Learning from Luther

In the last few days, I have been reading over and over Martin Luther’s pastoral letter Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague. He wrote it in the middle of an outbreak of the plague in his town after bring asked whether Christians should flee the plague. It is wonderfully nuanced. On the one hand, Luther saw in the Bible that, all other things being equal, the fear of death is normal. So people who flee danger are acting wisely.

To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor

He answers those who think it is wrong to protect one’s self against an epidemic with this observation.

By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also a punishment from God. Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to a divine punishment.

So Luther thought it reasonable that people flee the plague in his town. We can’t really flee the corona virus, so the equivalent for us is social distancing, even self-isolation. Luther puts a condition on protecting one’s self, however, and it’s a big one.

unless it be against God and neighbor

In his view, we should not protect ourselves if that involves abandoning our responsibilities toward others.

A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor. He will always reckon with the possibility that doing so will bring some disadvantage and damage, danger and loss.

Luther deals with the biggest reason why people abandon others in the face of danger – fear. He wrote:

When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles. We would sin thereby against God and man; that would be the devil’s glory and delight. Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.

The writer of the book of Hebrews says of Jesus that

… he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. – Hebrews 2:15

Fear enslaves us when it prevents us from fulfilling our obligations toward others in order to protect ourselves.

Here’s a nice summary of Luther’s thought from his letter.

Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.

Luther noted that Christians don’t take precautions for selfish motives, but to protect others. A person who gets the desease might infect others, and he or she will require medical care, taking up resources that could have been used on others. So sensible precautions are a way we love our neighbors.

Here’s the advice I think Luther would give about the corona virus.

  • Trust God. Don’t be enslaved by fear.
  • Don’t hoard or profiteer as that hurts others. Being reasonably prepared is not hoarding.
  • Do a sober assessment of your risk given your age and health. Take the commensurate precautions as recommended by experts. Do this even if you feel no strong need to protect yourself, but do it to protect others.
  • If you have family or professional obligations, ask God for the courage to fulfill them. Understand your professional obligations as a vocation from God. Seek to be fulfilling that vocation when you die. If you have high risk and obligations, you might seek a way to hand them off or delay them in a way that does not abandon others.
  • Don’t criticise those who choose to take risks to serve others. Don’t feel condemned by their actions.
  • Don’t engage in self-agrandizing heroism.
  • Don’t engage in reckless behavior because by doing so you are endangering others, not just yourself.
  • If you feel God wants you to take risks to serve, don’t criticise those who take a more cautious approach.

You can read Luther’s letter here.
Here’s a good article on historic Christian responses to pandemics.
And here’s a good article with practical guidance.

Beyond mere understanding

I was intrigued by one story I got recently from Ghana. It was about an older man who followed his traditional religion. He offered sacrifices to his gods on a daily basis and had no interest in Christianity. The churches in his area used trade languages or English, but never his language. He thought that a god that did not speak or understand his language was not worth worshiping. After all, he prayed at his shrines in his own language.

One day, while walking to his fields he heard a gathering of Christians speaking his language. Out of curiosity, he stopped, listened and asked what was happening. They told him that they were reading the Bible in their language – his language. He abandoned his old religion and became a believer on the spot.

This story illustrates one of the reasons why we translate the Bible. It is not just so people will understand. Being easy to understand doesn’t mean much if people don’t listen to or read the Bible. This translation caught this man’s attention first. Understanding came next.

We translate the Bible so that God’s words will carry the intimate authenticity and life they had when God first spoke them in the heart language of the people being addressed.

Dante and the heart language

The history of language is full of odd stories. In the Middle Ages in Europe, almost all poetry was written in Latin. By this fact, it was only available to the very affluent and the very educated. In about 1300, an Italian poet started writing his poetry in Italian instead. He was an advocate for writing books in Italian, including writing a book extolling the virtues of writing in everyday language entitled “On Eloquence in the Vernacular”.

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Dante in a painting by Domenico di Michelino, 1465.

One of his poems became one of the landmark works in Western literature and the greatest work of literature ever written in Italian – The Divine Comedy. His name was Dante and almost all of my readers will know the phrase “Dante’s Inferno” which refers to the first part of the The Divine Comedy.

There is a great irony in all of this because those who promoted the use of Latin thought that writing in other languages – Italian, French, German, and English, among others – was a useless endeavor.

They thought that no one of importance could or would read those languages, whereas everyone of importance could read Latin. So they thought that a writer could not become well-known or well-read if he wrote in any language but Latin. Yet Dante wrote in Italian and he became one of the most well-known poets in all of history. His name is still known world-wide, but only academics know the names of poets who wrote in Latin.

