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?

This struggle is one at the heart of the Acts of the Apostles. As the sequel to Luke's gospel, its author is likely a person well-educated in the Hellenistic culture of his day. His circle includes the elite women and men whose status makes things happen in the cities. They, perhaps like many of us, have become exposed to a variety of philosophical and religious belief systems. Why should they put their trust in the story of one man executed by the Romans in the boondocks of Judea whose friends claim he rose from the dead? Also within Luke's world are the multitudes of gentile country peasants and urban day laborers struggling to make sense of their lives within the disruptive world of imperial cult and commerce. How is the gospel to be "good news" to them?

FOR JEWS, THE STRUGGLE to maintain identity amidst the forces of Greco-Roman culture was largely one internal to the Jewish community. Judaism has no history of proselytizing. Like most peoples of the ancient world, Jews were satisfied in being allowed to practice their own traditions—what other people did was their own business. Yet in the multicultural world of the Diaspora, Jews had to deal with the diversity of traditions practiced by their neighbors.

One group responded by practicing the ancient exhortation to stay as far away from gentiles as possible except in emergencies. Others, like the Alexandrian philosopher Philo, tried to make Jewish traditions sound "rational" to the Hellenistic mind. Yet another approach, exemplified by the Pharisee Josephus, was to rewrite the scriptures to sound like a Roman history book, putting the Jewish journey alongside those of other noble peoples. Still others succumbed to pressure and gave up the ancestral ways in favor of local practices. But all these options were in some ways defensive measures designed to assure one's identity within a wider world.

Christianity, though, gave rise to Paul the apostle—a Jew who believed with every fiber of his being that the resurrection of Jesus opened the door to the gentiles' admission to membership in God's people. With Paul and his traveling companions, the gospel writer Luke had a fabulous hook on which to hang his story of the gospel's struggle to reach to the ends of the earth.

Luke begins the story in Jerusalem, the Jewish omphalos—the center from which life flows. The movement is launched by the powerful Pentecost wind/spirit that sweeps over the apostles and those Jews from throughout the Mediterranean gathered there for the feast. The curse of Babel (Genesis 11) is to be reversed, and all peoples are to hear God's Word in their own tongues.

The first chapters of Acts portray this message being announced to Jews who, Peter and Stephen believe, are prepared by their scriptures to hear it. All we are saying, they insist, is that our hope has been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus, and the times of jubilee, of starting over refreshed and renewed, have come upon us. This "good news" gets Peter thrown (twice!) into jail and Stephen stoned to death by an enraged crowd in Jerusalem.

Paul Negotiates Cultures
If the gospel gets this kind of reception among those who speak the language of scripture, how will it be heard among those who speak other languages? Acts narrates a series of encounters outside Judea in which Paul struggles to be heard. The issue in Acts is not primarily the literal question of translation any more than learning the proper intonation of bangala would have generated real dialogue between Rev. Price and the Congolese villagers. What Paul faced, and we continue to face, is the bigger challenge of making the gospel comprehensible to people whose worldview is different than our own without watering it down.

AFTER A SERIES OF missionary efforts in Pisidian Antioch and Iconium, Paul and Barnabas find themselves in the city of Lystra in the Roman province of Galatia (Acts 14:6-8). While Rome had succeeded in establishing a local aristocracy of soldiers and well-educated Greeks, much of the population remained uneducated Lycaonians of the Anatolian mountain tribes. When Paul heals a man of his lifelong inability to walk, the crowd proclaims in the indigenous language, "The gods have come down to us in human form" (14:11). They call Barnabas "Zeus" and Paul "Hermes," perhaps ironically expressing their experience in terms of Greek religion.

The apostles react with shock and dismay, desperately trying to convince the locals that "we have the same sufferings as humans and we bring you good news" (14:15). Rather than appeal to scripture as he, Peter, and Stephen had done for Jewish audiences, Paul tries to reach his hearers by speaking of "the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them" (14:15). Thus, we see Luke's first strategy: trace the good news back, not simply to the history of an ethnic group, but to the common source of all life.

