Tag Archives: Language

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Reflection

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I read Tom Wolfe’s latest work, The Kingdom of Speech. Wolfe is well-known and controversial journalist who has authored fiction and non-fiction works on a range of subjects. In the aforementioned title, a sort of exploration into philosophy, science, linguistics, and history, Wolfe devotes significant attention to the story of Daniel L. Everett.

Everett was a missionary sent by the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the Pirahās (pronounced pee-da-HAN) Indians in the Amazonian jungle. I had heard of Everett before and discussed his story with a Brazilian friend, though I did not know the whole story. What I did know was so fascinating to me that I picked up a copy of his memoir, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon Books, 2008).

Everett’s primary objective was to learn the Pirahās language—one of the most complicated ones known to man—and produce a successful translation of the Bible. So at the age of 26, Everett made his first journey to the Pirahās. He and his family would spend large portions of the next 30 years working among these unique people deep in the heart of the Amazon.

Everett was well-suited for this specific mission as he had shown himself to be an exemplary student of language during his undergraduate and graduate education. He studied at Moody Bible Institute, but he also would earn his masters in linguistics and a doctorate at UNICAMP (a large Brazilian university). In more recent years he has held positions at many universities, including Illinois State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Manchester.

Everett’s Significant Contribution

This book is significant for several reasons. First, as Christians deeply committed to global evangelism, we can appreciate someone devoting most of their life to an obscure, extremely dangerous place (hence the book’s title), doing the hard work of learning and translation in order to put God’s Word in the tongue of a people. Moreover, though there had been a few previous missionaries to this tribe, none had been successful. Everett notes at the time of his book’s publication that there had never been a known conversion at any period in the history of their tribe! (269).

A second reason the book is significant is because it is more about language and culture than it is the spiritual task of missions. The book interweaves the Everett family’s story with reflections on different theories about linguistics, and how various theories had sought to explain the phenomenon of language. How can Darwinism account for the unique complexities of human language? This question, the subject of Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech, also pervades academic discussions of language. Since this is also a community Everett had been part of for years, his book discusses this issue in great detail.

Everett contends that the language of the Pirahās actually undermines the dominant thesis of modern linguistic theory, promoted by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, now 88, is the most influential figure in the field of linguistics not only in America, but perhaps the world. Chomsky is famous for his notion of Universal Grammar. In essence, this theory asserts that language is primarily genetic in origins, not primarily cultural (as many others believe, including Everett). Grammar, or how language works/fits together, arises from a set of structures innate to human beings. While languages across the world are very diverse, there are some common elements that show language to be inherent to the human genetic make-up.

Because Everett has been able to document how the Pirahās language does not fit the paradigm advanced by Chomsky and others in the field, his research has caused quite a bit of a stir in academic linguistics.

What’s Theology Got to Do With It?

From a theological perspective, it may be tempting to simply say we believe that humans are made in the image of God, and leave it at that. However, there are numerous ways we could deepen our study of what the Bible says about humanity and consider how this might intersect with what we believe about language.

Some have suggested that language is one entailment of being made in God’s image. Others have suggested it is the central meaning of being in His image. Even Wolfe makes several mentions of this particular doctrine in his book and how it relates to this larger discussion of what humans are like.

One thing is for sure: linguists, anthropologists, philosophers, and scientists of all kinds are likely to arrive at different conclusions about language if they operate out of an evolutionary framework.

Intellectuals working from such a framework are forced to try and explain all human phenomena in either cultural or biological terms, or both. Yet in the end they will either simply double-down on the conclusion that human beings are nothing special, just highly-evolved primates. Or they will try to preserve a sense of human uniqueness among all other species, but lack the metaphysical grounding for this belief.

There is much more to Everett’s book that merits discussion here, but I’ll conclude with one final observation. A rather sad reason why the book is significant (SPOILER ALERT) is that in the end Everett tells of his departure from Christianity. This will likely be the only “missionary biography” one ever reads with this conclusion.

As difficult as it was for me to read the conclusion of the book, I think the reasoning he gives is a sobering cautionary tale. I’ll leave it to others who read to glean lessons from this. To me, it is a tale of how increasingly gradually bracketing out theology and communion with God from anthropological and linguistic research can make a person intellectually vulnerable to the already-present spiritual vulnerabilities of life in the world, especially on the mission field.

Simply put, if Christian doctrine is always revised in light of the latest scientific consensus on a particular question, and if one does not carefully guard their walk with the Lord, they will find that the complexities of life will gradually erode the commitments of their soul. Everett was confronted for years with the hardships of life in the jungle, the contentment of a lost tribe to continue rejecting Jesus, and trying to untangle the mysteries of language and culture. This is a tall order for anyone.

