Tag Archives: communication


18 Apr

1173672104_fThe end of the Gérard Dépardieu epic film 1492: The Conquest of Paradise graphically depicts the failure of the Spanish expedition to curb the greed and violence of the Conquistadores. In the midst of a tropical storm whose physical violence matched the inner destruction of the colony, Columbus’s faithful translator Utapan once again shaves his head and dons his tribal face paint ready to abandon his patron and return to his native people. He runs across the yard towards the beckoning forest and is entreated by a bewildered Columbus: Speak to me! But he finds no comfort. Before smiling and disappearing among the foliage Utapan exposes the depths of pain in his soul as he shouts back: You never learned to speak my language!

You never learned to speak my language.

80693-19Something as simple as this, but it seems it never ocurred to Columbus or his companions. The Tainos people had managed to learn Spanish, how come the Spaniards never learned theirs? It was certainly not lack of intelligence or curiosity, rather an insidious cultural supremacy that held that everything Western was superior to local mores, whatever shape these may take. And nowhere is this more clearly found than in language.

Language is more than the ability to communicate. It defines us, becomes part of us, draws many of the lines of our identity. It links us to the world around us, but only by separating us from part of that world. Language enables us make our mark, to leave a lasting impact on society, accessible to those that share our linguistic identity.

We are created speechless – a baby’s crying communicates loud and clear, but can hardly be considered speech – with a blank page on which language is slowly written by those around us. And so we acquire the ability to express ourselves, to relate socially to another – the Thou of Buber’s world – and  to pour our innermost self out through our words.

It seems to me that this innate capacity for language is part of the image of God in humanity, and a most significant part at that. In the beginning was the Word – communication, self-revelation, expression, thought-given-form – and the Word was with God, for communication needs recipient as well as expression. And the Word was God. God was, and is, Word.

1301595118.motLanguage is not a bolt-on extra. A mother tongue is the gateway to the heart, sitting at the core of who we are. No wonder when the Word became flesh, he learned our language.

Tomorrow I come to the end of another course teaching language learning skills to a bunch of those who will make it their life’s purpose to bring Jesus to people and communities across the world. Perhaps better than anything else,  learning local languages will connect them with the people they go to serve. As Eugene Nida rightly said:

“Language learning is not a matter of acquiring a simple mechanical ability to produce acoustic signals so as to buy, sell etc. It is a process by which we make vital contacts with a new community, a new way of life, and a new system of thinking. To do this well is the basic requirement of effective missionary endeavour.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!


Do you speak Christian?

9 Apr

WS4It’s that time of year again when I find myself in Llanelli, South Wales, teaching a group of trainees introductory linguistics and language learning skills. I trust that by the end of this two weeks they will have learned a thing or two about how languages work, and how they can best learn one. And somewhere in the midst of all this, I hope that they will also understand why language is important. As for me, it gives me an excuse to write again about language. Way to go!

In an engaging scene towards the end of the adventures of Don Quixote, the brave knight, his faithful Sancho and their entourage come across a traveller and his companion, a lady dressed in “Moorish” style. Poor thing, she didn’t seem to understand the kind words they spoke in her direction, for she merely crossed her hands over her chest and bowed in appreciation. She evidently did not speak “Christian”.

QuijoteHow many of us speak “Christian”? However we want to define “speaking Christian” – and in Cervantes’ day, it was a simple synonym for Castillian Spanish – that isn’t really the main issue. More to the point is how many people beyond the walls of our churches speak Christian? Because if we are not speaking the same language, we are never going to make ourselves understood. As Taylor Swift would say, “never, ever, ever”.

God has always come to humanity speaking our language(s). Whenever you find an angel in the Bible, they speak in the language of their interlocutor, not in “the language of angels”, whatever these might be. God’s words to people in dreams and visions were always perfectly understandable. Jesus used his native Aramaic but also seems to have managed to communicate happily with Greek speakers in their own language. And the vast majority of the New Testament is written in Koiné Greek, “common” Greek, or that which was spoken by the masses, the trade language of the Mediterranean world and beyond, not the cultured Attic Greek of Homer and Plato.

