The sacred & the understood

How are the gospel and God’s Word made known in a culture where what is clear and understood is not necessarily heard as sacred? And vice versa, where what is considered sacred is not necessarily understood?

This is a question that my SIL teammates and I are starting to run into a lot with our Basic Wolof Phase 1 project. And personally, I’m confronting the extent to which fundamental, underlying concepts such as comprehension, spirituality, and personal understanding of Scripture, are entrenched in culture.

The need for research into the dialect of Wolof spoken in urban settings came to SIL’s attention years ago as some people expressed difficulty in using the New Testament currently available in Wolof. The words, expressions, and register found in it are described as Wolof bu xoot (“deep Wolof”). This is the way many village-dwelling Wolof people speak; it’s a register that is respected as “pure Wolof.”

Because it is the trade language in this West African country, Wolof is widely-spoken outside the Wolof ethnic group (hence the term “wolophone,” people who speak Wolof but aren’t ethnically Wolof). And therefore, it’s also the dominant language in the capital city, a melting pot of many ethnic groups. But the dialect of Wolof that is spoken by people who speak it as their second or third language, by people of other ethnicities, by people who live in cities rather than villages — is different. The vocabulary changes, the expressions vary, certain aspects of the grammar are dropped. And especially as younger generations grow up in the urban setting, where their ethnic language is sometimes left aside, this dialect of Wolof becomes their functional first language.

So the question facing our Basic Wolof team stems from this complex sociolinguistic situation. Does this group of Wolophones who don’t speak “deep Wolof” have access to Scripture in the language they understand best? And if not, would it be feasible to start another translation in a register of Wolof that could be called “basic Wolof”?

As we’ve begun to dig and ask questions, we’ve received some interesting (and at times, surprising) feedback. Some Wolophones who live in a village setting express difficulty understanding the deep Wolof New Testament. Some Wolophones who live in cities express satisfaction and appreciation for the deep Wolof New Testament, sharing that they use it regularly.

And then there’s the comment that we’ve heard several times now that goes something like this: “It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the New Testament be in a register difficult to understand at times.”

This is where I realize that my own culture’s way of viewing comprehension, spirituality, and personal understanding of Scripture may diverge.

The national believers who express this opinion go on to give various reasonings. There’s the cultural pride reasoning, which says those who don’t understand the Wolof vocabulary are pushed to learn things about their culture and their language that might otherwise be lost. There’s the group discussion reasoning, which says that people in this culture prefer to hear and talk about spiritual matters in a group setting anyway, so if they don’t understand phrases and expressions on their own, they can hear explanations from others in the group. And the most common, and perhaps most significant, reasoning is that of sacred value. Several national pastors have told us that expressing God’s Word in too simple of language would deform the message and not be revered in this culture as sacred text.

They explain that in this culture there is a love of the “hidden” when it comes to spirituality. When something is expressed in too clear or down-to-earth terms, it cannot be respected as spiritual. Vice versa, when something is communicated in a deep language that hides the meaning, the listener or reader is given cause to appreciate the sacredness of the message — whether or not they understand.

Granted, there are things in Scripture that are difficult to understand no matter the language, culture, or register in which they are communicated. Even people who have had access to the Bible for years in the language they understand best are confounded by many passages. If we believe that the ultimate author is God and that His Spirit is needed to understand it, then we should expect this.

However, here are a couple examples of the situation found in Wolof. A national pastor explains that to say “Jesus died” would be heard as very crass; expressing it this way would risk scandalizing Wolophones. It would be better to use a euphemism like wacc na liggéey (“left his job”) in the translation of Scripture. Another pastor explains his profound love for the way Psalm 23 is rendered in the deep Wolof translation of the book of Psalms. He thinks it’s beautiful, and it moves his soul. Yet, when he reads it to those among whom he ministers, in a region of the country where Wolophones aren’t ethnically Wolof, people give him blank stares. They tell him they don’t understand the words and expressions. This pastor explains that, over time, he has changed the way he talks when sharing Scripture to accommodate the level of understanding of his hearers, a way of talking that diverges from the New Testament translation. He gives another example of the word for “redeemer.” He shares that the word exists in Wolof (rammukat), which is the word found in the New Testament translation, but that his hearers don’t understand the term. So he started simply using an explanatory phrase in place of the term.

These examples highlight another dynamic — the fact that there is the Word, and then there are the feet/ hands/ mouths of those who take and share it. God didn’t give His Word in a vacuum but rather expects His people to help make it known, which can include explaining its meaning as His Spirit leads.

What are the implications of these things for Bible translation, the use of Scriptures by the national church here, and the spiritual growth of national believers in this country? The answers(s) won’t necessarily be easily obtained.

And what are the implications of this for me, coming from a culture where the direct and clear tends to be more highly valued than the hidden and obscure? Where personal comprehension tends to be of greater significance than communal negotiation of meaning? Where the down-to-earth tends to be more emphasized than the mystical?

  1. Conni and Sandy Gardner said:

    Given your third-to-last paragraph, we’re glad you are where you are. Love from the Gardners

  2. Tom & BA said:


    Wow! I am overwhelmed for/with you. Thank you for your explanation that will allow me to know how to better pray for your team. May the Spirit of truth guide your team in this matter.

    With love, BethAnn


  3. Lisa ferris said:

    Love digging into these issues with you! So many of your observations apply to ministry across the board – and feed my mind and soul. Hello and many prayers from across the miles. Because we have a r. Lisa

  4. This is fascinating! Proverbs 25:2 came to mind as I read: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” I’m so glad you shared this and asked those questions publicly for all of us to ponder and pray over with you. My mind and heart explode with thankfulness whenever I read your words.

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