Whether it’s the Great Commission or Christ’s final command prior to his ascension to heaven, Scripture makes clear that our fundamental job as Christians is to help people in every culture know Jesus and follow his word.
Far too often, however, we make the mistake of underestimating how creative God can be in accomplishing that task.
Take, for example, the work of the Bible translation ministry unfoldingWord and their partnership with the Church Growth Project of Chad (Projet Croissance des Eglises au Tchad, or PCET).
Muslim Bible translators are converting to Christianity
The work of the two groups in Chad is unique in that the majority of their translators are Muslim.
Perhaps that should not come as a surprise considering the majority of the population there is Muslim, but they did not necessarily start out with that goal in mind. Rather, their model relies on hiring locals to take on the work of translating Bible stories into their native tongue instead of training outsiders to accomplish the same task. As a result, when they put out the advertisement asking for workers, most of those who responded just happened to be non-Christians.
However, as Rachel Pfeiffer describes, they “noticed that Muslims quickly latched on to the projects for reasons beyond the financial incentive. PCET and unfoldingWord were clear that the materials for translation would be Christian, but Muslim participants saw some of the stories, such as those about Abraham, as part of their religion, too.”
It turns out that many of the same villages and people groups that lacked Christian resources in their native dialect lacked a Qur’an that they could read as well. As such, these stories resonated in a way that went beyond their theological differences.
As Eric Steggerda, field operations manager for unfoldingWord, described, “Many of these languages are struggling for importance in the world, as it were. There’s not much that’s actually in their mother tongue, so they rejoice when they find things that are, because it really speaks to them of the importance of their language . . . . They’re very receptive to the idea of the Bible stories, for example, translated into their mother tongue.”
Along the way, PCET brought in pastors to help ensure that each group’s translations were accurate and free of theological errors, but it was rare for the difference in religion to be an issue. And the work has already begun to bear fruit in amazing ways.
At least two of the Muslim translators converted to Christianity over the course of their work, and many of the imams in the area have been surprisingly open to engaging with the groups in reading the stories to their villages once they’re completed. As a result, the faith has grown, and, as one Chadian leader described, people have come to see that Christianity is not just “a Western product. When they can listen to [the] Word of God in their own language, that changes the narrative.”
However, remote villages in Chad are not the only ways in which God is working to change the narrative about his word.
The Visual Commentary on Scripture
Many of history’s greatest artists have chosen religious themes and stories as the inspiration for their work. However, as the culture grows increasingly secular, the biblical understanding necessary to fully appreciate those works is often lacking. Ben Quash, the chair in Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London, hopes to change that.
To that end, he established the Visual Commentary on Scripture, an open-access online resource that relies on historians and theologians to choose three works of art from any time period to illustrate parts of the Bible.
As Anna Somers Cocks describes, the project invites people to “write a short art-historical commentary on each work and then a longer comparative text discussing their relationship to the biblical passage.” She goes on to note that “many of the art historians who have contributed to the VCS are new to theology, which does not mean expressing subjective religious feelings, but rather using the Bible to provide a scholarly interpretation of the art.”
The result is “an imaginative exercise in reading the Bible as religious people read it and also seeing how art can make the texts and questions of faith come alive again without your needing to be religious,” Quash says. He adds that “what I find most encouraging is that the more progressive and adventurous curators are up for engaging with religion, while the ones who think that it’s terrible or dangerous are the ones who are stuck in the mud.”
So far, the VCS has entries for roughly one-third of the Bible and hopes to finish the rest in the next five years.
Until then, it will continue to open doors and minds to the truth of God’s word, often among those who would never think to open a Bible.
How will you translate the Bible today?
When we talk about segments of the population not having a Bible in their language, our thoughts usually gravitate toward remote villages and local dialects. However, language is about more than just the words that are spoken. Ultimately, translating the Bible is about making God’s word relatable in a way that fosters understanding and encourages people to explore a closer walk with him.
And while there is something unique about the way God communicates through his word, our lives are meant to preach the gospel message as well.
Jesus promised that people would know we are his disciples when they saw his love lived out in us (John 13:35). The religious leaders recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus because of the passion and power with which they shared the gospel. And the church in Antioch represented the Lord so well that the lost around them came to call them “Christians,” which can be translated as “little Christs” (Acts 11:26).
Every one of us is called to translate the Bible to the people we meet by spending each day as a living embodiment of its message. But what that looks like in your life may be vastly different than what it looks like in mine or anyone else’s.
Ultimately, God is the only One who gets to make that call.
Just don’t be surprised if he does so in a more creative way than you might expect.