God addresses people in their own language. And we should too. The second century epistle to Diognetus says it well:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. […] But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.

Christians did not stand out from the crowd in anything but their godly living. They dressed the same – I guess that might mean hoodies and low-slung jeans these days, not to mention the odd piercing –, ate the same food, did the same jobs, spoke the same language… yet somehow displayed a “striking method of life” that was soon to overrun the mighty Roman Empire.

To “speak Christian” roots us firmly in a bygone age and severs our connection with those that actually need Christ. We risk becoming an irrelevant relic, a quaint nicety that is tolerated, more or less, by outsiders, but little understood.

imagesAnd it’s not just the “thees and thous” that mark us out as travellers in time. So much of our communication is built on an overestimation of the place of “preaching”, a premise of shared values and shared knowledge and basic “biblical literacy” that can in reality no longer be taken for granted. Concepts of sin and morality, the question of whether God even exists, the reliability of the Bible… we assume so much and fail to connect.

And so our message misses the mark, quite simply lost in translation, from “Christian” to however we wish to label contemporary communication.

We simply have no alternative – to follow faithfully in the footsteps of a communicative God, we must live out our faith in ways that other people can understand. Whether in the way we construct our corporate life, our communication style or the very words that we use, our language must be their language; anything else is a distortion of the gospel.

It’s time to stop speaking Christian and live it.

P.S. If you are interested in one theologian’s perspective on Speaking Christian, see this review of Marcus Borg’s book of the same title or an interview with the author.

Behold I stand at the door and knock knock

18 Jul

I reckon that Jesus would have made a first-class comedian. He knew how to get a message across, and there are times when humour is the absolute best way.

Somehow, humour penetrates the armour that surrounds our thoughts and opinions in a way that engaging people in intelligent debate just does not. Yes, there is a time and a place for intelligent debate – I am not suggesting that we just tell jokes rather than reason with people, but perhaps that this should not be our first line of approach.

You see, debate is great for open discussion that enables open-minded exploration on open-ended topics. But most of the time, debate, or the exchange of thoughts between individuals, involves two sides with entrenched opinions who seek to garner as much evidence as possible with which to batter their opponent. Listening is not the sensitive hearing of another’s view in order to better understand and potentially embrace that view; it is discovering the weaknesses in another’s arguments in order to better prepare our own line of attack.

Now what about the magic wand of Protestant Christianity, the sermon? Sometimes, preaching is like a debate where the other side is gagged and not allowed to say anything. Lots of reasons are laid down for whatever the preacher is trying to communicate, but does it reach its target? Whilst a sermon may contain some great stuff, it is at the best of times a one-size-fits-all product applied to all who happen to be within hearing range, with no scope for interaction or exploration of the theme outside the bounds of this one-way communication.

Is this effective communication? Are people influenced towards change by this? Sometimes, no doubt, particularly when “preaching to the choir” and the hearers are both used to this methodology as well as tolerant and generously disposed towards the preacher. For non church-goers, it can serve as a conversation starter but is not the place or the means to engage with genuinely significant issues for them. Perhaps there is a better way.

Enter humour. And Jesus was a master of the art.

Take this one, for example. Jesus is walking along the Emmaus road with two disciples, Cleopas and another – his wife, I reckon. Jesus plays ignorant and gently leads them in understanding what has just happened in Jerusalem. As they break bread together, suddenly they realize who he is and, as if by magic, Jesus simply disappears. Bet he was having a good chuckle as he did it.

Another one. We all know the story of the two guys with things in their eyes, one with a speck of dust, and the other with a log, plank, telegraph pole, or whatever. We analyze the passage theologically, but have you ever stopped to try and picture it? Someone walking round with half a tree in their eye but who still thinks they can get close enough to someone else to help them with their issues? A bit ridiculous really, and humorous to try to visualize… but that was probably what Jesus wanted.

