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 Many African cultures believe that God has withdrawn.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.

It’s all there

Because I’m a Bible translator, so I do strange things. For example, I actually read the prefaces to Bible translations. The preface usually addresses how and why the translation was done The original preface to the King James Version deals mostly with criticisms and objections. For example, the King James translators tackle the perennial question “Why on earth are you guys doing yet another translation? Of course, the question was phrased more eloquently in that day.

I’m interested in a different question – is a translation the Word of God? Purists say that they are not: that in order to truly read the Word of God one has to read the Bible in the languages in which it was first written. The King James translators reject that point of view. They wrote:

… we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.

So they maintained that every English translation is the Word of God even if it is not a particularly good translation. (I’m sure that they would not have included fraudulent translations.)

A colleague of mine addressed a similar question:

A common assumption about reading the Bible in the original languages is that by “reading the Greek” we’re actually finding out information that isn’t available to people who are reading a translation.

He rejects this idea. He points out that a person needs a very deep knowledge of Greek to get more out of it. In fact, a doctoral level is needed. Those translating the Bible into English have spent their lives studying the original languages. Unless we are willing to put in that same investment, we’re better off piggybacking on their knowledge by reading their translations.

If you are reading any of the major Bible translation, you are reading the Word of God. You are not missing out. God is not hindered in any way in guiding, instructing, or encouraging you through that translation.

Page from first printing of the King James Version of the Bible

Elevating the ordinary

In 2017, PBS released a video documentary entitled Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. It notes that not only did Luther start a great religious change, he also started political and societal changes. When his teachings landed him in trouble with the church, we argued his case before the court of public opinion, bypassing the clergy and experts in theology. He circulated his ideas widely using the recently-invented printing press.

He took the same approach to the Bible. He wrote: “I wish that this book could be in every language, and dwell in the hearts and minds of all.”. He was not willing to reserve the Bible for experts, but rather delivered it the common man. He even consulted ordinary people when doing his translation. He wrote: “To translate, we must listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. I sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks.”

I am an heir of Luther’s approach. We translate the Bible into African languages because we trust African Christians to interpret it with the Spirit’s guidance. Our translation process includes a step where we “listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace” and where we are “guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” So we trust Africans with the translation process.

This elevation of the common man and woman, and Luther’s practice of bypassing those in authority, “set in place cultural changes that led to democracy in America and Europe”, according to the documentary. We see similar changes in Africa where ordinary people empowered by the words of Scripture question and change cultural practices they deem backward or harmful. Normally Those changes are more profound and longer lasting than changes ordered by some authority, because they flow from the heart.

Crottin de chèvre

Crottin de chèvre

There’s a French goat cheese called crottin de chèvre which often served as a starter in France. But you probably wouldn’t order it on your next trip to France if you were using Google Translate to help you decipher the menu. Because if you put in “crottin de chèvre”, Google will tell you it means goat dung!

Computer translation can be very useful. In fact, humor is one of the things it produces. Seriously, computers help speed all kinds of translation including Bible translation. But they need strict supervision. In fact, the best use of a computer in translation is as an assistant to a human translator. It can tell the human translators how they translated a word or phrase last time, or link them to articles discussing the translation of difficult words and phrases, for example.

I predict that computer translation will do very well at translating literal documents like user manuals and scientific papers. It will be great for travel where mistakes are corrected in face-to-face communication, gestures and pointing. But when it comes to translating things like literature, poetry and philosophy, computers will struggle for a long time. The Bible, of course, is full of literature, poetry and philosophy. I predict that no publisher will use computer translation for its best sellers in any of our lifetimes.

In our day, it would be silly to do a translation of the Bible without a computer, even in a very remote area. But it would be even sillier to think that a computer can replace a properly-trained flesh-and-blood translator.

