Gospel & Culture blog
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 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.
As a professor of missions, I often hear people say "you can be missionary right in your own neighborhood." As with any academic field, it's important to get the terms clear. While you can be an evangelist in your own neighborhood, "missionary" and "missions" should not be confused with "evangelism" or "discipleship."
Missions is cross-cultural discipleship, so some very important work that we do as the church is NOT missions. Drawing a boundary does mean excluding some work from the definition of missions (thought such work may be missional and strategic for the church). Consider the following true examples from my students:
Sharon, from the USA, teaches English in Thailand. She was not sent by her church, is not under a mission agency, and receives a salary from her university. While she is working cross-cultural, she does not see herself as a missionary because her presence in Thailand is not particularly about making disciples
Miguel, from the Philippines, is studying theology and missions in the USA, but plans to plant churches among his own ethnic group in the Philippines. He considers himself a church planter, but not a missionary.
Carmen, from the USA, is financially supported by members of her own church to do the bookkeeping for a mission organization in West Africa. She does not particularly “teach them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” but her mission organization does have an overall plan to make disciples. Carmen sees herself as a missionary because of her important role in an organization that is doing missions.
If a cross cultural worker digs wells but has no overall plan for “teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded,” then while it is obeying the first commandment to manage the earth for the flourishing of humankind, it is not part of the narrower aspect of the churches mission to make disciples across cultures. And in all fairness, I must add, if an organization plants churches and hands out tracks, but is not actually “teaching them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” then it, too, is not actually doing missions.
Of course, in our day-to-day experience, the set of activities which are involved in making disciples is fuzzy. Healthcare can be done in a way that teaches people to obey Jesus, or it can be done without touching on issues of discipleship. A Christian could work cross-culturally in such a way that she makes disciples in her secular workplace, or she could hide her light under a bushel. By defining missions narrowly as cross-cultural discipleship, I am not as much excluding certain activities as I am focusing on the setting (does it cross cultural boundaries) and strategy (does it make disciples) that drives those activities.
The activities (methods) and purpose seem to fall in three general categories. The most obvious is witness. Some “teach them to obey all Jesus commanded” by planting churches, teaching in international seminaries, exorcising demons, and preaching to crowds at college campuses. But in 2016 we reached the threshold where more than 50% of people who call themselves missionaries say their primary activity is not witness, but service, development, healthcare, or cultural production through the arts. A second category of missionary methods includes engagement in public life. And a third we may label as “cultural production.” The below shows how these categories fit together in the bigger picture of making disciples across cultures.
The apostle Paul said “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ESV). Yet Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs remind us that some are experiencing much greater levels of persecution than others. Open Doors' “World watch list” breaks down persecution of Christians into three “impulses” or pressures on Christians: tribalism (factions, in-fighting), secularism, and exploitation. Some persecution is acute (which Open Doors refers to as “the smash”) and some is more chronic (“the squeeze”). Religious intolerance, factionalism and tribalism are increasingly dangerous to believers. It was Justin Long who reported “During this century, we have documented cases in excess of 26 million martyrs. From AD 33 to 1900, we have documented 14 million martyrs.” The Vatican says that 75% of people who are killed for their faith are Christians.
Historically, theologians have been ambivalent the role of persecution in Christianity. Tertullian noted that “the blood of the martyrs is seed [of the church]" (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). This was more descriptive than prescriptive. That is, Tertullian wasn’t advocating for martyrdom as a church growth strategy; he was observing that rather than stamping out the church, martyrdom rallied the faithful. Why is this? Maybe because stories of persecution are inspiring. They help us think through our own priorities. We think, “If someone ordinary- not a super saint- had the courage to stick to their convictions, then maybe I can too.” Westminster Abbey's statue to ten 20th century martyrs from all six continents received wide attention because of the inspiring stories and adventuresome lives of Bonhoeffer, Dr MLK Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero and others.
Why do governments and factions persecute Christians?
Some postcolonial theorists find the martyrdom narrative within Christianity to be disturbing, so they discount the degree to which the church has been, and still is, persecuted. Most notably, New Testament scholar and contributor to the National Geographic Channel Candida Moss has argued that the persecution complex gives license to Christians to vilify their opponents:
Instead, Moss says, early accounts of martyrdom were few and far between. Such accounts were highly stylized to suit the author’s purpose. Christians, Moss argues, were prosecuted, not persecuted, for a crime that made sense to the ancient world. In order to further distance Christianity from its historical claim of disproportionately high levels of persecution, Moss argues that the act of martyrdom was not original, but followed motifs in the life of Socrates and the Greek romance novel. Or perhaps, Moss fancies, early Christians “couldn’t help themselves” from rehearsing the passion narrative!
While persecution is one of the greatest threats to Christians, Patrick Fung (Director of OMF) tried to keep this perspective: “The greatest challenge to missions isn’t martyrdom, but a diluted gospel” (NA Mission Leaders’ conference, Chicago, Sep 21 2012). Interestingly, Glenn Penner, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs takes a similar radical stance: “I do not believe that persecution is the greatest threat to the continuing spread of the gospel. I am much more concerned about something that, at first glance, seems benign and even helpful but which I contend is far more insidious. I am referring to the dependency creating practices that ministries are increasingly promoting in the name of ‘partnership.’”
The issue of martyrdom raises a number of questions for Christians
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor