Episode 063: Bible Poverty with Danny Foster
So, if I asked you the question: What is the one thing (or a few things) that Christians in “struggling” areas of the world need? You might say “stronger pastors or leaders,” or “better theology,” or even “more churches.” All of these are true, but something I personally overlooked is the simple need for Bibles. Bible poverty is a real thing in our world. To help walk us through Bible poverty is Danny Foster, president of The Canada Institute of Linguistics and member of the Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Danny is president of The Canada Institute of Linguistics.
Also, you can find all the stats and the full report of the Canadian Bible Engagement study here.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio.
Well it’s great to be talking with Danny Foster today. Danny is the president of The Canada Institute of Linguistics, and he’s also a member of the Wycliffe Bible Translators in Canada. Thanks for taking some time out of your day to come to our offices and have a conversation with us about the Bible and about linguistics.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Yeah for sure! As we do with everyone we talk to, we love to hear a little bit of the humanity and the person behind the voice. So I guess the easiest question is: who are you? Family, different things like that – hobbies maybe? And a little bit more in detail of what you do as the president of CanIL and what that’s all about.
I’m a husband and a father of two young boys – Josiah is eleven and Isaac is nine. They were born on the mission field while serving in Tanzania. I grew up in Scarborough, Ontario to Jamaican immigrants – my mom’s from Kingston, my dad’s from Montego Bay. I have 6 older brothers – so I’m the youngest of seven boys. It was awesome growing up in that kind of environment.
I absolutely love cooking, that’s my release at the end of the day. I go home and I just dive into the kitchen and go nuts.
What makes me tick? I’ve always wanted to be in ministry since I first sensed there was a calling on my life back when I was a teenager. Took me a while to figure out what that was going to look like. That eventually morphed into missions. But it all clicked for me one day back in 1989. I was sitting in a chapel where I was studying at a Bible College in Peterborough, Ontario. A guy from Wycliffe came and did a presentation. He basically threw some numbers out there that shocked me because I was learning about missions from the perspective of “theology is really poor in parts of the world and we need to train pastors better and improve leadership and plant more churches and have more quality pastors,” and so that’s what I was perceiving as the problem: bad theology where the church was developing.
And so when I heard that there were 7,097 languages in the world and at that time (it was 1989), over half of them were identified as needing a Bible translation project, around 3,500. At 19 years old I had this vision that if I live my whole life on this earth and when it’s all said and done a language community that never had an alphabet before has one, that never had some stories before has them, basic literacy, but most importantly a translation of the Bible or at least the New Testament, then man, my whole life was worth living. And I still look back at that as a 19 year old and I think, “Man, that’s a pretty lofty goal.”
In some ways, that testimony is something I hope happens in our conversation today, because you said it shocked you a little bit – those numbers. I think you’re right, a lot of people (including myself) think it’s bad theology and bad preachers (and we still need to train them), but it really does come back to the Bible first.
I’m sitting there, 19 years old, being taught that people have bad theology, then somebody comes in and says, “They don’t have the Book.”
Nobody was telling me that in those courses. And I just went, “Well duh!” Why are we clamping down on these guys for having bad theology when they don’t have Bibles, or they’re having to read a Bible in a second, third, or fourth language. They’re just not able to access it like I can. So that seemed like a really simple place to start, and tangible.
So, from that point then, that started your journey from 1989 to now, that’s where all your focus is going.
28 years. I’ve never looked in any other direction than this.
See, I just look around at my peers, and our commitment level (of Millennials right now) is just terrible. So when I hear that, that’s so encouraging. Here you are, 28 years later, and you’re still focused on that one vision that God has given you. That’s really cool.
You’re also a PhD candidate, so what does that look like?
Yes, PhD candidacy. It means that I’ve yet to finish enduring this pain that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Yeah, I’m on doctoral research at the University of Bristol in the UK. I’m doing a PhD in education. My research is focused on why parents in minority language communities (and I’m talking about really marginalized communities. The parents that I’m studying in Southern Tanzania, in the highlands there, would all be farmers with an average of standard four, five, or six level education). I’m trying to understand the resistance that they have towards their languages being used in formal education.
Because the work that we do in language development, a big part of that is literacy and we try to work with local communities to introduce mother-tongue literacy which is heavily mandated by UNESCO, United Educational…I don’t know what it stands for…Cultural Organization or something like that. I should know that in my role! Yeah, scratch that whole PhD thing, there goes my candidacy. They strongly champion that, but what’s interesting is in many countries of the world where development is happening, it’s seen as a threat.
