Re: Something must change

Tom Pearson (
Tue, 18 Aug 1998 10:08:15 -0500 (CDT)

At 11:06 PM 8/17/98 -0700, wrote:

>It IS interesting to note that the Bible has had such an impact in so
>many non-western cultures, in spite of the fact that the translations
>are made by mortal, imperfect human beings.
>It is even more interesting that, having been translated into all these
>different languages, the *stories* themselves have NOT changed. ADAM
>and EVE are still there, so is Noah and Jonah. And, in most cases, the
>new believers in these different cultures accept these stories the same
>way *mainstream* christianity accepts them. As historical.

I don't know where you have travelled, but this certainly has not been my
experience. During the 1980s, I worked and travelled extensively in Africa,
as director of a Christian relief and development agency. Let me tell you a
story (I may have posted this same story to the list some time back, but I
can't recall for sure; my apologies if this is a reprise).

On one occasion, I was in a small village in southwest Mali, a country in
west Africa. We had been working with a missionary group there to build and
supply a medical clinic. During my stay with the missionaries, I asked them
one evening at dinner about their efforts to evangelize the indigenous
population. How was it going? Did they find the people receptive to the
Gospel? It was going well, they said, in spite of some obstacles. One of
the enduring obstacles was the language barrier (the people there spoke a
dialect of Waloof). It seems that the local population had no word in their
language that corresponded to the term "incarnate," and had no conceptual
vocabulary that could even make sense of the notion that God could become
human. In their way of thinking, a human could, by dint of heroic effort,
become a god; but no god could ever vacate a divine status and become human.
The missionaries told me that, in spite of decades of work in the area, they
had never been able to get the people to understand the concept "incarnate"
when applied to Jesus. What did you do? I asked. Well, they said (and this
is a direct quote), "We just worked around it." The missionaries had given
up trying to get the local folks to grasp the incarnation, and encouraged
them to see Jesus as a human who had become God. A non-incarnational
Christianity? What is this? I was horrified. But in my observation of the
people, they seemed to be devoted to Jesus, were intent on following Him,
and believed in Jesus for their salvation. It was a rather peculiar notion
of salvation, to be sure. And their treatment of Bible stories was anything
but "historical" in the modern, western sense. The missionaries there
seemed unperturbed by any of it. I encountered very similar situations in
Mozambique and Kenya.

I was badly shaken by these experiences in Africa. They disabused me of any
facile notion that all human beings share the same mental capacities and
outlooks, and that all it takes to make a "Christian" is to tell them the
stories, which they will grasp in the same way that we do. It ain't so.
I'm not sure it's wise to assume that the way non-western cultures receive
the good news of Jesus Christ, or hear the biblical stories, is uniform or

Tom Pearson

Thomas D. Pearson
Department of History & Philosophy
The University of Texas-Pan American
Edinburg, Texas