He liked puns too. Puns don’t work in translation, so this passes unnoticed in the English – and the original Greek too for that matter. But when Jesus talks about straining out gnats and swallowing camels, the Aramaic words most likely used are galma and gamla respectively. A real groaner.

And speaking of camels, what about trying to get one through the eye of a needle? Don’t be misled by some half-baked story about a special door next to the gate of a city that a camel could only get through on its knees and having shed its load – there is not a shred of evidence that such a gate ever existed. Jesus was using deliberate hyperbole and we are meant to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all and take an important message home with us.

The absurd has a place in such humour too. Whoever would think of putting a candle under a washing-up bowl? Or what about polishing the outside of a cup and forgetting to clean out the collected crud on the inside? Serve up stones for lunch instead of bread, or snakes instead of fish? And whilst few of us know the botanical facts involved, and thus miss Jesus’ take on this, mustard seeds do not grow into trees that birds can build nests in. The absurdity of such images is meant to convey the strength of the teaching that Jesus wished to transmit.

Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman in Mark 7 can only be understood if humour and gesture is taken into account. When said with a grin, the meaning changes completely, and the lady herself seems to have been able to respond with some repartee of her own.

Understanding the cultural background to Jesus’ world can help too. It seems that shepherds tore the brunt of many jokes of his day, the rednecks / blonds of first-century Palestine. A shepherd leaving 99 sheep all by themselves, with all the risks that entailed, to go off and search for one would have raised a laugh or two. But it gave Jesus the foundation to speak of the character of God who does the ridiculous to reach us.

And what about irony and sarcasm? Do you think Jesus was really so impressed with Nathanael that he calls him a true Israelite in whom there is no guile as a compliment? Or was it more of a “Well I never, seems like we have found Mr. Perfect” as a response to Nathanael’s incredulity about Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. Calling Peter “Mr. Rock” also seems a little tongue in cheek to me…

Like jokes our six-year old tells us for the twenty-somethingth time, our over-familiarity with the stories recorded in Scripture means we no longer relate as their hearer did nor respond to the humour they contain. Theological constraints push us to understand and apply, rather than react and respond. And ignorance of humour and communication conventions in Jesus’ world means we miss so much of this facet of his life and ministry. Humour is so very culture-bound; the gospels abound in stories that relate to the honour-shame dichotomy of first-century Mediterranean society but which are completely lost on us. The image of the “prodigal father”, for example, hitching up his tunic and running to meet his second son would have brought a shocked smile to his listeners’ faces.

Humour has the ability to bypass the normal self-defense mechanisms that protect our egos and thought constructs and deliver a one-two punch right to the heart. Where rivers of words fail, aptly chosen humour can succeed. This Jesus knew well.

One contemporary illustration. Look at this cartoon, drawn by Joel Pett for USA Today during the Global Summit on Climate Change in December 2009. So many words on both sides of the issue, but his “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing” cuts through all of that in a mere 15 words. Most people get the message in less than 15 seconds. Tremendous.

So next time you are thinking about how to engage with others to promote change and want people to reflect on deeply held beliefs and values, spare a thought for the humorous, the arty, visual, poetic, something that engages with a person at a different level to rational thought alone. Fire away and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised.

“You can observe a lot by just watching” (Yogi Berra)

25 Apr

Last week I was back in Llanelli, South Wales, but this time only via a webcam from home in Spain, teaching a short course on “Tools for Anthropological Research” to the fantastic trainees on the World Horizons Equipping for Service programme. Another reason for a gap in blogs… (What a bunch of willing guinea pigs… it was the first time I had taught the course, and they all did just great.)

“Tools for Anthropological Research”… sounds mighty fancy, but it is about simply learning to observe people and their culture, to see what is really there but remains hidden behind our own assumptions, to view the world in the way they do. It’s about having practical means that enable us to discover what is important for them, not for us, tools to help us go beyond the “wow, this culture is really different” to understanding what makes it different and take the first steps in our own adaptation to those differences. Direct involvement in and observation of the culture itself, interviews with cultural informants and learning from others’ research form the backbone of this methodology.