Missionary technology

The first commercially-available computers could only display or accept English. That was a problem. By the time I first started using computers, we had a few more characters available because of something called “extended ASCII”. This allowed the computer to display and accept keyboard input for most European languages. But it still didn’t work all that well. Specialized technicians had to fiddle with the computer to get it to accept and display the characters in the alphabets of African languages we were working on, But every language had its own system, making archiving and computer support a mess.

Technical details for unicode for one specific language

Fortunately, the tech companies wanted to sell their products everywhere, so they were interested in solving this problem. Missionary-linguists got involved in a worldwide consortium working on the issue. We jumped in so that the smaller languages wouldn’t be left out. Besides, we were often the only ones who had thought about what they needed. In the end, we got unicode; a world-wide standard for accepting, displaying and printing all the characters of all the languages of the world, even Tai Lue, wherever that is.

Your smart phone has unicode, your computer has it, your TV has it, maybe even your car and your refrigerator. Someday your doorbell might have it. Actually, I think some already do. You use missionary technology every day. So do atheists.

Now, anyone who wants to read the Bible in his language, no matter how strangely it is written, can see it displayed on a smart phone, tablet or computer. Because of unicode, the Bible in any language can be sent across the internet or put on small chips and carried anywhere. Whatever electronic device receives it will display the strangest characters correctly. Unicode, hidden the background, makes it happen automatically.

Blessings spill out

Students who learned to read

The approximately 30 different people groups of northern Ghana are faced with real difficulties. Their land is semi-arid, they have few economic opportunities, and their children have to go to school in a language neither the students nor their parents know for the most part – English. In one school, only 2% of second and third graders could read.

But, using the alphabet for their language and a reading method developed by missionaries, primary school students from some languages in northern Ghana have started learning to read in their own language. A year ago, these school children could not read a single word. Today almost all reading short stories. Having mastered reading in their language, they will now bridge to Ghana’s official language, English. Experience has shown that they will be more successful in English after starting in their mother tongue. Not only that, they will be able to read the Bible in their language.

The blessings brought by missionaries have spilled over into education. That will, in turn reduce poverty and misery.

(Photos courtesy of J. Yacubu, GILLBT)

Celebrating a successful program

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 plague

Have you ever wondered what happened to the plague? I don’t mean plague in the generic sense of an epidemic or pandemic. I mean, of course, the black death also called the bubonic plague. This is the desease that, after ravaging other continents, arrived by ship in Europe in 1347 and proceeded to killed one third of the population of Europe over the next five years, then periodically crop up in certain towns for another 300 years.

Northern Congo

When I worked in northeastern Congo, I learned that the World Health Organization registers about 2,000 cases of the plague worldwide every year, of which half occur in northeastern Congo. So I worked in plague alley, so to speak. Was I brave or foolhardy to work there? Hardly. The risk was very low. Our contingency plan said that there was a 100% risk of an outbreak of the plague and a zero percent chance it would affect us.

Why? Because the plague is treatable with any of a variety of inexpensive and widely available antibiotics. Virtually the only people at risk are those who contract it but do not seek treatment until the desease is advanced. Those who do seek timely treatment suffer no long term effects and return to health quickly. So we could walk plague alley with little concern.

There are still several regions where rodents carry the plague and sometimes pass it to humans. That includes most of the Western United States. If that’s where you live, and you’re just now learning that it’s a place where the plague is endemic, be assured, your fear of the plague should be the same as before. Rank it with polio.

The desease that struck fear in the hearts of all Europe now gets little attention except to make funny scenes in Monty Python movies. The thing that was furiously fought with the best methods known at the time, is now easily defeated with a simple treatment. Insignificance; that’s what happened to the plague.

Language and Ideas

A couple years back I attended a public lecture in Accra. It was given by a Ghanaian academic. The thing is, he is also a village chief. One of the things that is different about Ghana is the fact that a number of chiefs are highly educated. They might be academics as this man, or high level civil servants, or business people. Apparently, some villages in Ghana want their chief to be able to interface with the outside world.

