Babel, Pentecost and today

Pentecost is this coming Sunday. So my blog this week is about Pentecost and where it fits in the Bible’s narrative about language.

The Bible is one story. It’s connected. One of those connections spans the Bible from the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 and on to Revelation. Genesis 11 and Acts 2 recount strange happenings with language. In the first, people who all speak the same language suddenly can’t understand each other. The second is the exact opposite. People who speak many different languages suddenly can understand each other.

When all those people speaking their different languages understood each other, they were amazed and perplexed causing them to ask a question:

What does this mean? (Acts 2:12)

The Apostle Peter gives a long answer that draws heavily on the Old Testament Scriptures. I will summarize his answer in his own words:

“everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:21)

The key word in that verse is “everyone”. The fact that all those present heard “in our own tongues the mighty works of God”, points conclusively to God’s intent that the message is for everyone whatever their language.

Because the events at Babel and Pentecost are opposites, some have suggested that the result of Pentecost is to reverse the effects of the tower of Babel. If Pentecost was a reversal, it was only partial. People still speak the many different languages that spread from the Tower of Babel. Still, the idea of reversal has something to it, but I prefer to think of it as redemption.

At Babel God confused peoples’ languages to keep them from doing the wrong thing. At Pentecost, God used those same languages to transmit a message to direct them to do the right thing. Still today, God is using the Bible, preaching, prayer and worship in those languages to do marvelous things. We see the joy, salvation, and more all the time. It turns out that the languages that prevented people from a bad thing are powerful tools to bring them the best thing.

Slow motion Pentecost

define Pentecost - Google SearchThis coming Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. It commemorates something strange that happened at the Jewish festival of Pentecost two millennia ago. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit led them to speak. Many people from every country in the world were living Jerusalem. When they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. They were excited and amazed, and said:

“Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee? Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages? Some of us are from Parthia, Media, and Elam. Others are from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. Some of us were born Jews, and others of us have chosen to be Jews. Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done.” Act 2:4-11 CEV

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

This phenomenon, of people “hearing everything in their own languages”, has been accelerating. In 1900, The whole Bible or some part of it had been translated and published in 530 languages. By 2000, that had increased to 2,298. That is an increase of 1,768 languages – a rate of a new languages every three weeks for 100 years! Since the year 2000, the rate has increased further, jumping from 27 languages per year to over 70,” which amounts to a new language every 5 days!

That is not as dramatic as if it happened on the same day and at the same place, like it did at the festival of Pentecost. Instead, today we have a slower-motion Pentecost. But, unlike the event being commemorated this Sunday, it is spread over the world. What the new, slow-motion Pentecost lacks in immediacy, it gains in geographic spread.

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

But the real wonder is not the number of languages. It is the impact the translations are having. On the broadest level, we have the assessment of Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako:

African Christianity today is inconceivable apart from the existence of the Bible in African indigenous languages.

Then we have the assessment of leaders about what is happening in their areas where translation is being done:

“Some people are gradually shifting away from the evil aspects of the culture,” Lefa language of Cameroon

“Drunkenness is reduced and people cooperate together better. Now my job is easier.” Unbelieving community leader in Ghana

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

At the narrowest level, we have the statement of people.

 “I have read many times the book of Jonah, where God tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh. But when I read this in [my language] it is like God is standing right next to me and speaking to me! It makes me realize that God is close, and that he speaks directly to people.”
Tanzanian man

“I came to know the Lord four years ago, but I was still living with my idols. No one in the church had taught me that I needed to abandon them completely. My pastor preached many sermons but had never spoken of that. Listening to Scriptures, I heard Jesus say you cannot serve two masters. In Thessalonians, I heard how people left behind their idols to serve the living and true God. I called the pastor and explained my situation to him. He was very upset that he had not taught me about such things. That day I repented and handed over my idols. Since that time, I have had peace in my heart.”
Man from southeast Mali

“I used to lie, slander, and quarrel. That has changed.”
A young mother in Mali

At that festival of Pentecost many years ago, they were surprised, excited and amazed at “hearing everything in their own languages.” The slow-motion Pentecost of our day calls for that same response. It’s time to be surprised and amazed and to get excited.

