December 30, 2015

The Language of A Country Called Church

When on  holidays, as I am now,  I  buy two or three literary magazines that I wouldn’t usually read during the busy year.  This past fortnight holidays was a couple of weeks in Singapore, a nice five hour/no-time-zone-change flight directly north of Perth. From 40 degrees Celcius oven to 30 degrees humidifier.  The New Yorker fitted the season and the trip just nicely.

For my money, The New Yorker is slightly pompous, slightly too PC, and, as the combination suggests, not all that funny, which I guess it doesn’t have to be, given its high standard of writing. Thankfully the cartoons make up for it – they’re hilarious and clever. Although even they are vetted too much for my liking, as this brilliant, but rejected compilation testifies to.

But funny aside, the December 7 edition had a Martin Amis short story, and a brilliant essay by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri entitled Teach Yourself Italian. Not bad for a budget flight to Singers.

Lahiri’s article struck me.  For years this American-born, Indian lady, attempted to learn Italian. She grew up at home with her Bengali-born mother whose command of English was poor, and who made little attempt to master it.

Lahiri’s initial efforts followed the well-worn route of all language learners; finding teachers and tutors that would help her master the language whilst she lived her busy New York life. She pored through text books, sat through hours of one-on-one classes, and devoured (or rather was devoured by) Italian language novels.


Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Jhumpa Lahiri

The result after all those Italian lessons, all that cost, all those nights pored over text books, all those hours of one-on-one tutoring from well-meaning New York Italians?  Nothing. Nix. Nada, or more to the point, “Niente”. Lahiri’s Italian remained stubbornly infantile, reduced to mere flustered gibbering on her increasingly frequent trips to Italy for literary promotions.

So what did Lahiri do?  The only thing left to do. She, her husband, and her two children moved to Rome, where they live to this day.  Lahiri made the discovery that the only way to learn the language was to loyally attach yourself to the place where the language is the mother tongue; to make the decision to grope your way towards fluency by simply being around the only place in the world (and Italy IS the only place in the world), where Italian is first nature, not second. It was a dangerous, but necessary decision.

Listen to her rationale:

“I have no friends in Rome. But I’m not going there to visit someone.  I’m going in order to change course, and to reach the Italian language. In Rome, Italian can be with me every day, every minute.  It will always be present, relevant. It will stop being a light switch to turn on occasionally, and then turn off.”

What struck me was how life-changing this experience was for Lahiri.  Italian no longer became a language to learn, something to master, indeed it began to master her!  She was transformed by the language as she lived in the place in which it was the mother tongue.  As she starts to journal in her new language living in the place of the language, she begins a journey of deconstruction and reconstruction.  She observes:

I don’t recognise the person who is writing in this diary, in this new approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me.

Indeed there is a delicious danger in what Lahiri is doing, as she attests:

I’ve been writing in Italian for almost two years, and I feel that I’ve been transformed, reborn. But the change, this new opening, is costly…In Italy even though many have encouraged me to take this step, many support me, I’m still asked why I have a desire to write in a language that is much less widely read in the world than English. Some say that my renunciation of English could be disastrous, that my escape could lead me into a trap. They don’t understand why I want to take such a risk.

Here’s what struck me about all this.  Lahiri simply did what God’s people must do if they are to be the genuine, vulnerable, reborn people of God that he would have them to be.  In a world in which the Christian language is a foreign one, a world in which biblical and theological categories are increasingly viewed as gibberish,  God’s people, if they are to live, speak, write, act, work and think Christianly, must immerse themselves in the country that is called Church.

You see, it’s all too easy to slip into what Lahiri found with Italian: the Christian language becomes a light globe to switch on and switch off at will, depending on the circumstances and location.

In order to avoid this destructive dualism, this spiritual bifurcation, God’s people must intentionally and regularly inhabit a Christian community  steeped in theological language, or else it will become, like Latin, a dead language, useful in the classroom, but unused and unusable in the real world.

Christians together must voice spiritual glossolalia, stammer statements that begin “Let’s pray about that together”; string together sentences that conclude “according to your holy will and for you glory”; proclaim narratives and songs that unpack terminologies such as “justification”, “atonement”, “reconciliation”, “discipline”, “hope”, and above all “love”.

This language must come from our mouths at first stutteringly and self-consciously, before finally flowering into rich dialogues, conversations and pleas, ready to hand on to our children. Like the decision to think and write in Italian was for Lahiri, it will be labelled risky and disastrous, making us less widely acceptable.  To which I say, bring it on.

In an individualistic, secular age, – the “Not-Church” world – the communal Christian language is not only a foreign language, but a hostile foreign language, one to be bred out, stamped out, and run out of town. There will be few encouragements to learn the language, much less be transformed by it.

Hence if you don’t learn this foreign language in the country in which it is the mother tonguedon’t assume you’ll become fluent in it, be changed by it, made vulnerable by it, be reborn by it, through podcasts, text-books or solo catch ups from time to time with those who speak it.  It must infuse you in order for it to be you, hence you must infuse yourself in the one place in which it is spoken fluently.

Now I know all of that jars with the past decade’s commitment to contextualisation, missional, avoidance of jargon etc. But let’s face it, it also jars with the whole seeker sensitive movement that spawned the missional movement, and which is responsible for the biggest thinning out of theological language in the Western church in a noble, but fairly misguided attempt to reach the unchurched.

I am sorry to say, but when it comes to the use of theological language,  the missional church has, unfortunately all too often retained the same DNA as her spurned mother, and no more so than when it comes to jettisoning the language of Christianity, as if that’s the barrier to Christianity, rather than what it actually is, the gateway.

Stanley Hauerwas says that the church is God’s new language.  And for all our obsession with church this past decade and a half in the West: how to do it; why to do it; where to do it; when to do it; who to do it for, etc, the one thing that is painfully in decline is a commitment to a country called Church, one that calls for a residents to make the costly decision that from now on, their mother tongue will be their Father’s tongue.

And that’s a decision that is going to become even more costly in our declining culture, in which the language most spoken, most listened to, is the language of the Devil, the one who, when he tells a lie is, as Jesus stated in John 8:44, simply speaking his native tongue.

Oh, and just as a point of interest,  Lahiri’s erudite, philosophical article in The New Yorker was translated into English from her original Italian manuscript. Not bad for an American-born Indian woman recently moved to Rome.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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