Stilling of the storm

Mark 4:35-41 translated for performance

On that day when the evening had come,

He said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

And leaving the crowd,

They took him with them in the boat, just as he was.

(Other boats were with him.)

And a fierce windstorm formed,

And the waves were breaking into the boat

So that the boat was already filling up!

Yet he was in the stern, on a cushion…sleeping!

And they roused him / raised him saying,

“Teacher don’t you care that we are being destroyed?”

And he roused/raised up and rebuked The Wind

And said to The Sea, “Silence! Shut it!”

And The Wind died down, and a great calm settled.

He said to them, “Why are you (still) afraid?”

“Do you not yet trust (me)?”

And they feared a great fear

And they said to one another “Who is this that The Wind and The Sea obey him?”

Job 3

Translation Goal: Create a translation for oral performance useful to communities experiencing and perpetuating social and theological stigma because of their bodily and social conditions.

Note: These translation decisions were influenced by insights achieved studying the text with people living with disabilities in northern Ghana and families living with Alzheimer’s in the United States.

1 After this Job opened his mouth and curseda his day.b

2 Job answered and said:

3 Delete the day on which I was born,

and also the night which they announced a man has been conceived!c

Reading Philippians in the age of mass incarceration

On May 8 I was privileged to attend a Faculty lecture by Dr. Ryan Schellenberg, Assistant Professor of New Testament at the Methodist Theological School of Ohio, titled “Reading Philippians in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Schellenberg began his lecture (recorded here) lamenting the difficult task of the historian who seeks to write history from the perspective not of generals and rulers, but of common folk. The historian’s job is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when most of the pieces are missing. However, there are some fragments that by reason of hap and circumstance survived the immediate context in which they were created, and which subsequently were deemed “too unimportant to be destroyed in fits of fundamentalist zeal.” Schellenberg has carefully read many of these ancient fragments, letters from ancient prisons, or records which refer to life in ancient prisons. Schellenberg read some of these fragments which helped the audience to contextualize the historical circumstances of Paul, writing letters from ancient prisons in the mid 50s CE (Common Era).

Each of the fragments highlighted for us were chosen to help us re-read Paul’s letters in the very real context of ancient prisons. This re-reading then offers new lines of connection for us in our modern age of mass incarceration to Paul and his letters. The first fragment was an ancient letter written in 336 BCE found near the modern Egyptian city of Faiyum from a man who was asking a local official to please contact a higher official so that his case might be adjudicated more quickly because he had been wasting away from hunger in prison “so that I might be saved.” The author uses the word, σωτηρία, which is often translated “salvation.” Paul writes in Philippians 1:19, “For I know that what has happened to me will turn out for my σωτηρία.” Schellenberg suggested that it is not likely that Paul has eschatological salvation in mind here, though Paul does clearly have that in mind elsewhere.

Schellenberg offered evidence about the historical scenarios that might have landed Paul in prison by referencing the first century Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus gave an example of particular Jewish teachers who were teaching the Mosaic Law to Romans. Apparently, eastern religions were appealing to Romans in an exotic sort of way. When a wealthy man’s wife began following Jewish food laws and eventually gave a significant monetary donation to the Jewish religious infrastructure, this man contacted emperor Tiberias who subsequently had Jewish charlatans expelled from Rome. Schellenberg then read a few side-comments in Paul’s letters like 1 Thessalonians 2:3 where he argues almost out of the blue that “our appeal does not spring from delusion, impure motives, or deceit.” By engaging in a bit of what is called mirror reading, we might conclude that Paul was being accused of using deceit. We know that Paul’s rhetoric was appealing to slaves and women. Perhaps the offering he was collecting to bring to the poor in Jerusalem might have caused some jealous “heads of households” to accuse Paul of preying upon women, proclaiming allegiance to foreign gods, and using deceit to line his own pockets. This is a plausible way he would have gotten thrown into prison on repeated occasions.

What was Paul’s social situation like such that he ended up in prison several times? How was it that Paul’s body was beaten so many times?  (2 Corinthians 11:23-24) In a quote from a letter written by the Roman rhetorician Cicero, Cicero was arguing respectable dignified people did not get thrown in prison. The implication seems to be that less dignified people do get thrown in prison! It may be that Paul was of a lower social class than is often assumed. Schellenberg quoted another New Testament scholar, Jennifer A. Glancy, who observed that Paul had a “whippable body.” Schellenberg showed a picture of a 19th century slave with horrible scars on his back from the whippings he had received. Not everyone had or has a whippable body. Paul’s comments in Philippians 3:21 take on a more concrete meaning on his lips: “the Lord Jesus Christ who will transform our bodies of humiliation into a similar form as his body of glory.”