Without a practical and systematic approach, cultural learning becomes a bit hit and miss, not to mention a minefield of potentially awkward moments waiting to ambush us when we least expect it. However, even if the carrot of better understanding and integration is attractive, it can also seem like a whole lot of hard work. Why even bother? Can’t we “just preach the gospel” without all this cultural adaptation stuff? Get in there, give ’em the gospel, and be done with it!

¡Ojalá!, as we say here (“I would that it were so”). But no. Just as the gospel cannot be separated from the language used to communicate our message, in the same way the cultural world in which communication happens becomes part of the message itself. And if we do not understand how our intended audience see the world, we have no hope of knowing how they will understand us, much less being in a place to construct a message in such a way as to make sense for them and which responds to their needs and concerns. There are no short cuts to effective cross-cultural communication, which is perhaps the greatest reason why so many have yet to really hear the gospel in a way they can understand and respond to.

Learning to observe is not as easy as it might at first sight appear. What we take for granted from our own cultural milieu can blind us to what is there — or is absent — in another. More obvious behaviour may stand out to us, but we can remain ignorant of the motivation behind actions as well as failing to see beyond these superficial aspects. And what we give importance to in the way we have been taught to relate to the world around us can prevent us from seeing what they prioritize. Although totally subconscious, the process we were subjected to in becoming compliant members of our own culture was extremely effective; we enter another’s world only with a good measure of dedication and focus.

The book of Proverbs (24:32 NIV) says something similar:

I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw

Or as the NLT puts it:

Then, as I looked and thought about it, I learned this lesson

Learning starts with seeing — I use this in the wider sense, involving all of our senses, not just physical sight — and seeing is the product of conscious looking, of patient and deliberate observation. Then comes thinking through, applying our mind and all the abilities that God has given us to understanding what we have seen. Learning finishes with the practical application to our own lives, taking on board what we have learned and allowing the implications to affect the way we relate to those around us and communicate.

This process applies to all of culture, including religion. In building bridges for the gospel we must start from both sides, from where the hearers are too, not just from the perspective of our own understanding of the gospel. A people’s religious views provide much needed context for understanding how to transmit concepts that will inevitably be seen by our hearers as belonging to the realm of religion.

Now the concept of “religion” is much wider than the supernatural and whether people believe in God or not, or how that belief, where it exists, is expressed. “Religion” connects our day-to-day experience to a wider cosmic framework; it relates to a person’s basic understanding of how the universe fits together and our place in it, a position that is the result of deeply held beliefs, not logical deduction. The supernatural may or may not come in to it, and a belief system such as “New Atheism” certainly fits within anthropology’s understanding of religion.

Engraved plaque containing Apostle Paul's serm...

Engraved plaque containing NT text of the apostle Paul's sermon, at the Areopagus, Athens. (Wikipedia)

In his mission to the Gentiles, Paul engaged with unfamiliar religious scenes. During his stay in Athens, learning through observation and enquiry laid the foundation for debate with local philosophers:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23, TNIV)

His careful observation (ἀναθεωρέω, anatheoreo, meaning “to consider attentively, to look closely or repeatedly”) of the Athenians’ religious scene combined with his Greek education to give him the tools he needed to interact with those present in the Areopagus. Understanding of contemporary philosophical currents and familiarity with religious themes found in Greek poetry helped him bring a relevant message and bridge the gap to his proclamation of Jesus and the resurrection. Whilst our ability to participate will always be limited, cultural learning through close observation of other religious practices is a necessary part of the learning that we need for effective cross-cultural communication.

And finally, please do not think that this belongs solely to the realm of “overseas missions”. If the Church in the West is to engage effectively with the wider world it must invest time and effort to understand its culture, a culture which is now foreign to that of most of our churches; evangelical preaching is not destined to unlock the hearts of the majority in the West today. Look. Watch. Observe. Interact. Think. Understand. And adapt accordingly.

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