Gospel & Culture blog
Once people groups are identified, strategists begin to catalog these groups in terms of evangelistic response and need, for the purposes prayer (Johnstone, 2001). And mission organizations begin to direct mission resources to the fields (i.e., people groups) 1) that were seen as “ripe” (receptive); or 2) to those where no work has been done. If it were not for the concept of people groups, mission mobilizers would not have come to emphasize unreached people groups in the 1990s. Beginning with the world’s 7000 distinct languages (P. Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2013), the Joshua project took into account features such as religion, and ethnicity, (“Global Statistics,” n.d.) to arrive at a list of over 16,000 people groups.
Missiologists (Bush, 2013) have, understandably, connected the concept of ethnolinguistic people groups to the use of ethne in the New Testament. For example, they contend that Matthew 28:19 means “Make disciples of all people groups.” This argument is fraught with difficulties:
Think of the difficulties in interpreting ethne as ethnic groups: Is the child of an African-American father and Korean mother a member of a distinct ethne—yet another ethne that must be evangelized and will be included in the “all cultures in heaven” list? Would reaching a Korean-African American be considered as one new ethne or two or three ethne? What about people like Tiger Woods—“Cabalasians” who have numerous ethnicities in their background (as in fact, we all do)? Are they included as a distinct ethne? Are Caucasian Americans in the twenty-first century—with the innumerable combinations of Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Eastern European ancestry—to be understood as a single ethne? If we extend ethne to mean “however people identify themselves ethnically” or “all possible ethnic permutations” then we are left with so many possibilities that we may as well just say “all people.” In fact, that is exactly what many theologians conclude: We must interpret “every tribe and nation” as a metaphor for many people from all over the world. (Nehrbass, 2016, p. 71)
The model of people groups has now been amended to include seventeen major “affinity blocs”, including the Arab world, East Asians, Eurasians, Jews, Malay, North Americans, Pacific Islanders, etc. As affinity blocs are highly reductive and do not take into account these major differences in ethnicity, language or religion, the concept may appear to be a regression from “people groups.” However, affinity blocs are also a missiological application of the homogenous unit principle: Mission strategies within the Arab world will be tailored differently than they will among North Americans or East Asians.
The concept of people groups, combined with the 20th century push for “evangelization in this generation” led to the discourse of unreached people groups. Once these unreached people groups could be identified, mission mobilizers suggested adopting people groups, especially in a geographic region missiologists called the 10/40 window.
If William Carey translated 6 Bibles and portions into 29 other languages, how good could those translations have been?
I began wondering about this when I considered debates about the locus of control of Bible translations.
Bible translation organizations face an internal struggle over the role of expatriate translators. Is it desirable for non-native speakers (often from the west) who are highly trained in translation philosophy and exegesis to have a direct role in translation? Or should indigenous communities bear much of the responsibility, and westerners take on a consulting role?
For the first 1800 years of church history, as the gospel came to a new setting, native speakers who converted became inspired to bring scripture to their own people (Smalley, 1991). This method can be traced all the way back to Ulfilas’ translation of the Bible into his childhood Gothic language in the 4th century AD. Smalley (1991) suggests that the Bible translation model is now coming full circle, and the responsibility of Bible translation is now moving back into the hands of the native speakers. Just under 500 translations of scripture had been completed between the first and 18th century; yet in the past 200 years, over 2000 additional translations have been completed. Still, more than 2500 of the world’s 7000 languages do not have a single verse of scripture.
The debate about the role of expatriate translators has to do with two realities: 1) non-native speakers may not understand the target language well enough to produce an acceptable translation, and 2) post-colonial sentiment suggests that expatriates should take on more of a “facilitator” role in all missionary endeavors, including translation.
William Carey epitomizes, in some ways, the “non-native” model of the Protestant mission era. Admirers of Carey point out that he translated the Bible into six languages and portions into another 29. Is such a feat possible, and if one did attempt to do this, would the quality be any good? What are the chances that Carey's translation philosophy and methods, in 1800, were able to produce the kind of meaning-based vernacular translations we produce today?