Schellenberg indicated that the experience of prisons was common for early Christians and the material deprivation they experienced caused many to reflect on how they could be “free” even while they were “in chains.” As evidence Schellenberg highlighted a quote from the second century North African church leader, Tertullian. Some ancients argued that the prison for the Christian was equivalent to the wilderness for the Hebrew prophets. Schellenberg suggested that the Western notion of the self as interiority springs from these embodied experiences in prison. This notion of the interior self has at least contributed to what later became a separation of mind and body. The prison experience was eventually extended to the monastery, where the quiet interior life was cultivated. Modern prisons were created by well-meaning Christians using the model of the monastery in the mid-19th century. The word “penitentiary” is evidence of this lingering historical link. Schellenberg observed that that forcing the discipline of the isolated monastic life does not have the same result for incarcerated people as it did for religious folk, but rather has had devastating effects on human beings. Charles Dickens made a comment to this effect having visited Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1840s.

Throughout the lecture Schellenberg offered a number of comments from contemporary ethnographies of prisoners in the United States who reflect a certain theological orientation that is not so different from Paul. While the statistics and data on mass incarceration in the United States are shocking, Schellenberg commented that it might be easy for those of us who believe that mass incarceration is an evil that needs to be ended to look upon the theological comments of prisoners to be naïve forms of “false consciousness.” However, Schellenberg cautioned if “we” well-meaning socially conscious people of the 21st century presume to know better than prisoners do what is good for them, we risk repeating the same logic which created modern prisons in the first place. Prison reform based upon that logic is dangerous.

Instead, Schellenberg urged us to have a broader view of “salvation” than the exclusively eschatological view, a view of salvation which includes concrete material deliverance. However, in our commitment to material deliverance, those of us in privileged positions need to be very cautious to listen to prisoners themselves, to the narratives that help them survive. Prisoners themselves must have something to say about the kind of holistic and perhaps even heterogeneous deliverances they long for and eagerly desire.

For those who want to know more details, Schellenberg is working on a book from Oxford Press titled, Abject Joy: Paul, Prison, and the Art of Making Do.  

A Translation of Ezekiel 37:1-14 for performance

The hand of Yahweh came upon me,
and he brought me out by the spirit-breath of Yahweh
and set me down in the middle of a valley;
it was full of bones.
He led me around and around the bones;
Look at them—laying down across the face of the valley,
see—they were dried up.
He said to me, “Mortal son, can these bones live?”
I answered, “O Lord Yahweh, [WHO IS]… you know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:
Dry bones, hear the word of Yahweh!
Thus Lord Yahweh says to these bones:
Look—I will make breath come into you, and you will live.
I will put sinews on you,
and make flesh grow upon you,
and I will cover you with skin,
and give breath to you, and you will live;
and you shall know that I am Yahweh [WHO IS].”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a sound suddenly rattling—tikititiktik—
and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
I looked, and see—there were sinews on them,
and flesh had come up, and skin had covered them;
but there was no breath from above with them.
Then he said to me,
“Prophesy to the breath,
prophesy, mortal son, and say to the breath:
Thus says Lord Yahweh:
Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe
upon these slain ones, and they must live.”
I prophesied as he commanded me,
and the breath came into them, and they lived,
and stood on their feet, a great battalion.

Then he said to me,
“Mortal son, these bones are the whole house of Israel/Palestine.
See them. They say,
‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off.’
Therefore prophesy, and say to them,
Thus says Lord Yahweh:
See, I am going to open your graves,
and bring you up from your graves – O my people –
I will bring you to the land of Israel/Palestine.
And you shall know that I am Yahweh,
when I open your graves,
and bring you up from your graves – O my people –
I will put my spirit-breath within you, and you shall live,
and I will place you on your soil;
then you shall know that I, Yahweh, have spoken and I will act,”
– oracle of Yahweh—out.

