Trick or Theses

Some people celebrate an alternative to Halloween based on something that happened on this day (October 31) in 1517.

95 Theses in Latin

en 95 Theses in Latin

Monk and scholar Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the church door at the Wittenberg Castle, Germany. This event sparked a giant controversy which resulted in profound religious and political changes that are with us to this day. On the paper, Luther had written 95 statements reflecting his opinions about practices in the church during his day. They are often called the “95 theses”.

Many societal reforms we take for granted would probably have been impossible without Luther’s opinions. Some people celebrate the event as Reformation Day, complete with very cute costumes (see below). In the spirit of a day celebrating documents that changed the world, one family made a Declaration of Independence costume.

It is a natural outcome of Luther’s theses that he went on to translate the Bible into German.  He held the opinion that everyone should read and interpret the Bible for himself or herself. That could not happen until people had a Bible in a language they knew. Translating the Bible into the minority languages of the world continues that thinking. So, Bible translation and the day on which Halloween falls are linked in a round-about way.

If you liked this, you might also like, The Day Tribal Ended, Nida, or John Agama.


The Party Line

Some time ago, I listened to someone in missions aviation tell the story of the introduction of the first helicopter. At the time, the party line was that helicopters were too expensive to operate, and so were unsuitable for missions aviation. He then told an amazing story of the need for an aircraft to go into a place where it was not possible to build an airstrip and God’s amazing provision of a helicopter well under market price. And so that particular party line about helicopters faded into history.

Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting

Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting

The party line is an interesting concept. People in organizations, especially political organizations, are expected to “toe the party line”– to say in public only things that follow the party line – the organizations policy or mission.

I have been there.

I was living in Burkina Faso doing Bible translation under the model where each person raises support for their ministry. The Wycliffe website says:

Wycliffe missionaries do not receive a guaranteed salary from our organization. Instead, they rely on God to provide through the gifts of interested individuals and churches

Because of this model, we had very little money for anything but the ministry of each missionary. At the same time, young people from Burkina Faso were coming to me saying that they felt God calling them to ministry. They wondered if their might be a place for them in Bible translation. They were mostly university students engaged in their churches and campus ministry. I told them the party line which went like this:

It is great that you want to serve our Lord. But we don’t have any way to involve you in what we are doing because of our financial structure.

It was more elaborate and polite than that, but you get the idea. I would also pray with them and send them on their way. I had come to Africa with a call to do Bible translation. My call, or rather my understanding of my call, did not include finding ways for Africans to be involved. No, I was going to do the translation myself.

Meanwhile, more and more young, educated Burkina Faso Christians kept coming to talk to me. Their stories became more and more compelling. Worse (or better!), the call of God on their lives was evident. One day, one came with an incredible story. You can listen to it here.

Samy Tioye and Ed

Samy Tioye and Ed

After hearing his story, I knew that I could not give him the party line. I could not say to someone with such a clear call of God for Bible translation on his life that I could not be involved with helping him move that forward. I came to the conclusion that party line had become out of step with what God was doing. Today that has changed, but changing it required some doing.

Having a party line for a ministry is actually a good idea. It gives direction and helps keep us focused. The thing is, we have to always pay attention to our circumstances because God might be using them to shift our party line, even one that is longstanding and justifiable. The Bible is full of stories of God changing the party line, including when he did that with the Apostle Peter. The trick is to be less thickheaded than I was. God had to put me in front of the same situation many times before I recognized it as His doing.

If you liked this, you might also like Why Nationals, Nessiel Nodjibogoto, or Undeserved.

The first Wycliffe translators from Madagascar in our home in Nairobi

The first Wycliffe translators from Madagascar in our home in Nairobi

Light soup

A favorite Ghanaian food is called “Light Soup” It is a salty broth with some vegetables and fish, chicken or cubes of beef. It can be eaten with a variety of staple foods including fufu or boiled yam.