Official_Languages_-_Africa_HL colorsThere’s something similar happening today in parts of Africa. The languages of the colonial powers – English, French and Portuguese – have stayed long after the colonial period ended. Some Africans think that these languages represent the future of their countries, and their churches. Only a few writers write in African languages. The reason given is essentially the same as in Dante’s day: few read in those languages and no one of any importance, so a writer cannot not become well-known or well-read if he writes in an African language.

These kind of ideas seep into the church, causing some African Christians to think that the translation of the Bible into African languages is of little or no value because those languages only have local influence – as though the only things that matter are those that have international influence. Jesus was born into a minority people under the rule of a foreign power. God chose Abraham and made his descendants into his people, even though they have always been one of the world’s smaller peoples and their language never has had worldwide influence.

Besides, staying with the language of international influence isn’t always the road to fame, as history teaches us through Dante and his world famous poem.

Process and results

Tunesia (courtesy NASA)

Bible translators are very concerned about method and process, and rightfully so. Long experience tells us that following a rigorous process yields a good translation most of the time. Whereas ignoring process almost always results in a poor translation. One of the quickest ways to improve an under-performing translation effort is to examine the translators’ process and make changes to bring it in line with best practice.

Because a healthy obsession with process works so well, translators can be tempted to try the same process approach in other areas. One of those is the use and impact of the finished translation. This is fueled by research into what causes some translations to be widely used while others to pile up in storerooms. While that research is helpful, it’s easy to turn that research into a process and then believe that rigidly following it will guarantee that the translation will be enthusiastically received by slavish adherence to the right process and then bring spiritual revival.

But the research tells us that what creates impact and transformation varies. It also seems to tell us what is necessary to promote acceptance and use, but not what will guarantee those desired results. If I don’t put gas in my car, it will stop. But if I do put gas in it, it will stop anyway if something breaks. Gas is necessary but not sufficient.

Jesus said:

The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8

In my understanding, this verse means that there will never be a sure-fire process for results in missions. There are no magic bullets. We shouldn’t say “If we do this, then we will see results” like a some kind of strange combination of social science and Harry Potter incantation.

Chile / South America (courtesy NASA)

There’s a great illustration of this where deserts meet the ocean. One would think that it would be impossible to have a desert next to a large body of water, but it happens with some frequency in places as diverse as Chile, Mauretania, Namibia and the Arabian Peninsula. Likewise, We can bring the water of our well-studied ministry process next to people and still end up with a fruitless desert.

Effective ministry requires listening for the Spirit speaking into, even sometimes breaking into and disrupting, our well-engineered processes. On occasion, I have sometimes seen amazing results when the experts’ processes were intentionally dropped in favor of a process proposed by people who had no experience at all in translation but who knew their context.

Arabian Peninsula (courtesy NASA)

For granted

Title page of first Twi Bible

The Bible was first translated into the most widely spoken language of Ghana, Twi, in 1871. So when I arrived in Ghana in 2011, those people already had the Bible for 140 years. Children growing up in Christian families just found the Bible. Hardly anyone wondered how they came to have the Bible in their language. No one ever preached on the history of the Twi Bible. So it was just an unquestioned feature of their lives.

Not only that, most Twi Christians assumed without evidence that other languages in Ghana had the Bible too. All this makes Ghanaian like many American Christians who read their Bible without wondering where it came from or if it has been translated into other languages.

Meeting with pastor after presenting Bible translation to his church

When we began presenting Bible translation to Ghanaian churches, people were astonished. We frequently heard surprised voices realizing that they had never wondered how they got their Bible. They were even more surprised to learn that a number of languages in their country did not have the Bible. Knowing the role the Bible in their language played in their personal lives and their churches, they were dismayed that some of their compatriots lacked that same blessing.

On hearing the facts, church leaders sometimes committed their churches on the spot. They just needed to hear facts they didn’t know and to be challenged about things they had assumed or taken for granted. Besides, those who value the Bible in their own lives make the most ardent supporters of Bible translation.

Systematically putting out the facts to the right churches and church leaders is a key way to include them in the worldwide Bible translation movement. Growing that movement is speeding translation dramatically, outpacing even the speed increase from technology

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.

Emmanuel

Christmas is about God being with us.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). – Matthew 1:23

Then the New Year is about going into the unknown, which seems an odd thing to celebrate, when you think about it. But with Immanuel, it all works.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. (Excerpt of “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins)

When we first went to live in rural Africa, some thought that was imprudent. We have always believed that going where God leads with him is safer than than going somewhere that seems safer without him.

How does Jesus sound?

I want you to consider a strange question. If Jesus came down from heaven and spoke to you today, what would he sound like?

  • A hillbilly?
  • British royalty?
  • Someone from the deep South?

