Language, religion, politics and economic growth

On December 31, 1384 Oxford scholar and theologian John Wycliffe died. He was the first to translate the Bible into English. With the proliferation of translations today, that does not sound like a big deal, but in his day it was a very big deal. A ridiculous question will serve to illustrate the point.

Should we use a special language to read the Bible, pray or preach?

You probably have never thought of asking that question, which is good. But 500 years ago it was a burning question. So much so that some were burned at the stake for giving the “wrong” answer. Wycliffe and others had the audacity to use their mother tongue to communicate truth of God. You see, Latin had become the language of the church, of education and of politics, even though only a small minority spoke it.

John Wycliffe

Wycliffe studied at Oxford, and later taught there, all in Latin. When he wrote scholarly articles, they were in Latin. All preaching was in Latin and people were obliged to pray in Latin, whether they understood it or not. Ordinary people understood very little of what was happening in church. This situation created all sorts of problems including corruption in the clergy and a lot of superstition among church goers.

Wycliffe wanted something different. He started by writing some of his academic articles in English. Some were aghast. Then he started translating the Bible into English. He formed a group of like-minded traveling preachers who took his translation to churches where they read it and preached in English.

One of the results was that the common people started questioning some of the things they were being told by the church. The educated elite did not like that. They struck back. They said that:

  • English was too common a language to adequately tell the glorious truth about God
  • The average person would inevitably misinterpret the Bible. Some opponents said “The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.”
  • Believers should looks to the church to interpret the Bible for them, rather than interpreting it themselves.

But Wycliffe kept at it. After he died, he was judged by a church court and found guilty. His bones were exhumed, burned and scattered in a river. His translation and writings were banned, but the circulated in secret. His ideas did not go away, rather they continued to percolate and eventually became the norm – so much so that many do not know that church services and Bible readings in English were once illegal.

That’s right, illegal. Latin was not just the language of church. It was the language of education and of politics. If you had lived in that day, you would have gone to first grade and had your teacher speak to you in Latin. If you went to court, Latin would be spoken by the attorneys and the judge. Wycliffe’s translation and other reforms eventually led to English becoming the language of education and government in Britain. Some scholars believe that the industrial revolution would have been impossible if Latin had been retained. If the bosses spoke Latin but not the workers, it is hard to see how a factory could work well, for example. Schooling in Latin could not have produced enough skilled workers to sustain industrialization.

Yale professor of history, Dr. Lamin Sanneh, proposes that the translation of the Bible into the language of every man set the stage for democracy. If the most important truth of all – that of God — can be communicated in the common language and everyone can understand it, what rationale could there be to keep lesser information, such as that about government or law, from everyone? If everyone could interpret God’s holy book for themselves, then what rationale could there be for excluding people from making up their own minds about political matters? For Dr. Sanneh, democracy starts with the translation of the Bible into common language. Wycliffe did more than translate the Bible, his ideas ended up reshaping law, business and government.

Some of us believe that we are involved in something similar today. We are doing more than translating the Bible into obscure languages. We are also giving people who speak those languages a new way to engage with the world. One of the findings of an evaluation of a local language literacy program in Ghana was that it gave people greater confidence to undertake new ventures. In addition, it resulted in more children in school and more succeeding in school. A study of Bible translation in the languages of northern Ghana concluded that it gave people a new sense of value and identity and at the same time greater harmony with their neighbors. It turns out that Bible translation is not just a religious endeavor. It also can and does bring changes changes to other parts of life too.

A hand-copied page from Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible

The Ram, the Lion and the Lamb

Merry Christmas - animated banner

This is our second Christmas in Ghana. We are celebrating by posting again what we posted for our first Christmas.  It is uniquely Ghanaian.

Ghana has a rich history, culture and beliefs. Long before explorers and missionaries arrived, the Akan people of Ghana developed a rich set of symbols to explain their beliefs. One of them is this stylized representation of rams horns, called “Dwennimmen

Dwennimmen - Rams hornsA ram will fight fiercely with a predator or another ram. So it is associated with strength, which is why the ram’s horns are found on Dodge Ram trucks. But it also submits quietly to slaughter. In the Dwennimmen symbol, the Akan people captured these opposite qualities of the ram: meekness and strength. It was a reminder to those who are strong to exercise their strength in humility.

At Christmas, we celebrate the all-powerful God coming down and being born as a baby. He was born with animals into a family of modest means. Talk about being meek and being strong!

When Jesus was accused by Pilot, he did not try to defend himself, just like the prediction about Jesus in Isaiah:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7 ESV)

Again, great strength exercised in great meekness, just like the Akan symbol Dwennimmen.

Another animal used to symbolize Jesus is the Lion. He is called “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5). The lion, of course, represents strength and courage The praise chorus “How Great Is Our God“, celebrates the unexpected juxtaposition with the words

Christmas animation - mixedThe Godhead three in one
Father, Spirit, Son
Lion and the Lamb
Lion and the Lamb

When Jesus said that his kingdom is not “of this world”, his meek approach to power must be one of the things he meant. Through simple grassroots action, such as Bible translation, that kingdom is expanding around the world. There is a power in the Gospel even when to this world it seems timid, meek, or irrelevant, just as did Jesus birth.

People associate all kinds of symbols with Christmas: snow, sleighs, Santa, reindeer, trees, wreaths, stars, angels, wise men, shepherds, a stable, a manger, even tin soldiers and more. This Christmas I am adding a Ghanaian symbol to my repertoire – ” Dwennimmen” or rams’ horns.

May you have a blessed Christmas.

Manger banner

This was originally posted in December 2011.

Worse than you thought

When I tell people that there are over 6,900 languages spoken in the world today, it get a lot of good questions. Really? Don’t you mean dialects? And so on.

