A few years back, I was talking to a pastor in Ghana about his vision for the Presbyterian churches in his area. Later, as I looked at the notes I had made of our time together, I noticed that his desires were both universal and local.

He wanted worship services in local languages and Bible studies using the Bibles in those languages. He knew that many people in the area considered church foreign. He knew that using local languages would erode that perception. In short, he wanted the churches to be considered part of the local communities. This part of his vision was local.

But he also wanted the believers who gathered in the churches to feel that they are part of something bigger than their community. He wanted them to feel connected to other Presbyterians in Ghana and beyond and to believers around the world. This part of his vision was global.

During this time I read an article about Brexit – the UK leaving the European Union. Most voters in the UK voted to leave the EU because they wanted something more local. Others voted against because they want to be part of something larger. I see this local versus global tension in many places.

The Christians in smaller languages value the Bible in their languages for a variety of reasons, including that it gives a local expression of the faith they share with others worldwide. The Bible in their language affirms both the ethnic and linguistic identity God gave them and their belonging to God’s people worldwide. Most other things turn the local-global issue into a tension or even a fight, but not the Bible in one’s language. I remember a village chief holding high the first copy of the New Testament in his language and practically shouting “We are now part of the people of God!” He never said that if the Bible in English.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10

So many languages

There are 7,151 languages spoken in the world today. You might think that this number is just one of many dubious statistics that come you way. I wouldn’t blame you. But the number of 7,151 comes from the Ethnologue which is recognized by the International Standards Organization as an official list of the languages of the world. The Ethnologue supplies the codes your phone and computer use to properly display Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Arabic, Hebrew and all other languages. Governments, tech companies, schools, researchers and many more rely on it and find it reliable.

But you might ask if there are really that many languages or if we are just counting dialects. The ethnologue lists dialects too, at least many of them. They number at least ten times more than the 7,000+ languages. For example, English as it is spoken in the UK and North America is listed as one language with many dialects.

Or you might ask if these languages are related to each other. They are – the same way English, German, Romanian, Hindi and Pashtune are related to each other. Actually, those languages are very closely related. But being related does not mean that by understanding one you can understand another.

People have long asked why there are so many languages. There are several theories, but no one really knows. I think that it has to do with identity. For many people their language is part of their identity or status, so they jealously guard it. A bit like English teachers who rail against bad English to preserve what they consider the real thing. Whatever theory is right, we have many languages.

You may have heard that many languages are dying. That’s true. UNESCO says that 2,500 are endangered. Even if all of them became extinct, we would still be left with about 4,500 languages. That’s still a lot of languages

Authentic people

One of the laudable aspects of modern missions has been to take the Gospel to remote places and peoples. Such peoples were often considered undeveloped or even “primitive”. We’ve mostly abandoned that conception, replacing it with the idea that such peoples are authentic or that they represent an ideal way of living. Under that conception, anything that changes their traditional way of life is inauthentic – a kind of degredation or cultural pollution.

Even missionaries get caught up in this idea. I saw it in Africa when missionaries loved the people and culture in the remote place where they lived and ministered, but they disliked the cities, sometimes considering them to be less than truly African. The real Africa, for them, was rural Africa supposedly little changed through time and contact with the outside world.

Some missionaries even considered educated Africans to be less than fully African. I even heard one once say directly to a highly educated African that he was not really African when he showed that he no longer believed the local traditions about camelions.

It is certainly true that not all outside influences bring helpful change to rural peoples. Some are very destructive. But we are called to minister to the people in front of us, not some idealized version of them.


When I lived in Kenya I once went to a missionary dentist who had a clinic. The dentist I saw was an American who was visiting on a short term missions trip. He had trouble with the glue used by the clinic because he had not used it before. He had to work hard to lean it off and then start over.

He was assisted by a Kenyan dental assistant who saw his struggles and said “Sorry.” The American dentist responded “It’s okay, it’s not your fault”. The Kenyan assistant was taken aback.

It was a classic case of misunderstanding. When Kenyans say sorry they mean it only as an expression of empathy, not as an admission of responsibility or guilt. The American dentist took it as an admission of responsibility. Furthermore, Kenyans say it all the time, even to mean “excuse me” if they have to squeeze by someone in a tight hallway, for instance. So the Kenyan assistant empathize with the dentist’s difficulty and wanted to express sympathy. Unfortunately, the miscommunication meant that the sympathy wasn’t acknowledged.

Reading is not normal

Speaking is normal. In fact, it is so normal that it is automatic. If you take young children before they speak and separate them from adults they will invent their own language. It is well known that identical twins often invent their own language.

Speaking a language is so typically human that one never finds groups of humans without language. They’ll invent one, if necessary. That’s why we have pidgins and creoles.

