How Jesus Shaped the West: Languages

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Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Languages.

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It was a hot, humid day. We had reached our destination by boat—three brightly painted outriggers carrying dozens of passengers across a turquoise sea. We now sat in rows of plastic chairs; dogs and pigs scratching in the dirt, blue tarp strung overhead, a wall of speakers waiting for the festivities to start.

After an hour’s pause, the birthday party was finally underway for the two inconspicuous children. Parties are different in South-East Asia. Let’s just say a lot of talking and formalities, and not enough pin the tail on the donkey.

Having learnt the language while living there a few years back, I followed most of the proceedings, even if boredom caused me to nod off occasionally. What awoke me was the closing prayer, spoken in an indigenous dialect. Every word pregnant with vowels, it was as distinct as it was unintelligible to my untrained ears. I know about three words of the language.

“We had reached our destination by boat—three brightly painted outriggers carrying dozens of passengers across a turquoise sea.”

But thanks to the hard work of Bible translators, since 2002, this indigenous tongue, spoken by only 30,000 of the earth’s inhabitants, has now been preserved for all time in a Bible and associated language helps.

Some may not be impressed that the Christian gospel is now available in the heart language of this remote people. But all can appreciate that this Bible, like every other translation project undertaken by tireless missionaries around the world, has safeguarded another language for future generations—one that was otherwise on its way to extinction.

“Spurred on by the selfless example of Jesus, Christians gave up their wealth and often their lives to travel to foreign lands and develop national languages.”

Christians stand in a class of their own as preservers of thousands upon thousands of indigenous languages. This is no accident of history. It has deep roots.

It began with Luther and the reformers. They had a vision to democratise language by translating the Word of God into the dialects of Europeans. To do so they ignored every protest and threat of torture from the pope and church officials, who had much to gain by keeping their people ignorant of the Bible.

As the reformers saw it, Jesus didn’t come from heaven speaking a holy, inaccessible language like Hebrew. He spoke the rough street languages of his day—Greek and Aramaic. In the same way, it was time that Latin should no longer hide transforming truth. Knowledge that belonged to the elite must be shared with the masses.

“The continent of Europe marched towards literacy, and a Bible was now found in the homes of most families, giving shape to their language and worldview.”

This stood in contrast to the mood in the East. There, Buddhist monks had little motivation to make the Buddha’s words available in the dialects of neighbouring peoples, since the way to enlightenment wasn’t by filling one’s mind but rather by emptying it.

But the continent of Europe marched towards literacy, and a Bible was now found in the homes of most families, giving shape to their language and worldview.

From Genesis to Revelation, Europeans were reading about this idea of nation—groups of people sharing an ethnicity and language. The days were numbered for the totalitarian Holy Roman Empire. Soon nation-states would dismantle and replace it.

“It began with the reformers who had a vision to democratise language.”

In time, missionaries would take over this epic translation project. Too often, Christians living in the Age of Discovery are wrongly confused with their colonialist counterparts. In truth, colonialists made no profit from studying the native languages of those they’d found to exploit.

Missionaries had nothing to gain either, but spurred on by the selfless example of Jesus, they gave up their wealth and often their lives to travel to foreign lands. There they developed national languages as a channel for vast numbers to hear God speak in Scripture: Hindi, Urdu, Bengali—and many more.

Little did they know, but just like Europe centuries earlier, the languages they systematised would go on to birth nations: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—and many more.

“Jesus didn’t come from heaven speaking a holy, inaccessible language like Hebrew. He spoke the rough street languages of his day—Greek and Aramaic.”

Today, the earth is home to 6,500 living languages. Remarkably, portions of the Bible are available in almost half of them, with complete Bible translations numbering over 550, making it by far the world’s most translated book. In the most remarkable way, Jesus has shaped the world’s languages.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Heroism.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Technology

technology

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Technology.

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The watermill, the crank, and the flywheel are quaint symbols of a bygone era. They’re also the very foundations of modern technology.

And along with the wheelbarrow and the windmill (revolutionary in their day) they were invented by—you never would have guessed it—monks.

See the monks of the Middle Ages had entered monasteries to pray, but most of their time was being taken up with necessities like grinding grain to make bread. These new inventions saved them hours of degrading, monotonous toil.

“If God created human beings in his own image, this means when we choose to be creative, we join God in his creativity.”

It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention. But if that were true, wouldn’t have these inventions surfaced earlier—and universally? What set Europe apart?

Many cultures see what is as fate or karma, with little chance for escape. The idea that I can imagine an alternate future, and change nature to become like my imagination, is one we take for granted. But it’s found in high concentration in the West.

Inventing new technologies, upturning culture, changing the course of history. All of these are spinoffs of a single thought: I am made in the image of a creative God.

If “God created human beings in his own image,” this means we too are creative, and when we choose to be creative, we join God in his creativity.

“Many cultures see what is as fate or karma, with little chance for escape.”

