This is part six of a series. The previous articles may be read here: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
The next important question in this series on the philosophy of Gospel tracts is: Can a foreigner write an effective tract in a language that is not his own?
Years ago I had a conversation with an older, veteran missionary that was a bit disconcerting to me at the time. I had been in Cambodia for about 18 months and I was telling him about a couple of tracts I had recently written. He chuckled in a very condescending way and said, “Steve, when I was young like you and just starting out, I was the same way…lots of ideas, lots of zeal. But I’ve got to tell you, years later when I looked back at some of the stuff I wrote when I was new on the field, it was HORRIBLE!” His contention was that I was wasting my time trying to write Khmer material because he felt it was impossible for a foreigner to write something that a national would be able to read and understand.
Is that true? Is a foreigner’s attempt at writing truly an effort in futility? Or are these concerns overstated? I do understand his point. There is no doubt that as a general rule, Khmers understand Khmers better than they understand foreigners. For example, yesterday I asked a young lady what she was going to bring to our church potluck, and she said, “I think I’m going to make spay katee”. I didn’t know what she meant. I thought maybe “spay” was some kind of vegetable. “Katee” could have been a way of preparing it, or some kind of noodles, or even another kind of vegetable. But whatever it was, I knew I had never heard of it before. She seemed a little bit frustrated that I didn’t know what she meant, because she said that spay katee was a western food. When she began to explain it to me, I finally realized she was talking about spaghetti. The funny thing was – everyone in the church knew what “spay katee” was. Nobody knew what “spaghetti” was!
But I think it is pretty limiting to assume that since a foreigner doesn’t know every cultural nuance, every phrase, and every term, that he is unable to write effective literature. Suppose a missionary went to a city where no one had ever heard the Gospel. If he is of the persuasion of this older gentleman who dismissed my writing projects with a disdainful sniff and a wave of the hand, then these people would have zero hope of ever having any Christian literature written in their language. No Gospel tracts to present the Gospel. No material for new Christians to grow in the Lord. Nothing. Why? Because there are no Christians among the nationals, so who will write? The only Christian in town is a foreigner.
I don’t know any missionary who thinks that material written by foreigners is automatically superior to material written by nationals. In fact, most missionaries I know think that ultimately nationals will write the best and most effective literature for reaching their own country for Christ, discipling new believers, and training Christians for service to the Lord. But you don’t run down to the local market and buy a Christian writer. You can’t wave a magic wand over a new believer and suddenly they can write. It is a long-term process to train men and women to be able to effectively present truth by way of the written word. What are we supposed to do in the meantime while we are training? I believe that a Spirit-filled missionary CAN write literature that will be culturally relevant and easily understood in a language that is not his mother tongue. Here are a few thoughts that must be remembered:
1. God is able.
If we only did the things that seemed logical to our human mind, we would never do anything! We already know that without God’s empowerment we can do nothing. We shouldn’t even need a pessimist to remind us that we “can’t do it”. We should know already. But as strongly as we believe that we can’t, we must believe with equal zeal that God can. I must admit, I was kind of surprised to hear this missionary, who I am sure believed all of the miracles that are recorded in the Bible, say that I would NEVER be able to write effective material in the Khmer language. The Bible says, “With God all things are possible.”
2. Truth is truth in any language.
Sometimes in an attempt at contextualization, truth is watered down. For example, in Buddhism, there is a prophecy that the Buddha would be reincarnated hundreds of years later. Some have tried to make Jesus this fulfilled prophecy. To them, it provides the best of both worlds: the people can hang onto Buddha and add Jesus without making any choices. Of course, there is a major problem with that view. It is false. Jesus is not a “second coming” of the Buddha. I really believe that contextualization can be taken to a very unhealthy extreme and lead into grave error. Sometimes the clearest presentation of truth comes from a “culturally illiterate” foreigner who is not encumbered by the need to make the message “fit” the culture.
