ELKHART, Ind (Mennonite Mission Network)—Two Mennonite Mission Network partners told a room full of American Mennonite leaders that one of the most important challenges of mission work is communicating God’s word in people’s “heart language.”
“We have to theologize well in our mother languages,” said Gilbert Ansre, who contributed to the founding of Good News Training Institute (now, Good News Theological College and Seminary) in Accra, Ghana. “If we theologize well, we can teach God and Christ well, and we can become like Christ more and more,” Ansre said.
Ansre and Shekhar Singh, current president of Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India, both have multiple advanced degrees, ranging from business and linguistics to psychology and theology. This breadth of knowledge gives creativity and deep insight into their thought and ministries, which they shared with more than 30 leaders of Mennonite institutions at a luncheon hosted at the Mennonite Church USA offices in Elkhart, Ind. on May 19.
Despite doctorates from prestigious academic institutions and being fluent in a multitude of languages, Ansre and Singh stressed the importance of people having access to God’s word in their mother tongue, or their heart language. The alternative inflicts colonial language prejudices on the character of God and the nature of Christ.
Ansre illustrated this problem with the example of the English language’s gender-specific pronouns: he, she and it. The biblical translators’ decision to use “he” for God imposes a patriarchal filter on the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis in English. The Hebrew and Greek pronouns indicate third person without specifying female or male, Ansre said.
“When you read, ‘God made man in his own image,’ immediately you go to masculine in your mind,” Ansre said.
The Hebrew word meaning ‘human person’ is without gender. Without this understanding, “you wait until Adam is put to sleep before woman is produced out of the rib bone of the man, so your theology can be affected by your language,” Ansre said.
Ansre, a third-generation Presbyterian Church leader who had learned “a very little bit about Mennonites” in his church history classes, said that before he met Mennonites he expected them to be quaint. He was pleasantly surprised when he met his first flesh-and-blood Mennonite, Erma Grove, who served in Ghana from 1957 until 1983. Grove’s adaptability and her graciousness made an impression on Ansre, and illustrates for him, the Mennonite approach to mission in general.
Singh spoke about the complexity of Bible translation in India where there are more than 1,695 languages and dialects. The most commonly used Bible is translated using words that pertain to Brahmins, the highest caste that make up only nine percent of the population.
When Christians talk about baptism, they are talking about a person who accepted Christ, who has been born again, and who goes through the process of dipping or immersion and then coming out of the water, Singh said.
Singh demonstrated how Indian languages have words for only parts of Christian baptism. Most Bible translations use a Hindi word, jal sanskara, for a ritual that purifies through water.
“There has been a struggle to see how there is not just the water purification, but the whole concept of new birth is taking place, “Singh said. “We need to coin a word to convey the new birth meaning of baptism.”
According to Singh, Hindus define salvation in terms of merging into Brahman who is omnipotent, omniscient and the creator of everything. Yet, it’s only those in the highest caste who have the possibility to merge into Brahman.
“When Christians talk about salvation, we are not talking about a person merging himself in God,” Singh said. “The human soul remains human soul. We are talking about a soul receiving salvation and thereby being justified by God.”
People from the Buddhist tradition describe salvation as nirvana, meaning ‘breaking out of the cycle.” Nirvana is the end of everything that is not perfect. It is the end of suffering.
“Since we have many languages, we cannot have one kind of translation which will meet the need of everyone,” Singh said.
A skilled translator has to know people’s religious background in order to translate the Bible in their heart language, Singh said. He thanked Mennonites for collaborating with Union Biblical Seminary in training leaders to carry out this mandate.
Both leaders thanked Mennonite mission workers for collaborating beyond their denominational walls in witnessing to the gospel around the world, pointing out that Christians need to work together to fulfill Jesus’ message.
“A good Christian cannot be a mono-denominational personality,” Ansre said. “The purpose of Christ was not to found denominations, but to make all people Christ-like. No matter whether you were Herod or John the Baptist or even Judas, Christ meant us to be one.”
Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, leads, mobilizes and equips the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world. Media may contact Andrew Clouse at email@example.com, 574-523-3024 or 866-866-2872, ext. 23024.