If you liked this, you might also like The day tribal ended.

The day tribal ended

Tomorrow, people around the world will celebrate a very unusual happening on a Jewish festival some 2000 years ago. Read the account here.

But let’s back up a bit. One can read the Old Testament as the story of a tribal religion. By “tribal” I mean proprietary – belonging to a specific group of people. The religion of the descendants of Abraham came to them in their language, it is full of their stories about their God.

There are many tribal religions which also belong to people of a common ancestry, who share the same customs and usually the same language. Most tribal religions respect other peoples who have their own gods and religious practices.

A careful reading of the Old Testament shows that God had universal ambitions when he choose to start with Abraham and his descendants. Which brings us to the first festival of Pentecost after Jesus was crucified. Something happened there which shook to the core the idea that Jesus had come to fulfill the aspirations of only a limited group of people – everyone started hearing about the glory of God proclaimed in their own language. Tribal religions are almost always locked up in one language. Here was something different.

From that day, Christianity has been a religion which is not tied to one culture or one language. Instead, it permeated Roman society and the Greek language, breaking free from any tribal identity. Other events, such as those Peter experienced with Cornelius came along to confirm and seal the breakout. The Apostle Paul wrote against those who wanted to tie Christianity to tribal roots. Occasionally some try again to make Christianity a tribal religion – attempting to tie it to a particular language, nation and/or customs. But it never lasts.

There are two ways to be a universal religion. One is to assimilate everyone into your tribe. In this method, everyone will eventually have the same customs, perhaps speak the same language, have the same religious practices, and believe the same religious teachings. The other is the path God has taken Christianity where the person at the heart of the religion, Jesus, comes into languages and cultures and they develop an allegiance to Him while continuing to speak their languages and practice their culture – building houses as they did, singing the same kind of music they always did, being proud of their people’s history and achievements, and so on. Christianity does not seek to assimilate all cultures, even if some of its proponents sometimes mistakenly try to do that. Christianity translates itself into the languages and cultural forms of people.

Christianity does not erase culture, but weaves itself into the culture to create a rich tapestry – Rev. Prof. J D Ekem

If God had hired the most successful advertising agency to put on an event to illustrate that faith him is not a tribal thing, that agency could not have come up with a more convincing and significant event than the one described in Acts chapter 2. All those people, who had been assimilated into Judaism and had come to the center of that faith, Jerusalem, to worship each heard in their own languages – languages hitherto reserved for their tribal religions. Amazing.

If you liked this, you might also like Worse than you thought, Linguistic diversity or Weak things.

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On day 50, it got all crazy

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday. Why? Well, here is the story.

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech. There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. When this sound occurred, a crowd came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were astounded and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that each of us can hear in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking the magnificent acts of God in our own languages.” They were all astounded and perplexed, saying to one another, “What could this be?” But some sneered and said, “They’re full of new wine!”

Ever since this event, with some exceptions, believers in Jesus and followers of him have followed the lead of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles in speaking the magnificent acts of God in all kinds of languages. Followers of the risen Jesus have one Lord, one faith and one baptism, but many languages and many cultures. The number keeps increasing all the time.

On that day, the idea that faith in Jesus required that everyone speak the same language, or have the same culture, got smashed. From time to time some try to put the pieces of that shattered relic back together, but mostly those who live in the life of the risen Savior live that out, share it with others, and create praise in their own languages and cultural forms.

It looks like the world thinks that it is discovering the value of diversity. God’s language and culture diversity project, centered around his son, Jesus, started 2,000 years ago. I think that it has a head start.

God speaks into the African context in African idiom, and that it is through hearing in African mother-tongues ‘the great things that God has done’ (Acts 2:11), that African theology emerges to edify not only the African church but the church world-wide – Dr. Kwame Bediako (Ghanaian theologian)