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Language Disconnect: The Implications of Bible Translation upon Gospel Work in Africa

Interesting, or Not?

I have made an observation of which I am not very proud; in my long term (25 years as of 2013) ministry in Eastern and Southern Africa using indigenous languages, I have got to the point where I ought to be honest and share the contents of Table 1 below.

I have articulated different relational contexts that I have engaged in over the years in Table 1. Column number 1 lists five kinds of intercultural engagement. Column 2 gives a more detailed description of the context in which I have found myself so engaging. In column 3 I articulate a very subjective but yet experientially rooted description of my own typical level of ‘alertness’ in the contexts concerned.


Table 1. Types of Inter or Intra-cultural Engagement and Personal Alertness


No. Type of inter-ethnic relational engagement Typical context of engagement State of personal alertness
Column/Row number: 1 2 3
1 Talking with Westerners on Western issues unrelated to Africa Conversation in which I find myself a part of, discussion unrelated to Africa May be a little tired
2 Talking with Westerners on African issues Conference, discussion, presentation to a supporting church, etc. Wide awake
3 Talking with Africans on Western issues or on African issues in a Western way Teaching or discussing issues in formal theological education in Africa using English Wide awake
4 Talking with Africans on African issues in an African way Teaching theology using African languages, in informal situations in Africa Struggling to avoid being overtaken by sleepiness
5 Talking with Africans on Western issues in an African way Teaching Western theological issues using African languages in informal situations in Africa May be a little tired



The construction of Table 1 and my drawing of tentative conclusions from the same, are both without question incredibly subjective. Yet I suggest that the necessarily subjective nature of my observation of my own levels of mental alertness does not necessarily disqualify what I have discovered and am here seeking to articulate.[2] The reason for my bringing issues that arise from the above to your attention is because I consider that despite their often being occluded in today’s world, they may nevertheless be important considerations pertaining to the global Bible translation and Christian missionary project.

I particularly want to draw your attention to my observation of my personal level of alertness in row number 4. This has been striking to me. Having ‘suffered’ from it for many years, I am now trying to understand it; why should I find an engagement of African issues using African languages so uninspiring, and what, if any, are the wider implications of the non-inspiring nature of this engagement? On considering this question, it is important to remember that very few Westerners engage in row 4 type engagement. This raises the question of who can verify or otherwise my own findings? It also raises the important question of; why, despite the enormity of the Christian mission (and development) project in Africa today, do so very few Westerners engage African concerns using African languages?

I consider row number 4, the engaging of truly African issues using African languages in as far as possible in an ‘African way’ to be a key to my ministry amongst African people. Discussing African concerns using African languages is extremely revealing. It in due course exposes a ‘different world’, often known as worldview. At the same time I also find it extremely tiresome. Why? What does this observation imply? Is this a common pattern, or is it just ‘my problem’? It is very difficult to set up a control because, as I say, very few Westerners actually do number 4. Could it be that the reason they do not do it is because it is very difficult, in the sense that it can be so uninspiring as to send one to sleep? Why is it so ‘difficult’? What does this difficulty imply?

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2016

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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