A lot of research has been directed at the policy level and governmental level and my research is directed at resistant to the community level, because they feel like their languages aren’t real when they’re not written. There are a lot of attitudes about the value of their language for formal education. And what you see a lot of happening around the world, especially where I worked in Tanzania, is it looks a lot like what happened here in Canada one hundred years ago – our attitudes towards First Nations’ languages. We’re seeing history repeat itself in those parts of the world.
Tanzania has 126 indigenous languages, and it’s still illegal to get Sala to use any of them in formal education. So, while I understand and appreciate directives driving certain policies, I also want to give the community a voice as well, but also understand that voice. So that’s what my research is about.
Now can you say that again in one sentence? (I’m kidding).
Advocacy for minority languages.
There you go, that’s awesome.
Now, CanIL. Can you just briefly explain what this organization is and does?
Yeah so we’re an organization that is staffed by Wycliffe Bible Translators personnel. We exist to train people to go and serve in Bible translations and language development work. So we operate out of Trinity Western University and Tyndale University College and Seminary – so Toronto and Vancouver. Across those two schools we offer two Bachelor’s, two Master’s, and eight different training tracks for people who already maybe have the degrees that they want, but just want training to get involved in this type of work.
In linguistics and Bible translation.
Yeah, so Bible translation is really a part of a broader envelope called language development. So you can imagine, you can’t do Bible translation if you don’t have an alphabet. So you need to do quite a bit of linguistic research to figure out what an alphabet needs to look like for a given language, what the grammar is, what the spelling rules are and so forth. So there’s a lot of research done at that level.
Bible translation is useless if people can’t read it.
So you need to do literacy. Sometimes that’s transitional literacy with people who might be literate in the language of a wider communication or a former colonial language. It may just be basically literacy – their first time ever seeing their language in print.
You see, that’s just so wild to me. I’m so blind to all this, so I’m glad I’m talking to you. Because in my mind when I think of language groups who don’t have the Bible, my mind just thinks that they already have a language, they know how to read, write, and all that, so we just need to translate the Bible – but there’s so much more! You might actually have to help develop the whole alphabet, everything for them.
Some quick statistics for you. There are 7,097 languages spoken and signed on earth. So, SIL international is another organization that we partner with to do this work, that’s the organization I’m with when I’m overseas in the field. And they’re responsible for tallying the languages. They look after ISO, International Standards Organization, ISO 632, so they set the codes for the languages, so I believe there are 7,097 entries for active languages. Of those 7,097 languages, 636 have a whole Bible.
Now, you say wow thinking “That’s horrible, we need way more than that,” but those 636 serve 5.1 billion people in the world. So at least 70% of the population. My numbers aren’t going to add up with the world population numbers here. That’s just because it’s really hard to pin down language speakers versus populations in countries and getting that data – it’s really tricky. So 636 whole Bibles. 1,442 New Testaments and portions of the Old Testament.
Like Psalms or Proverbs.
Yeah, Genesis, or Ruth, or Jonah, or whatever. 1,145 of those languages have some portions, selections, some Bible stories.
3,874 have nothing – there’s no known Scriptures in 3,874 of the world’s languages.
But still not all of those need to have Scriptures, because people need the word of God, languages don’t need the Word of God. And some of those languages don’t need them – those language communities don’t need them because there’s a handful of speakers left, they’re all, you know, elderly; the language is not being used in daily life by young people or even the community for normal purposes.
And another reason might just be that people are truly multilingual enough. We’re not saying “They can get by!” but they are totally capable of accessing the Scriptures in a language that has or will be getting the Scriptures soon.
So that leaves us today in 2017 with, I’m going to say, 1,700-1,800 languages that have a definite need of getting a Bible translation project started in those languages.
And then currently in the world right now there are about 2,400 language projects underway. Those span the ones that have some portions.
Okay, now you talk about Bible poverty. Is this what you refer to as Bible poverty?
Yeah, those people who just don’t have the Scriptures.
I usually walk around with a blank Bible, it looks like a Bible, but inside it’s just full of blank pages. So I’ll give it to somebody and say, “Show me your favourite verse,” and they open it up and they’re like, “What?” And I say, “Well, that’s what it’s like – that’s the problem we’re trying to address. What are you going to do to help me fill those pages for the people, for the Bible poor of the world?”
