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

14 thoughts on “The Endangered Cultures List

  1. Pingback: Missions, Misunderstood » The Words of The Word

  2. This is my first visit to your blog. This was a thought-provoking piece. Thanks. I have a few comments.

    I think it would be odd for The Seed Company to begin focusing on language preservation through literacy because it’s not a literacy organization. It’s very clearly a Bible translation organization. At its core is God’s Word–not literacy–transforming lives and cultures (ethne). It would be like Starbucks marketing muffins; they sell them, sure, but that’s not what they ‘do.’

    If the Seed Company focused on literacy, it would probably end up with more people like Christopher Hitchens and fewer like Mother Theresa, which would probably more appealing to the public and corporate funders you mentioned.

    But maybe you’re saying that language preservation should be a tactic or a strategy, rather than a new ‘end.’ I would agree with that. But you could get un-focused real quick. I think a public or corporate funder would get more mileage out of SIL than they would The Seed Company; their whole focus is language development. (The beauty of that is that SIL is a ubiquitous partner with the Seed Co.)

    I guess I’m just saying that ‘To what end’ you put first is crucial because your mission is the hill you’ll die on as an organization. I don’t think the Seed Co. isn’t willing to die on the literacy hill.

    Right now, if you put God’s Word first, you get literacy along with it. But if you put literacy first, you may lose the transforming Word altogether (think Hitchens). And then what good is literacy, in the grand scheme? It’s there that ‘the seed falls among the thorns…’

  3. Ernest, thanks for your thoughts. I’m compelled to answer. For the past eight years I’ve dedicated my ministry to Bible translation, whether with Wycliffe or The Seed Company. Thankfully I’m nearing the status of a LTR of Missions Misunderstood, so I know what you’ve shared is meant to be edifying, and that’s how I take it. Thank you.

    You might not know it yet, but this post is generating some buzz within my circle of comrades. You will hear from some of them, I’m sure.

    For myself, I can say that your second paragraph hits me the hardest – that our mission could actually be seen as auxiliary. Like you said, it isn’t true. But the perception is worth taking note of, and whether we can better communicate our role in the Great Commission.

    I would like to try to answer you about your comment on imperialism. The translation projects managed by The Seed Company are tailored to the local churches’ needs and their contexts. We exist to serve our indigenous colleagues, and so we focus on designing projects together from an end-user perspective. They are quite involved in the process, really.

    The purpose is to first translate portions of Scripture that they determine will speak most powerfully to the most pressing needs in their communities. And we support that by finding the fastest way to produce those Scriptures, while also managing for quality results. That’s part of our acceleration strategy.

    I am very much interested in what you have to say about missiology, and for myself, I’m open to re-thinking holding strongly to the anthropological approach to missions. Thanks for challenging me in a way I didn’t realize I needed to be challenged.

    Now I’d like to turn to the idea that excites me the most: “championing the value of human cultural diversity.”

    I have often thought that we sit on a cultural goldmine. We have such unique connections to people in the nearest and farthest corners on Earth. Behind the scenes we are brainstorming ways we can better reveal the beauty of cultures, for the result you speak of: “we can learn a lot about God.” Love the way you put that.

    For instance, I’ve really been excited about how Wycliffe, The Seed Company, and DOOR have shared about translation in signed languages. I come away – as an observer in some respects – with a greater awareness, appreciation and love for people who are deaf, and the beauty of their signing. My view of God is enlarged through them.

    It’s a powerful idea. Purposefully highlighting the uniqueness of thousands of cultures runs counter to America’s severe strain of individualism and focus on “me.” I believe you’re right – it’s a sure-fire way we can enrich people’s lives.

    Your specific idea of “a campaign to raise awareness of the impending demise of languages and cultures” is very interesting, but I lack experience and knowledge to comment on that right now.

    Well, there you go. Those are my thoughts. I eagerly await your next post.

  4. Many thanks for this thought provoking article. I think that the essential points you are making are good and right ones, though this is not helped by the fact that you do not seem to have understood the different roles of Wycliffe and the Seed Company.

    I’ve written a fair bit about cultural preservation and language development over the years – this article might be a good place to start: http://www.kouya.net/?p=2585

    I’ll try and respond at more length on my own blog if time and energy allows.