Smalley (1991) reports that Carey’s translation was “seriously flawed. If there had been competent Bible translation consultants in Carey’s day, they would not have approved for publication much, if any, of the translation work done by Carey and under his supervision” (p. 47). Culshaw;s (1967) review of Carey's Bengali translation concludes that Bangla Christians can understand Carey's text, but they don't actually talk that way. Culshaw suggests that this level of comprehensibility, alone, is a remarkable accomplishment for a missionary who was pioneering not only a translation, but a system of writing for these languages. Drawing on S. K. Das' critique of the Bengali translation, Culshaw provides some examples of issues that Carey faced (which Bible translators still struggle with today):
Also, it is questionable whether Carey actually epitomizes the “non-native” model of translation. He “passed the torch to “numerous translations done by Indian assistance. They would translate into their own languages, consulting with each other about problems as they did so” (Smalley, 1991, p. 46). This leads us to the second issue around the debate of “locus of control”: Are indigenous communities responsible for their own Bible translations? In addition to being self-multiplying, self-governing and self-funding, should ecclesial communities be self-translating?
Much of the discourse about indigenous translation projects is linked with the discourse of post-colonialism, as well as an emphasis on “acceleration.” Is it paternalistic for western-trained linguists to initiate and manage translation projects? And besides, highly-trained expatriate scholars can take twenty years to complete a translation - at such a rate, how would we ever complete the next 2500 translations? Could we ever finish the task, if “the number of people training in the West to do Bible translation on the decline” (Gravelle, 2010, p. 13)? A number of linguists in the Bible translation movement agree with Beine (2016) that the highest quality Bible translations result with a high level of cooperation between linguists, biblical scholars, native speakers and indigenous church leaders.
Beine, D. (2016). A continuing role for Western Bible translators? In R. Scheuermann & E. Smither (Eds.), Controversies in Mission: Theology, people and practice of mission in the 21st century (pp. 165–186). Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Press.
Culshaw, W. (1967). "William Carey - then and now." The Bible Translator. 18 (2) April, 53-60.
Das, S. K. Early Bengali Prose from Carey to Vidyasagar. Booldand Private Limited, 1 Sankar Ghosh Lane, Calcutta-6, Rs 25
Gravelle, G. (2010). Bible translation in historical context: The changing role of cross-cultural workers. International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 27(1), 11–20.
Smalley, W. (1991). Translation as mission : Bible translation in the modern missionary movement. Macon, GA: Mercer.
Across the USA on the fourth Thursday of November, grandparents, in-laws and families will be gathering to eat foods they don't usually eat: Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, yams and cranberry sauce (below, you can post your favorites that I may have left of the list). Some will remember to thank God, the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17). But what about US Americans who are overseas? How will they celebrate? I asked some Biola students who are scattered around the world what they do for Thanksgiving. One in Thailand said her expatriate (US) community usually goes out to a steakhouse or buffet together. Others, including one student in Mongolia and one who split time between Indonesia and South Korea, attempt to mimic the full Thanksgiving meal, but sometimes have to substitute the turkey with chickens. A student in Hong Kong said:
We do it up in a major way. We pull our kids out of school and gather American friends (and others who are interested) and try and pull out all the stops. Used to be finding the biggest chickens available to roast but turkey is more common than it used to be. It’s a chance to show hospitality, connect children to American tradition and spend a day together.
Dr Tom Sappington, associate professor of theology and missions at Biola University said when his family was in Indonesia they invited many Indonesian friends to experience an American Thanksgiving with all the trimmings. "Our Indonesian guests loved it, but one felt like he still needed to get rice on the way back to his home, since you haven't eaten, unless you've had rice."
