English As She Is Spoke

One day, a Portuguese-speaking man who understood very little English decided to make a phrasebook of spoken English. He had two language dictionaries at his disposal; Portuguese to French, and French to English. The result speaks for itself; translating idioms (idiotisms) like: “Strike while the iron is hot.” To “It want to beat the iron during it is hot.” And “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” To “A horse baared don’t look him in the tooth.” This very serious book – meant to help Portuguese speakers master English, is remembered as a comedic feat and a celebration of ‘earnest jest’. Because we’re so familiar with the English, we can see just how garbled the translation ended up being.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the messages we have about Jesus are just as confused. There are a lot of considerations – our different cultures, our different languages, our different beliefs about the world around us and how we fit into it. It’s a small comfort to read that even Jesus’ own people misunderstood his reasons for being there. It’s so very clear to us that Jesus is the suffering servant, but they were looking for a coming king who would rally the Jews to overthrow their Roman occupiers. Lucky us.
We also have the benefit of thousands of years of this message to be distilled at our level – filtered through countless individuals from different cultures who helped form our theology. Some additions are so highly regarded we tend to believe that they were meant to be there – like the chapter and verse notations we use to help us argue back and forth. When Jesus gave his teachings and Paul wrote his letters, neither of them felt it important to begin a new section: “And now, moving on to chapter four, verse one …”
I don’t know – I guess the expectation weighs heavily. Waiting as long as it takes for Jesus to return again – in full glory and power, to bring our world to a close and our chapter in it to an ending. We will see God in all his majesty and wrath, destroying wholesale human populations who have angered him. It’s a different message than Jesus’ “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus message was simple, it was for anyone and everyone – it was offering hope and community. That is something I wouldn’t mind – but I just don’t see how the Bible can be interpreted to teach it as a timeless truth when we’re dealing with a bit of a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde God. Or as English as she is Spoke would put it: “Tell me whom thou frequent, I will tell you which you are.”

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A Long, Silent Conversation

I couldn’t help but enjoy the delicious irony of the situation. There I was a student of at least two languages other than English … who could barely manage a conversation in just her native tongue. But considering how long I’d been one of the game, it’s really a wonder why my social skills aren’t worse.

When most people engage in small talk – they have something to talk about. With my co-workers, it’s usually something – or nothing at all. But they’re pretty much on the same page and they swiftly shift subjects with smooth transition. That’s not really the case with me, I have to process what’s been said and evaluate my options – anything I say can be taken in any number of directions and I never want to divulge too much information.

I always remember that episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, the one where a genial host has invited the crew of the Enterprise down to the planet where he’s the Federation Ambassador while they have some down-time, completely unaware that the aliens who are hosting them have some plans of their own about what to do with their own spaceship. It’s made abundantly clear that everyone hates the host and finds him really annoying. So Data is told that if he wants to master small talk, he would do well to keep an eye on him. He does and copies him perfectly – learning how to talk about nothing at all. Later on, when the ruse is revealed, the aliens kill the annoying ambassador. Lesson: small talk gets you killed.

Half of the time, I wondered what I was going to say – eventually I realized I had silently rehearsed an entire conversation – the only thing I knew about the guy was that he was into music. I thought about asking: “What kind of music do you like most?” “Which genre is underappreciated?” “Can you think of a song that would be epic if it were written for a different genre?” Things like that – but … I didn’t say a word.

Most of the time when I work, I have little to say. I dread it when somebody asks me a direct question about myself because I hardly know what to answer. I think that’s partially because I’ve been so successful at being a whole other person sometimes. There’s the me that people meet, kind and friendly, they just like me – kind of a surface level reflection. But there’s the deeper me that’s harder to draw out, one that likes to keep something up my sleeve. This is the me that I don’t let people get to know easily and the me that has more interesting answers but might prove a bit intimidating in a sense.

