What Makes Us Human. Part 2

A few years before my mother died at age ninety-seven, she was telling me how much she appreciated the fact that I had become a missionary.

“I am so thankful that Daddy and I were able to come down to Brazil and celebrate the arrival of the Bible in the Canela language in the village at the end of your twenty-four years there.”

We reminisced about that wonderful event, then she asked,

“Do you remember the time, long ago in Holland, when you were a little boy, maybe seven years old, and I asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t.”

“Well, I remember it very clearly. You thought for a moment and then you said, ‘Mischien wel een zendeling,’” Maybe a missionary.

Then the occasion came back to me. I had been avidly reading a series of books of stories of Dutch missionaries in Indonesia. I vividly remembered a picture in one book of a naked boy my own age writhing on the floor of a hut as an evil uncle whipped him. And I remembered the stories of people changing when they learned about Jesus and started following Him.

All this to say that I have no idea who that author and artist were, but they did use their God-given creativity to write stories and draw illustrations. God used them to impact the mind and heart of a little boy. They made a life-long impact. An impact that resulted in my wife and I using our God-given creativity to live and work as linguists/Bible translators among a people group that knew nothing about God and His love for them.

One of the readers of last week’s column on creativity, What Makes Us Human? responded with

“Hmm, maybe I’m more creative than I thought. Not in composing music or painting pictures, but in solving problems. Especially computer programs. Always something new to learn to figure out. It keeps my mind sharp too, even at old age.”

Our daughters learn creative problem solving by helping to build our village house out of mud.

Our daughters learn creative problem solving by helping to build our village house out of mud 45 years ago.

Creatively solving problems. Yes, that is being like God. He created us to be micro-copies of Himself, doing what He does. I have a little sign I take out of my drawer when my desk and office are particularly messy, that says,

“By Godlike, Create Order Out of This Chaos.”

It’s not easy expressing the creativity God built into us. Our western culture is still heavily influenced by the industrial revolution and the military mindset for mass training which demand that human beings fit into a standardized, one-size-fits-all way of doing things.

Another reader wrote that a teacher ripped a page out of her writing notebook because her capital “T” wasn’t exactly right.

We need to buck this trend towards standardization. We need to be cultural salmon, swimming upstream, against the cultural flow to where we can live out our creativity.

“In what way are you expressing the creativity God built into you?” I asked a group of Christians and, after some coaxing and coaching, some of them mentioned a few activities that demonstrated their creativity. Then others got excited and told of many more things that they did creatively and could do more of.

  • Several women cooked creatively.
  • A couple of grandpas did all the voices when reading stories to their grandkids.
  • Both men and women did stitchery, embroidery, crocheting and knitting and improved or adapted the patterns creatively.
  • Memory development was mentioned, not just Bible memory, but memory for faces, for names, for jokes and even for quotes from movies.
  • Someone added that he also had creative ways of giving much of it away.
  • Several young people expressed their creativity through acting.
  • Carpentry, computer programming, gardening, mechanical repair, were mentioned by quite a few guys.
  • And, of course, others mentioned the things we usually think of as creative work like playing musical instruments, composing music, singing, painting, and writing poetry.

So, in what ways are YOU expressing the creativity that our Creator God built into you?

What Makes Us Human?

As a shovel is made for digging, a knife for cutting, and a hammer for striking, so you and I are made for creating.

To say, “Oh, not me, I’m not creative,” isn’t humble, it’s ignorant. You might as well say, “I’m not human.”

The Bible is extremely clear on this subject right from page one. After each act of creation—light, night and day, land and sea, fish, birds and animals—God checked his work and pronounced it good.

But when He created human beings in His own image—as micro-copies of Himself—He did NOT say it was good. No. Instead, He looked at the final result of creation and said it was VERY good!

God spoke the universe into existence, and commanded vegetation to grow, but when He created the animals, He formed them from the ground. He did the same to create Adam, the first human being, but then went one step further—He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Adam was kissed into life by the Creator God Himself.