Translating Trump’s metaphor

In response to a FB post in which I expressed genuine sadness upon hearing the President’s “alleged’ comments about some nations being dung receptacles, some of my colleagues, acquaintances, and friends have asked me to take the President’s comments seriously, not in terms of the offensive language, but as powerful referential communication. Let’s translate Trump’s language. Perhaps the President was simply saying that there are countries that are less desirable to live in than others. We could sharpen that further by identifying particular locations inside the borders of many countries including the USA that are less desirable to live in.

In translation practice, we often consider how to translate a harsh or difficult metaphor. Do we translate Paul’s claim that he considers his human accomplishments to be σκύβαλον “dung” in Philippians 3:8 literally? Or do we describe the metaphor less viscerally? What if we take the actual metaphor Trump used seriously and explore its deeper ramifications? Even if he did not say it, perhaps the metaphor itself is evocative of something much larger than partisan politics. What if there is something in the metaphor about locations in particular countries and defecation that is connected to the conceptual metaphor of consumption in our bipartisan world economic system? Perhaps that is why I (and other friends many of whom have also done Bible translation work or missionary work in remote locations) responded so viscerally to it? Some in horror. Some in defense.

I am taking up the challenge to take the US president’s metaphor seriously as part of a larger metaphor of the world market as human consumption. The specific metaphor Trump used is the “back-end” of consumption processes. 😉 The largest consumer in the world economy has historically been the USA with China more recently revving up its own consumption engines. What does a consumer economy need but cheap raw materials from any point on the globe so it can produce high quality cheap products and ship them to the consumption centers who consume the products in high quantities at the lowest costs possible? However, that is not all. A necessary part of consumption includes defecation. Which places on earth receive the “waste” of the world consumer economy? Continue reading Translating Trump’s metaphor

Hey white man! Embodying, performing, and decommissioning whiteness

Calling out to me – as I walk around in a Ghanaian marketplace: “White man!”

The tone is not negative, it might even be positive. The caller is naming something that I embody and something that I symbolize in this place. Perhaps the caller is inviting engagement with that part of me. Whether I like it or not, I embody whiteness. I have been asked many times if I would switch skins with random people I meet. That’s not a request most white folk have had.

This weekend I will be attending an event centered on Biblical performance and our theme is “thinking about embodiment.” What does my body communicate? To many people, I embody white. But an insightful question I have heard being asked these days is, how did we become white?

That question is pointing out “white” is a construct, not an ethnicity. It is cultural, not just genetic. Historically being white is not as indelible as it seems. My ancestors started a process of becoming white when they came to the USA, long before I arrived in one of the markets of northern Ghana.

For instance, when my Finnish paternal grandfather left his Finnish speaking home in Minnesota he went to seminary.  As he learned theology he also learned how to better “perform” being a white American Lutheran, in addition to being a Finnish-American. He learned how to make the second half of the hyphen stronger than the first. That was pretty much true for all European ethnic groups. And over generations, for many of us, the first half of that hyphen became more culturally diluted. But not without traces!

My cousins and I have heard the story of how my grandfather, who was several years older than my grandmother, saw her singing in a choir. He declared he would marry her one day. Our Finnish-American grandmother, whose first language was already English, performed American whiteness in a way my grandfather aspired to. My grandfather’s siblings, some of whom stayed nearer to home, also became “white.” Instead of Finnish accents, they are perceived to have “northern Minnesotan” accents, which still marks a measure of difference in the larger US landscape of whiteness. But no matter how you cut it, my extended paternal family all integrated into dominant society. It was probably inevitable.

One could also look at my maternal grandparents’ history. Both my grandfather and my grandmother were ethnically German (mostly). They were both English speakers from childhood. Both of their families struggled mightily just to make it financially. It was hard, especially for my grandmother’s family because her father, a pastor, was sick for quite a long time, and ended up passing away with the children still in the house. Within a very short time, my great-grandmother and her children were sent out of the parsonage they lived in and expected to find a way to make it on their own. And they did. Being “white” was one advantage they were sure to use.

So whiteness in America was a tool to use for survival for many poor immigrant families. You had to know how to perform whiteness to get and keep jobs, to get better homes, to get into college. Performance was connected to language and how you carried yourself. But Americans are known for their short cultural memory.  What was a survival tool can quickly become a birthright, a privilege that you protect and defend in the cut-throat economy which is the reality in this country—if you want a middle-class job and lifestyle.