Not long after the birth of Islam, Muslim armies swept through North Africa, entering Spain in the East. In the West they’d captured Constantinople, and it seemed like only a matter of time before European cities like Vienna and Rome would fall too.

But Europeans had discovered crop rotation and the heavy plow. For the first time in history, farmers in Europe had replaced oxen with horses because they’d invented the horseshoe, the horse collar, and the tandem harness. These lead to a phenomenal increase in horsepower—and therefore, productivity.

Famine could have spelt the end of the continent as Muslim armies invaded. But with these inventions, the food scarcity was overcome, and Europe’s restored economy could now keep Islam at bay.

Reading glasses were invented in Italy in the 1200s. The main customers were monks, who needed them to study the Bible and other great books. This crucial invention almost doubled the productive life of Western scholars, who could now spend their best years improving the civilisation’s texts and technologies.

“All of these are spinoffs of a single thought: I am made in the image of a creative God.”

The mechanical clock was invented in both Europe and China. But only in Europe did it become an industry and develop into other forms of technology. Why?

In the East, time was considered part of samsara, the endless wheel that people were trying to escape. In the West however, time was seen as part of physical reality, a good part of God’s creation. So Europeans wanted to know the time and organise their lives according to it.

Creativity is ubiquitous, on display in every culture. But Europe pushed inventions and technologies much further than anything seen in the East or the ancient world. It transformed their civilisation, and eventually, the world. Still the question lingers: why?

Peel back the layers. If “God created human beings in his own image,” this means something else too—it means that every one of us are of infinite worth.

Cultures won’t spend themselves in labour-saving technologies unless they place immeasurable value on human dignity. Other civilisations of history, and many today exploit women, children or slaves to get work done. Hinduism convinced a whole caste that it was their duty.

“Only the Christian West developed technology to empower the weak and liberate humanity.”

But these early Europeans reasoned that if humans are of infinite worth like the Bible says, why make them do what machines, nature or animals could do? Why not use technology as a force to liberate and empower humanity for more dignified work?

Cultures need more than technology. They need a philosophy that sees people as priceless. This is what Jesus gave Europe.

Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi has said, “The chief glory of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building, for the first time in history, of a complex civilisation which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves… but primarily on nonhuman power.”

“Cultures need more than technology. They need a philosophy that sees people as priceless.”

It’s true that many in the West have used technology to exploit the environment and other cultures, and cause huge amounts of damage to the planet. The blame for some of this lies at the feet of Christians, who should have read Genesis more carefully and been better caretakers of God’s creation.

But while in most cultures the ruling elite used creative technology for war, pleasure, monuments to themselves, and the oppression of their people, only the Christian West developed it to empower the weak, and liberate humanity.

Who would have thought? In more ways than one, this Nazarene carpenter truly shaped technology.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Languages.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Reason

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Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Reason.

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Western civilisation has been built on logic, reason and rationality. We no longer live hand-to-mouth in an agrarian society. Now we inhabit a world of possibility where the only limit is our imagination.

The path that brought us here is a fascinating one.

Six hundred years before Christ, the Greeks had developed a rich tradition of logic. Soon though, it was no longer used to seek truth. Instead it became a tool of political manipulation, where identical logic was used to advance contradictory ideas. Sound familiar?

“The Greeks had lost a bigger picture that gave unity to their worldview.”

Greek civilisation began to crumble. As faith in logic collapsed, the twin beasts of skepticism and mysticism reared their ugly heads, plunging Greece back into pagan superstitions. They’d lost a bigger picture that gave unity to their worldview.

Centuries later, dusting cobwebs off Greek classics, Augustine was so impressed with logic that he was convinced it was no mere human construct. He believed that the Creator must have inscribed it permanently in the fabric of the universe.

“In the beginning was the Word [logos]. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.”—John 1:1-2

Fast-forward to the Middle Ages, and those who wished to escape the world’s corruption and lead a life of prayer sought solace in a monastery, and became monks.

Monks were known for their love of study. Pouring over the Greeks and Augustine, a new type of monk was to emerge, called the scholastic. Scholastics used logic to study God, laying the intellectual foundations for a new, modern world.

And then in 1517, history was altered forever. Reading his Bible, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther saw that the popes, unquestioned for a thousand years, had sold Europe a lie. Instead of preaching God’s free grace, the Church had been collecting the wealth of Europe’s peasants in exchange for the promise of heaven.

“The Reformers proposed to translate the Bible into the dialects of the people, and make Europe literate.”

Luther was outraged. Nailing his 95 complaints, or theses, to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, he unknowingly launched the Reformation, a movement that was to transform Europe, and help usher in the modern world.

Church services had been conducted in Latin, a language the people didn’t understand. Luther and other Reformers like Wycliffe, Tyndale and Calvin proposed to translate the Bible into the dialects of the people, and make Europe literate. Then the masses could read God’s thoughts for themselves.

