What Does Stained Glass Have to Do With Translating the Bible?

A Primer in Visual Translation

~Notre Dame Cathedral

I am excited to tell you a little more about an exciting new phase of our life, that of full-time missionaries. You can read a very brief account of the 2.5 year back story here.

Semiotics: Communication Through Images

Lord willing, I will soon be using my artistic talents and my experience as a semiotics professor to translate God’s Word into artwork. (Semiotics is the study of how we use images and symbols instead of written words to communicate.) This artwork will then be used to share the Gospel with oral cultures who have not had a written language for long and therefore have low literacy and, currently, limited access to God’s written Word.  

If you think back, Christians have often used artwork to share God’s Word. For example, it is estimated that during the Middle Ages less than 20% of the European population could read. And even people who could did not have access to Bibles in their language. Church services were even conducted in a language almost no one understood! But the people COULD see and understand the redeeming work of Christ through richly painted iconography and vibrant stained glass that filled the churches.  

These works of art might seem odd to us today, but that’s because they were crafted specifically to be understood by ordinary people in that particular time and place. They were packed with symbolism and meaning and could be “read” by all—a visual language.

This type of visual language is exactly what we’re trying create for a people group called the Kwakum in Cameroon, Africa. We are partnering with Dave and Stacey Hare (read more about them here) in their efforts to translate the Bible and plant churches.

The Hares are currently working to translate Bible stories into Kwakum for the very first time.

These stories will be compiled into a Kwakum Storybook Bible, which I will illustrate. When this Storybook Bible is complete, the Hares will begin a full Bible translation in Kwakum. 

However, literacy takes a long time to grow. Currently in the United States, where literacy has long been taught and cherished for over two hundred years, our top states have nearly 95% literacy rates, but our lowest have only 75% as seen here.

So How Will The Kwakum Learn About the Gospel?

Our goal is to create images that communicate key Gospel principles for a meaning-filled Storybook Bible. Like the visual translations of old, my intention won’t be to make cute Bible story drawings, but intentionally crafted illustrations packed with Biblical concepts and built with local, culturally relevant symbolism.

Many of us have grown up seeing blonde haired and blue eyed Adam and Eve standing by an apple tree. But the Kwakum don’t have blonde hair and have never seen apple trees. Apple trees don’t grow in Cameroon!

For centuries we have created art that speaks to our culture, now we want to create art that speaks to the cultures of Cameroon.

Our first step will be to reach the Kwakum but eventually, thanks to the ease with which digital art can be updated, to many other neighboring tribes.

Adam and Eve behind bushes.
Adam and Eve Courtesy of Pixabay
Concept art for "Abram and Lot" by Dave Ernst
Concept art for “Abram and Lot” by Dave Ernst

Beyond the Storybook Bible

There are many words and concepts in the Bible that are completely foreign to the Kwakum. One way in which this project will help the Kwakum is to give them visual context for these unknown ideas. For instance, the Kwakum do not have a word for a bush. The translators have come up with a way to communicate the way that God spoke to Moses without a word for bush, but an image will greatly help the readers to get an accurate understanding of what actually took place.  

After completing the illustrations for the Storybook Bible, I will also begin creating animations which will have Kwakum audio and can be shown to the many Kwakum people who do not know (and more than likely will never know) how to read. 

Concept art

Amanda & I went to Cameroon, Africa in April 2022 to meet the Kwakum people and after meeting the people we are more excited than ever to help bring them the knowledge of the hope of Christ. Will you join our family in prayer for this Great Commission work? Please sign up to be a prayer partner or receive our newsletters here.

For the next 12-18 months our focus will be on training and partner development. Translating the Bible is a monumental task and requires the help of multitudes. In order to transition to full time missions we will need faithful partners who will lift us up in prayer, who will share our mission and goals with their friends, and who will support our efforts financially. If you would like to find out how you could advocate for us as we work to bring God’s word to the Kwakum, you can email us dave(dot)ernst (at) worldteam(dot)org or amanda(dot)ernst (at) worldteam(dot)org, or simply fill out this form. Financial gifts can be given to World Team directly (account # 14139) on their website.

Thank you. We cannot do this without you!

– The Ernst Family