Perhaps it’s all those years that Christianity drilled into me humility and dying to self that’s also a factor. You see, being able to talk about your accomplishments, how you can speak Spanish and read Portuguese can be understood to be prideful. You see, everything about you is supposed to point everyone you meet toward God – the less you can say about yourself, the more you can say about God. Or it was some idea that if we had to say anything, it should be important things that are necessary. Idle chatter just wasn’t becoming.

But small talk isn’t idle chatter, it’s creating an opening to turn an acquaintance into a friend, to make guests more comfortable in a strange environment, and it’s how you build relationships and trust. The church should put a particular emphasis on encouraging conversation rather than quashing it – and even though certain Bible verses say that some shouldn’t speak, we should question just how much that applies in a world where words have more impact now than ever before.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – it’s just that I don’t always know how to say it quite right.

An Awkward Conversation

There’s a time and place to have the “Do you know Jesus?” conversation and during a shift at work is not one of them. He had been a repeat customer, this was his third visit. Ahead of him was woman – both were quite free discussing matters of faith. “Praise the Lord!” “I’ll be praying for her.” That sort of thing. That was fine with me, better that they speak with each other than me. Then my luck ran out as the woman left and it was his turn at the register. Turns out the man had just attended a revival meeting and had felt the Holy Spirit move him to speak. Still on that spiritual high, he opted to ask me the question, “do you know Jesus?”

“Yeah, sort of.” I said. Which was true. I know the Jesus that Christianity teaches – whether or not that’s a reasonable facsimile of the real thing is anyone’s guess. It’s not like Jesus and I can go to catch a movie together, stop by the store to pick up some groceries, and take a walk through the park discussing the finer points of theology. Jesus, to me, is an ideal (in the sense of a concept) of spiritual perfection. Perhaps that’s due to the WWJD? bracelet trend that was popular when I was a kid. The question: “What would Jesus do?” was meant to help us consider Jesus’ example as our guide. I also know Jesus’ story, born of the virgin Mary, adopted by Joseph, lived in Nazareth, Magi / wise men and shepherds were there to play their part; then his public ministry, his arrest, his trial, his death and Resurrection followed by his ascension . Could there have been a historical Jesus who really did exist? Sure, why not? Jesus is a variant of Joshua, which was an exceedingly popular name. I also know that my church wouldn’t have baptized me as a kid if my faith weren’t sincere – so I know Jesus as my savior also. But in many ways, I’m that kid anymore and I’ve grown up, changed, and become a whole other person.

“Sort of? Once you’ve been saved you’re always saved. Just like Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, ‘go and sin no more.'” He began.

Of all the Bible references to chose to bring up, why that one? I don’t think I look like an adulteress. Should I take it as a compliment? Though there is a footnote in most Bibles that the entire story was a late addition, few early manuscripts happen to include the tale. Make of that what you will.

“Do you go to church? You’re always welcome at mine.” He added.

“It isn’t Baptist is it?” I asked. Eighty percent of the churches in this county are Southern Baptist – which I’ve promised myself to avoid if it’s at all humanly possible. I don’t like Southern Baptist Churches because I used to attend them and I found them lacking. As far as guesses go, it’s usually correct.

“No, I attend a Pentecostal church way over in the city.” He answered.

That’s the other downside to this area, you have to drive to either of the local big cities to have any decent choices of churches – and that’s a forty-five minute drive in either direction. Been there, done that and I’m not about to start that commute all over again. Besides, I don’t know anything about Pentecostalism. The only thing I had heard about them was the time one of my friends had attended a service only to be branded a sinner when she couldn’t speak in tongues.

“I appreciate the offer, you’ve given me a lot to think over.” I said. I meant it, sort of. But mostly I just needed out of the ill-timed and awkwardly-placed conversation – after all, I was working and had a lot of my plate. I guess I had accepted my lot as a millennial to be on the outs with religion. After all the issues I’ve had with the Baptist brand of Evangelicalism, I’m not sure I’m ready to give the Pentecostal flavor of Evangelicalism a try. Odds are it won’t be the last conversation that goes like that – but it’s not in me to tell people what they want to hear. (Though it would be far easier if it were.)

Verbal Incision

I didn’t hear every word the older man said, just the last half of his tirade as it was exceedingly loud: ” … I can’t believe you’d say such a thing about him even if he is dead. You just don’t do that ever. I’m gonna go outside and tell your mom right now.”
The young woman was on the brink of tears – doing her best to hold them back. She looked miserable.
Considering the fourth of July almost here, I wish I would have said: “My great uncle fought and died for your right to say whatever you want. Don’t let some old guy use that freedom against you.” Or “You have a right to say what you feel about things and people, living or dead. Where would we be as a society if we couldn’t speak ill of Hitler and others like him?”
Perhaps the older man was a friend of the family who knew the dead man well and perhaps the young woman was aware of facts that the older man didn’t know – I wondered if there was some flaw in the dead man’s character that the older man just didn’t want to believe so he went off on the young woman. To him the dead man was a saint and the implication that he was a sinner just like everyone else was too much for him to take.
The man probably didn’t even know that his comments were verbally abusive to the young woman. He cared more for the dead man’s honor than the condition of the living young woman. He chose to defend the former by berating the latter. The thing is that dead men tell no tales. And that young woman might never again have the confidence to say what she feels. She’ll remember that time when that guy told her mom about what she said, when everybody got mad over it, and decide to just keep it in. She might never reach out for someone to talk to because the last time that happened it didn’t work out so well for her. If anyone needed to be defended, she did. If anyone needed consolation, she did. If anyone needed to know that someone had taken her side, she did.

Signs

I could feel a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see an older gentleman. He pulled out a pen and a notepad and wrote “Plain M&Ms?” I looked at the candy aisle and could see that the spot where they should be was vacant. The thing is, I wasn’t quite sure how to communicate that to him. I opted to write it down as well, “We’re out, sorry.” It seemed only fair. I think that’s when I decided to start learning American Sign Language. As it turns out, he wouldn’t be the only deaf customers to frequent the store. Now generally, the best time to learn a language is before you actually need to use it, so when you need it you already know it. But better late than never.

My fascination with ASL started with the clubs that my school offered, there was one called Sunsign Club – all the students did was learn and converse in ASL, which would have been great, but we can only be in one club at a time and I had a passion for Spanish (and I still do -hablo español muy bien!) Still, I had always wanted to learn it, it’s just that I didn’t have a framework or any idea where to start. Fortunately, the internet is a game changer and I found out that lifeprint.com offers free ASL lessons.

Learning to sign has begun to make me more aware of people, watching these lessons without audio has given me a glimpse into a world without hearing, and helped me to appreciate the simple joys of communication. Have you noticed how signers are so much more expressive? To convey how something makes them feel or describe how something is, they have to use facial expressions and exaggerated gestures. When we use words alone to describe something, it just feels a little lazy. “His house is big.” and “His house is huge.” Are just two statements with no real punch to them. I’m so used to hearing, listening for cues and definitions and explanations that it’s pretty easy to miss what’s going on and being said in the videos. Turns out, that’s what Daphne felt as she tried to keep up with the Kennishes on Switched at Birth when they first met. I know it’s a fictional t.v. show, but it’s the first one to feature the Deaf community for mainstream audiences to this degree. Sue Thomas F.B. Eye also gets an honorable mention for it’s use of ASL. It can only be a good thing – and I hope there’s more of it. Consider this, the only reason why so many of us know what “hasta la vista” is is because it’s from Terminator 2 and we got used to it. We picked up “mi casa, su casa” and “que sera sera” along the way. Once you get started learning a little bit, it gets easier to learn more. So, I hope, it will be with ASL, something we will see more and more of and maybe one day be bilingual in so that we can communicate with everyone. Communication is connection, it’s being understood and understanding others, it’s something so many of us take for granted until there’s a hic-cup and we suddenly don’t have it.