A figure of 7,000 languages does indeed sound unbelievable. It is a number that begs for justification. That justification comes in the form of the Ethnologue, a book which lists all the languages in the world . It is highly respected. Even the International Standards Organization recognizes it. Its latest edition lists 6,909 living languages. The location and number of speakers of each language is listed. So its claims can be verified. In addition, anyone with information can submit it to the editor. Here is a sample page showing a map of the languages of Guatemala: It turns out that 6,900+ languages is a reliable figure.

But, the situation is actually worse than that.

You might imagine, for example, that half of the world speaks English, another 40% other major languages such as Chinese, Spanish, German, Arabic, French, etc; and that 10% of the world speaks very small, isolated languages. In this imaginary situation, most people would speak some major language.

How many people speak what languages?

Alas, it ain’t so. Here’s a graph that shows how many people speak which languages. The nine largest languages account for only about 40% of the world’s population. 60% of the world’s people speak the other 6,900 languages. (These figures are for people’s first language, or mother tongue.) In many places, if you want to communicate effectively about anything – the good news about Jesus, how AIDS is spread, how to avoid water-borne diseases – you will need to communicate across languages. Otherwise, your important information will just touch a few.

We might wish that the language situation were simpler. But pretending that the diversity of languages does not exist leads to all kinds of dysfunction in evangelism, church growth, education, health care, etc. Besides, God himself thought that diversity of languages was a good idea. See Genesis 11.

The Guy Who Obliterated Geography

Anyone who has been around missionaries or in a church that supports missions has heard the following verse many times.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19 ESV)

For many years, many churches and missionaries understood the words “all nations” as referring to geography. The command would be fulfilled when people preached and planted churches in every country.

Dr. Ralph D Winter

Dr. Ralph D Winter

Today (December 8) in 1924, a man was born who would radically change that understanding. Ralph Winter would start the US Center for World Missions. He and the Center would grow into force promoting a new, not geographic, understanding of this verse. He so changed missions that most of you reading this have been influenced by his ideas.

It all starts with how we understand the word “nations” in this verse. In our modern world, we tend to read it as “countries”. But the word “nation” can also mean “people”, as in “the Cherokee nation”. The original word is εθνοσ or “ethnos” from which we get the word “ethnic”. At the time Jesus spoke this command, the known world was composed of people-states: groups of people with the same identity, language and religion with some political structure, often a kingdom. These were grouped together into the Roman Empire, which was not considered an ethnos or “nation” because of its diverse ethnic, religious and cultural nature. In other words, “nation” does not refer to a place, but rather to a people.

Other culturesEven though Ralph Winter was not the first to recognized this fact, he effectively promoted it. He changed the goal from taking the Gospel to every place to taking it to every people. Not only is this closer to that the verse means, it is much more effective. For one thing, preaching in a way that respects people cultures and takes them into account communicates better. The population of Ghana, where I work, is composed of over 70 people groups each with their own language, customs, and traditional leadership. The people groups in the northern part of the country are quite different in their thinking and culture from those in the south. That led to a Gospel gap where Christianity was widely accepted in the south, but spurned in the north. When Christians from southern Ghana moved to the north and started churches they were not effective at reaching people from the north. So churches in the north tended to be little islands of displaced southerners that had little impact on the places where they were planted. It became accepted to many northerners and some southerners that Christianity was for southerners only. When asked to church by a leading Ghanaian Christian, one man from the Dagomba people of northern Ghana said, “As for us, we are Dagomba”, meaning “Church is for you, not for us.”

As missionaries and churches in Ghana and around the world began waking up to concept of people groups, they became more effective. Local languages got attention. Forms of worship and evangelism were adapted to the culture. This approach based on people groups resulted in the acceptance of the Gospel where it had long been rejected, including among the Dagomba. These positive results have been well documented, as I noted in my blog Tome.

US Center for World MissionsWhen Ralph Winter passed into glory in May 2009 he left a huge legacy. He shifted missions back to a footing that is more aligned with Scripture and which is more effective. If it is no surprise to you that there are people groups which are unreached, or that the most effective ministry takes into account local cultures and languages, then you have been influenced by Ralph Winter.

My own ministry is informed and assisted by the focus he brought and many people groups (nations) around the world are grateful for it. Today, on Ralph Winter’s birthday, let’s thank God for the blessings he has brought to many peoples through the guy who obliterated geography in missions.

New Meanings

A few months ago I was aghast at a sacrilege committed on Facebook. Someone had posted a photo that was too good to be true. A lady asked the question: “Has it been shopped?”

For those of you who do not know, Photoshop is a popular photo editing program. To say that a photo has been “photoshopped” is to say that it has been altered. But this woman had reduced “photoshopped” to “shopped”.

Perhaps the retail world is still reeling from the shock of having a woman used the verb “shop” with the wrong meaning! I mean, what is this world coming to? Ladies everywhere should be rising up in protest or protect the purity of that word!

The thing is, words change meaning all the time, sometimes quite radically and occasionally in a short space of time. Will “shopped” become standard for altering photos? Is it slang that is here to stay? In spite of all the effort that our brave English teachers put into nailing English down, it just keeps slipping around. But they are not to blame. It is in the nature of language to change. Every language changes.

So new translations of the Bible are needed. It was completely understandable in the days of King James to talk about “the quick and the dead”, whereas now that phrase conjures images of the success and failure of pedestrians dealing with streets busy with cars.

Just about the time the beleaguered translator thinks he is done, the people speaking the language go and change the meanings of some of the words. Here in Ghana, the Bible Society has just published revisions of two translations first done in the mid 1800s, in the Twi and the Ewe languages. At least one of them had been revised at least once before.

If you liked this, you might also like No Hard Knocks, Stools and Skins or Teach them English.