March 9, 2011

The Blessing of Babel

Worship at the Maitrichit Chinese Baptist Church, founded in 1837, is a wonderful experience. Three languages articulated prayer, Scripture reading, song, and sermon. Swatow Chinese, Thai and, mercifully, English conveyed the Christian narrative of grace and redemption. Warm was the welcome, and we were grateful to join these faithful Christians for the Lord’s Day. Some in our party had not experienced the “blessing of Babel” before.

The story of the confusion of languages in Genesis 11 was not originally a story of judgment upon humanity for its Promethean desire to “make a name for itself.” It simply explained the origin of languages. Later it became a cautionary tale about humans overreaching limitations set by God; attempting to craft an entry into the “gate of heaven” by a towering ziggurat was expressly forbidden, and the building project came to a grinding halt by divine decision. Later in Scripture, the diversity of languages is seen as a blessing, media through which the Gospel could be variously heard—and understood.

Languages gather up the particularity of human stories in all their diversity. Linguistic development is a fascinating study—both in the individual and in larger ethnic families. Finding a “functional equivalent” to translate from one historical and cultural narrative to another is fraught with missteps and approximations. Non-verbal communication is still a pathway of relationship, however, and understanding transcends one’s ability to find the right words, as important as that can be.

What did I understand apart from that which was translated? The worship leader conveyed joy through her facial expressions; the request for pictures demonstrated interest; the warm embraces and respectful handshakes uttered care and recognition; the courtesy of escorting our party to prime pews in the sanctuary exhibited hospitality; and solicitous interest in our pilgrimage on to Myanmar voiced (haltingly) concern. Smiling, of course, allows an opening to begin the journey of communication and, when in doubt, put your hands together and bow!

Landing in Yangon a few short hours later allowed further opportunity to experience the blessing of Babel as well as the joy of common language as we were met by friends from MIT who have painstakingly learned English. The week ahead will offer many opportunities for varied forms of communication as we learn our limitations in English instruction and practice new ways of listening to the witness of faith.

Molly T. Marshall, Ph. D.

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