Speaking in (the World's) Tongues

"Jesus is bangala!" proclaims Rev. Nathan Price, an American evangelist, to a group of confused Congolese villagers in Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible.

Their confusion stems from Rev. Price's failure to catch the nuances of the local language's use of tone and cadence. While he meant to say something like "Jesus is supreme," what came out was "Jesus is poisonwood"—the name for a local plant with horribly irritating qualities. Throughout this powerful novel, Price never budges in his determination to preach the gospel out of his King James Bible, stubbornly oblivious to indigenous traditions and needs.

Price's 1959 missionary approach reflects a long tradition in which the goal was to "save the pagans" by preaching a white European Jesus. As we know, much of this "evangelizing" was backed up with imperial weaponry through which slaughter became a tool of "conversion." The modern, liberal tendency is to shrink from this horrific history and instead to engage in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue with those of other traditions. However, whether as God-and-country conservatives or nonviolent radicals, we may often replicate Rev. Price's method when offering up our "good news." Like Price, we accept rejection of our message as the cross we are to bear in Jesus' name.

But what if our rejection is not because our audiences are stiff-necked but because we, like Price, have arrogantly refused to translate the gospel into local languages? And where is the line between, on the one hand, speaking the language of "the other" and, on the other hand, merely saying what people want to hear in order to succeed?

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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