Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Theology in Pictures

It all started because I asked a question.

It was a simple question, really, with no great theological import or moral implications of life or death. I merely wanted to know what clothes Zacharias would have worn into the temple when he was planning on offering incense and instead was struck mute by an angel?

I had been tasked to review and revise illustrations for an Adzera literacy primer that had been sketched out long ago, but never officially finished or checked for Biblical accuracy. It wasn’t supposed to be a major project—perhaps two weeks at the most. But, as I started to page through the illustrations of stories about women in the Bible, I began to ask questions.

What furniture was in Mary and Martha’s house?
Was casual entertaining in New Testament times held inside a room or in a courtyard?
What food did Jesus eat when invited to a dinner where he had oil poured over his head?
How did the woman who hemorrhaged for 12 years manage to touch Jesus’ hem without drawing undue attention herself (much less being trampled)?
What did the well look like that the Samaritan woman drew water from?

My desk now looks like this!
And with each question I plunged deeper into the abyss of New Testament culture (and watched the project increase in scope!). 10 books, innumerable websites, and hours of searching later I finally confirmed my first query: Zacharias would have been barefoot and wearing a lay priests’ outfit--a simple robe, trousers, a turban wrapped into a cone, and an embroidered sash wrapped around his waist with the tails dragging on the ground (except when he was officiating the incense, which is when they are thrown over his left shoulder). Now, on to the next question!

Illustrating for use in a literacy primer is more than just drawing a picture in pen and ink—every line, every bit of shading, and every fold of cloth is as integral to the story as the text themselves. Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say, and images can often be the turning point between understanding a passage's theology or giving up in confusion. Indeed, when we first teach adults to read, we have them practice “reading the pictures” to familiarize themselves with the story before they have to puzzle out the unknown alphabet of their own language. To help them with this, the illustrations need to focus on the correct story elements with all the drama of Broadway as well as be accurate to New Testament life and times (after all, this picture could very well be the first time the reader has ever seen a camel or a water jar or even a sailboat!). Finally, the illustrations of this type of initial introductory primer need to be able to both accurately portray ancient Israel’s culture while trying to avoid situations that could be interpreted quite wrongly by the lens of Papua New Guinea culture (for example, when an elderly Zacharias and Elisabeth are depicted clasping each other’s hand and gazing ardently into each other’s eyes, a Papua New Guinean can interpret that far differently (and with great distraction!) from the intended meaning!)

It’s been a fun project that has involved a very patient roommate who has put up with my papers and sketches scattered throughout the office, my racing into her room to spew out my most recent exciting cultural find, and even my telling her to please recline on the floor as if she was Jesus so I could creep up behind her and dump oil her head and see how her body would turn in a natural reaction (we simulated the oil). “Isn’t this so much more fun than organizing dictionary entries?” I ask her. She laughs and slides from the couch to the floor in compliance with my latest odd request.

It’s just another day in the ever-varied life of a Bible translator…and it all started with a question.

Today (February 21) is International Mother Language Day which is observed around the world to help increase awareness and show support for linguistic diversity and multilingual, mother-tongue education. “Mother tongue” is a phrase used to describe a person’s native, first, or primary language, usually the one that the mother spoke in the home and child heard and spoke since he was first held in her lap. You can find out more information on UNESCO’s website here.

How will you celebrate your mother tongue today?