Bio-diversity and Linguistic Diversity in God’s Creation

May 13, 2012 in Mark, Bible translation, Culture, Front, Justice, Language, Mission, Tanzania

There are around 6,900 languages spoken around the world today, and probably several million species of plants and animals. A BBC article today suggests that those areas of the world that have a particularly high degree of biodiversity are often the very same areas that are the most linguistically diverse.

The report also mentions that there are a large number of both languages, and also plants and animals, that are endangered and threatened with extinction in the coming decades. What is a Christian response to the fact that this diversity is threatened? Read the rest of this entry →

Language Matters

February 28, 2012 in Life, Prayer, Wycliffe, Mark, Bible translation, Front, Language, Mission, Tanzania

Our time at Swahili language school in Iringa is continuing well, and we are starting to look ahead to our next move west in a week or so! We had originally planned to stay in Iringa for four weeks, but have extended that by one more week so as to give Laura as much time to continue with classroom learning as possible.

Laura is really enjoying the classes and is making excellent progress, having covered the majority of Swahili grammar and learned a lot of vocabulary too. She is able to converse more and more each day, and is encouraged by how much progress she has made in just three weeks here. You can even see her speaking Swahili for yourself… Read the rest of this entry →

“It’s like a miracle”

November 28, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Africa, Bible translation, Front, Language

Last year I spent two weeks in Zambia’s Western Province, training a group of people to survey the languages of their vast province as they sought to start developing their languages and translating the Bible into them. Since then I have been excited to see the rapid and encouraging progress that the team has made.

Recently the project was featured on BBC World Service, and on the BBC website, with the website article particularly focusing on the Shanjo people and their language, ciShanjo.

“It’s like a miracle,” says Hastings Sitale, recalling how he felt when he saw a booklet written in ciShanjo, a language he had only ever spoken before. Read the rest of this entry →

Race and Ethnicity: Does it Matter?

August 13, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Church, Culture, Theology

Race and ethnicity have always been hot topics for as long as people have been around, and remain so today in a great many parts of the world. In the church too these issues are often present, if only in the fact that many Western churches remain almost entirely mono-cultural and mono-racial even when they are located in culturally diverse neighbourhoods.

How should the church approach the issue of race? Is it something that the Bible has much to say about? Is it something that we should even talk about? Does it do more harm than good to talk about ethnicity when it doesn’t really matter?

In my experience the first response of many Christians to the issue of race is to point to Galatians 3:28 (or similar verses) that state

 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

There we have it. This is what the Bible says about race – we are all one in Christ Jesus and race really doesn’t matter.

My problem with this is that while it is true, to simply give this answer doesn’t reflect anything of the incredible paradigm shift and the years of intense debate and struggle within the church that allowed Paul to make this statement. “All races are equal before God” is ultimately the right answer, but if we jump to the conclusion without walking through the thousands of years of history that led up to this point we will end up with a very weak theology of race and ethnicity that is likely to be grossly inadequate as we face similar issues today. (My guess is that many times this simplistic view is presented by majority ethnic groups who are in dominant positions in society, and so see the issue as an irrelevance and a distraction rather than the daily struggle for opportunity, identity and even survival).

If we read the Bible we find that race has been an issue ever since God commanded humanity to go and fill the earth, with the result (despite man’s best efforts to disobey) being the formation of distinct peoples, cultures, languages and races. Out of this diversity God called one man, Abraham, promising that Abraham’s descendants would be God’s chosen people, and that through them all nations would be blessed.

The rest of the Old Testament follows the story of this people, Israel, as they live amongst very different peoples in the ancient near east. The accounts that make up the Old Testament are not written in a vacuum, but concern Israel’s life and witness amongst other nations with very different ideas about life and about god(s).

Jesus is then born into this race, and although he gives clues as to the universal nature of his vocation, it is far from clear how the other nations fit into what God is doing. As the New Testament church is born, probably the biggest issue that they have to face is how Gentiles – people from outside of Israel – can and should relate to the Jewish church. Should they be circumcised as the Jews have always been? Should they follow the food laws? Are they called and chosen by God in the same way? Do they have the same status before God or are they in some sense second-class Christians?

As we read the book of Acts and the letters in the New Testament these issues keep arising again and again. After much debate the council at Jerusalem decides that Gentiles are part of God’s plan purely through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and don’t have to follow the Jewish laws and customs. Paul then emphatically reiterates the opportunity for all nations to come to God purely through Jesus (without adopting foreign customs or traditions) in his letter to the Galatians, climaxing in the verse we read above.

