Ep. 95: How is music used in Bible translation? With SIL and Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Trevor Schuh

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SIL is a global, faith-based nonprofit that works with local communities around the world to develop language solutions that expand possibilities for a better life. Art is a form of communication, and SIL & Wycliffe Bible Translators recognize the value of communicating in the ways most familiar to individual communities. They want people to comprehend the Bible and worship in the language that is most natural to them, that speaks most to them. Whether they’re an artist or not, there is a music that most resonates with them. Artistic communication is especially integral in oral tradition cultures that have no written language.

Trevor Schuh


With me today is Trevor Schuh, the International Coordinator for Ethnomusicology & the Arts for SIL International. SIL is a global, faith-based nonprofit that works with local communities around the world to develop language solutions that expand possibilities for a better life. Trevor holds a Master of Arts degree in World Arts from Dallas International University. He has served as a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators for 13 years, which included time spent as an Arts Specialist for indigenous language communities in Brazil. Trevor is a musician – in addition to his work with SIL, he also is a church worship director; he is married to a musician.


We discuss:

  • What are “EthnoArts?” It started with enthnomusicology, but has expanded to include other arts such as dance, visual arts, etc… so “ethnoarts.” The boxes around these “genres” of art are much more blurred in non-western cultures (e.g., dance and music always go together).
  • How and why did ethnoarts become a part of SIL’s work and Wycliffe’s Bible translation work?
  • How are SIL and Wycliffe related?
  • The principle behind SIL’s EthnoArts is that they want to see people worshipping in ways that are natural to them. This is the same reason Wycliffe translates the Bible – they want people to experience the Bible in the language that best suits them, usually their mother tongue. Art is another form of communication, and the best language for communication should be utilized.
  • People communicate in nearly 7,000 languages around the world, but not just by spoken words. We also connect through artistically-rendered arts, such as song, drama, dance, sculpture and story.
  • All ethnolinguistic communities struggle with challenges brought on by a rapidly globalizing world. These include the breakdown of cultural transmission between generations and figuring out how to express their values and emotions. Challenges may also be more traumatic where there is war, disease and sexual violence. SIL’s arts personnel have helped communities heal from trauma that accompanies war, displacement, trafficking, etc.
  • SIL arts personnel help communities draw on their artistic forms of communication to create a better future: one of justice, peace, joy, physical safety, social continuity, and spiritual wholeness.
  • Examples of ethnoarts making a real difference in SIL’s ability to “develop language solutions that expand possibilities for a better life.”
  • Some cultures have 16 genres! Some may be only for telling stories, for women, for ceremonial use, for certain age demographics; etc.
  • Listeners may be familiar with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It seeks to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture. For over 10 years, SIL has been an accredited NGO with UNESCO “Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)” initiative. SIL provides advisory services to the ICH Committee and helps countries prepare for ICH status. UNESCO broadly defines ICH as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and the knowledge/skills to produce traditional crafts.
  • SIL also partners with the Global Ethnodoxology Network (GEN).
  • SIL’s Sparking Creativity podcast is starting soon: Come hear stories about a growing movement in Christian cross cultural ministry and development work around the globe. We explore principles at play when communities incorporate their cultural art forms to better themselves, address needs and reach their goals.

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Trevor says: One of my favorite “aha” moments for people just starting to understand the importance of EthnoArts work is to hear the reaction when playing a song from the Canela language community from Northeastern Brazil.  I distinctly remember the first time I heard this clip and was asked what I thought the music must be associated with.  Many people cringe at the seemingly unorganized, “out-of-tuneness”, and dissonance to Western ears, labeling it likely as a funeral dirge or something very sad.  In fact, this hymn uses the lyrics “It is God’s Word that makes us so very happy”!  The audio clip is from one of our own, Tom Avery, who was a pioneer in the Applied Ethnomusicology field in missions. 

Closing Words

How fascinating to hear that song. Wow, talk about enhancing lives with music! SIL’s ethnoarts group is doing this on SO many different levels — working with community artists toward an enhanced life of spiritual wholeness AND also physical health, cultural preservation, education, and trauma healing. Thanks so much to Trevor for sharing this inspiring use of music and the arts, and thanks to him and all his colleagues at SIL and Wycliffe for all they are doing to enhance lives with music!

As always, there are lots of links in the show notes, including links to SIL, Wycliffe Bible translators, and the Sparking Creativity podcast that will be launching soon. You’ll also find a transcription of this episode.  There is a link to the show notes right in the episode details in your podcast app, as well as links to connect with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn. I’d love to hear from you!

If you enjoyed this show, please spread the word to your friends and family and share on social media! That is the best way to support the show and help us grow our audience as we share the power of music. Thank you so much for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.

View episode transcription.

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