Staff working on language development and Scripture engagement projects need knowledge and tools. That’s what we have. We help staff plan, apply and judge project goals in context.
We discover social and cultural information. Then SIL staff use our research. We also teach and equip staff to discover the social and cultural information they need. With this knowledge, they improve the quality, use and impact of their projects. They form healthy relationships. They negotiate cross-cultural conflict. And they learn social nuances.
Our Anthropology staff serve in different cultural environments and provide models, methods, insights and coaching to SIL staff. We help translation teams explore the social and cultural environment of the Bible and of target audiences. This helps teams make good decisions when translating key Bible terms and choosing relevant media or story types.
To keep up on theories and changes, we read. We write, publish and apply our research. We attend and present at conferences. We encourage staff to take relevant further or postgraduate studies.
In this area of service, you can work anywhere at any time. You might work with people groups different from your own. Or you might work with your own people group. You could work at home with refugees. You’ll also do a lot virtually.
As an Anthropology worker, you’ll communicate with others. These team members may have differing world views and values. You’ll help SIL staff deal with problems or conflicts. To create change, you’ll challenge assumptions. You’ll identify human richness and differences. And you’ll look at the world in diverse ways.
Johannes Merz thinks of anthropology as behind-the-scenes work for Bible translation. Anthropologists raise awareness for Bible translation, and the anthropological knowledge they gain also helps communities talk through difficult translation issues.
In Johannes’s area of Benin in West Africa, two words that proved difficult to translate were synagogue and Temple. The local churches used various descriptive phrases, such as prayer house, meeting house or big meeting house. But different churches disagreed on which phrase to use, and people were confused about the difference between a church and a synagogue.
Through a Bible study, Johannes and church leaders explored what the synagogue and the Temple meant in biblical times, how they differed from the modern church and how best to express those words in the local language. They came up with several options that still need further refinement.
Other words have proven more difficult. Local Christians created a new compound word for Lord that expresses something like our slave owner or our master of exploitation. Johannes is not sure why they decided on that word. When he asked non-Christians, “Would you want to follow someone who is your slave master?” they gave him an emphatic no.
“It’s not only a theological problem but also a problem of how the church presents itself to non-Christians,” Johannes said. His team has an idea on how to resolve the issue, but he added they are not the decision makers. “We need to guide local people to learn more about it to come to their own decision.”
It’s his job as an anthropologist to connect local people and cultural insights with accurate translation. He chose this path after taking a gap year to complete short-term service with SIL International in Ghana.
“I felt very much at home in the organization and in Ghana,” he remembered. During that time, he felt God calling him to missions.
He entered college to major in linguistics and minor in anthropology but after only one semester decided to major in anthropology. Anthropology is the study of humans, he explained, and he was fascinated by different people and how they lived their lives.
“I grew up in Switzerland, so that means my view of the world is very different from people in Benin,” he said. For example, in Switzerland people keep religion and science separated, but when he moved to Benin after graduation, he noticed the people there integrate religion into everyday life. He also noted it is easier to build relationships with people in Benin, though it still takes time.
Serving in Benin as an anthropologist means he works with people.
“That’s not always an easy thing to do, especially when there are social and cultural differences.” Johannes admitted he sometimes feels a bit pushy trying to get the information he needs. “It’s often a balance, pushing to try to get my data but also maintaining the relationships.”
It’s About People
When Johannes does research on the field, he talks with people, spends time with them and observes their activities. He might stay several nights in one village.
Usually, he wants to learn something specific about a custom or event when he does research. “The first thing is to observe and learn from what’s happening,” he said. “After that, questions come up.”
For example, a funeral is the biggest event in the lives of the people of Benin where he works.
“The first time I went, it was basically getting an overview of what’s happening, seeing what’s there and trying to have an open mind,” he said. But as he attended more funerals, he figured out what questions to ask, then how to refine those questions to learn about the nuances of the funerals.
His main goal is to get people to talk so he can hear their own words in their own voices. “I like working with people, learning from them and being open to them. I like to be challenged in my thinking and think through issues.”
He doesn’t usually pay people for being interviewed or for letting him participate in events. But he doesn’t want them to feel he’s exploiting them for information. So, as he gains knowledge from the local people, he has to ask himself what he can do for them. He takes time to engage in their lives, visit them and see how they’re doing.
And when people do have a need, they come to Johannes, sometimes months or years after their first meeting. Most often, Johannes helps them with medical or school fees.
When he’s not applying his anthropology skills on the field, he may be writing academic papers or teaching students who prepare to work in Bible translation and language development.
“The attraction of SIL is the combination of academic work and bringing it into practice,” Johannes said. “Right now, I’m revising a paper for publication, so that means I sit at the computer a lot.”
Complex and theoretical topics interest him, and his current paper comes from his Ph.D. research in which he studied how people in Benin understand Christian films.
“One thing I noticed is that often people experience the Jesus in the film as the real Jesus, and then sometimes people also say, ‘I saw Jesus in my dream,’” Johannes explained. When he asked how they knew it was Jesus, they might answer that they recognized him from the film. “There’s a link. These films make an impact on people in a different way than they do to me.”
Working as an anthropology consultant for SIL, Johannes also teaches. He works in a classroom and helps students with their assignments. He encourages colleagues to do research and helps them improve their research. As part of his consultant role, he developed a course called Culturally Intelligent Media, so that ministry leaders can learn to make relevant media and films for the people they serve.
What makes a country is its people, Johannes said, and the people are why he serves as an anthropologist. Understanding people and their unique cultural environments helps literacy workers and translators deliver better education and spiritual enrichment.
“So for me,” Johannes said, “being an anthropologist is crucial to whatever I do.”