Then God set Adam to work. His first task was a creative one, to name all the animals. He brought each animal to Adam to see what he would name them, and whatever name Adam came up with, that was its name. God didn’t interfere or correct, He trusted Adam’s creativity to come up with a suitable name. And he did.

God made human beings with the capacity to imagine—to picture in our mind, to visualize something our imagination. We see the finished product with the eye of our mind. Our imagination is God-given, it is one of the things that sets us apart from animals.

When our first grandchildren, twin boys, were about two years old, they loved to “fix” things. From their favorite kitchen drawer they would equip themselves with “tools” such as mixer beaters, a metal spatula, an egg beater, etc., and crawl under the dining room table to tap and rattle their tools on the bolts and metal slides. In their imagination they were repairing cars, trucks, rockets, and who knows what?

Creativity, unfortunately, is trained out of us by our culture. It is not welcomed in most schools, the military or in factories. Naturally creative children are taught to color between the lines, creative men to march in lockstep, and to do the same thing over and over. There is no room for exercising creativity—thinking of other, better ways to do things. That’s why, when you ask a roomful of adults how many of them are creative, few people will put up their hands.

Jo pot fire2However, when we need to solve problems we have not encountered before, our creativity has a chance to emerge. During our decades in Brazil, for instance, Jo creatively adapted recipes substituting Canadian ingredients with whatever was available in the Canela village. Yes, she used crackers, lemon juice, and cinnamon to make a pie that tasted very much like a good apple pie.

As it did in God’s mind, all creation starts in our imagination. He imagined light, expressed it in words, and it sprang into being. So it is with us. We imagine an improvement to our home, a story to write, or a solution to a social problem. We express it, talk about it with others, put it on the calendar to be done, and begin to work to create a reality.

God expects us to serve Him, not by blindly obeying a set of rules—a list of do’s and don’ts—but rather by using our minds and hearts, our experience and skills, and our relationships and resources to do His work. No, most of us don’t need to name more animals, but there are problems galore to solve in this sin cursed world.

We are to love our Creator God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

May our Creator God guide us as we commit to using our creative imagination to love God by meeting the needs of others in this needy world, from the homeless man around the corner to Bible-less people groups around the world.

Seven Reasons Why We Translate the Bible

Teaching illiterate persons to read in a language they do not understand and see no reason to learn, is like trying to motivate people to visit an attic they have no desire to visit, using a ladder from which the bottom three rungs are missing.

Last week’s post described the work of replacing those missing rungs by analysing the unwritten language, developing an alphabet, and teaching people to read it. Bible translation is moving that whole ladder so people can get into an attic they very much do want to visit.

So why do we translate the Bible into indigenous languages and teach the people to read their own language? There are many reasons. Here are a few:

  1. Granted, it is not easy to train a college-educated team in linguistics, Bible translation principles and literacy development, surround them with a group of PhD consultants in every area of expertise needed, and set them to work. In ten or twenty years, they will have produced a society that is growing increasingly literate, and that is reading a Bible in which God speaks their own language.
  2. The only thing more difficult than this process is setting up a system to teach tens of thousands of illiterate indigenous people to learn to speak and read a language they have no interest in, or reason for learning. In comparison, translating the Bible is easier.
  3. Christianity is based on translation. The first translators were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who translated into Greek the stories that were being repeated in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
  4. Christianity thrives on translation. Where the proclamation of the Good News was accompanied by the Scriptures in the language of the people, Christianity has spread, blossomed and born fruit. Where the Scriptures existed only in a foreign language, not in the local language, Christianity flourished briefly, then died out or was corrupted.
  5. God tends to deal with His people in the context of the culture they live in. When the Bible exists in an indigenous language, it allows the Holy Spirit to interpret the application within the culture.Reading in Hammock2
  6. There are numerous testimonies of people hearing the Good News in a foreign language and having the basics of the Good News explained to them resulting in their salvation. It is possible for a large number of people to eventually know enough to turn to God, but there are no stories of large churches that are growing firm and strong in their faith and are reaching out to others while they do not have God’s Word in their own language.
  7. God calls His people to translate His Word. A young West African boy, who now calls himself Peter, was unusually bright and quick to learn. Peter caught the eye of a government official visiting his village who brought him out to the city to be educated. Peter learned the official language, excelled in school and became a valued teacher in the city. Somewhere along the way, he met some Christians and heard the Good News. He became a Christian and avidly studied the Bible. After some time, he heard the voice of God within his own heart, “What about the tens of thousands of people back in your tribe’s villages? How are they going to hear about Me?” In response, Peter gave up his tenured position as a teacher and joined a Wycliffe partner organization to train a team to help him translate the Bible for his own people.
  8. Our language is part of our culture. It is part of who we are as people. Linguists have said, “A person is his language.” By that they mean our language is not just another skill like playing the piano, or riding a bike. We think in language and words as well as in pictures. We use words to express even our deepest feelings. God, therefore, wants to speak the language of every person in every culture in the world.