There are people for me who, and I believe every human searches for the truth at some point, but there are people for me and my Christian worldview, their search for the truth doesn’t include the option of finding it. I’ve listened to some of your show, and I love the way that you engage and get into some controversial stuff, and people are tackling those things from the point of view of Scripture, that’s the anchor.
Now, there are some points that we’re not going to agree on, because the Word of God wasn’t written to address every one of these little – you know, it’s not our textbook. But it is a message of love, it’s a message of hope, it’s a message of Christ, of the cross. And people who are Bible poor, there’s no Christ, there’s no cross, there’s no narrative that they can even engage with to address the things. I mean, we’re at a level that’s way up here.
Yeah, I hear you. So, okay, if we think about Bible translation then, what is the linguistic method or process from actually seeing a people group that do not have a Bible, to them now having a Bible? What does that look like?
Yeah, that’s a broad question. There’s no two communities the same. You’ve got on one end of the spectrum, you might have no Scriptures, no written language, not even any linguistic research has been done on that language, there’s no alphabet, and there’s not even a Christian community.
So you’re literally starting from square one.
Yeah, you’re going in, you’re looking for, you know, we never start anything, we always believe that God is already there and He’s doing something. I love the story of the Israelites walking around Jericho because God was long at work inside the walls before the Israelites got on the outside, and we see that with Joshua and Rahab, right? I mean this prostitute tells him everything that’s about to happen, tells the spies.
So when we go somewhere, God’s already there, and so, you know, we’re looking for what God is doing and then fanning the flames on that. So that’s one end of the spectrum.
On the other end, I don’t know, I haven’t thought too much about it, but I’m picturing a community that might have the Bible, I’ve personally worked with a community that had the whole Bible, but it was all in a container. They were in a container; they weren’t available on the streets. And if you could get them, the language was inaccessible. It was done a long time ago using poor translation methods. Or it’s just gotten out of date, and/or people didn’t know how to read it. So you’re doing this kind of revision, but it’s still addressing Bible poverty. And then everything in between.
Yeah, that’s amazing, that’s crazy. So when you were in Tanzania, what kind of work were you doing – like the day-to-day work? On a random Tuesday, what would you be doing?
Well this was the cool thing. I told you my dream was to serve one language community. Well, again, just to stay with the analogy that God is always ahead of us, I wound up spending my first six years in Tanzania, my wife and I, and we were part of an effort that launched 19 Bible translation projects. Those languages were spoken by 4.5 million people.
So 10 languages in southern Tanzania and 9 languages in the north. We started these two things called Cluster Projects. Instead of going out as individual teams working in the local communities, we brought those communities together in central locations and set up a translation center – a language development center. And we started leveraging the similarities between those languages, because they were related. And so, God multiplied my dream by 19 in my first 6 years. My day-in day-out was a lot of training, working with Tanzanian nationals.
You know, today we’re not other-tongue translators, we want mother-tongue translators. I don’t go in and learn a language, and I don’t translate the Bible for somebody, I work with locals and together we work out what that Scripture needs to be like. Together we form a team. Translation requires two cultures coming together. Just the Word itself, you’ve got this language that you’re working with, i’s text is 2,000 years old, it’s a different time and now you’re in this other culture and time, bringing them together. So you work together, bringing your different skills to the table. Your national translation partners, their knowledge of the language, your knowledge in Greek, Hebrew, linguistics, translation principles, and you work that out. And there’s tons of really cool computer technology that comes into it. We train them in that.
Training trainers, building capacity. It’s exciting.
That is exciting, very cool. Now, before we recorded you briefly talked about linguistics and all that that entails and how that relates to the late 2016 movie Arrival. Lot’s of linguistic methods and principles are actually in that movie!
Yeah I just watched it last Saturday! Everyone kept saying that I had to see Arrival. So I rented it out and watched it with my family, and you haven’t seen it so I’m going to spoil it for you!
So the the main character is commissioned by the government to go and try and communicate with these aliens. And the whole experience of them entering the ship, my wife and I were sitting there looking at each other going, “This is such an amazing metaphor for just going overseas,” like the foreignness of what was inside the ship, and even gravity was rotated by 90 degrees. We laughed at the whole idea of your world getting turned upside down.