On the other hand, some US Americans abroad deliberately skip Thanksgiving, if their host culture doesn't celebrate it. A missionary to the south Pacific said, "What do we do when we're abroad for Thanksgiving? Pretend we're not Americans." Another missionary said, "I try not to think about Thanksgiving when we're overseas...too sad to be away from home at that time."
A borrowed holiday?
Of course, US Americans don't have a monopoly on Thanksgiving- especially in this global age of culture-sharing. Canadians celebrate a Thanksgiving feast much like US Americans do, on the Second Monday of October. But most people may be unaware that Canadian Thanksgiving is actually older than the version in the USA, having been brought over in the 16th century by missionaries from Europe. "And we don't have the connection to shopping, like Black Friday in the States," explained Dr Michael Lessard-Clouston, a Canadian who is professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. Since moving to the USA, his family has celebrated two Thanksgivings in the fall - on both the Canadian and US dates.
Yes, Thanksgiving, as many Americans know it, is actually a European holiday, especially German and Dutch. Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 1574 in Leiden, Netherlands, after the city survived a period of famine. Erntedankfest (giving-thanks festival) is the harvest celebration in Western Germany, and includes parades and fireworks on the first Sunday in October. A less religious version, the beer-festival known as Oktoberfest, is more widely celebrated at the same time. In fact, many countries with German diaspora celebrate Oktoberfest.
Thanksgiving has also been reimagined by communities that were marginalized during the early colonial era Emancipated slaves brought American Thanksgiving to Liberia when they began re-settling Western Africa. The official date of Thanksgiving in Liberia is the first Thursday of November. Dr David Lowry, associate professor of anthropology at Biola University, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, said that many Native Americans, as part of wider American culture, celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. "There, we have a lot of bar-b-que. There's lots of pork. And we have a lot activities surrounding church services at Thanksgiving." But, Dr Lowry explained, Native American discourse about the first Thanksgiving may be turned on its head: Rather than amicably receiving instruction from the Native Americans about how to survive the winters, "the 'pilgrims' or colonizers stole technology and coopted Native American techniques."
Pagan harvest ritual?
Thanksgiving, even the Christian-European version, is actually a version of a nearly global phenomenon known as harvest rituals. Throughout tribal communities, the Southern Hemisphere, the annual harvest is celebrated in March and April (their spring). In Vanuatu, clans celebrate the yam harvest by offering first fruits to the magician who is responsible for a good crop yield. Christians in Vanuatu offer their first fruits in church. rather than to the tribal magicians. In fact, the redemption of a pagan harvest ritual is a global phenomenon. For example ChinaSource reported on Lahu Christians in Yunnan province who offered their first fruits in church at the fall harvest.
There are several versions of harvest rituals in Asia (and by Asian communities in diaspora around the globe): At the full moon in mid-autumn, many Han Chinese swap moon cakes during the Moon Festival. Starbucks has capitalized on the event, selling espresso, caramel and hazelnut mooncakes. "Because it's a holiday, people have time to go visit their relatives. In fact, Chinese refer to a full moon as a 'round' moon; and the word round, in Chinese, is relate to the word for 'reunify,' so we reunite at that time," explained Dr John Liang, professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. However, Liang told me, his family has not celebrated the moon festival since moving to the USA. "My kids don't even like the taste of the moon cakes- they're too sweet, or have eggs in them." "Sometimes Chinese people say these moon cakes are like American fruit Cakes" Dr. Jamie Sanchez, assistant professor of Intercultural Studies at Biola University, commented.
Sanchez also explained that it can be too reductive to simply refer to the mid-autumn festival as "Chinese Thanksgiving", since there are substantial differences. Besides, "who is to say that the Moon festival is like our Thanksgiving. Maybe our Thanksgiving is like their Moon festival, which is, after all 2000 years older."