Ghanaian woman reading the Bible in her language

But reading is not normal. Put a bunch of children together without a teacher and they won’t learn to read all by themselves. In fact, some human societies existed for thousands of years without inventing reading and writing. They are not less human for that. There is nothing innately human about reading and writing. No matter how long we have schools, children won’t start learning to read on their own. Every child in every generation has to learn the skill. It’s not natural, not spontaneous.

Even though Europe had reading and writing for a very long time, it is only recently that it has been widely practiced. You probably wouldn’t have been able to read this had you been born at another time in history.

But today most of us take reading and writing for granted. It is so much a part of our lives that we think that it is normal. But for many marginalized and bibleless peoples, not reading and writing is normal and reading is the exception.

Wrong question

I some places I have lived in Africa, a building has collapsed. Of course, people wanted to know why. In fact, immediately after the collapse the radio, newspapers and ordinary people were speculating on the cause. Most everyone thought that the collapse was due to shoddy construction done to save the owner money. Some introduced a bribe to a corrupt building inspector into this thesis. A few speculated about malevolent unseen forces such as witchcraft or sorcery. Almost no one speculated that the collapse might have been due to an engineering error or oversight.

Decades of working in different cultures has convinced me that our cultures guide which questions we ask when bad things happen. Sometimes it guides us to the wrong questions.

If a structure fails in the US, we mostly look for an scientific or engineering answer. But my African friends mostly speculated about witchcraft, unethical building contractors and corruption. But looking for a witch when the cause is an engineering error won’t get you an answer no matter how diligently you look; neither will looking for an engineering problem when corrupt contractors and officials are the problem.

Jesus pointed out that people in his day were following their beliefs to the wrong questions.

“And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.” (Luke 13:4-5)

The people with Jesus thought that the building collapsed because of the sins of the people in it. They had a cultural belief that bad things happen because people sin. So they didn’t look for an engineering error, or a corrupt building inspector or even a witch. They just blamed the people in the building for their sins. Jesus rejects their explanation.

I’ve read a number of explanations for the coronavirus. Depending on the person, it is the fault of :

  • The President
  • The Chinese
  • Dr. Fauci
  • Mother earth (we polluted and she struck back)
  • Climate change
  • Population growth
  • Sin (It is God’s judgment on sinful people)

You can probably guess what kind of people gave each answer. That’s because people are directed to an explanation by their culture, their ideology, their political preferences, their religious beliefs or even their emotions (Who are they mad at?). Laugh at them if you will, just don’t forget to laugh at yourself too, after all, you are probably letting your culture, or beliefs, or emotions dictate what questions you ask about the coronavirus.

Jesus turns the arrow of blame around.

“No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.”

Jesus is saying that calamities and disasters reveal something that should have been obvious before – that life is fragile and our encounter with the Just Judge is right around the corner. It’s better to prepare for that than to spend time figuring out what others did wrong.

Your culture, politics, or anger will try to get you to lay blame on their favorite boogie man. Read the Bible. Let God direct your thoughts.

Discrete combinatorial system

Language is the quintessentially human activity. It is quite amazing yet so natural that we don’t notice how fantastic it is. It is built on two simple yet profound facts.

The first is that we randomly assign meaning to sequences of sounds. The word duck does not look like a duck, walk like a duck, or quack like a duck, but it means “duck” all the same. It means duck because we all think that it does. Other people think that canard (French) means duck; or idada (Zulu), or oli (Korean), or thousands of other words, but English speakers know that duck means duck. Anything could mean duck, but only one word actually does.

The second profound fact is that we combine words together in an almost infinite number of ways. Language is a kind of “discrete combinatorial system.” It is discrete because it is made of a limited number of discrete pieces. English has only 26 letters in its alphabet and only a few thousand words. (The Oxford dictionary lists about 200,000 words, but the average person knows between 20,000 and 40,000.)

Language is combinatorial because we combine the letters and words together and different combinations give different results. The meaning of “man bites dog” is different from the meaning of “dog bites man” in spite of the fact that the two sentences contain exactly the same words and letters. Our limited set of letters and words can be combined into so many sentences that you regularly say sentences you have never said before. With some regularity, you even say things that have never been said before by anyone.

In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker wrote:

Go into the Library of Congress and pick a sentence at random from any volume, and chances are you would fail to find an exact repetition no matter how long you continued to search.

The number of potential 20-word sentences is so great that if you said a different 20-word sentence every five seconds it would take you 100 trillion years to say them all. When you finished you could start on 19-word sentences, or 21, or…

God gave us complexe language so that we could communicate with each other and with Him. It would be a shame to neglect cand tell God about something that bothers you, or that you are thankful for. You never know, maybe you’ll say something to God no one has said to him before.

Language is impossible

Noam Chomsky is arguably the world’s greatest linguist. He has done more to advance our understanding of human language than anyone alive today. He contends that the greatest challenge to understanding language is understanding its infinite creativity.

Knowing a language, says Chomsky, means being able to produce an infinite number of sentences never spoken before and to understand sentences never heard before.