“The Middle Ages had come to an end, and a new day was dawning in Europe.”

Meanwhile Johannes Gutenberg, a Christian inventor eager to produce Bibles en masse, had created what is now considered to be the most important invention of the second millennium: the printing press. Yes, it was invented to print Bibles.

And from those humble beginnings, the Bible has gone on to become the bestselling book of all time. Most bestseller lists on the internet won’t include the Bible. But why would you? It only outstrips other publications by about 4.5 billion copies.

“The most important invention of the second millennium, the printing press, was invented to print Bibles.”

The Middle Ages had come to an end, and a new day was dawning in Europe. Now everyday people could call popes and kings into question, because for the first time they had the Word of God, the highest authority of all, in their laps and in their hearts.

The ripple effect was immense. Christians began to cultivate the life of the mind as they studied the Bible and other great works of literature. An intellectual awakening spread unstoppably in all directions.

“Luther had unknowingly launched the Reformation, a movement that was to transform Europe, and help usher in the modern world.”

Lest we take this for granted, consider the East. Hindu sages at this time saw Brahman, a silent impersonal energy, as the ultimate reality. For them therefore, time was best spent in silence.

And in China, a printing press had also been invented. In fact, so many books were printed by the Chinese that they ingeniously designed rotating bookshelves. But China didn’t experience cultural renewal. Why?

The Buddha had taught his followers to transcend thinking. So meditating on the sound of the rotating bookcases became more important to Buddhist monks than studying what the books said.

“The Bible has gone on to become the bestselling book of all time.”

On the other hand, the Christians of Europe were discovering in their Bibles passages like John 1:1-3. “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him.”

Behind the universe they saw a rational mind: God. This God had made humans and the human mind in his image, and had shared his thoughts with them in a book. So developing the intellect, they reasoned, must be a good and God-like thing to do.

“Now we inhabit a world of possibility where the only limit is our imagination.”

The West was on its way to becoming a rational, thinking civilisation.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Technology.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

How Jesus Shaped the West

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Why aren’t we accepting more refugees or giving more aid? Especially at election time, these are important questions that many of us as Australians are asking.

It’s strange though that no one stops to reflect on deeper issues. Like, why is it western nations like Australia that refugees want to migrate to? Why do we have both the means and the heart to give aid? If we could answer these, perhaps we could go beyond symptoms and address root causes.

“We have a heritage of incomparable blessings that people of other lands are quite literally queuing up to enjoy.”

Of course it’s because we have wealth to give, and modern medicine and principles of liberty and advanced technology and more. But go deeper still. Why did the West become this way, as opposed to say Columbia, Uzbekistan, or Thailand? What got us here?

We’re heirs of many great influences. The classical world of Greece and Rome jump straight to mind. Some say Europe got ahead because of good climate and geography. The more cynical suggest that our cruel colonisation of other lands is what gave us the leg up. For better or worse, there’s truth in all of it.

Yet there’s a far more significant reason for the many blessings we enjoy. It’s one you’ll never hear at school or university. It’s rarely if ever mentioned on TV or the radio. Politicians are too polite to say it. World leaders could lose their jobs over it.

What am I referring to? Not what, but who: a carpenter from Nazareth.

“The ideas unleashed by Jesus have had an astonishing impact on the world—and especially on Western civilisation.”

All religions are equally valid, equally true, and equally moral. That’s the politically correct line. So I’ve written it there for you. But a serious look at the facts of history, and an honest assessment of the world we live in today, truly challenge that dogma.

See ideas have consequences. And an exciting discovery that most people are yet to make (and that others are embarrassed about) is this: the ideas unleashed by Jesus have had an astonishing impact on the world—and especially on Western civilisation.

Do I think that “the West is the best” and that all other cultures are inferior? By no means. I’ve lived and served voluntarily for over two years in South-East Asia in a place that I love. It is my second home, and it has ruined me, in the very best of ways.

“This feeling is hard to describe, but strangely I often feel more at home around people from cultures other than my own.”

I’m also fascinated to meet and talk with people from other places who have come to find a new life in Australia. This feeling is hard to describe, but strangely I often feel more at home around people from cultures other than my own. We westerners have enormous amounts to learn from the other nations of the world.

Having said this, we also have a heritage of incomparable blessings that people of other lands are quite literally queuing up to enjoy. Let’s be clear: I don’t believe this is because westerners are great. I’m convinced that it’s because Jesus is great, and the impact he’s had on our civilisation is phenomenal.

Atheist Matthew Parris shocked the world when he wrote, “Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem—the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset.”

While poverty is deeply complex, Parris is pointing us beyond symptoms to issues of worldview. Beliefs shape behaviour. Values determine culture. Look at Jesus’ influence on Western civilisation, and it couldn’t be clearer.

Join me on a journey of discovery as we consider how Jesus shaped the West.

Let’s begin with Reason.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY