At the weekend I am going to be formally commissioned into my job. That doesn’t mean that the church authorities will strap explosives to my chest and send me out to attack the local Anglican parish. It actually just means that a bunch of guys in dresses will lay hands on me and pray to the Big Fellow that He won’t strike me down for the arrogance of claiming to be one of His. The Big Fellow is God, not to be confused with the almost as powerful Michael Collins who is the “Big Fella”.
When the Dissenters created this wing of the church that I work in, everyone was expected to be fluent in Irish. This made a phenomenally large amount of sense. Lots of people spoke Irish and how are you going to get them thinking about whether they know God without talking to them? Over the years, as colonial strategies won out, less and less people spoke Irish on the land. As colonial strategies won out, more and more people in the church forgot that they were meant to relate to their neighbours, not their London-based betters. And so people in my church stopped speaking Irish. Then they forgot they spoke Irish. Now arguably, most of them think speaking Irish is nothing more than a pretentious political statement.
The Holy Bible is translated into Irish. It is called An Bíobla Naofa. As you can see, it is a cheap, amateurish publication:
The paper is cheap, the text is blotched and at times unreadable. The font is obviously chosen for some reason other than legibility. Here is my favourite chapter, Galatians 3:
We’re having a big celebration on Sunday- the little church we’ve founded and been tending is being acknowledged as all grown up and my boss is being recognised as the permanent Minister of this newly instituted little church and I am being commissioned. We’ve negotiated a service that is a little bit more informal and a little bit authentic to the way our community is than would usually be the case. We start with a reading from the Psalms in Irish. It got me thinking about how Christians in Ireland, especially those who still are optimistic or naive enough to call themselves “evangelicals” have, on the whole, a real calling to the Irish language.
Fluent Irish speakers out there should be encouraging their communities to use An Bíobla Naofa in our worship. We can read from it, we can pray through it and we can meditate on it. I’ve not been to a church in my life that doesn’t have the wherewithal to throw up an English translation side-by-side when introducing multi-lingual worship. We’d do it at the drop of a hat if a large number of Romanian or Ogoni or Costa Rican people joined our church. Even if there aren’t lots of Gaeilgiors in your congregation, you should still do it. Let me tell you why.
Language is the primary marker of an identity. Whether you are an agnostic from Co. Kerry or a cradle-to-grave Presbyterian in Co. Antrim, Irish is the historical language of the land you live in, the land you are called to love. Our culture is not to be idolised but it can’t be ignored and we should be happy to express our Gospel faith differently from our brothers in America or our sisters in Britain. As there are indigenous expressions of everything else the Irish does, we should not be afraid of localising our faith (within boundaries). To attempt to avoid that or insist that you need not localise is just to localise with a peculiar internationalist arrogance. Trying to be from nowhere is something only people from the West try to do.
Most importantly, whenever the Scriptures are translated into a new language, we get new eyes for them. The Bible is not Koranic. We do not think of it as the pure voice of God. It is inspired, every single word, I believe. But it isn’t locked into one language. Its ideas are not rare and thin so that only mystical language can reach for them. The Bible was written in at least three languages in a multitude of genres and when we translate it, we can do it in the ordinary day-to-day idioms of any language. But the Word does a funny thing when you put it in new words- it sometimes takes on new shapes.
If Ireland wanted to kickstart a new generation of theological thought that would drive and inspire the churches of our towns and villages, there would be no better way than to put the Bible in the ring with Irish and watch the wrestling match that ensues. The African explosion of Christianity (more people have become Christian in the last seven years in Africa than in all the years of colonial rule) has happened largely through indigenous translations. Literally hundreds of linguistic paths to the Gospel opened up with the translation project and literally millions of people saw the Truth. Revival won’t break out in Ireland because we realise our old language has words for “The”, “Holy” and “Bible” but this would be much more profitable way to spend our time than arguing over whether we should have electric guitars in our worship groups, substitutionary atonement tattooed on our arms or gluten free bread at Communion.
There’s that old joke. Why was Jesus not born in Ireland? Cos God couldn’t find three wise men. Some brilliant folk in our little church are thinking about securing the rights to the Irish Bible and publishing it in a way that it deserves- accessible, attractive, robust and most importantly, clear. Maybe we need new translations? Maybe we need a Message Re-mix? Maybe we just need to start calling “in ainm an Athar, agus an Mhic ÃƒÂosa, agus an Spioraid Naoimh”?
No? Alright then.
I’m off to watch dubbed Dora The Explorer on TG4.
Your Correspondent, An bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dti an leathras?