The span is amazing. In fact, the span is spectacular – every bit as much as this bridge in France.

Across Africa, learned believers with strings of letters behind their names are working on the same teams with believers with no formal education. Their purpose? To translate the Bible into African languages.

Without the learned members of the teams, some parts of the job would be impossible – such as developing an alphabet for the many previously unwritten languages. In some cases, African churches have started their own translation efforts only to find them stymied. They rightly realized that using just the English alphabet their language could not be written in a way that could be read back. But they did not have the scientific knowledge to know what to do about that. When we sent them a linguist specialized in such matters, the problem was solved.

Siwu traditional authorities

Siwu traditional authorities, near Hohoe, Ghana

The team members without formal education bring another kind of expertise which is just as valuable – they know their languages and what their people believe. Their role is to make sure that the translation communicates clearly. I saw this powerfully a few weeks ago when a paramount chief congratulated us on producing a translation that spoke deeply to them. Of course, it was not because of us, but because of the hard work of some his own subjects.

I saw it again in the Congo when we showed the Jesus Film (which is really an abridged translation of the Gospel of Luke). When Jesus would speak, people were saying, “I can understand clearly!”

In fact, sometimes “educated” people bring in English words and that can obscure the meaning. For such reasons, an “uneducated” viewpoint can bring clarity.

I can’t think of another endeavor which benefits from the direct involvement of people of such divergent educational levels. The span really is amazing. God’s very diverse gifts and callings working together in a beautiful way with powerful impact.

The unlearned believers translating the Bible and putting it into practice are the foundation of the explosion of the church in Africa. Yale historian Lamin Sanneh (himself from The Gambia) has called the results of their work “incalculable”.

God seeth not as man seeth. He hath chosen the foolish things of the world, the weak things of the world, the base and despicable things of the world, men of mean birth, of low rank, of no liberal education, to be the preachers of the gospel and planters of the church.
(Matthew Henry Commentary, regarding I Cor 1:27)

On day 50, it got all crazy

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday. Why? Well, here is the story.

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech. There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. When this sound occurred, a crowd came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were astounded and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that each of us can hear in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking the magnificent acts of God in our own languages.” They were all astounded and perplexed, saying to one another, “What could this be?” But some sneered and said, “They’re full of new wine!”

Ever since this event, with some exceptions, believers in Jesus and followers of him have followed the lead of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles in speaking the magnificent acts of God in all kinds of languages. Followers of the risen Jesus have one Lord, one faith and one baptism, but many languages and many cultures. The number keeps increasing all the time.

On that day, the idea that faith in Jesus required that everyone speak the same language, or have the same culture, got smashed. From time to time some try to put the pieces of that shattered relic back together, but mostly those who live in the life of the risen Savior live that out, share it with others, and create praise in their own languages and cultural forms.

It looks like the world thinks that it is discovering the value of diversity. God’s language and culture diversity project, centered around his son, Jesus, started 2,000 years ago. I think that it has a head start.

God speaks into the African context in African idiom, and that it is through hearing in African mother-tongues ‘the great things that God has done’ (Acts 2:11), that African theology emerges to edify not only the African church but the church world-wide – Dr. Kwame Bediako (Ghanaian theologian)

Crooks and Crow

In the early 1980’s, Liberia was in a civil war and we were living in Abidjan, surrounded by refugees. Liberians crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The UN set up refugee camps but some refugees made their way to Abidjan. Among them was a class of crooks – confidence men who would tell creative stories to pry some money out of your wallet. Their tactics were the subject of daily conversation.

A new couple arrived and joined us from the US to help. I had to travel up-country with some colleagues, so we left the new guy in charge of the office. When we came back a few days later, he told us that two Liberian men had come to the office. They told him that a Liberian friend of theirs had worked as a national translator for his language. The missionary couple leading the translation had returned to their country for some months. The war broke out shortly after they left and they could not return. The only copy of the translation of most of the New Testament was in Liberia in the hands of their friend. He was trying to bring it across the border into Côte d’Ivoire for safe keeping, when he was detained by the police. The men said that they had traveled with him and were unable to get the manuscript from him. They wanted about $300 to go back to the border, pay the fine, and get their friend released with the manuscript of the NT. They would then return to Abidjan and give us the manuscript for safe keeping.

As our newly arrived colleague told it this story, we were smirking. It sounded like some of the renowned Liberian hucksters knew a little about Bible translation and had crafted the perfect story to soak our colleague. To our chagrin, he had given them the $300. We consoled him. “Three hundred dollars is not that much,” we said. “You meant well,” we had told him. He was embarrassed.