That’s why we translate.

A Fair and Simple Question

“If the Bible is already published in the national language, who don’t you Wycliffe folk just teach the indigenous peoples living in that country the national language?” a young businessman asked.

I had just answered a question from someone in the group about Bible translation problems and how my wife and I had struggled to solve them when we worked as Wycliffe Bible translators among the Canela people of Brazil. It was not the first time someone had asked me this follow-up question. It’s a simple question and a fair one, but requires some complex answers.

PopjesJo (62)First of all, Wycliffe actually does move people towards being able to speak, read and write in the national language. But we don’t do it by disrespecting the indigenous people’s own language. Often the indigenous language has never been written and the speakers are unable to read or write in any language. So we start by developing a writing system, using letters and symbols as close to the national language as possible. We then teach people to read and write in their own language. Eventually, when they interact with speakers of the national language and begin speaking it, it is relatively easy for them to learn to read and write in the national language.

Popjes Jo(65)Many years ago, the official policies of most national educational systems belittled and denigrated the indigenous languages people spoke at home and attempted to teach everything, even basic things like reading, directly in the national language. First Nations adults in Canada have told me that as young people in school they were physically punished when they were caught speaking their native language. Except in the case of very bright and highly motivated students, the learning results were usually rather negative.

In the context of learning to read in a second language, I am often asked about French immersion teaching programs for English speaking grade one students. My parents spoke Frisian at home and learned to speak and read Dutch when they went to school. It was a successful language learning immersion program since Frisian and Dutch are related languages. My wife spoke Plautdietsch, also called Low German, at home and learned English and reading when she started school. Again, this was successful because Plautdietsch and English are related languages. The same with French and English, the languages are related, and have many cognates—words similar in shape and meaning, that are easily recognized and learned.  These European languages are simply branches on the same linguistic tree.

I grew up speaking and reading Dutch. When I arrived in Canada as a twelve-year-old immigrant, it took only a couple of weeks in school before I could read English quite fluently. I didn’t understand everything I read, but that improved as I learned to speak English. The same thing happened years later, when Jo and I moved to Brazil and we were soon reading Portuguese, also a related language.

But learning to speak Ramkokamekra-Canela was a long process. This indigenous language was not just a different branch on the same linguistic tree. It was a different tree, in a different forest—as different from European languages as a coconut palm is from an apple tree.

Now imagine an English speaking first grader starting school where the teacher taught in Somali, and she had to learn to read in a completely unknown, unrelated language that looks like this:

“Qolobaa calankeed, waa ceynoo.” Any nation’s flag, bears its own color.  The first line of the Somali national anthem.

To teach an indigenous people group to speak and read a completely unrelated national language would be as difficult as teaching English speaking first graders to learn to read in Somali.

In the same way, it is just as hard for the thousands of indigenous illiterate people who live in Somalia but do not speak Somali. There are thousands of people groups, speaking their own, often unwritten languages, that live in countries where the national language is completely unrelated to the languages they speak.

This is the first part of the answer. But there is another aspect. A story from the early days of the Wycliffe organization has an indigenous person ask a missionary,

“If your God is so great, how come He can’t speak our language?”

Good question. Let’s keep it for next week.