A True Story from Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is home to thousands of distinct tribes speaking  830 living languages.  It is one of the most diverse places on the globe in terms of peoples, geography, ecology, and linguistics.  Many of the 830 languages have never been written down, have never had an alphabet.

My friend John Relyea gave his life learning, analyzing, and describing one of those languages–Aruamu–and translating the Bible into it.  His wife Marsha gave twenty-three years of her life working with John as his partner in learning and translating and in literacy training.

John died of a sudden heart attack in January of 2005, just after completing his life’s work and sending it to the printers.  In fact, April of that year was to be the celebration of the arrival of the Aruamu Bible.  After returning to the United States for John’s funeral, Marsha went back for the combined celebration and memorial service.

John and Marsha worked with Pioneer Bible Translators.  A few years before John’s death, I remember talking to a friend about their work.  I was asked, “Will they be translating Shakespeare and other great literature?”

I had two thoughts:  “I don’t see any English majors risking malaria and other dangers to bring Shakespeare to the tribes,”  and “It is certain no one will do that until they have an alphabet and literacy.”  Then I also realized, “They may have a great oral literature–but the rest of the world will never have access to it until their language is written down.”

Yale historian Lamin Sanneh argues that missionaries have done more than anyone else to preserve indigenous languages and cultures.  I remember John telling me about the adventure of learning the ways of the Aruamu people.

But don’t missionaries change native cultures? Not nearly as much as western corporations and entertainment do.  Modern missionaries are trained to respect indigenous cultures, traditions, and ways.  Do they sometimes encounter aspects of those cultures that need changing?  Of course.

About two years ago I met another Bible translator working with a different tribe in Papua New Guinea, who told of a man who said, “I wish you had brought us the Bible sooner.” He described how as a boy of about eight years he witness his mother being strangled to death by the village elders.

Why?  The boy’s father knew he was dying and couldn’t bear the thought of his wife going to another man.  One taboo of the traditional religion they then practiced involved an idol.  If any woman looked at the idol, she had violated the taboo and death was the penalty.  The dying husband asked his friends to place the idol in a location where his wife would see it–and then catch her in the act–as soon as he was buried.  The friends carried out the man’s wishes, and a little boy saw his mother cruelly taken from him.

Many traditional ways are beautiful and meaningful.  Some are deadly.  If you have the opportunity to enjoy a visit to an island paradise and enjoy the hospitality of the island people,  thank a missionary that you are not on the menu.

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New Bonhoeffer Biography

Eric Metaxas’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is getting good reviews.  My friend David Chicaguala, who works with homeless folk in New York City knows Eric, and says he will introduce me when I get up there again.

You can see a video of Eric discussing his new book here.

I plan to read the book by the end of May–as soon as I’m done grading papers and final exams.  I’ll pass on my reactions then.

Confessions of a Hedge Fund Manager

It all started a few years ago when I was getting bored with my job.  I mean there are only so many legitimate ways you can invest other people’s money.  Then we had a convention in Las Vegas, and it occurred to me: These guys know how to have fun and make money.

So I hired a couple creative young guys–persuaded them to drop out of college.  They came up with this beautiful scheme–synthetic assets, virtual cash flow, bundled derivatives–it was beautiful; so complicated no one could understand it.  What it boiled down to was this: We sell bundles of bad mortgages to pension plans, then we buy insurance policies betting that the mortgages go bad.

I said no one could understand it: that’s not quite true.  Some of the legal boys said, the only problem boss, is it’s illegal.  So we get a few more bright kids to drop out of college and send them to Washington as lobbyists.  They sell the idea that burdensome and obsolete banking regulations are stifling the economy and keeping us from competing.  We send a few senators to a resort in the Caribbean to think it over, and pretty soon they see things our way.

Then, here’s the beauty of it.  The bonuses are rolling in, then one of those bright kids in accounting says, “Boss, we’ve got a problem.”  He tells me the whole world economy is about to tank, and the big banks are going under.  Then another bright kid gives me an idea.  “No way they’re going to let it happen.”  I see he’s right.  So I start investing in those banks that we ruined by selling them toxic assets.

Now I own the banks that the poor working schmucks bailed out–and I give myself a big bonus from the bail out money we brought in.  Now the Fed is loaning money at 0.5 % interest; I’m taking it and buying treasury bonds that pay 3%.  I’m using the taxpayer’s money to loan money to the government to pay back the bailout money that’s paying my bonuses.

But one of the bright kids in public relations says, Boss, the tax payers aren’t stupid.  They’re going to demand some of that money back.  They might suggest a sur-tax of 5% on incomes above 1 million dollars or something.

So I hire a public relations firm to stir up “grass roots” support and plan these tea party events to protest against anyone raising my taxes.  They even have a Tina Fey look-alike drawing big crowds.

Charlie was my best friend in college. Poor guy wasted his life if you ask me; became a basketball coach.  His team made it to the Final Four last year, and now he’s making a million and a half a year.  A million and a half!  How does anyone live on that?

What’s worse, his daughter went to college to become a teacher.  And now the schools are laying off.  Charlie says he’s going to help her out.  Like he can afford to on his miserable pay check!  If you ask me, it was her choice to throw her life away.

Sure I could buy her a school if I wanted to.  It’s not easy to spend $3 million a day!  I buy a nice house in Miami on Monday, on Tuesday I make a down payment on one in San Francisco and finish paying on Wednesday–pretty soon I have houses in all fifty states, and it’s only February!

I could buy her a school.  But she had her choice.  She could have chosen a responsible career like I did.

[Note: The top 30 hedge fund managers averaged one billion dollars each in salary and bonuses last year. ]

It’s Not Funny Anymore

I filed my taxes on April 14 this year.  I don’t enjoy paying taxes, but I do my duty.

You can understand why the anti-tax tea party crowd is popular.  But they’ve had their fun and it’s time to get serious and face reality.  We’ve run out of nonessential programs to cut and we’ve almost run out of creative ways to tax the poor.

While our state politicians are bragging that they have voted for more tax cuts than their opponents, they are also closing schools and releasing dangerous criminals early.  In my county there are plans to close schools on Fridays next year.  They will save a small amount by cutting the hours of the lowest paid employees–maintenance workers, bus drivers, teacher’s aids, cafeteria staff.  Working parents will have to find childcare on Fridays–or leave their latch-key kids to fend for themselves.

The local university has a freeze on all faculty positions that are not externally funded.  Meanwhile, tuition keeps rising to compensate for cuts in state funding.  Education has always been the way out of poverty.  It is getting harder and harder for underprivileged youth to take that path.

There’s no free war and no free deregulation.  The trillions of dollars in debt accumulated during the past decade have to be paid for–without dismantling our educational system and turning this into a third-world country.

I Think He is Serious

I don’t think he was joking, or putting on an act, when Penn Jillette (the outspoken partner of Penn and Teller) praised the man who handed him a Gideon Bible and told him God loves him.  Penn said,

He was a good man.  He was sane.  He looked me right in the eye.

The famous atheist said, if you believe in God, you should proselytize.

How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? If I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.

You can view the You Tube here, or read the text here.