The Endangered Cultures List

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Advocating for literacy can be a PR problem for scripture translation agencies. You see, literacy campaigns within literate cultures are widely accepted as good things. But promoting literacy among pre-literate peoples (those who do not have a written language) can smack of imperialism. Combine that with efforts toward evangelization, and the general public can really come to resent scripture translation missionaries as colonialists who insist on ruining innocent cultures with Western ideals.

To make matters worse, scripture translation has been married to the anthopological approach to missions for the last 30 years. The task-orientation of this philosophy has made translation more about the task than about the people. Consequently, its come to be seen as auxiliary to mission; something that isn’t missions itself, but helpful to actual missions. Of course, this isn’t true.

If I were leading the scripture translation group, The Seed Company, I would combat this with a broad campaign to raise awareness of the impending demise of languages and cultures. In this light, missionary scripture translation is literally saving cultures. The first thing I’d do is start a list of endangered languages and circulate it widely. I would make a theological argument for the preservation of minority cultures based on Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 16,  and show their missiological value by highlighting the uniqueness and each endangered culture.

I’d remind people that each culture’s history and perspective provides us with an opportunity to know and see God from a different angle. Tim Keller says, “The city is home to more image-of-God per square foot than anywhere else.” I would add that losing a culture is the world losing observable image-of-God. The Seed Company could champion the value of human cultural diversity. When a culture interacts with the scriptures, we can learn a lot about God. Translating the Bible isn’t about making isolated cultures more like ours, it’s about giving them a voice so that they might influence others.

Doing so would help distinguish The Seed Company from its parent organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators as the social side of missionary translation. It would have the added benefit of facilitating partnership with a broader range of organizations and might bring in public and corporate funding (and mainstream attention) for specific efforts. With such an emphasis, there’s no reason that The Seed Company couldn’t partner with groups like the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in the Enduring Voices Project. This would surely accelerate Bible translation.

Furthermore, I’d cast literacy as the solution to globalization, which is both a social and spiritual problem. If we don’t translate the scripture into every human language, we’ll soon all be shopping at Walmart, drinking Starbucks lattes, and speaking the lazy, slang-infested language that passes for English these days. My campaign would feature images of the children of an isolated tribe in the Amazon wearing clothes from Abercrombie and Fitch and starving men from Somalia in line to order food at McDonald’s. That world isn’t good for anybody. Globalization is the opposite of indigeneity. Proposing a one-size-fits-all solution across cultures is social Darwinism. Indigeneity means that members of a tribe, tongue, and nation should not have to join another culture in order follow Jesus.

Scripture translation as literacy promotion and culture preservation would be a campaign that a new generation of activists (and donors) could really get behind. It would recast missionary Bible translation efforts as sociology rather than propaganda.

That’s not all I’d change if I were running The Seed Company…

NEXT: Translators Wanted

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.