There’s a fascinating story over at the Atlantic about the impact of the Bible on science and technology. And it’s not what you’d think.
Over the past several decades missionary groups like the Wycliffe Bible Translators have sometimes been among the first visitors to remote cultures to learn those cultures’ languages — and to do some pretty thorough (though often amateurish) ethnographic study: after all, you can’t translate the Bible into a language until you understand not just the linguistic vocabulary of a people but their cultural vocabulary too. (The whole discipline of anthropology has deep roots in Christian missions.) That this study is done for explicitly conversionist purposes makes the Wycliffe translators, and other Christians who do similar work, immensely controversial; but the bodies of ethnographic and linguistic knowledge they have amassed are remarkable.
The main focus of the article is about the latest development in this trend: Christian missionaries working to create Bible translations in people’s native languages, that are accessible via cell phone. In the process, they’re solving unique technical problems that mainstream cell phone apps never bother to tackle, due to the lack of a profitable market.
It’s quite a paradox. On the one hand, it shows that believers can do legitimate scientific and technological work when they put their mind to it. And yet, ironically, their success in such fields only highlights their failures when it comes to the message they’re working so hard to share. If they only thought more clearly about their own faith, they could save themselves a lot of work. And yet, if they failed to do this work, how much would we lose?