Bible Translation and Culture Change

Talking about Christian mission work and its impact on culture is always difficult. There is an excellent example of this in the GlobalPost today in an article about Bible translation in Mali.

The article is about the translation of the Bible into Toro-So, one of the many Dogon languages in Mali. Back in the mid-1990s I was responsible for managing and planning for that project, so it’s good to see how far it has moved on since then. Back in those days, the project was led by two single British women (it’s a shame the article doesn’t pick this up). Josué Témé who worked with them on the New Testament, studied for a degree in Bible translation and came back to Mali to lead the Old Testament project: and he has done a wonderful job. The article talks about Josué’s search for difficult terms in Toro-So and how in a search to find words for the different OT sacrifices, he had to consult with some of the animist priests in the area, who knew this vocabulary better than him. It’s a fascinating read.

Josue Teme, 39, became a Christian as a teenager and spent years avoiding animism. But when he took a job translating the Bible’s Old Testament into Toro So, one nearly two dozen Dogon languages, Teme and his translation partner, Timothee Kodio, knew there was only way to learn the words they needed to translate ancient Israelite practices.

The men left Sangha, a small town perched atop a nearly 100-mile-wide cliff, and inched down to visit animist leaders in the villages carved into the rock…

… Some holy men rejected Teme’s questions, suspicious of the religion that drew thousands of Dogon from the beliefs of their ancestors. Others welcomed him, grateful that their words would live on, even if through Christianity.

The rest of the article explores this tension between Christianity and the the traditional beliefs of the Dogon: a tension which exists anywhere that the Gospel comes into contact with culture. This is where the article gets a bit confused, or confusing. Defending the translation project against the charge of changing the culture, a spokesman says:

The projects provide literacy classes, he says, and people learn to control how their own histories are recorded. “We’re into preserving culture, not changing it,”

The problem is that the very last paragraph in the article says:

Animists believe that blood sacrifice is essential to appease an angry god, McKinney says. When the entire Bible is published later this or early next year, many Dogon will see the Old Testament promises that Jesus is the ultimate blood sacrifice, McKinney says, and weep with relief at salvation from a brutal cycle of fear.

That certainly looks like a pretty big change in the culture to me! So does Bible translation change culture or preserve it?

There are three things that need to be taken into account when we think about the Gospel and Culture.

Firstly, the Gospel does not belong to any culture.  You can be a British Christian and stay British or a Dogon Christian and stay Dogon. Josué says in the article:

“The Dogon person doesn’t want to forget where he came from,” Teme says. “Christianity doesn’t take that out of a Dogon person.”

Secondly, the Gospel will change the cultures it comes into contact with. No culture is perfect and the Gospel will confront those aspects of culture which don’t line up with what God wants; be that the rampant materialism of Western Society or Dogon blood sacrifices. As I wrote a while ago:

Where there is a conflict between the values of the Gospel and indigenous cultural values, it should be the Gospel which wins – the Gospel does change cultures. When the homeless Gospel comes into a culture as a guest, it is an awkward guest – quite rude in fact. Rather than just settling down to do things your way, the Gospel starts to move the furniture around and redecorate the house.

Thirdly, culture is not a static thing, anyway. All cultures are changing all of the time. There is a false idea that some cultures are pristine and unchanged and Christians get nervous about accusations of changing culture. But even the most isolated cultures evolve over time and exposure to very different cultures makes them change more quickly. Even without the translated Bible, the Dogon are facing huge changes:

The animists are used to questions. European anthropologists who traveled here last century reported that Dogon holy men had long known about stars unseen by the naked eye, among other cosmic and biological wonders. Since then, scientists and tourists have swarmed the cliff villages, craving an audience with a holy man or a glimpse of an animist ritual.

All this being said, it is true that Bible translation and literacy work can be a wonderful tool for helping to preserve aspects of culture. The great Malian writer (who came from Dogon country) Hampaté Ba wrote that when an old man dies in Africa it is like a library burning down. When the stories and accumulated wisdom of the old men is written down, it can be preserved for future generations. This is an incredible gift that comes with language development. But even writing things down involves a cultural change.

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