Once the church has accepted that Gentiles can be part of the church without becoming Jewish, the issue of unity between Jews and Gentiles is then a very hot topic. The Jews, despite a mixed history, had always been God’s people, the light to the nations, the vehicle through which God’s blessing to the world would come. The Gentiles were always outsiders who could be right with God (as several Old Testament characters illustrate) but were in many ways still very much dependent on God’s chosen people. How these two groups with such different perspectives, cultures, histories and religious customs, not to mention a great deal of historical animosity, could now come together as part of the same church is a (or even the) huge question of the New Testament (as we see for example in the book of Ephesians).

As we read the Bible on its own terms I think we will see the issue of race and ethnicity being addressed on almost every page. For 21st century Christians to skip to the answer “all races are equal before God” without seeing how the theme develops throughout the whole Bible will lead both to a significantly deficient understanding of what large parts of the Bible are saying, and a wholly inadequate theology of race and ethnicity with which to live and work in our own multi-racial and multi-cultural settings.

Richard and Me in Thailand

In case you were wondering the photo is of a Tanzanian and a Brit in Thailand

Multilingual and Multicultural Education

May 5, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Culture, Language

Education, and the role of charities and other organisations in trying to provide education in poorer countries, has been in focus lately because of the Three Cups of Tea scandal. Schooling the World has a fascinating post asking some difficult questions as to the benefits and dangers of bringing education (if by education we mean a traditional western-style schooling) to indigenous communities around the world.

The reality is that there are few better ways to condemn a child to a life of poverty than to confine her in a bad school, and a very high percentage of schools in low-income areas are and will remain bad schools.  Many NGO’s as well as international programs like “Education for All” are focused on the body count, on getting more and more children into classrooms.  What happens to those kids in those classrooms is harder to quantify or to track.  One thing that seems clear is that an awful lot of them learn very little. …

The bottom line is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform, and there is very little objective research on its impact on traditional societies. When we intervene to radically alter the way another culture raises and educates its children, we trigger a complex cascade of changes that will completely reshape that culture in a single generation.  To assume that those changes will all be good is to adopt a blind cultural superiority that we can ill afford.  A clearer view of the real impacts of school projects would require well-funded and well-executed research which looks objectively at both positive and negative effects, not reports which mine the data to bolster an a priori assumption that the impact of schooling is always good.   And until we have a clearer view, we should all – NGO’s, development agencies, rock stars, corporate billionaires and bestselling authors included – think long and hard about the principle, “First, do no harm.” Read more

I believe that education is an important part of development work and coming alongside people who are struggling to escape poverty. But we must be very careful not to confuse education with a one-size-fits-all Western schooling system, counting bodies through the conveyor belt as an indicator of success and progress.

I firmly believe that education must be done in culturally appropriate ways, with input from community leaders as well as from outside educators, and vitally that it must be done at least initially in the mother-tongue of the child. This is why one of the focuses of SIL International, a partner organisation of Wycliffe who we are working with, is to come alongside communities and governments to help them develop multilingual education programs that are appropriate for minority language communities.

The above post finishes with the example of the Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan, for whom a school building was built but is not being used. Rather than decrying the fact that children are not in school, the author points out that in fact Kyrgyz children are being educated, but not in a traditional school.

Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones Into Schools, revolves around his efforts to build a school for Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan.  He built the school, and it stands empty, never having been used.   Many development people, including Mortenson, would tut about this, and try to find ways to convince the Kyrgyz people of the importance of education for their children’s futures.  But to me, this empty school is a small sign of hope.  I mean, Greg.  Hello.  They’re nomads. Should they give up their horses and their high mountain valleys and their yurts and sit in a classroom for years so at the end they can look for work hauling bricks or driving trucks in Kandahar or Kabul? As it turns out, the New York Times reports that Kyrgyz parents want their children to learn to read and write; it’s just that they also want them to herd sheep.  Mortenson’s representative in the region was frustrated by this: “The Kyrgyz only care about sheep and yaks…They say if we have sheep and yaks, we have success in life.”  Hmm.  Perhaps the Kyrgyz don’t understand the value of education.  Or perhaps they still have a sense of what’s real and what’s not in this world.  Sheep are definitely real; “big dreams” may not be.  The Afghan government, to its credit, seemed to recognize this, and sent teachers to teach the children at home in their yurts.  Apparently it’s working out quite well.  I just hope the Kyrgyz remain unschooled enough to continue to be able to tell fact from fiction. Read more

You can find out more about SIL’s work in literacy and education on their website, and also take a look at a blog of Matt and Liz, friends of ours who are preparing to work with the Ugandan government, helping them to develop education programs in appropriate languages and cultural settings for minority language communities in Uganda.

Hand writing