South Koreans eat small rice cakes called Songpyeon (송편) on Chuseok Day, an Autumn harvest holiday. Dr. Eunice Hong, adjunct professor at Biola's Cook School of Intercultural Studies, said many Koreans return to their hometowns for the three day holiday to enjoy cooking, eating, and bowing to their deceased ancestors. "Because I grew up here in the United States (and because we are Christians), we do not observe it quite like those in Korea. Ancestors worship is very important to Koreans (traditionally), but because we follow Christ, we do not bow down to the ancestors. So here in the States, we go visit our relatives, the women cook in the kitchen all day and in the evening we eat tons of tradition Korean food, but that's about it!"
Vietnamese celebrate a fall harvest Têt-Trung-Thu similar to China's moon festival. Michael Souter explains it is "the Children’s Festival, is held as a way for parents, once busy with the harvest, to make amends with their children who may have felt neglected." One Vietnamese-American blogged about how his family hybridized their own culinary preferences with American Thanksgiving.
So here's one more thing to be thankful for this year: The many ways people around the globe have celebrated bounty, and have celebrated each other. What's on the menu, and the date of the celebration, isn't the important thing. Above all, God delights when we praise Him for his goodness to us all year round (Psalm 147:11).
My work as a translation consultant brought me to a rural village in Vanuatu. The Anglican congregation meets under a structure of bamboo and thatch, with barbed wire strung along the posts to keep pigs and cows out. The priest wears a robe, stole and cross necklace. It is evident that his faith is sincere and that he’s connecting with God. As he lifts up the silver chalice and recites the liturgy, it occurs to me: This pacific island congregation is symbolically linked with Anglican congregations around the world by observing the mass the same way it is done all over the world; but are the people in this simple village church aware of the centuries of debate about the nature of the elements in the Eucharist? They identify with the name ‘Anglican’ but are they partakers of the long-standing tension between Roman Catholicism and the Protestantism? When they sing ‘And Can it Be’ in pidgin English, are they nostalgic about with massive pipe organs in places like Westminster Abbey; and what else do they know of Charles Wesley’s legacy? Is Christianity, for them, a legacy of two thousand years’ of pondering paradoxes like predestination and freewill, or salvation by works or faith? What is the value, for them, of Luther’s 95 theses? Of five point Calvinism? Or of the Wesleyan quadrilateral?
The village catechist, Norm, had spent the last four years walking twenty miles, (and crossing four language boundaries along the way) to receive training at a biblically-grounded theological institute. After ordination, he returned to reach his village for Christ. When Norm puts on the stole, he is mindful of apostolic succession down through the centuries. When he holds up the silver chalice, he thinks of the church of God universal. As he labors at producing a vernacular Bible translation, he identifies himself with Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther. However, his new congregation is largely unfamiliar with this legacy. Their experience of Christianity is their cousin or uncle Norman, holding a clear plastic cup of wine, and reciting portions of “God’s Talk” in their own language. To them, and many in remote village churches, Christianity is about the here and now, not a world religion with a two-thousand-year legacy.
Has the Christian identity of such villagers been short-changed or watered down because of this? Should missionaries endeavor to transmit some of the rich legacy of Christendom along with the gospel, if that is even possible? Many missiologists would argue that we’re called to make disciples, not to transmit a cultural legacy, no matter how rich it may be. In fact, it is precisely because of their isolation that these rural villages and islands have a unique opportunity for contextual theology. True, they are not inheriting the rich past of Christendom, but neither are they inheriting the schismatic or more sordid parts of Christian history. Their corporate memory of the church has neither cathedrals nor crusades; neither Cartesian philosophy nor colonial domination; neither creeds nor Christological controversies. Their church is not set in the context of 1300 years of tensions between Islam and Christianity nor in the more recent debate over church and state. Instead, the church is embodied by people like Norm, by the book he’s translating, by the songs he has taught them, and by the God to whom he is trying to win their allegiance.