Whether I like it or not, whiteness, American whiteness, is a part of what being a missionary has meant for me. It is not a survival tool in the way it was for my ancestors. Whiteness is something I embody. Is it something I am perceived to be selling in the market as I walk around? It is part of my package. But I always enjoy saying something in the local language or asking a question in a very Ghanaian way which skews how I “perform” whiteness in Ghana.

Someone might say, “You have been here too long. You are not a fresh white person.” My fellow white missionaries and I took this as a complement. We were making whiteness more hybrid, more Ghanaian, as we sought to engage with others. In Ghana, this was often perceived as a good thing, at least among the ordinary folk in the marketplaces. If you see me with my missionary colleagues we enjoy speaking in our Ghanaian tone of voice. It is life-giving to us.

I recently read an excerpt about “decommissioning whiteness” written by a Nigerian scholar, Boyo Akomolafe. He has a part in there which resonates with me, even though I don’t fully understand it. He is talking about the important racial healing work that needs to happen in the USA, and he says it will not happen on CNN, or from the White house, it will happen in the cracks and borders of society.

I think of this work – this utterly incoherent murmuration of platforms and practices and concerns and offerings – as a decommissioning of whiteness. I think of it as the regeneration of spaces for us to grieve, to celebrate, to eat together, and to learn anew how to relate to the world around us. This decommissioning of whiteness is decolonization. A reacquainting ourselves with roots – the tentacular things that tether us to terra firma, which we like Icarus believed ourselves to be free of. Let us remember that whiteness was/is the invitation to forget roots, to deny the significance of the multitude and the wilds, whose tendrils are our seams. You might as well call it a ‘lie’ – there’s some rhetorical advantage in such directness. Whiteness is a lie because it claims those who join the project of white-identified people are not indigenous.

Akomolafe is saying that even as a white person who has joined the “white project” somehow I have become indigenous. Indigeneity is not something I have not felt in my bones, which is probably part of the reason I felt compelled to live outside of the white world. Part of my personal mission in learning to speak a language and live as part of a rural African village for ten years of my life was to become a human being. I think I wanted to become more like indigenous Ghanaians in their rootedness, while at the same time they are under pressure to become a little more like me–desiring to integrate some whiteness into themselves.

Whatever hyphenated identities we have, how can we stay connected to terra firma, to our roots, to our histories and still reach out to the world around us? As white people I am not saying that we all should all go back and learn Finnish, German, and Irish or whatever mix of languages and cultures are in our pasts. Or that we all need to travel overseas and learn a new culture and language. But, how are we remembering our roots, the history of how we “became white” and what that meant for our ancestors, and for people we displaced? What about those people who did not desire to perform “pure” whiteness? How were they labeled if they had white skin or brown skin? And then once we get in touch with that history of how we got here, and who was excluded in the process, how do we still reach out to the world around us, which is still dominated by “whiteness” as an access card?

We need to make sure that decommissioning whiteness is not just a way to keep others away from our inheritance. Whiteness is still a tool that is useful, so why not share it as a tool? Being white is not a birthright. White people had to learn whiteness too. Let’s not make it a weapon to keep people out. One of the best ways to decommission whiteness as an exclusionary tool which seeks to root out everything else is to reconnect to our histories, including the traumatic parts, to heal, to make amends where we can, and to reconnect to the earth and communities from which we came, and upon which we still depend. Can we become indigenous white people? That may mean connecting to whatever location and community we find ourselves in now in ways that are human, life-giving, and inclusive. At the same time, how do we extend a hand to others who may want to integrate into themselves a part of what has become indigenous to us?

Learning to Fear and Love Leviticus with Ghanaian Bible Translators


Most North Americans and European Christians never read the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Perhaps most African Christians also refrain from reading this “bloody book” (even if it is for a somewhat different set of reasons.) Leviticus is filled with rituals that promote purity and “strange” blood-sacrifices.

I recently was privileged to spend several days reading through a translation of the Old Testament book of Leviticus with the Likɔɔnl translation team whose people inhabit rural areas in Ghana’s Northern Region. The experience was energizing as the team realized there were “lines of connection” between the priestly social vision of the Old Testament and the priestly social vision of their local traditional religion. Even though there is still a lot of work to do to apply those social and theological visions to contemporary life, beginning the process is energizing.