It is a fact that you say sentences you have never said before with regularity. A surprising number of them have never been said before by anyone. Yet the people around you mostly understand when you say something never said before. That’s rather astounding, if you think about it.

I use this feature of language when I read to my granddaughter. To spice things up, I stop and ask her crazy questions. If there’s a bear in the story, I might ask: “Is the bear going to come in the house and climb in the freezer and go to sleep?” Even though she’s only 4, she immediately understands this question she’s never been asked before. I’ll bet no one has ever asked you that question. Yet you understand it. My granddaughter will simply answer no, or say I’m being silly, or tell me no more questions, just read the story. The never-asked-before question doesn’t throw off her 4-year-old brain, not even a teeny, tiny bit. (That last sentence has probably never been written before.)

Knowing a language means being able to produce an infinite number of sentences never spoken before and to understand sentences never heard before.

We take the God-given and breathtaking creativity of language in stride. We don’t even notice it. But those working on artificial intelligence (AI) notice because it’s a huge problem for them. To be realistic, a robot would have to regularly produce never-said-before sentences and understand them when others said them.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction. AI won’t reach that level, ever. Well, at least not for a very long time and certainly not without a revolution in computer technology. I’ll make a shorter term prediction. No publisher will use computer translation for its best selling novels in any of our lifetimes. The human translators they hire will use computers to help them. AI isn’t even close to good enough to translate artistic or elegant prose, let alone poetry.

God is the ultimate creator, but he gave us some of his ability to create. Everyday, you exercise that creativity effortlessly when you speak. Every person does, even the uneducated and illiterate. In fact, we can’t stop being creative with language. That’s one part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

Source: unknown

God’s agent(s)

The big religious question in the West is whether God exists. But that is not the issue in Africa. Everyone knows that God exists. An Akan proverb says that you do not need to show God to a child. By this proverb, the Akan people mean:

God is everywhere and we can know him through his creation which even children can see. Hence, even children don’t need anybody to point out that there is a creator (obooadee) who is the Supreme Being. This is a pervasive Akan world view that is so strongly held that it is the rare Akan who does not believe in God. Saying that even children do not need anybody to tell them that God exists suggests that it is foolish for an adult to claim He doesn’t.

But the belief in an almighty Supreme Being who created all we see is not the end of theological questions. Quite the contrary. Many African cultures believe that God has withdrawn. He is no longer directly involved with the world but is instead like an absentee landlord. The theological question of importance, then, is not whether God exists but rather whether he is to be invoked directly (the Christian teaching) or instead contacted through his agents who act on his behalf (traditional African teaching). God’s agents include various spirits and ancestors who are actually running things in God’s place, according to traditional beliefs.

The traditional teaching has a strong foothold. A Ghanaian friend told me that his uncle was an upstanding member of a prominent church, yet he also did traditional religious sacrifices. His uncle explained that he was covering all the bases just in case. His case is hardly unique.

Unintentionally, the missionaries who first translated the Bible into Akan reinforced the traditional view. Finding no plural for God, they invented one. The history of translation is littered with disasters where translators invented words where one supposedly did not exist. The invented plural “gods” in Akan is one such disaster. Had the translators used the plural for lesser divinities (abosom) Christians would probably have learned not to go to these lesser divinities instead of going directly to God.

In any case, defending the existence of God is useless in most of Africa because it is answering a question people don’t ask; wouldn’t even think to ask. It would be more faithful to the Bible to talk about the role, or lack of role, for God’s agents, a question we in the West don’t ask much.

It’s all there

Because I’m a Bible translator, so I do strange things. For example, I actually read the prefaces to Bible translations. The preface usually addresses how and why the translation was done The original preface to the King James Version deals mostly with criticisms and objections. For example, the King James translators tackle the perennial question “Why on earth are you guys doing yet another translation? Of course, the question was phrased more eloquently in that day.

I’m interested in a different question – is a translation the Word of God? Purists say that they are not: that in order to truly read the Word of God one has to read the Bible in the languages in which it was first written. The King James translators reject that point of view. They wrote:

… we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.

So they maintained that every English translation is the Word of God even if it is not a particularly good translation. (I’m sure that they would not have included fraudulent translations.)

A colleague of mine addressed a similar question:

A common assumption about reading the Bible in the original languages is that by “reading the Greek” we’re actually finding out information that isn’t available to people who are reading a translation.

He rejects this idea. He points out that a person needs a very deep knowledge of Greek to get more out of it. In fact, a doctoral level is needed. Those translating the Bible into English have spent their lives studying the original languages. Unless we are willing to put in that same investment, we’re better off piggybacking on their knowledge by reading their translations.

If you are reading any of the major Bible translation, you are reading the Word of God. You are not missing out. God is not hindered in any way in guiding, instructing, or encouraging you through that translation.

Page from first printing of the King James Version of the Bible