3. If you are fluent in a language, and spend time with people, you can learn to communicate with them.
It is fallacious to claim that a foreigner will never be able to understand the people well enough to write effective literature. Take for example the myriad foreigners in America who emigrate and become leading doctors and surgeons. When was the last time you saw the name Jones or Wilson on a doctor’s office? They come from Pakistan, India, Japan, Egypt, etc. One of the leading dentists in America is a man who was born in Cambodia and escaped the Khmer Rouge regime. How are these men and women able to thrive in such a highly technical field like the field of medicine? The answer seems obvious. They study and grow. Some of them even (cough, cough) write reports and studies that are then published in medical journals for the benefit of others in their field (including native English-speakers). Apparently, it IS possible for someone to learn a language well enough to be able to influence others through the printed page.
I wonder if the man who thought a foreigner was unable to write effective literature would also take the position that a foreigner is unable to learn a language. I doubt he would posit such an idea, because it would be so easy to disprove. But consider this – learning a culture is just learning another language (or perhaps we should say learning a language at a deeper level). In other words, if you can learn to speak the words of a language, why can’t you learn to think the thoughts of a language? Granted, it does not come easy. Fluency in the language of culture takes much longer than fluency in the language of words. But to claim that it is impossible and that it will never happen is simply not the case.
4. Nationals are sometimes not yet able to write in their current stage of development.
By “current stage of development”, I am talking about educationally and/or theologically. I stand by my earlier statement that I believe ultimately nationals will write the most effective literature for Cambodia. But right now that is not even remotely close to happening. Why? Are the nationals slackers or sluggards? Hardly. They are hardworking passionate people who love the Lord and love the ministry, but most of them are just not ready yet to be writing. I am thinking of one man in particular who is very theologically sound, but was barely literate when he first got saved. He has grown tremendously under the tutelage of the missionary who led him to Christ. He has written a couple of resources in the past few years, but his educational deficiencies make everything a real slow go for him. I am thinking of several other young men who are quicker and more adept with words, but are still learning and growing in doctrine. But what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Have no new tracts? No study books? No devotionals or training books? The goal is to train and develop new believers into mature Christians with the hope that a few of them will display the qualities of a good writer and be urged on in that direction. But meanwhile, we are studying the language, learning the people, trusting God for wisdom, and striving earnestly to get good solid materials in the hands of the Khmer people.
5. We should work together with nationals, lending our expertise in areas we have had more training than them while borrowing from their expertise in the local language and customs.
This final point is the key to this whole issue. Just because I say that a person certainly CAN write a Gospel tract in a language that is not their own does not mean that it would be wise to go through the entire process without getting any feedback from a native speaker of that language. This seems so obvious that it probably doesn’t even need to be said, but the man who strongly expressed his doubts in anything written by a foreigner definitely did not give me the benefit of the doubt on this issue. We do not sit down and come up with an idea for a tract, write it, translate, type it, design it, and then run out and print 50,000 copies of it based solely on our own brainpower. That would be a good way to burn through a lot of money, and fast!
There are Khmers involved in every step of the process. After I write a new tract, I will verbally translate the basic idea to several Khmer people. IF it makes sense to them, I will then give it to someone to translate and typeset. Once we have a mock-up, we will then pass it around to several more Khmer people to read it and give their opinion of its content. Once we have made changes in content and fixed typographical errors, we will then take it to a printer. So is it really accurate to say that this is a foreigner-written tract? Perhaps in a technical sense it is. But in reality it was a group project with the foreigner offering his expertise in putting his thoughts down on paper and the Khmers offering their expertise in language and customs by offering their advise and input on the project. Of course, it is vital for the nationals to feel complete freedom to speak their mind on the project and not just say what you want to hear. But that’s another topic altogether.
In conclusion, I believe that it absolutely IS possible for a foreigner to write effective literature in a language and culture other than their own. We must fully rely upon God in this important endeavor, and we must also be diligent to learn the language and learn the people as thoroughly as possible. If you will do these things, and include some nationals in the process before “going to press”, you might just be surprised at how effective your writing project can actually be.