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

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”.

image-2

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.

euro-427533_640

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.

Black Elijah

harris-book-cover

During the growth of Christianity in Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a phase where African “prophets” appeared. One of them was William Wade Harris, a Liberian man who had fallen out of favor with the church and had even spent time in prison where he had a vision from the Angel Gabriel telling him to preach repentance and the destruction of objects used in traditional African religion; then baptize those who received his message. So in July 1913 at the age of 53, he set off on foot with a small entourage for the neighboring French colony. He was not backed by any church or missionary agency.

They ended up walking across the whole coast of what is now the country of Côte d’Ivoire and on into what is now Ghana. They must have been quite a site in their bare feet, white garments with and crosses, especially Harris who always carried a large staff with a cross on top in his right hand and a Bible in his left. They walked all the way to what is now the country of Ghana. It is estimated that 200,000 people heeded Harris’ preaching and abandoned their traditional religious practices. This was a sizable portion of the total population.

His message was often opposed by traditional religious leaders, leading to power encounters reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament such as Elijah on Mount Carmel. Harris would triumph and large scale destruction of the objects of traditional religion would follow. Some of these events were recorded by French colonial administrators.

Prior to Harris, small churches had started in some towns, but they had little impact. Harris spoke in local languages and stripped western trappings from Christianity while targeting his preaching at the heart of traditional beliefs and practices. It got him in trouble with the French colonial administrators. He was arrested several times. He apparently made a miraculous escape from jail in Grand Lahou, the colonial capitol at the time. It is said that he pronounced a curse on the capitol when he left. Today, it is a deserted ghost town.

Harris instructed converts to worship on Sunday, to pray in their own languages, to keep the Sunday for worship, to pray in their own tongues, and to praise God with their own music. He named local elders and he told people that white missionaries would come later can give them the Bible in their languages. When Methodist missionaries arrived, they found churches full of believers waiting for them.

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Today, the Harrist church is found across the area where Harris ministered. It still uses local languages and still has solid teaching, for the most part. Early Western missionaries falsely considered it a cult, probably because of its different worship practices, which you can see in the photos below. Where the Bible has been translated into the local languages, the Harrist church uses those translations avidly. Unfortunately, more than 100 years after Harris started his trek, a number of those languages still don’t have translations of the Bible. Harris’ promise has not yet been fulfilled, although slow progress is being made.

During the months we spent in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016, we were privileged to be in a position to help the translations in some of those languages on their way.

Village theology

Theologie et vie chretienne en Afrique

I have blogged before about this book written by Africans about theology in their countries and churches. The articles have a common theme – making the teachings of the Bible known and making them clear. One of the authors is a Congolese friend of mine, Dr. Bungushabaku Katho. These are my favorite quotes from his article:

“There are many resources in our villages for the understanding of the Bible and the transformation of our communities.” pg 74

“The illiterate masses can understand the Bible if we know how to reach them. Very often we realized that the experience of villagers became much more enriching for our understanding of the Bible; well above the bookish methods of the seminary hall.” pg 74

Dr. Katho has acted on these observations and that has taken him in a very interesting direction. He and his colleagues go out to discover how ordinary Africans understand the Bible in their languages. He calls this the “Village Academy”.

“But the type of education we [theologians] received keeps us from going out to discover these resources [villagers]. We think that good resources are those are found only in our libraries, in books that come to us from elsewhere. We want to read the Bible for villagers rather than with them. The experiment of the “Village Academy” is teaching us that a theologian must keep his ear tuned to the community in which he lives. In this sense, theology must cease to be a speculative discourse done for the pleasure of a few specialists.

Katho

Why this change? It’s simple. Dr. Katho is interested in real, tangible, transformational change in and for people at the grassroots.

“To have impact on on Christian living, the practice of theology in Africa must place the Bible at the center of its activities and be capable of speaking to Africans in their real situations.”

As you might expect, Dr. Katho is a big supporter of translating the Bible into African languages. After all, without translations into the languages of the people, his approach is impossible. But I like it also for another reason – it rings true to the Gospel. God sent his son to be born in the a food-trough for animals. He announced that birth to pagan stargazers and shepherds, rather than to the proper religious leaders of the day. Then his son worked as a skilled laborer before taking on a grassroots ministry with a group of uneducated men. By this method he changed the world. So standing the traditional, academic approach to theology on its head and starting with the Bible-inspired theological reflection of ordinary people in African villages strikes me as something God himself would do; or rather does, in fact.

Not only that, it works. For example, one issue in Africa is tensions between ethnic groups. But academic theology doesn’t address the issue in spite of the fact that the Bible is full of stories about ethnic conflict. However, African villagers reading the Bible in their languages have spontaneously started preaching and teaching on the issue having discovered what fancy, erudite theological seminaries have long overlooked. And it’s an issue critical to the health of both their churches and their countries.

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.

Western Christmas in Africa

One of my Ghana colleagues and friends tells of Christmas in his village when he was a child. It was a big celebration. Most of the year people didn’t eat meat. It was a luxury. But at Christmas, my friend’s family butchered and had lots of meat. It was a real treat. Also, children got new clothes or even a pair of shoes. The adults’ Christmas parties involved unrestrained drunkenness.

Ideas about Christmas had leaked into my friends village from surrounding areas, mostly the western secular idea that it was a time to party. But the Christmas story was unknown.

Decorated palm branches

Nowadays, there is a translation of the New Testament in my friend’s language. That has changed how Christmas is celebrated. Families gather colorful flowers and weave them into palm branches that they attach to their doorframes for everyone to see. Children still get new clothes and everyone eats special meals. But now Christmas Eve is a time to go to church. The party has turned into a focus on Christ. People know who he was and what he did. They have allegiance to him.

Whereas secular western traditions of Christmas borrowed from British colonizers debased Christmas for my friend’s village, the Bible in the people’s language elevated it. In the process, the Bible has replaced secular western cultural influence with the real story of that amazing Middle Easterner named Jesus and the salvation he brings.