The effort, however, is a failure. The crowds continue trying to offer sacrifice to the apostles, while those Jews from Antioch and Iconium who are jealous of Paul's success influence the crowd and Paul is stoned and nearly killed.

Paul faces another language problem when he arrives at Philippi, a Roman kolonia, or Rome-in-miniature (Acts 16:12). Here the issue is not indigenous practice but imperial religion. This time the exorcism of a woman slave, whose gifts of divination have been used to profit her owners, stirs up anger among those whose income-stream Paul's act has dried up. They drag Paul and Silas before the local authorities and charge them with "advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe" (16:21-22). The controversial custom proposed by Paul is the rejection of the entire system of "patronage" that uses people as a source of profit. Instead Paul favors the jubilee which is at the heart of the good news of Luke (and Jesus).

THE "LANGUAGE" THEY speak, like ours today, inextricably links the dominant culture's religion with support of a particular economic system. Just as social justice advocates have been (falsely) labeled "communists"—proponents of a "foreign" economic system—so Paul and Silas are perceived (correctly) as proclaiming a new economics, saying that God calls people away from exploitative exchanges of goods and services and into covenant communities in which the basic needs of all are met from the community's combined resources.

This time, the mission is not a total failure. The jailer and his household respond with joyous faith to the compassion Paul and Silas show in refusing to take advantage of a jail-breaking earthquake. And in the wider story, Luke frames the Philippi narrative with the welcome Paul receives at the home of Lydia, another person for whom the language of patronage was met face-to-face by the Word of God (Acts 16:14-15, 40).

Paul confronts a different linguistic barrier when he comes to Athens (Acts 17:15). He encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who perceive him as a spermologos, literally a "seed-picker"—someone who picks up bits and pieces of knowledge from anywhere. When Paul speaks of "Jesus and the resurrection" (17:19), they misunderstand him to be talking about a god and his consort "Anastasis," the Greek word for "resurrection." Paul steps back from this to seek a common language for conversation. Sounding much like a Stoic philosopher, Paul contrasts the "works of human hands" with those of God's hand. But he cannot avoid getting to the bottom line of God raising a man from the dead, at which point the bridge between them crumbles, as they scoff, "Get back to us later on this" (17:32).

Paul's final linguistic context is the Roman courtroom. In Acts 24, he finds himself on trial before the Roman governor Felix, where he is charged as, among other things, a political agitator. In his defense, Paul dons the persona of a Greco-Roman orator, following to a tee the rules of rhetoric by which the educated made their opinions known in formal circumstances. But once again, it is "resurrection of the dead" that closes the hearing and leads to Felix's attempt to coerce Paul into a patronage-based bribe to obtain his release (24:21-26).

Perhaps at this point readers are feeling frustrated or depressed, as Paul's various efforts seem largely to have met with failure. Despite translating the gospel into the languages of economics, philosophy, and imperial law, his listeners have apparently not responded with acceptance of his message. But we must remember that the gospel was written not for the characters in the narrative, but for Luke's audience. Each of these failed encounters is meant to challenge those hearers of Acts whose first reaction might be to identify with the Lycaonians, Philippians, Athenians, or Roman officials. To each, the question comes: Where is the line between defending what is good in your own culture and opening yourself to the reality that God is bigger than your culture alone?

From the side of those who might identify with Paul and his friends, the question takes a different form: How can we adapt the gospel to the language of our audience while maintaining the bottom line? For Luke, that bottom line was not a particular language of words, ritual, or culture. Instead it was the powerful capacity of the one God, the Creator of all, to give life even to the dead, a newness of life that meant jubilee for all people.

As long as we keep to this bottom line, we are free, indeed compelled, to adapt our language to the ears of those who may choose to listen to our proclamation of good news. And as was the case for Paul, this bottom line will get us into enough trouble all by itself.

Wes Howard-Brook, author of Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Orbis, 1999), taught and wrote from his home in Seattle when this article appeared.

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