Despite (justified) criticisms that nineteenth and early twentieth century missionaries were not contextual enough in their missiology, many communities took this gospel, as foreign as it was, and interpreted it as uniquely their own. They went around naming their rivers the Jordan and their lakes Galilee; villages were called Nazareth and Samaria; high points must have been where the ark landed; certain stone formations were identified with the stone Moses struck in the desert, or where David fought Goliath. This makes evangelicals leery because of historical inaccuracy; but it’s also a sign that the villagers see the Bible as God’s message for their own time and place- not something from 10,000 miles and two millennia away.
There may be something lost, if members of the small Anglican congregation see Norm more as “cousin” or “brother” than as “apostolic successor” or “ordained priest.” Are they missing out on something because they have not worked out a theology of the Eucharist? I think they’ll work out these things in their own time. For now, their “clean slate” acceptance of Norm’s church plant is evident of the miracle of indigenous church growth. In Norm and his bamboo-and-thatch church we see a picture of a self-multiplying, self-funding, and self-governing church.
But what most concerns me about indigenous churches that have not had their own Reformation is that they may lack the mind-boggling paradigm shift that salvation is a free gift. It seems that the notion that you must earn salvation is "common sense" all over the world, and it takes churches centuries sometimes (in the West, it took 1500 years) to learn the lesson that it is impossible to please God with good works. Salvation is free. That's why we all need a Reformation.
Norman’s village has a way to go before it’s a strong church community. There were only four men and two women in the service the day I visited. There is only one elder in the church. They are only beginning to understand what it means to be a disciple. And they have their own controversies to solve and theological problems to sort out. Their church may not have inherited America’s bitter disagreements about traditional or contemporary music; but they are trying to decide on such issues as whether elders can drink kava, or whether Christians can use the services of a clairvoyant.
We can be sure that the solutions they come up with will be a relevant Christianity for them. As they join in globalization, they may not share the past two millennia of Christendom with us, but their future will involve going beyond their islands, joining in complicated global debates, and benefiting from the worldwide Church of Christ.
The Melanesian Institute’s (MI) Point 33 is replete with thick ethnographic description and missiological applications. In addition to supplying particulars about how and why sorcery is variously practiced throughout Papua New Guinea (PNG), the contributors suggest how the church should respond to this phenomenon.
The government has long been aware of the troubles caused by sorcery (sanguma in Tok Pisin), and made it illegal under the 1971 Sorcery Act. However, proscribing the practice has not been effective enough in mitigating these problems. The solution, the authors suggest, is not merely to discourage the practice of sorcery; rather to dispel such “ignorant” (31), “barbarous” (33), “heathen beliefs” (157) in the first place. Accusations of sanguma cause people to live in fear of their neighbors and usually victimize those with less power, such as women and the elderly, as they inevitably take the blame for death and other misfortunes.
Therefore, the authors are not wondering about how to discourage sorcery, rather how to foster another Enlightenment like Europe experienced (46). They admit this is an ambitious project, since Melanesian cosmology involves ghosts, demons, angels and mechanistic powers. Additionally, Melanesians see some value in the sorcery system: It empowers women who are known to be witches; it explains misfortune; and the fear or retribution by a sorcerer is an important regulating force (337).
While cultivating such an Enlightenment is ambitious, these authors do not consider it impossible. If pastors would preach “against the belief and practice of sorcery” (154) people would be less likely to blame others when misfortune befalls them. But if they must maintain their cosmology, pastors should at least encourage people to attribute misfortune to “nature spirits, ancestral ghosts, evil spirits, Satan or even God” (298) rather than to their neighbors.
Because most of the authors do not reify sorcery as a spiritually energized phenomenon, their missiological application is limited when it comes to combating demonic powers behind sorcery, e.g., through “power-encounters.” Apparently they believe that spiritual warfare would be unnecessary if people would cease believing in demonic powers all together.
Aside from the Western bias of the authors, they achieved their goal of “linking faith questions with a phenomenological approach based on ethnographic enquiry” (58). The research methodology in this book is indicative of the high caliber of scholarship going on at the MI, and we can expect more studies from them of this value in the future.