Fufu and light soup

Fufu and light soup

I was eating a meal at a conference in Ghana. Light soup was being served as one of the dishes in a buffet. One of the guests from outside the country had served himself some light soup. In it, he had managed to get a piece of tripe which he was inspecting. One of the Ghanaians told him that he had acquired the most sought-after morsel. At the table was a sharply-dressed, educated young Ghanaian lady who chimed into the conversation. She said that while serving herself the light soup in the buffet line, she had spent a moment searching for a piece of tripe, but without success. She sounded quite disappointed. What people like to eat is a function of their culture, especially what they ate as a child. It is not, as some might presume, a function of their education or sophistication.

By the way, I have yet to eat tripe in light soup.

If you liked this, you might also like Advice on Taxi Windows, No Hard Knocks, Festooned with Signs.

Language policy to live by

Tyndale being martyred - from Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Tyndale being martyred – from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Yesterday in 1536, one of the greatest Englishmen to have ever lived was first strangled, then burned at the stake. His crime? Well, he disagreed with the king and the church on language policy. Sounds a bit incredible, doesn’t it? Kill someone over a dispute about which language should be used? Well, it happened.

Tyndale lived in a time when Latin was the language of government, education and the church. All church services were conducted in Latin. There were real advantages to using Latin. It was an international language, and it offered international mobility to those who spoke it. The disadvantage? Well, much information was locked up in Latin which few people spoke. If you could get a good education, meaning learning Latin, you had a huge advantage. Latin was the language of a small elite.

Tyndale had a different idea. He thought that information, especially the Bible, should not be locked up in a language accessible only to the elite. He told church leaders of his time:

“I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

He maintained that using Latin corrupted church leaders, enabling them to lead the masses wherever they wanted. While at the same time Latin kept the masses in superstition and ignorance. For Tyndale, then, the issue of language policy – English or Latin – was one of knowledge or ignorance, truth or falsehood, even of freedom or servitude.

I perceived how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue. – William Tyndale

It is revealing that some of his critics agreed – they predicted that a shift in language policy from Latin to English would result in an erosion of the power of the church and of the monarchy, and they opposed it for that reason. They were right! When Latin eventually did give way to English, power shifted from the church structures and the monarchy to the people.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

Tyndale’s insistence on the mother tongue lead him to translate the New Testament, and large parts of the Old into English.  He believed that ordinary people should be able to hear, read and interpret the Scriptures on their own.

The phrase “language policy” sounds boring and dull. It is anything but. Even today, much of the information minority peoples need is locked up in languages they don’t speak. Unfortunately, some Christians, and even some missionaries and pastors, think that these minority peoples should read the Bible in English – the new Latin. In some places, we are still fighting for the kind of language policy for which Tyndale died. It is still an issue of knowledge versus ignorance, wisdom versus superstition, and even freedom versus servitude.

If you liked this, you might also like Translation and Democracy; Language, Religion, Politics and Economic Growth; or Teach Them English.

Congolese boy reading the Gospel of Luke in his language - Tembo

Congolese boy reading the Gospel of Luke in his language – Tembo

Gaston’s evaluation

At the dinner table with Gaston and others

At the dinner table with Gaston and others

In the early 1980s, Dayle and I worked in Côte d’Ivoire (sometimes called Ivory Coast). Part of our role was to visit translation projects and provide assistance of various kinds. On one occasion we visited the translators for the Dida language, including a wonderful Ivorian man named Gaston.  His family regaled us with a meal fit for a king. There were three courses: monkey and rice, fish and plantain fufu, then rice and beef. We ate outside under the shade of palm trees. Fufu is a prized dish in Ghana too, where we now work, so we are fortunate to be eating it again these many years later. But only if someone else makes it, because it is a lot of work.

I like spicy dishes, but the Dida spice their food several notches above my comfort zone – at a level way above “hot” which might be called “three alarm, atomic fireball surprise”. I could eat, but slowly and with some difficulty. The fact that the food was delicious helped, but not quite enough. My nose was running and my eyes were watering. Gaston saw my predicament and gave me a knowing look. I told him that the food was delicious, but the pepper was making my nose run.

“Oh”, he said, “that is good. We Dida have a saying. If your nose doesn’t run, the food doesn’t have enough pepper!”

If you liked this, you might also like Ghanaisms, Passing the Purse, or What’s in a name?

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