November 17, 2015
Accurately Handling the Word of Truth
Post by Brittany Tedesco
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov stated that there's no English translation for the Russian word toska. "At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause." According to Nabokov, toska can apparently be experienced in varying degrees. The word, it seems he was implying, can only be fully understood by a native Russian.
I read about toska in this article in The Guardian, which lists other "untranslatable" words—like the Norwegian word utepils, which roughly translated into English means "to sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer." Schnapsidee is a German-originating word meaning something along the lines of "an ingenious plan one hatches while drunk."
The article concluded, "In short: no word is completely untranslatable, but then no word is precisely translatable either."
My takeaway? Communication suffers when either the language or the cultures are different.
As Christians, we've been tasked with sharing the gospel. And part of sharing the gospel is "accurately handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15 NASB).
This could include interpreting scripture in the context of the whole Bible, instead of interpreting it through the lens of our own preconceived notions.
But it could also, very easily, apply to cross-cultural evangelism.
I don't believe that any sincere believer would ever want to preach a gospel message that is distorted by a foreign understanding. The possibility of this happening, however, increases with the number of cultural barriers involved.
In missions theory, the fewer barriers one must cross in sharing the gospel and in teaching the Bible, the more effective he or she will be.
An unreached tribe, for instance, is more likely to receive the gospel as presented by another "culturally near" people group, than by a foreigner with a completely different culture. Another advantage to this approach is that the gospel won't be associated with something foreign or tainted with cultural biases. A truly indigenous church can be planted.
"You cannot become one of them, but you've got to do as much as you can to feel and absorb the language," Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, said of the Pirahã people. This tribe lives in the rainforests of Brazil and speaks a language unrelated to any existing tongue, confounding Western missionaries for decades.
A brilliant linguist, Everett did what others before him couldn't. He eventually learned the language, after living among them off and on for the past 30 years.
In this New Yorker article, John Colapinto describes his visit to see Everett and the Pirahã people. A Pirahã man watched as Colapinto applied insect repellent, and turned to ask Everett what he was doing. Using his hands, Colapinto mimicked an insect flying through the air and landing on his arm, and then smacked his arm. The Pirahã man looked confused. He asked Everett why Colapinto had hit himself, and why he'd used his hands to portray an airplane landing on his arm.
Colapinto was surprised that the Pirahã man couldn't understand a simple portrayal of an insect, until Everett explained, "Think of how cultural that is. The movement of your hand. The sound. Even the way we represent animals is cultural."
People of a shared culture define words the same way. Biblical truths like sin and atonement are much more likely to be conveyed accurately between two people with the same cultural background.
Several months ago, I talked with an American who told me about a tribal group in Mexico who had supposedly been reached with the gospel by foreign missionaries. The more he described them, however, the more I realized that the tribe hadn't fully understood–or accepted–the gospel. They had merely added Christian symbols to their animistic practices. He described a ceremony they perform to secure good harvests by offering grain sacrifices to spiritual deities. They haven't stopped performing this tribal ritual, they've only added a crucifix to the other implements involved.
I came away from the conversation wondering if the gospel had been perverted by the presenter, or–more likely–had been lost in translation. Either way, it was obvious the tribe hadn't grasped it.
A Christian Aid Mission-supported ministry in Peru began focusing on unreached people groups in 1994. One of those tribes, the ministry leader discovered, had already been exposed to Christianity. Foreign missionaries had visited the Ashaninka people years earlier. The problem was that no evidence existed of any transformation in the lives of the tribal people.
Just like the Mexican tribe, the Ashaninka merely incorporated elements of Christian rites into their existing animistic practices. They had missed the message.
One of the more disturbing practices of the Ashaninka people involves child abuse ordered by witchdoctors who often accuse children of bringing bad luck or calamity upon whole villages. Parents cooperate with the witchdoctors by torturing or even expelling their children from their village—banishing them to the jungle.
The native Peruvian ministry leader immediately realized the need for sound, biblical teaching presented in a way the Ashaninka could understand. He began his "Firm Foundations" course to correct some of the Ashaninkas' misunderstandings of the gospel.
Year after year of diligent teaching has resulted in dozens of truly indigenous churches among the Ashaninka. These Ashaninka believers have abandoned their old cultural practice of child abuse as they've grown in God's Word and been set free from the fear of evil spirits.
In last week's post, I touched on the "treasure-trove" of international students in the U.S.—many who are here for a short time with the intention of returning home. If these are reached with the gospel, they could present it to their own people in a way that is fully understandable in the context of their culture.
They have what a foreigner can never have, even after decades of language training and immersion in the culture. They have the enormous treasure of truly being one of their own people.
Each person has been given the rich heritage of their own cultural background. Let's use it for the glory of God.