support efforts to reduce poverty that are centered on empowering people? Then support Bible translation.