  5. Doug,
    Thanks for your comment. I agree with all that you’ve said here. I certainly do not think that The Seed Company should change its focus from scripture translation to literacy advocacy.

    My point here was that when it comes to communicating what The Seed Company does, the literacy part can be a bit sticky. I recommend the organization tackle that head on in the manner I prescribed here. So yes, culture preservation campaign idea is a “tactic,” not an “end.”

    The Seed Company should not change what it does, but it needs to change how it talks about what it does. Believe it or not, there are a significant number of Christians (and not just the ignorant ones) who don’t see the point in scripture translation.

    To them, translation can be handled by a Google app on their iPhone. Teaching English has become a common missionary strategy, many have come to see spreading the language as a precursor to spreading the gospel. This, of course, is bad missiology. Nevertheless, as I mention in the post, it’s a PR problem for missionary scripture translation.

    The Seed Company does a great job of explaining to Christians how Bible translation helps the unreached. But I think more needs to be done to communicate the “side benefit” of literacy as a tangible and missiologically significant thing.

    -E. Goodman

  6. Johanna,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that cultures and their perspectives are a goldmine.
    I understand that The Seed Company works closely with nationals and that there is no hint of imperialism in the process, but I’ve heard that concern voiced on many occasions. I’d like to see The Seed Company tackle that head on by talking about how translation of the Bible help built literacy and preserve culture.
    Thanks for your work, and for reading.
    -E. Goodman

  7. Eddie,
    Thanks for reading. I’ve read some of your blog, and I’m very happy to have found another missiologist who shares many of my thoughts on the Great Commission!
    I admit my understanding of Wycliffe and The Seed Company is limited. Maybe you could explain what I’ve missed?

  8. Let me start by saying I appreciate your healthy concern for the “least of these” people groups –in terms of marginalization. I share your passion and have been involved in Bible translation for many years as part of Wycliffe and currently The Seed Company. Both organizations care about all languages and cultures because they are part of God’s creation, equally valued by Him, and they are a remarkable display of beauty in diversity. In fact, The Seed Company is currently increasing focus on the small, marginalized languages groups of the world, and some of those would be on the endangered list.

    However, the idea of recasting translation as sociology is not an improvement over a cultural anthropological approach, as both are based on Western structural functionalist theories of culture. Also, it’s common for Western agencies to assume that literacy is a panacea that can save cultures, but, unfortunately, this is unproven. Some would even say literacy (i.e. reading and writing) could hasten the demise of the small endangered language groups because the people often pursue literacy for economic advancement and not language and culture preservation. The latter is more of a good, but unintended result on their part.

    If by sociology you mean recasting it in terms of a communal practice where Western partner agencies can and should offer help so that a community, including the smallest of language groups (i.e. endangered), can learn about the benefits of translation and literacy work, and then they can determine their own course based on this new information, then that is indeed The Seed Company’s view of translation process and practice. Perhaps a more lasting way for Scripture translation to save cultures is by restoring dignity to their culture, which literacy can accomplish to a degree, but is primarily a result of spiritual transformation.

    Ultimately, The Seed Company is passionate about seeing Scripture address the day-to-day tensions found in all cultures, because of our Biblical understanding of the fallen world, under the dominion of sin and principalities and powers. Therefore, our chief aim is that Scripture translation (written, oral, and visual) help all people groups, including endangered linguistic communities, to be empowered to address their own day-to-day cultural and social needs and this as a communal practice. We welcome literacy work, but as part of the framework of holistic community development.

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  11. Hi Brian, thanks for your questions! Global Partner Link is not The Seed Company, but we do work together within the Wycliffe Global Alliance. By the way, The Seed Company is based in Arlington, Texas.

    I pulled some links for you. This link http://www.wycliffe.net/ContactUs/tabid/71/language/en-US/Default.aspx shows the affiliate organizations with Wycliffe Global Alliance.

    This link http://www.wycliffe.net/Ministry/PartnersandPartnerships/tabid/67/language/en-US/Default.aspx shows their partners.

    I’d invite you to write to info@wycliffe.net to find out more, or simply browse that website.

    Also, please feel free to write to me. I’m the social media coordinator at The Seed Company: johanna_fenton @tsco.org.

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