But then how she worked with these aliens, holding up a sign with writing on it and then acting it out and doing it. I’ve had experiences where I’ve done a lot of that with people – just sitting with them. I don’t hold up sings with words (they can’t read), but I’ll pick up something and they’ll say what it is. And we have these things called power tools, you just start with the basic, getting the basic words.
And then there are ways to move, I mean, I bet you can figure out ways to elicit things like “rock,” “book,” “tree,” but we can teach you at CanIL how to elicit things like pronouns, derogative markers and things like that, and more difficult things. You can actually start to learn a language – one that you can’t just go on Google and ask how it works! You’re the one. You might be the first one ever to analyze that language. So watching that movie and seeing some of those parallels was cool.
Yeah, this is what it’s actually like!
Yeah, and a guy emailed me a couple weeks ago and he was telling me that his daughter heard a presentation I gave last fall in Portland, Oregon. She later on watched the movie Arrival and put these two things together, and now she’s actually inquiring and applying to study at our school. She said she wants to do this now!
That’s so good! Danny, a lot of our listeners, including myself, I mean we’re busy. I’ve just finished my first year of marriage so I still have that going on, schooling, jobs, all these other things. In you telling us that poverty is a real thing, what are some things that we can do as busy young adults, Christian young adults, to really make a difference in this area of Bible poverty when we’re already so busy? We’ve been awakened to the real stats and the issue that it is.
I’m probably going to give you the pat answer to that question: give, go, and pray. But before I say that, I do want to just say that it’s challenging communicating this need to people. Not only because people have, especially in monolingual parts of Canada and North America where I travel and tell people about this, people generally think there’s like 50 languages on earth, or maybe, I ask people how many languages and maybe I get 500 at the most. Not the 7,097.
But the other thing is that I became, a couple years ago, painfully aware from the Canadian Bible Engagement Study that there’s another problem. We’ve talked about Bible poverty, but here in Canada we’re also suffering from Bible illiteracy. It just comes down to that Canadians aren’t engaging their Bibles. They’re not reading their Bibles; younger people are not reading their Bible like generations before maybe.
Some of the key findings from that study which was led by the Canadian Bible Forum: only 18% of Canadians strongly agree that the Bible is the Word of God. Half of Christians agree that the Bible has irreconcilable contradictions. 1 in 4 Christians, 23%, ticked off “Strongly agree that the Bible is relevant to modern life. And 6 in 10 Christians agree that the Scriptures of all major world religions teach essentially the same things.
That’s just wild to think about.
Yeah, we’re in a really different place with what the Word of God is. So when I address a group of people, in the back of my mind is “Not everyone I’m talking to (and probably not everyone that’s listening to this right now) has the same view that I, or perhaps you have on the Word of God and its authority.”
So that even has to come before the question you just asked.
Before we can ask ourselves how we can help others, we need to be asking ourselves “What does the Bible mean to me? What part does it play in my life?”
And moving away from knowing about the Bible, to just knowing the Bible. I’m not afraid of people who disagree with it, I’m afraid of people who have never read it.
Right, that’s good.
I mean, I even talk to people who support what I do and they’re not believers. They just say, “That book has been such an important part of humanity and our history – everybody should have a chance to assess it and evaluate it for themselves.” And that’s blown me away.
So then, beyond that: pray, give, and go.
Yeah, exactly. Go to CanIL!
And I know that “Pray, give, and go,” is what all missionaries say! You know, not everybody can, we know that not all people can do this. This is niche. When I go out and recruit, people say “Why do you recruit? You’re already embedded into universities who do recruitment.” And I say, “Yeah, no. This is different than just post-secondary education.” I go out and I’m looking for people in my team. I’m looking for people who, maybe they love language. There’s a, I’m not going to lie, there’s a geeky side to this, okay?
Linguistics is not a walk in the park. That being said, I was rubbish academically as a kid, okay? I was a solid C- coming out of high school and now I’m doing a PhD at the University of Bristol, a top school in the UK right now. Yeah, but there are people out there who say, “Man, I just love languages, how do I use that in ministry?” Well, this is how you put that to some serious work with huge touch and impact.
This is completely changing the course of history for a community. It’s not temporary. This is an eternal change.
Danny, that’s all we have today – I wish it was longer. I just wanted to say thank you. To our listeners, all of the information about CanIL and the other things – even the stats, we’re going to put them all on the show page. Anyways, thank you so much Danny for taking the time out of your day to come and chat with us about this really important topic.
Thank you Isaac, it’s been great talking to you today.