Would his speech have a particular affect?

  • Highbrow?
  • Brainy?
  • Sophisticated?
  • Polished?
  • Uncultured?
  • Uneducated?
  • Archaic?
  • Mystical / religious?

Why do you think that?

The Bible records many times when God spoke to people, including the many instances of Jesus speaking that are recorded in the Gospels. On a few occasions, the Bible records the reaction of those who were listening. None of those reactions indicate that Jesus spoke with an accent or an affect. On the other hand, we have several comments about the content of Jesus words.

Everyone was amazed at his teaching. He taught with authority, and not like the teachers of the Law of Moses. – Mark 1:22 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark1:22&version=CEV

The people didn’t comment that Jesus’s words were complicated, deep, mysterious, mystical, or religious. (Perhaps the “teachers of the law” spoke like that.) Rather, Jesus’s words carried authority. So, we are left to conclude that Jesus spoke in a very normal way but said extraordinary things. In fact, the idea that God speaks in some special, religious way is the very rare exception in the Bible. It also clashes with Christmas which celebrates God becoming an ordinary baby. The incarnation is a really big indicator that when God interacts with us, he usually does it in ordinary ways. C. S. Lewis wrote:

… 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 [common], prosaic and unliterary language.

I remember a group of village elders and their chief telling us how “genuine” and “real” are the words in the translation into their language. That’s a good translation because it puts the focus on the things said.

I think that if Jesus came and spoke to me, I would be captivated by what he said but not even notice how he said it because that would be so completely ordinary. That’s Christmas – a most extraordinary message in the most ordinary form. That’s also what we strive for in translation – God’s extraordinary message in ordinary, everyday words.

First Heart Transplant

It probably seems strange to feature a heart transplant on this blog about Bible translation in Africa. Unlikely as it may seem, there are two links between the two; the first being Africa the second being an African language.

Groote Schuur Hospital

Those of you old enough to remember the first heart transplant may have forgotten that it took place in Africa, South Africa to be precise. It was performed by Dr. Christiaan Neethling Barnard at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town in December 1967.

The second link is language; in this case Afrikaans. That language was created with the influx of a large number of Dutch settlers beginning in 1652. They spoke Dutch, of course. Because they were influential, people around them started learning and speaking Dutch, albeit imprefectly. Plus, the settlers encountered plants and animals for which there was no Dutch name, so their names were borrowed from native languages. These forces eventually simplified and changed the Dutch spoken by the settlers creating a new language, Afrikaans, which is now spoken about 10 million people and is one of the official languages of South Africa.

Dr. Barnard grew up speaking Afrikaans at home and school. In fact, he did all his primary and secondary schooling in Africaans, only learning English once he got to university. So the first heart transplant was done in Africa by a man whose mother tongue was a language of Africa and who did much of his schooling in that language.

In light of this, it is rather silly to think that Africans would be better off to abandon their languages and speak English. Instead, I predict that they will do like Dr. Barnard and speak both – one for matters of family, community and the heart, and the other for work and their professional life. In fact, I know many Africans who do exactly that. And like Dr. Barnard and my African friends, that won’t hurt their professional achievements, not even one little bit.

So Bible translations in African languages will be continue to be widely used including by those who master English perfectly in their professional lives. In other words, they won’t undergo a language transplant.

Bibleless Peoples part 4 – Cut off

Children in Ghana

This is the forth in my series on the bibleless peoples. Because the bibleless peoples are so varied, what I write about them in not true for all of them. It may also be true of peoples who are not bibleless.

Nevertheless, most bibleless peoples are cut off. For example, they tend to be among the poorest of the poor. Their children struggle in school. They have more health problems and shorter life spans. Because they speak languages which are mostly unwritten, they are cut off from information, including the revelation in the Bible. They have no way to find out about something, or to verify what they hear. No courses are offered in the languages they speak and there may be no TV or radio programs.

I vividly remember interviewing pastors and learners in a literacy program for churches in Burkina Faso. When I asked one rural pastor why he enrolled his church in the program, he excitedly said that the members of his congregation who could not read were limited to attending and listening, while those who learned to read could help with children’s Sunday School or visit the sick and read the Bible to them. In other words, those who have no Bible or who can’t read it are cut of from even the most basic forms of lay ministry.

Ladies enrolled in the literacy classes excitedly reported that they could now read the Bible to their children. They were visibly thrilled.

Ghanaian woman reading Bible, Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

A Ghanaian researcher reports that Christians who have the Bible in their language are much more likely to witness to their neighbors.

So we see that bibleless Christians, and those with a Bible who can’t read, are cut off from empowerment, including empowerment to carry out even the simplest forms of Christian ministry even when that is their heart’s desire.