What are some of these possible “lines of connection”? The team explored similarities and differences between the specific practices of sacrifice in Leviticus and in traditional African religious practice exploring the symbolic relevance the sacrifices enact. When were sacrifices necessary and what do they teach us about dependence on God and the land, and harmony between the inhabitants of the land, concern for the poor etc.? The translation team observed priestly notions of maintaining bodily purity for individual and social bodies. This is relevant not simply for nostalgic value. If the ancient practices seem too restrictive, one wonders how do the dominant socio-economic models operative in the contemporary world treat individual and collective human bodies or even the bodies of our fellow creatures? What notions of purity do they enact both positively and negatively? How do Christians in contemporary contexts draw from their religious resources in the ways they interact with the different social agendas operative in our world today?

Rather than looking at Levitical practice as inferior to say the work of the prophets, David Pleins argues that the social vision of the priests as expressed in Leviticus is comprehensive. It includes “shrine, community, household and the disenfranchised.” The priests and the practices they mediate governed the social order of their day. They were concerned with “purity” and “holiness” so that the people would live in harmony with God, the land, with each other. The Priestly code is remarkably concerned with the poor and the priests attempt to establish themselves as “champions of the poor.” The priestly vision of the Levites was calculated to ensure that Israel retains the land and escape the judgement which leads to exile in Babylon.[1]

Similarly, African traditional religious practice, despite the many abuses it has endured from religious and secular sectors, practices a diplomacy from which contemporary nation state socio-politics could learn. And even though contemporary Africans treat illnesses through hospital visits, surgeries, pharmacies, and paracetamol (Tylenol), nevertheless, the traditional social vision of the Levites and traditional priests still has something to offer them. It is not simply “archaic” or “backward” as the dominant worldview of Americans and Europeans has asserted. Traditional priests enact a social practice that is deeply concerned about integrating peace between humans, God, and the earth that contemporary social, political, economic and medical practices often misses.  Studying a cross-section of any urban location in the world attests to the fact that there is much about the contemporary post-enlightenment social project which does not lead to social wholeness.

There is no doubt that the “lines of connection” between Levitical, traditional, and contemporary religious life still need to be theologically and socially constructed for today. (The book of Hebrews itself could be viewed as one Christological rereading of Leviticus for the early church.) How this is done in contemporary African societies is the concern of African Biblical Hermeneutics. There is a need to look at the text critically “with both ancient and contemporary eyes.”[2]

One thing that is of interest to me as a North American who has sojournered in Africa is what my own Lutheran-Christian community, which spans greatly differing contexts across space and time, might learn from this dialogue for its own diplomatic social practice of human community living under God in mutual stewardship of a shared creaturely existence on this earth? What is our priestly vision as a church? How do we care for the poor among us? The refugees? What do we do to care for human bodies from womb to grave? Is our vision comprehensive or piece meal? Is it life-giving for church, community, household and the disenfranchised? How do we speak our social vision to a world with competing visions many of which lead to death rather than life?

[1] J. David Pleins, The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction, 1st ed (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 61-70.

[2] Eric Anum, “Comparative Readings of the Bible in Africa,” in The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends, ed. Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2000), 457–73, 471.

Celebrating Pentecost in ‘other’ tongues

Some American congregations are going to listen to the Scripture read in an “other” language and have it translated into English for them this year using the recently launched Komba New Testament as their translation of choice. Here is Acts 2:1-8 read in Likɔɔnl (Komba) and translated into English by Rev. Emmanuel Mananyina.

Here is what Acts 2.1-8 looks like in Komba.

If you have the capability or preference to look at some visuals while listening to the text. You might want to scroll through these shots from the launching of the Likɔɔnl (Komba) New Testament November 1, 2014.

Description of our Ministry

Description of our ministry: It’s been 10 years of talking and imagining a printed Bible, advocating for support from churches and communities, meetings galore, thousands and thousands of pages of draft copies, lots of red ink, red eyes, sleepless nights, travel by car, travel by moto, travel by air, talking about how to spell, learning to type, and translating the Word of God!

And now, Issah Gajah, a Lutheran pastor in the village and a reviewer during this whole process, sees the typeset print ready copy of the Komba New Testament. He says softly, with a tone of wonderment, “It always seemed like a story on white pages. Now it looks like the Word of God.”

Our desire is that those beautiful words would jump off the page as they are spoken through mouths and heard through ears, that those beautiful words would reach into the lives of many Komba people so they too might hear and love the voice of the One living Word of God, our tiyudaan (head –owner) Jesus.