Becoming Multilingual

Every tribe has its own language.

I grew up American. Being American comes with a certain language – and I’m not referring so much to American English as I am to all the unique Americanisms that creep into our communication and our thought process. Things like apple pie and baseball and hamburgers are good examples, but so are expectations about politics and liberty and religion and social order and more. I’m convinced that you could transcribe a few paragraphs of any overheard conversation anywhere in America, and put it beside a few paragraphs from England and Scotland and Australia, and purely from the words that are used, independent of any accents, you’d be able to figure out which country was represented fairly easily, even though they’re all essentially English. Similarly, some French from Quebec versus France versus a Caribbean French island would be readily identifiable from the concepts in the text, even without hearing the accent.

I also grew up evangelical. That comes with its own language and concepts, like the words we use just hanging around other like-minded evangelicals. Words and concepts like “rapture,” “heaven,” “immersion,” “hedge of protection,” or “sword of the Spirit” show up rather differently than you’d hear hanging around a mainline or a Catholic church.

I think the point is clear: any given tribe has its own expressions and mindset, which can be somewhat obtuse for outsiders.

The thing about language is that it shapes the thought process of those who speak it fluently. The 2016 movie “Arrival” was based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, a short story which was based partly on the premise that learning an alien language fundamentally changes how one thinks and perceives their surroundings. Thinking and speaking in a new language comes with a different comprehension about the world; it’s nearly impossible to truly comprehend a language and its native speakers without understanding the worldview underlying that language. And understanding that new worldview will inevitably change your own worldview. “Story of Your Life” is a great book, and I highly recommend reading it, even if, or especially if, you’ve seen “Arrival.” It’s quite short, maybe 55 pages, and I read it in one sitting. You can find a free copy on the UCSB college website.

So when an English-speaking non-Christian encounters a Christian using a phrase like hedge of protection, or even something simple like grace, it’s likely that they have no idea what that Christian really means. There are quite simply two different thought processes in play, and a significant amount of translation is necessary, even between two native English speakers.

And when you put two Christians from very different tribes together – such as an Episcopal and a charismatic evangelical – you’ll probably discover that they’ll use the same words in rather different ways. Ask each about “baptism,” for example, or “grace,” “mercy,” “salvation,” or even the basic word “worship.” Although both are from the larger Christian tribe, their own denominational tribes have distinctly different languages.

As I’ve walked away from evangelicalism, I’ve discovered that even within Christianity there’s an entirely different language for the new concepts I’m learning about God. So I’m suddenly finding my religious language changing. When someone says “saved” or “salvation” in my new context, it means something rather different to me now. “Heaven” has a new meaning. “Hell” and “judgement” are different. “Justice” is starkly different to me now. Some of these concepts are much richer to me now, while others are so laden with accreted Christianese baggage that they’re almost meaningless.

But I find that, as I’m continually crossing between these tribes, attending a Methodist church some Sundays, or a True Holiness church or leading worship at a small local homeless shelter service other Sundays, or participating in a contemplative spirituality group during the week, I cannot simply adopt a new language and surrender the old meanings. I truly have to be multilingual – not so much using different words, but knowing the specific meaning of those same familiar words that is relevant to the tribe I am visiting at any given moment.

In some sense, I’m reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 9:19-23:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews. To those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law. 21 To those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 So I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

Paul was willing to adopt the language and the means and methods of the tribe to whom he was ministering at any given moment. To me, this sounds like a Stage 4 faith, in reference to Brian McLaren’s book “Faith After Doubt” and his four stages. Paul was quite comfortable with apparently conflicting approaches to the Gospel, and moved fluidly between them as necessary, yet without losing the core of his own identity in Christ, and without condemning those whom he believed were immature or weak in their own faith.

I can see that I’m always going to be around members of my former evangelical tribe – even if not at my former church, that tribe definitely includes my extended family. It’s certain that for the rest of my life, I’ll routinely be in contact with people who quite literally speak a different version of the language pertaining to religion than I speak. My testimony is of a deeper, richer, but harder and less predictable relationship with a living God who refuses to be simply defined by a lot of safe doctrines. That’s disruptive for any large church groups, and on the surface a lot of it sounds like heresy. So I don’t see any chance that everyone with whom I’ll stay in relationship from my old tribe will come join me – most are convinced that I’ve left the faith, at least in some ways, and they would never risk taking the same path.

So I’ve concluded that, if I’m going to be faithful to God’s current call on my life – that is to say, to be faithful to an entirely new way of relating to God and to my fellow man based on God’s character and wisdom – I’ve concluded that I’m going to need to stay in relationship to a variety of tribes, each with their own religious language, but to minimize the disruption I cause while doing so.

The only alternative would be to simply and completely exit those circles, those relationships, those conversations. That would certainly be more peaceful. It’s attractive to me simply because I’m not a big fan of conflict. But I don’t think it’s what I’m supposed to do. My purpose lately feels like a form of witnessing, but not to a bunch of godless heathens as I used to suppose. Instead, it is to gently and lovingly offer my testimony to those who already know God, but in a way that is limited by their evangelical upbringing. And that means I’ll have to be able to speak to my former tribe in their language, inviting them along on a journey like mine.

As a result, there’s no option but for me to become, and to stay, truly multilingual. It’s exactly like moving to a new country with a new language and a new, higher, richer way of viewing the world, yet staying connected to family back in the old country. While those old languages don’t ring true to me any longer, while those concepts seem lacking in various ways, I cannot stop speaking them, and must remain entirely conversant in those languages. I’m always going to need to meet people where they are – to be all things to all men – and fluently speak their language, even while I see its shortcomings. That skill will be essential if I hope to be effective.

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