I think learning ASL has also helped me to see something I would have missed otherwise. I was watching the Pursuit of Happyness the other day. When I first saw the movie a few years ago, I didn’t notice that in the worship scene there was a man signing the lyrics of the song the choir was singing, I saw him this time. I thought back and no church I had ever attended had sign language interpreters. We also never had deaf people either. Most people, me included, don’t see needs until a need needs to be filled. We don’t see the need to learn ASL until we need to use it. But say a deaf man or woman walks into a church without interpreters – will they see the need to stay if nobody knows how to talk to them? Would you like to know how to strike up a conversation with them? One of my favorite stories is that of Martha’s Vineyard from a hundred or so years ago. Deafness was such a common occurence, that even hearing islanders would learn sign language. Men would sign to one another as they were working the fields, women would learn sign language to buy and sell things at shops, even children would use sign language at church to communicate, nobody was disadvantaged or excluded from having a normal life. I think we can learn from their example.

One other thing, ASL just isn’t limited to the states, it’s widely recognized among Deaf communities throughout Africa, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Sinagpore – it’s considered a bridge language that helps bring people of different cultures together. I know it’s not easy to just learn a language, it takes time and practice – but if you do choose to learn it, at least you’ll know it for when (not if) you will need it.

The Power of Words

Rhetoric is language designed to have a persuasive impact on it’s audience but is often regarded as being insincere and lacking in meaningful content. We hear it all the time – particularly during election seasons as politicians become desperate enough to say anything in order to get us to vote for them. Christians also have to be aware of their rhetoric as well, especially when it comes to Christians in positions of leadership.

In an episode of Deep Space Nine called “In the Hands of the Prophets”, a religious leader challenges a science teacher to either include her philosophy or just not teach on the origins of life. She speaks to her people, calling them action. The parents begin to withdraw their students from school. The workers fail to report to their posts the next day. Even shop-owners refuse to sell their goods to certain people. The tension boils as an explosion rocks the station and destroys the school. Fortunately no one was harmed.
Vedek Winn: The Prophets have been kind today.
Commander Sisko: The Prophets had nothing to do with what happened here today. This was the work of a disturbed and violent mind, who listened to your voice, not the Prophets’.
Vedek Winn: Is the Emissary holding *me* responsible for this act of terrorism?
Commander Sisko: The Commander of this station is.
Vedek Winn: May the Prophets forgive you for abandoning them.
Ultimately, a young woman tried to assassinate another religious figure who arrived in an attempt to broker a peace … she was caught, and she yelled as she was dragged to a cell: “The prophets spoke! I answered their call!”

Over the weekend, a pastor’s rhetoric got him some national attention. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. It’s a free country and he has the right to say anything he wants. Should anyone listen to him as he speaks for God and acts upon his statements in a rather violent fashion, it’s the pastor who will get away with stirring up trouble so he can keep on doing it. Words really do have power. We can use our power to stir up anger and hatred or we can use our power to inspire love and compassion. There’s a point when an ill-chosen word or an emphasis on a certain thing is something somebody else will understand as a call to action.

I know a lot of Christians have this fierce desire to call sin ‘sin’ and to speak the truth in love – but all too often it turns into an excuse to fall back upon degrading, hateful language. When people hear that – they don’t always think: “Sign me up for that!” I know of no one whose testimony includes: “After watching Westboro picket the umpteenth funeral, holding up signs it really hit me that they were speaking on behalf of God and I cleaned up my act and got right with God.”

Jesus put it this way – the mouth speaks what the heart is full of; so if a Christian says more hateful things than loving things, he or she has lost their way. Another Star Trek episode, from Voyager, called Nemesis, features this line: “I wish it were as easy to stop hating as it was to start.” Christians have a history where hatred came easily, not as something that’s a primary part of our belief, but secondary. Christians used the bible explain why institutional racism was okay. Even today, the Bible has been used to clobber people who aren’t on the same page about morality. This kind of hatred comes as second nature – I know because I learned it early on. It might have been the rhetoric as Marriage Equality bills were being pushed through congress, or from various sermons about the correct biblical lifestyle – but I learned how to hate far easier than how to love. The crazy thing is – I thought I was being loving. I thought I was rebuking sin when I was being an offensive jerk. Some might say: “Good! That’s how you know you’re getting the message across.” To which I’d point out that Jesus never insulted the woman at the well, called out the woman caught in adultery, criticized Zaccheus or berated Mary Magdalene in the name of righteously calling sin ‘sin’. Such things he reserved for the religious leaders of his day. We have it backwards – usually saying “touch not the Lord’s anointed” for their failures and leaving the harshest words for the worst of sinners. That means that each of us as Christians are backwards, too – loving only those like us and hating those who are not like us. I can’t say I’ve completely defeated that hatred, but I refuse to feed it anything that gives it any more power. And that means recognizing that rhetoric does a lot more harm than good, stirs up a lot more hate than love, and it’s not something I want to latch onto or to subject myself to. Be it a politician who will say anything or a pastor whose zeal for righteousness cancels out any capability to be compassionate – I just don’t need their words having that power over me.