At one point, the lecturer talked about language. He said that some of his subjects come to him speaking English and say things like “Your Highness”. He responds by asking them to say that phrase in their language, but they can’t. He said that if one of this subjects cannot translate things they say in English into their language, this is a good sign that they really don’t understand the thing that they are saying.

I have actually seen this first hand. I was helping a young man study for an exam he had to pass to get a diploma. As is the case for many Africans, he was studying and learning in the official language which was not his mother tongue and he was learning that language as he learned the other subjects. He would read and study in the official language, then come to me with things he didn’t understand. One day he came to me with a question in a sample exam. He knew the answer, but there was still a problem. He said that he knew that the answer was “The earth turns on it’s axis every 24 hours.” The thing is, he said that he had no idea what that meant. He knew that he could go to the exam an get questions like that right, but he also knew that he really wouldn’t understand what he was writing. As I started explaining, I found that I had to back all the way up to the fact that the earth is a sphere. I think, or at least hope, that he went away knowing what his answers meant.

Because many people go to school and learn in the official language which they don’t speak at home or in their community, and they are learning that language as they learn other subjects, then can learn to say something that they don’t understand, misunderstand or only partially understand. So it is possible to carry on an intelligible, coherent conversation with someone and find out later that they didn’t understand it, or understood it differently than you did. People can learn religious jargon without understanding it or without understanding it well. If you ask then to say the same thing in their language, they can’t. If someone doesn’t know how to say “Jesus is Lord” or “human rights” in their language, that’s a sign that they might not really understand the phrase when they say it in the official language.

Mind you, there is a layer of educated people who understand perfectly what they say in the official language. But that layer can be very thin in some places.

The lecturer-chief is on to something. He saw clearly the limitations of the official language. The lecture was in the official language, so obviously he thinks that it has it uses. But he is not naive enough to think that “Everyone speaks English”, because he knows that some who appear to speak English and who think they do, really don’t. We can’t build solid Christians and churches on a language people only seem to master.

Unprecedented

That’s my new unfavored word. Today, I saw it misused again in a publication that should know better. It should mean something that’s never happened before. In these narcissistic times, it seems to mean something we have never experienced, or perhaps even something the person saying it has not personally experienced.

We don’t need to go back very far in time to find plagues that clearly eclipse even the worst case scenarios for Covid-19. We only need to go back a few years and to a place that is a direct flight from DC and NY (West Africa) to find a much deadlier plague – the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Guinea. Ebola kills between 40 and 90 percent of its victims including the healthy young.

I personally lived through AIDS spreading in Africa before there was treatment. An acquaintance came to see me. He showed me the thrush in his mouth and told me about his weight loss and constant diarrhea; a constellation of symptoms that presume AIDS according to experts. I could help him a bit, but do nothing to stop the illness. About a week later, he was gone. We knew a couple both diagnosed with AIDS. They had two children who ended up orphans. Colleagues took charge of them.

I lived through a meningitis epidemic that killed multiple thousands all around us. The hospital grounds were strewn with patients laying on the ground, their IVs hung from trees. We had no fear because we were vaccinated. We had helped some friends get vaccinated, but one nevertheless lost a baby too young for vaccination.

I don’t think that I am callous. Instead, I have had a unpleasant truth about life and the world shoved into my view; a truth from which many Americans have been shielded, most thankfully. That shield allows them to believe that events are unprecedented when they were in fact common to human experience throughout history, and they are still part of life in some places even today. Some bibleless peoples experience these “unprecedented” events on a regular basis. Plagues are not events lost in ancient and Bible history.

Does it matter? So what if we think things unprecedented when they aren’t? In a way, it doesn’t matter. But you should reconsider your assessment if it scares you that a situation seems unprecedented. Be assured that God has taken those he loves through problems as bad and worse. In fact, he does so regularly. He’ll be there this time too.

Let me suggest: https://www.christianpost.com/news/jd-greear-god-is-using-coronavirus-to-wake-us-up-to-fragility-of-the-world.html