A few days later, three Liberians showed up at our office. The two who had talked $300 out of our friend and colleagues, and another who supposedly had the only copy of the translation of the New Testament into his language. We were braced for a new story and a request for more money. Instead, the third Liberian pulled out the only manuscript of the New Testament in his language! We quickly took the manuscript to the photocopier and made another copy, whicht we put in the safe.The next day, we were able to connect the Liberian translator with the missionaries, by phone, to tears of joy all around.

God had to get us “wise” people out of the office so that he could have a “naive” new missionary give money to Liberians with an improbable story. We would never have given the money, and the manuscript might have been lost. We probably would never have even known of our mistake.

This incident taught me an important ministry lesson – if I am careful with my charitable giving to the extent that I never waste money – never make a mistake – I probably will be making a different mistake; that of not giving money where I should. This principle goes beyond giving. If I screen national translators so well that I never get one who does not work out, I will probably be turning away quite a number who would do very well. Fear of making a mistake is a dangerous thing.

Most importantly, I need to listen to the Lord and the Holy Spirit. Something my wisdom considers foolish might just be what God is doing. This danger increases with experience, so the Lord needed to inject some humiliation into my life to get me back on track, like the day I ate crow in front of our new missionary colleague and three Liberians.

New cedis and old cedis

2000 old cedis (2001) - then worth a few dollars

2000 old cedis (2001) – then worth a few dollars

A few years ago, the Ghana money – the cedi – experienced very high inflation, driving prices of ordinary things into the 1 million cedi range. So new money was introduced, with the same name. They lopped off four zeros. So 10,000 old cedis equaled one new cedi. All the old cedis were exchanged for new.

But a lot of Ghanaians still give prices in old cedis because that is what they know best. A long  time ago, a similar thing happened in France with the French Franc and many French people kept giving prices in old francs for quite a few years.

Two new Cedis

Two new Cedis – a little more than one dollar

But for me it is confusing. I am trying to develop the ability to divide by 10,000 and multiply by 10,000 quickly in my head, while carrying on a conversation and at the same time converting the new cedis to dollars, in my head, by dividing by 1.7. I’m too old for this! I do have one conversion down pat: 1,000,000 old cedis is 100 new, which is about 60 dollars.

One Sunday at announcement time in church, the man making an announcement about money, gave it in new cedis, but people wanted the amount in old cedis. So he tried to do the conversion in his head on the spot. He gave a number. That was wrong and the congregation let him know. So he revised the figure. Wrong again and again he was informed of that fact. We went round and round until everyone was thoroughly confused, not least of all the man giving the announcement. The figure he was trying to communicate was the amount for the church’s annual fund-raising drive!

And so it was that I discovered a negative effect of high inflation which is not discussed in economics textbooks.

Five new cedis

Five new cedis – about $3

Feeling the Gospel in our Bones

The former Governor of the Bank of Ghana, stood up in church, asked a question and then answered his own question with “Here, I feel the Gospel in my bones.”

Ladies' choir dancinng with handkerchiefs

Ladies’ choir dancing with handkerchiefs

We were coming to the close of a very animated church service in a suburb of Accra. It had already lasted a few energetic hours. I was seated in a section next to a women’s group dressed in the same yellow and green cloth. They were teaching me how to worship. Praise songs (in their language) were sung with gusto, twirling of white handkerchiefs, dancing and occasional trills. I could not help but smile and join in.

Accra is a city of almost two million. In addition to Professor Ansre, many highly educated people attend this church. So it all could have been in English. (Ghana has more than 60 languages. English, the official language, is spoken by less than half the population, and for almost all of them it is a second, third or even fourth language.) But much of the service, and almost all the singing, was in an important language of Ghana – Ewe (pronounced ee vee). In the 19th century, German missionaries first wrote Ewe and translated the Bible into it. It is still widely used in some churches to this day, even by people who could worship in English if they wished.

The education level of the congregation, and hence its economic status, showed in the new, but unfinished building in which we were worshiping. (I thought that the absence of windows and doors was probably an advantage in the humid heat.)  It was near the end of the service that the former Governor of the Bank of Ghana, stood. He said that he lived in another part of town, but he drives quite a way to this church. So people ask him why he drives so far. After all, there are churches in the part of town where he lives. His answer, “Here, I feel the Gospel in my bones.”

You see, his mother tongue is Ewe. When he worships in Ewe, it touches him deeply even though he has a perfect command of English.

This is why we translate the Bible into the many languages of Africa. It is not enough to touch the mind. Jesus said that we are to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. For that we need the language that touches the heart and the soul – or in the words of the former Governor of the Bank of Ghana – the language that we feel in our bones.