A Matter of Faith: Father Knows Best

I watched “A Matter of Faith” the other day, that Christian movie that’s not the sequel of “God’s Not Dead” but is extremely similar to it. Much of the plot centered on the father’s struggle to protect his daughter’s faith by conquering her professor’s ideology and overcoming his influence on her. It’s almost as if she’s a rope and he’s tugging it to keep it on the Christian side of the line to prevent it from being pulled to the Not Christian side of the line. Instead of treating his daughter as a grown adult with whom he ought to have a conversation, he goes behind her back to have a conversation with his daughter’s professor to question what the professor is teaching her and ends up agreeing to a public debate. Much of the movie is basically this scene repeated in a few different variations: “Dad, I’m calling to tell you that you’re going to ruin me / embarrass me by debating my professor in front of the whole student population of my college.” “I’m sorry sweetie, but Creationism is a very important issue right now. The authority of the Bible, God’s very word is at stake. I can’t back out of this now. I’m doing this because I love you and I want to keep you from losing your faith.

The thing is, nobody can decide for somebody else what they will believe or how they carry out or act upon their beliefs. You can raise a child in isolation, keeping them from popular books and movies and music by carefully selecting what they read and see and hear. You can instill in them your most cherished beliefs. But that child will one day grow up and become a young adult. They will have to either accept everything they have come to believe, or come to personally own their faith by questioning it completely and deciding what rings truest to them. It’s probably the scariest thing a Christian parent can watch their children go through. Will their baby choose to continue walking the straight and narrow way to Heaven or will they take the exit to the wide and easy way to Hell? Ultimately, parents will have to have faith in their children that as young adults, they will remain true to their own convictions. For some, that looks like walking away from what their parents taught them. For some that looks like joining another religion. For some that looks like having no religion at all.

In this movie, the father never sees his daughter as an adult who should have the right to choose her own faith. It is his fatherly duty to save her from her professor’s non-Christian teachings and the influence they have on her mind. His righteous quest is fulfilled with aid from a young Christian man who points him in the direction of a Christian ex-professor who knows the subject inside and out and could probably help – if he was willing. The young man reminds the young woman that faith isn’t a matter of adding Jesus to your life, but of being properly submitted to him. Only when she becomes right with the Lord is she able to see that her father is doing the righteous thing of getting the word out for the Lord and striking a blow to the enemy’s plan to use colleges to brainwash the youth into doubting their faith by accepting secular teachings. After all, going to college, not reading her Bible, not finding a church – it’s apparently shown her that she’s selfish and it’s selfish to not want other people to hear about God.

It’s sad to see so many conversations about and around the young woman rather than with her about what she believes or thinks – there are more conversations between the young woman’s father and the pastor, or her father and the young Christian man, or her father and the ex-professor then there are with her about what she believes or why she believes it. The young woman over whom so much fuss is made only has the main plot-point of being a young woman whom a not-Christian is dating in an effort to try to get something from her rather than respecting her as a person. But the Christians don’t really respect her either. They talk about her, they talk around her, they talk to each other without consulting her, and the only conversations they have with her is just to point out that she’s wrong, that the debate must go on even if she’s against it, and that ultimately defending God’s word is more important than taking her seriously.