People of the Book

I read a fascinating article recently, with the decidedly deterrent title: “Exegetical and Extispicic Readings of the Bible in Turkana, Kenya, and North America.”  The article can be read here:

The piece contained a lot of interesting observations from a man who has served as a missionary in Turkana, Kenya. This one struck me:

It was only in the past few years that a translation of the Bible in the Turkana language was produced.  The consequences of that are very interesting:  By the end of our first term in 2003, many Turkana church leaders had learned to read their own language, many others were learning, and every woman and man in the churches who could read had their own copy of the Turkana translation of the Bible. ‘Mission accomplished!’ Or so we naively thought. Unleashing the vernacular Bible quickly aroused many questions and opportunities, as missionaries and the few bilingual church leaders no longer had control over the canon of scripture being read and taught. The “unintended consequences” of difficult questions began to arise. “Where does it say in the Bible that polygamy is wrong?” “Why did so many of God’s followers in the Old Testament have more than one wife?” “Why does the book of Hebrews call Jesus ‘the Great Witch-Doctor’?” Then the women in the churches started wearing head coverings in worship. Not long after that, church leaders began to teach that women who had given birth must follow certain regulations before they could return to church again. These and other complications started to arise from Turkana Christians reading the Bible. These were all questions and situations for which my seminary education did not prepare me.

The consequence of the missionaries “no longer having control over the canon of scripture being read and taught” were interesting indeed.  In some sense amusing, and in some sense not funny at all.

About 500 years ago the church establishment in Europe feared what might happen if the Bible could be ready by persons other than priests.  In those days it existed only in Latin.  One of my French ancestors was tortured and executed for his faith (“broken on the wheel,” to be precise).  His crime likely included owning a French translation of the Bible, which was a capital offense in those days.

After the Reformation had kicked off on the continent, there was a debate in England over whether the Bible should be made available in English.  An English bishop, in declaring the danger of such a thing, argued that common folks need men with religious educations to explain the Bible to them and control what they hear.  If common folks had Bibles they wouldn’t be able understand them, he insisted, and they were liable to read passages like Matthew 18: 8-9 and start chopping off their hands and plucking out their eyes.  His opponent responded, “I think you underestimate the intelligence of the common people.  For example, if I were to say them ‘The bishop is an ass,’ they would understand me well enough and know that I am not saying that the bishop is literally an ass.”  I love that story and fortunately the zinger didn’t cost the man his life, although it certainly could have.

These days the benefit of translating of the Bible into the vernacular is unquestioned.  There are entire organizations devoted to nothing but making Bible translations.  Timothy Tennant, among others, has argued that it is the translatability of the Bible which is one of its greatest characteristics.  Arguably the Bible is inherently translatable, in that it is the only sacred text which in its original form records the words of the founder of the religion in a language other than the one he spoke.  Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the original texts of the New Testament are in Koine Greek.  We can be reasonably sure that nothing Jesus is recorded as having said was said in exactly those words, since he was speaking an entirely different language, which had to be translated.

Exiting that rabbit hole and returning to Turkana, there were some other interesting developments arising from possession of Bibles.

As I hand a Bible to a Turkana church leader I am reminded of the Bibles and books I have received as a literate preference learner: the Bible my father gave me when I was baptized, a collection of Shakespeare plays that was given me when I graduated from high school, the commentaries given to me when I finished seminary, the What to Expect When You Are Expecting book when my wife was pregnant. But what is the Turkana church leader thinking of when I hand him or her a Bible? Is she reflecting on a time when the local diviner gave her motber a powerful stick that she sewed into a small leather pouch on a necklace and wore for years to protect her from illness? Is he thinking of the small shields that all Turkana used to carry around with them for protection from their enemies, the Pokot? Are they thinking of the power that seems to come to the missionaries who carry these books around and the possibility of now receiving great wealth and power through their own possession of this book?

Just as books are culturally foreign in much of the world, among some cultures there is a profound fascination with books, per se.  I remember when I visited the local mosque and one of the men approached me and, with great excitement, handed me a Q’uran.  “This is our book,” he said.  The look on his face was like that of a man holding out a newborn child.  The Muslim devotion to their book is so intense that even the most fundamental of American fundamentalists can’t get it. 

I remember working at the local community Christmas dinner one year, and seeing very poor people standing in line afterwards with their children to get gifts–the only Christmas presents the kids were likely to receive.  Some were hardly able to conceal their shame and I especially remember the confused and hurt looks on the faces of some of the children.  Waiting at the end of the line were a group of men in suits and ties handing out pocket-sized new testaments.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether that was right–for many reasons that would unreasonably lengthen an already unreasonably long post. 

But I do wonder if Phyllis Tickle isn’t on to something when she says we have exchanged a human pope for a paper pope.  I do wonder whether those men, who I admire greatly for their passion and concern, should have handed those children a piece of candy, or a stuffed animal, or given them a hug, or just some space, instead of a little Bible.

I had a professor once who is from the Miso people, who live in a remote part of northeast India.  He told us how, when he was a child, missionaries came to his village.  The Miso people had no written language.  The missionaries reduced the Miso language to writing, in part motivated by a desire to produce Miso-language Bibles.  They also established a school, the first his village had ever had.  Thanks to those missionaries my professor went on ultimately to get a Ph.D. from Princeton.  He told us that the most amazing thing he discovered when he came to America was the pervasive negative impression of Christians.  All he had ever known of Christians was goodness, love and self-sacrifice. 

May the people of Turkana be as blessed as my professor.  And may we be forgiven if in our fumbling efforts to do the right thing, we often get it wrong.

Love Wins