Former Governor of the Bank of Ghana

Former Governor of the Bank of Ghana

The first translation

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe

The very first Bible in English was translated by an Oxford scholar, theologian and reformer named John Wycliffe. Wycliffe Bible Translators borrowed his name. Anyway, his translation appeared around 1380. Here is the fist chapter of Genesis in the 1395 edition, more than 200 years before King James ordered the translation of the Bible that bears his name. After reading it, or even just a small part of it, you will know why no one is insisting that it still be used today.

1 In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe. 2 Forsothe the erthe was idel and voide, and derknessis weren on the face of depthe; and the Spiryt of the Lord was borun on the watris. 3 And God seide, Liyt be maad, and liyt was maad. 4 And God seiy the liyt, that it was good, and he departide the liyt fro derknessis; and he clepide the liyt, 5 dai, and the derknessis, nyyt. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, o daie. 6 And God seide, The firmament be maad in the myddis of watris, and departe watris fro watris. 7 And God made the firmament, and departide the watris that weren vndur the firmament fro these watris that weren on the firmament; and it was don so. 8 And God clepide the firmament, heuene. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, the secounde dai. 9 Forsothe God seide, The watris, that ben vndur heuene, be gaderid in to o place, and a drie place appere; and it was doon so. 10 And God clepide the drie place, erthe; and he clepide the gadryngis togidere of watris, the sees. And God seiy that it was good; 11 and seide, The erthe brynge forth greene eerbe and makynge seed, and appil tre makynge fruyt bi his kynde, whos seed be in it silf on erthe; and it was doon so. 12 And the erthe brouyte forth greene erbe and makynge seed bi his kynde, and a tre makynge fruyt, and ech hauynge seed by his kynde. And God seiy that it was good. 13 And the euentid and morwetid was maad, the thridde dai. 14 Forsothe God seide, Liytis be maad in the firmament of heuene, and departe tho the dai and niyt; and be tho in to signes, and tymes, and daies, and yeeris; 15 and shyne tho in the firmament of heuene, and liytne tho the erthe; and it was doon so. 16 And God made twei grete liytis, the gretter liyt that it schulde be bifore to the dai, and the lesse liyt that it schulde be bifore to the niyt; 17 and God made sterris; and settide tho in the firmament of heuene, that tho schulden schyne on erthe, 18 and that tho schulden be bifore to the dai and nyyt, and schulden departe liyt and derknesse. And God seiy that it was good. 19 And the euentid and the morwetid was maad, the fourthe dai. 20 Also God seide, The watris brynge forth a `crepynge beeste of lyuynge soule, and a brid fleynge aboue erthe vndur the firmament of heuene. 21 And God made of nouyt grete whallis, and ech lyuynge soule and mouable, whiche the watris han brouyt forth in to her kyndis; and God made of nouyt ech volatile bi his kynde. And God seiy that it was good; 22 and blesside hem, and seide, Wexe ye, and be ye multiplied, and fille ye the watris of the see, and briddis be multiplied on erthe. 23 And the euentid and the morwetid was maad, the fyuethe dai. 24 And God seide, The erthe brynge forth a lyuynge soul in his kynde, werk beestis, and `crepynge beestis, and vnresonable beestis of erthe, bi her kyndis; and it was don so. 25 And God made vnresonable beestis of erthe bi her kyndes, and werk beestis, `and ech crepynge beeste of erthe in his kynde. And God seiy that it was good; and seide, 26 Make we man to oure ymage and liknesse, and be he souereyn to the fischis of the see, and to the volatilis of heuene, and to vnresonable beestis of erthe, and to ech creature, and to ech `crepynge beest, which is moued in erthe. 27 And God made of nouyt a man to his ymage and liknesse; God made of nouyt a man, to the ymage of God; God made of nouyt hem, male and female. 28 And God blesside hem, and seide, Encreesse ye, and be ye multiplied, and fille ye the erthe, and make ye it suget, and be ye lordis to fischis of the see, and to volatilis of heuene, and to alle lyuynge beestis that ben moued on erthe. 29 And God seide, Lo! Y haue youe to you ech eerbe berynge seed on erthe, and alle trees that han in hem silf the seed of her kynde, that tho be in to mete to you; 30 and to alle lyuynge beestis of erthe, and to ech brid of heuene, and to alle thingis that ben moued in erthe, and in whiche is a lyuynge soule, that tho haue to ete; and it was doon so. 31 And God seiy alle thingis whiche he made, and tho weren ful goode. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, the sixte day.