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Faithful in translation

CMS missionaries Chris and Grace Adams work with the Presbyterian Church and Scripture Union in Timor-Leste. In this article, Grace explains how access to a faithful translation of the Bible is essential for authentic Bible storytelling.  

Beauty in Timorese storytelling  

When we first came to Timor-Leste and began engaging in language and culture learning, we were stunned by the beauty of, and mastery over storytelling by some Timorese people. Our language helper, Aaron*, is such a person. He tells stories in such a vivid and mesmerising way that hearing him tell a story is better than watching a movie!

Storytelling is in the DNA of Timorese culture. People love to sit together, tell stories and chat, often sipping coffee and tea, for hours at a time. It’s part of the rhythm of life.  

As we observed the way Timorese people tell stories, we were surprised by their unique style of delivery; they do not normally use actions or gestures. Stories are generally told in a calm and steady way with a limited show of emotions. The power of their storytelling lies in their vivid descriptions and crafting of plot that draws the listener into the story.  

Storytelling and culture 

Listening to stories has been a core element of our language-learning and it continues to be an important means of loving the Timorese people. We had been accustomed to a certain style of Bible storytelling in Australia, but over time, as our thinking has shifted, we have learned to tell stories, and subsequently Bible stories, in the Timorese way. 

My ethnic background is Korean, and stories are traditionally told in different ways yet again—through songs, alongside narration and drama. During our time in Timor, we have seen the value of learning and using different styles of storytelling according to culture, as we seek to communicate the gospel in an engaging way.   

The danger of storytelling without accountability 

Our language helper, Aaron, is a brilliant storyteller, but we noticed a profound weakness when it came to his Bible storytelling. Here is his ‘biblical’ account of creation.   

“In the beginning, there were lots of plants. God made a farm/agricultural field called Eden and planted lots of plants. There were lots of animals and fruit but there was no one to look after the farm. So, God took some dirt from the ground and shaped it into a person. Then he put spirit into the person. So, God created a woman.  

But the woman was worried. ‘I’m all alone. Who can help me to look after the crops and animals?’ So, God took some flesh from the woman’s side, put spirit in him and made a man. God said, ‘I sent a man to you to be your good friend. He will help you look after the land. You will live as husband and wife and have children as many as stars and sand in the sea in the generations to come.’” 

Can you notice some deviations from the Bible in Aaron’s creation account? Can you see how his life setting and worldview may be reflected in this story? As we heard Aaron tell Bible stories, we encountered, first-hand, distortion in the content and message of the Bible when it is orally transmitted without accountability to a written reference. It highlighted to us the urgent need for Bible translation, Bible resources and Bible teaching.  

Bible storytelling empowered by books 

Alongside work in Bible translation, a significant way that we, as CMS missionaries, can contribute to the mission and maturity of the Church in Timor is through producing written resources which are faithful to the word of God. Accurate, printed Bibles and biblical resources empowers Bible teaching in many forms of communication including storytelling.  

God opened doors for us to translate and produce the Tetun (Timorese language) edition of David Helm’s The Big Picture Story Bible with our Scripture Union team and in partnership with Sparklit. This book presents the grand story line of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The story of God fulfilling his promise through Jesus Christ is told coherently and beautifully with outstanding illustration. Its focus on Jesus Christ, and why he had to die and be raised to life, provides a key to understanding the whole Bible, with an invitation to respond personally to him in faith.  

Working on the graphic design side of the project with Michael Collie from Sparklit Australia.

Far-reaching impact of Bible stories 

The translation of this Bible has had immediate and extensive results. One parent said, with tears in her eyes, “Mana (sister) Grace, my son has always struggled to read but he learned to read through The Big Picture Story Bible. Thank you.”  

Sandra, who helped translate the book said, “I have read this book many times but I’m still making new discoveries about God’s word. This book is a blessing not only for the children but also the adults!”  

The publication of The Big Picture Story Bible opened new ways for us to engage people with the Bible. Over a period of six months, we had the privilege of producing a weekly radio program for children and families, based on the book.  We also visited a local school to teach Religious Education using the book, which led to the publication of the Bible curriculum set (teacher’s guide, activity books, posters, songs on YouTube) for schools and churches accompanied by teacher training workshops. The Bible curriculum is now being taught at four Christian schools and several churches in Dili. 

Pilot project at a local primary school of using the book in religion classes.

Our vision is to see a new generation of Bible-loving and Bible-literate Christians being raised in Timor-Leste, and a new generation of Bible storytellers emerging who are ready to take the story of God, which is faithful to the written word of God, to many Timorese. We pray that our ministry of Bible teaching and developing Bible resources may contribute to this vision and that many more may respond to God’s invitation to enter into the living story of his grace.  

Testing the translation with children at a community church.

* Names changed for privacy reasons. 

Read more online

Read more on the wonderful work that has been done through the Tetun language edition of The Big Picture Story Bible.

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