On Changing and Being Changed: Reflecting on Language, Culture, Mission History and Mission Present

 

By Cynthia Holder Rich

We’ve been learning Kiswahili. While we will teach in English, Kiswahili is used a lot in Tanzania. It’s useful to know the lingua franca, and it’s also basic courtesy as guests in the country to speak to people in their language. We will eventually have to preach and lead worship in Kiswahili, so we’re grateful for the time to begin learning it.

Learning a new language as an adult is a process of tricking one’s brain into accepting a new way of thinking about words, about ways of being, about life. Language carries culture, and the way a language is formed and makes meaning – how words are used and combined to articulate thought, values, norms, ideas, and ideals – these play a substantial role in the work of conveying the formative knowledge of a particular society.

Serving as mission personnel appointed to teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels at a theological seminary brings us into conversation with the Swahili Bible – Maandiko Matakatifu ya Mungu, Holy Texts of God, known as Biblia,. The first Swahili Bible was completed in 1890. The translation used now was completed in 1952 – so, more than 60 years of critical thought about the text and its meaning do not inform this book. Additionally, for most people, there is only one “real” Bible – the one they’ve heard and read all their lives – so any suggestion that Holy Scripture says anything different than what they’ve always heard might well seem jarring – and perhaps wrong.

If this seems challenging, consider the role that mission personnel have played many times over in early Bible translation initiatives. Consider then what it might mean if new and younger generations, new members of the mission family, come along and suggest that their ancestors might have made mistakes. Picture what that means in cultures that revere ancestors – like so many all around the world. Think as well of the colonial, imperial, hegemonic impulses that were carried along with the clear, complex, and long-lasting good in the name of Jesus that many missions accomplished, and how these impulses, good and bad, walked right into the way early missionaries understood, translated, and interpreted scripture and culture. Ponder the ways in which early mission efforts, ideals, and Bible translations may have supported, enhanced, and baptized local norms which Jesus came to confront – such as patriarchy, oppression, or the disenfranchisement of minorities.

And think with me, dear reader, what it means if one of the newest kids on the missionary block, the one inviting/challenging her mostly-male students to think differently about scripture—and thus about culture—is a woman.

In our Kiswahili class, we’ve been practicing writing prayers. Our teacher, a woman of great and innovative pedagogical skill, has encouraged us to understand that prayers are most often addressed to Bwana Mungu – Lord God. Bwana is also the way she addresses Mark.

We are learning Kiswahili, the language of many of the largest and fastest-growing Christian communities in the world. We are having new thoughts as we begin the journey toward seeing the world in a new way, carried by this language’s structures, ideas, and history. We pray that God will keep us mindful of the mighty mission heritage into which we have entered here, that we might see its impacts, positive and negative, on how the church understands and lives out its call to follow Jesus. We ask God to make us open to the teaching our Tanzanian brothers and sisters in Christ have to share, that we might grow in faith and understanding. Our move here gives us opportunity to focus on what God would have us do in this space, and gives us practice in humility, in not knowing, in being outsiders. As we find ourselves changing and being changed, we seek ways to grow in faithfulness and to stay true to the call that brought us here. We appreciate all who stand with us in prayer toward these ends.

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