Although most of us will continue to dwell in a familiar Western world, we should recognize that there are many complex burdens in serving God and understanding His world. Therefore, we must maintain spiritual vigilance in the fulfillment of our ministries, regardless of where they take us.

 

An Episode in Cross-Cultural Theological Instruction

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I had the honor of serving as a visiting professor at the Los Cedros de Líbano Seminario (the Cedars of Lebanon Seminary) in Pinar del Río, Cuba. This is the seminary of the Cuban National Association of Free Will Baptists. Incidently, their national association will be holding its 75th national convention later this week.

This was the second time I have visited our island nation neighbor to the south, a land which has for many decades been dubbed “the land of Castro.” Certainly much has changed in relations between the United States and Cuba in recent years. Only time will tell the full implications of those changes. Of course, more changes are likely to come as international commerce, the Internet, and other elements are increasingly introduced. Above all else, the flow of American money into any country carries with it a dynamic that is hard to entirely assess.

But I came to Cuba not as a tourist or businessman, but as a brother and servant, at least I hope that is how it was perceived. The Cedars of Lebanon Seminary has done a tremendous job training countless Christian men and women for service to Christ’s church throughout the island and the world. Its graduates are pastors, missionaries, youth ministry leaders, women’s ministry leaders, and more. That some of their American brothers have been welcomed to lend a hand in their theological instruction is a great privilege that I hope is not underestimated.

Teaching theology is itself a peculiar task. Once we move beyond some of the misconceptions about what theology or doctrine is (no small feat), there is the challenge of determining how to convey ideas—often complex ones—to a particular audience. As Cuba is a foreign country with a unique history, language, economy, customs, and socio-political arrangement, these factors must be taken into account in theological instruction.

The topic of my course was theological anthropology. Essentially, my task was to instruct 1st thru 4th-year seminary students on what the Bible teaches about man.[1] Some of the specific areas we covered were the doctrine of the image of God, man and woman as a gendered beings, and the total personality approach to humanity. Most of the instruction was done with the help of translators, for whom I am so grateful. Though my own understanding of the Spanish language facilitated my teaching and preaching at times, without translators I would have been useless to these students.

As a student of language, as well as someone who stands in front of people each week attempting to communicate God’s truth, I cannot help but marvel at what a unique thing language is.

I think far too often we take language for granted. We assume that the challenge of learning and teaching is bound up largely in our ability as teachers and preachers to understand for ourselves. And indeed, you cannot effectively teach what you do not adequately understand! Yet there is a personal, intellectual, and symbolic world we quickly move into as we open our mouths to speak understanding into the ears, minds, and hearts of our students. We must master our subject, or something close to it, but then we must master our audience as much as we can.

Approaching the Challenge

Mastery of cross-cultural instruction is difficult for any number of reasons. First, we have to do the hard work of learning something about that unique audience. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they presently believe? What do they love? What do they fear? Certainly the Bible gives us a foundation for knowing the answers to such questions among any audience of human beings.

However, answers to these basic questions take on slightly different nuances in different times and places in human history. I’m increasingly convinced that even the most seasoned pastor probably needs two to three years in the pulpit at a new church before truly knowing how to speak to that specific group of people in an optimal way. Thankfully, the clarity of Scripture and the power of the Gospel is such that God can still use His servants to accomplish something even in new settings.

A second challenge is understanding the words, images, idioms, and concepts of that target audience if we are to introduce something new, or reform an understanding something already present. This is especially important when one is teaching through a translator. The translator is certainly as immersed in the linguistic-intellectual challenge as the teacher himself. It becomes especially important to read the faces of students as the words are said for the second time.

I have spoken with many folks who have preached with the help of a translator before. The one observation that always emerges quickly is just how problematic our American idioms and metaphors are, even when heard by skilled translators. I’ve heard more than one humorous tale of a preacher growing increasingly frustrated and stammering as he tried to explain an idiom to a translator, bringing the already-plodding sermon to a screeching halt.

Nonetheless, the hard, but crucial work of communication requires that we focus on the core biblical metaphors in order to make cross-cultural instruction most beneficial. If we increasingly grasp the everyday idioms and metaphors of the target audience, then those can also be employed in the teaching task.

But the beautiful thing that I was reminded of is that in Christ, even a teacher and student of different origins still have a common language: the Scriptures. They have a common goal: Christlikeness. They have a common law: the way of love.

Accordingly, I have great confidence—in principle and from experience—that the Great Commission works. Ours is only to find our place in that work and do it.

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[1] There were also some pastors who sat in on the classes who were on campus for a pastors’ conference. Additionally, a few other professors were present at times during the week.