This article first appeared in Nehrbass, Kenneth. (2011). [Review of the book Sanguma in Paradise: Sorcery, Witchcraft and Christianity in Papua New Guinea, Point No. 33]. Missiology, 39 (3). pp. 248-249.
“The biblical writers intended to be understood,” Steve Fortosis asserts in The Multilingual God. However, Fortosis’ numerous stories of translation reveal that it is exceptionally challenging to generate a comprehensible translation of scripture in tribal languages. Many minority languages lack abstract terms such as love, holy, hope, kingdom, or faith. So translators and mother tongue speakers must be resourceful in finding alternatives. In one example, Fortosis relates that the disciples on the road to Emmaus asked each other, “Did not our hearts cool within us?” (99). In another example, one translation rendered Luke 4:32, “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught as a heavy-mouthed one” (90). These “functional equivalents” aren’t meant to be avant-garde, (compare the Cotton Patch Bible); they are serious attempts of translators to be faithful in two languages: the source and the receptor language (133). Fortosis’ many examples of our Multilingual God convey what inspires Bible translators to participate in “the most complex intellectual activity in which any person can engage” (1). For many, the motivation is the joy of watching communities understand the text for the first time, and the thrill of beholding people put their trust in Jesus Christ.
Thirty years ago, Don Richardson’s Peace child and Neil Anderson’s In search of the source inspired many Westerners to get involved directly in Bible translation, and encouraged countless others to support the effort. Fortosis briefly recounts these stories, and more than a hundred other tales of translation, spanning from David Livingston to the present. And for those who want to discover more about any of those examples, he has painstakingly footnoted virtually every account in the book.
Inevitably, monolingual literalists will be disconcerted – rather than inspired- by the “free translations” in the book. Hopefully, such die-hards will attend to Fortosis’ epilogue, where he explains the process of modern Bible translation. Western translators aren’t renegades who expand metaphors or put in cultural substitutes at a whim; their creative and culturally-relevant solutions are the result of collaboration at the village level, and are refined by input from consultants, Bible scholars, stylists and copy editors from around the world.
Don’t read the book for theories of translation; it is not a textbook for translators, nor a “how to” manual for getting around problematic elements like rhetorical questions, key terms, or possessive constructs. Instead, enjoy the 182 pages of linguistic difficulties and innovative solutions, as Fortosis acquaints you with the nearly impossible (yet exceedingly rewarding) task of Bible translation.
This post was originally published as Nehrbass, Kenneth. (2013). [Review of the book Multilingual God]. Missiology, 41 (3). pp. 359-360.
Jesus used various motifs to describe what He meant by “disciple.” He told some simply, “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19). The authors of the gospels never spell out criteria for who among the crowd following Jesus was a disciple and who wasn’t. It’s safe to say that there was no specific criteria for membership; disciples were those who came to Jesus for teaching (the core of the word “disciple” is one who adheres to the teachings of another). Davis (2015, pp. 29-32) suggests that perhaps the reason that practical theologians cannot agree on a definition of disciple is that it is, after all, a fuzzy (rather than bounded) set. Discipleship is not a program, or a twelve-step process. It is a lifelong process of transformation, and it is personalized- so it is a bit fuzzier to define.
Another motif for discipleship is based on Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God. Those who are under the rule of God, in whom the Kingdom is growing (Luke 17:21), are disciples.
Two main activities have characterized missiological understandings of making disciples: proclamation and obedience. Below I’ll explore both briefly.
Discipleship as persuasion
Church growth missiologists understood discipleship as primarily about proclamation. Wagner (1973) said the process of discipling involved helping “unbelievers to make a commitment to Christ. Wagner deliberately distinguished this activity from a separate stage, perfection, which involves “teaching them all things” (Rainer, 1993). Yet this narrow definition of discipleship is no longer in wide use. Scholar-practitioners now recognize that discipleship is more than bringing people to conversion.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor