“The people back home will not believe these books exist!”

June 17, 2015 in Wycliffe, Mark, Africa, Bible translation, Front, Tanzania

Three unexpected guests arrived in our Mbeya office this morning, asking to talk with the project manager. They were speakers of the Ndali language, and had traveled from the north of Malawi, having heard that we are translating parts of the Bible into the Tanzanian dialect of Ndali.

After introducing themselves they presented a letter, asking that they be kept informed of the progress of the project, attend advisory meetings, and have access to the books that are being distributed. Their desire for Ndali books was obvious, as they explained how they use Scriptures from the neighbouring Ngonde language in church, despite it being difficult for them to understand.

Seeing some of the Bible books that our office has produced in Ndali, their eyes lit up with excitement! They pleaded that they should at least be able to take home a sample of the books, as they think through how to build a sustainable distribution network. “The people back home will not believe that these books really exist!” they exclaimed, “except there are three of us, so they’ll have to believe us!” Read the rest of this entry →

Walking to the market with God

February 24, 2015 in Mark, Bible, Church, Front, Tanzania, Theology

Having moved around quite a bit over the past few years, we have had the privilege of hearing many different church leaders in three countries and two (three if you count American) languages, reading parts of the Bible and teaching what it may mean. While we have certainly heard some excellent teachers making fine points about various parts of the Bible, when I think back over all the sermons I have heard (and taught) in the past few years, I struggle to think of any “fact” or “teaching” that has really impacted my life. And I really have to try hard to remember any “application” from any of those sermons. OK, maybe I have a bad memory, and I’m sure I have dozed off in church too many times, as all male Woodwards are prone to do from time to time.

Read the rest of this entry →

3 Resources for less Self-centred Bible Reading

January 27, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Books, Theology

In Reading the Bible: Where’s Waldo? and the Council at Jerusalem I shared how I have come to realise that much of my Bible reading has been self-centred, looking for how the text applies to my life without first understanding the text on its own terms. I wanted to give some examples of errors I think we can easily make in Bible reading, and then to mention three books that have helped me to better understand and be inspired afresh in my reading of the Bible lately.

Firstly, in our eagerness to take the Bible seriously I think we can often look in great detail at very small sections of Scripture, dissecting them for small gems that are relevant to us. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but the problem comes when this is all that we do, never taking a step back to see the bigger picture. The danger when only studying a few verses is that we take them out of their context, add a few of our own ideas, read a few other out-of-context verses that back up our argument, and hey presto, we’ve made the verses say what we wanted them to all along!

I would love to see a church pastor preach a series that looked at a whole Bible book each week. For sure there would be huge amounts of detail that were left out, but I think there would be great value in helping the church to understand how the various parts of the Bible fit together, what the distinctives of the different books are, and the different issues and challenges they are addressing.

The Drama of ScriptureRecently I’ve loved reading The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story by Bartholomew and Goheen. The book basically tells the story of the Bible, as a narrative, in 200 pages. It is obviously a broad sweep, and is the authors’ interpretation of the narrative of Scripture – anything less than a full duplication of the Bible has to involve some level of interpretation. But it is brilliant at bringing together parts of the Bible that we may never have connected, and I love the fact that it treats the Bible as a narrative rather than a theology textbook. I would strongly recommend the book to anyone who has ever tried to read the whole Bible but failed, or even to those who have read the whole Bible but have struggled to piece together the diverse parts.

Related to this, the second failing I think we often make is to read the Bible as a one-dimensional answers-book to all our problems, rather than a diverse collection of documents inspired by God.

How to Read the Bible for all it's Worth I have recently finished the excellent How to read the Bible for all it’s worth by Fee and Stuart, which is a book I wish I had read 15 years ago. It is easy to read, asking what it means to read the Bible on its own terms, and then how we should interpret the Bible today. The authors show that taking the Bible seriously doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean taking everything completely literally for ourselves – even amongst those who claim to take the Bible absolutely literally as God’s word for them, few have made the trip to Troas to pick up Paul’s coat and books, as Paul asks in 2 Timothy 4:13.

Fee and Stuart uncover some of the ways that we often sub-consciously interpret the Bible for ourselves, and ask how we might do so in a way that is consistent with the message and purpose of Scripture. On one level their thoughts are remarkably simple, but many of the points they make are things that I have never heard discussed in the western evangelical church before.

The third error that I think we often make in reading the Bible is not to understand the mindset of the original hearers. I think it is natural for us as humans to assume that everyone is like us and sees the world in the same way, and it often comes as a shock to us that this isn’t the case. Similarly when we read the Bible I think we often assume that the community to whom it was first written thought like 21st Century Europeans or North Americans.

But to really understand the Bible I think we need to ask what it meant to the first hearers. What was meant by a covenant in the Ancient Near East 3,000 years ago? How did it feel to be under threat from powerful empires with their own gods and kings? What expectations were there of God’s messiah? How did Jews in 1st Century Palestine relate to the Romans and other gentiles? What did justice mean in this context? How did different people try to make sense of the apparent failure of the covenant and the destruction of the temple? What were their hopes and expectations for the future?

The New Testament and the People of GodFor me the work of N.T. Wright in this regard has been hugely helpful. I’m sure there are many excellent Bible scholars who can help to answer these questions and explore the worldviews of those the Bible is written to, but I have just started Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series. It is certainly heavy going, and probably not for everyone (probably not for me in fairness, but I’m slowly wading through…) but I love the way that Wright takes seriously the way that 1st Century Jews saw the world, and hence how we should understand their interactions with, and writings about, Jesus.

I for one am grateful that God speaks to us through the Bible, and that he does so even despite our imperfect reading and interpretation of it! But I pray that God would take me beyond myself as I read the Bible, and that as I see more of him in Scripture that I would think of myself less and know and love him more.

The Impact of Local Language Scriptures Throughout History

September 27, 2010 in Wycliffe, Mark, Bible translation, Language, Mission

I’ve recently come across an interesting article by Patrick Johnstone, editor of Operation World, about the history of when the Bible has and hasn’t been translated into local languages in the last 2,000 years, and the impact on the church of those decisions.

If you don’t have time to read the whole article as he looks at mission to various cultures over the last two millenia, you should take a look at a few of his conclusions below:

  • The translation and enculturation of Scripture into every language where there is a response to the Gospel is a fundamental prerequisite for the endurance of Christianity over many generations. […] In modern times it requires giving priority to Bible translation and literacy programmes for any culture without heart language Scriptures.
  • The use of liturgical languages and Scriptures across many cultures and multiple centuries such as Latin, Greek, Syriac, Slavonic provided continuity and impressive ceremonial church services, but damaged the transmission of the truths they contained and hastened the nominalization and even demise of Christianity where this language was not understood. In our modern times English has become one of the most desired languages for communication, education and the Internet, but this brings its dangers – a cultural imperialism and insensitivity, a belief that learning another language is not so necessary, an expectation that the natives should learn or understand English and a hope that short term visiting church planting teams using English can obviate the need to send long term missionaries.
  • A dominant Christian culture rarely has the passion to adapt its worship style and culture to that of minority peoples, or those considered inferior. That is why Russian ethnic minorities may be more easily evangelized by non Russians, migrants into modern Europe by non Western missionaries, the Muslim Middle East by Asians rather than by Western missionaries.
  • The importance of a people proudly having their own version of the Bible cannot be under estimated for the preservation and advancement of its culture. This was true for the Armenians, Goths, Georgians, Ethiopians who have long been Christian. It is equally true for the Kurds in the Middle East, the Kabyle of Algeria, the Konkornba of Ghana and the Quechua of Peru and Ecuador. The 21st Century will possibly see the extinction of 2000 languages. The most effective preventive for this is the translation and use of the Scriptures. It gives added weight to ‘Vision 2025’ of Wycliffe Bible Translators and other Bible agencies to see the initiation of translation work into every language now without the Bible and for which the speakers of that language desire it. This is likely to be a further 1,500 – 2,000 languages. The areas of the world with the biggest challenge with many such languages are the Sahel in Africa, India, the minorities of China and parts of Indonesia.

Read more…

Do take a look at the whole article and reflect upon the importance of the Bible being communicated in the language of every day, wherever we are in the world.

“The Words were Burning in our Hearts”

September 1, 2010 in Prayer, Wycliffe, Bible translation, Tanzania

The goal of Bible translation is never simply to have written words on a page, but for the Holy Spirit to use the message to speak to people’s hearts, leading to transformed lives and communities. While much of the work of Wycliffe members focuses on rather mundane linguistic, translation and other office work, it is good to be reminded that God is speaking through his word, which is

… alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. (Hebrews 4:12)

Recently our friend and colleague Michelle, who works as a translation adviser to various language communities in northern Tanzania, heard of how some draft sections of Scripture were received when tested in a Zanaki village. She writes:

Shem, one of the translators, sat down and started reading a chapter from Luke (I actually don’t know which one; it was either 10 or 11). After the first passage he looked up and was surprised to see everyone in the group frowning. He thought, “There must be something wrong with the Zanaki words we’ve used!”

Worridly, he continued reading. After another section he glanced at his audience again and saw them looking down at the ground and grimacing! Unable to wait, he asked them, “What do you think of this translation? Please, all feedback is helpful, even if it is negative. How is our word choice, our dialect in this?”

“It’s fine, going on reading,” they said, not offering much insight into their facial expressions. He continued with the chapter, and they still had grimaces, to his consternation.

He started asking them questions to see which things in the translation weren’t clear, and they contributed their thoughts and were helpful. However, about half of them said, “Oh, we’re not Christians, we don’t understand religion well, so maybe you don’t want our answers.”

Shem hastily encouraged them to participate, since answers from people who don’t know the Bible are often the most helpful. He assured them that this was not a test of knowledge, but him looking for help with the language. They stayed and listened to the chapters and gave their feedback about the translation.

At the end, he asked again why it was that they looked so serious when he was reading. This time, they answered him. Both the Christians and the non-Christians told him, “Those words of Jesus were convicting us! They burned our hearts as we listened; we know that just like the people in the parables, we need to repent from our sins. How could we smile when we are thinking about our sins and how we are not right with God?”

Some children in (or near to) the Zanaki-speaking area when we surveyed the Zanaki language back in 2005