Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Interpreter

Ever since Babel's tower, learning languages has been the main hurdle in cross-cultural communication.

At that time, man's pride was so audacious that he felt he could do anything, even build a stairway to God's dwelling place. It's interesting that God recognized man's nearly limitless potential, and to hear the Bible tell it, he had to twist their tongues to keep them from reaching it.

Generations in the future, even with all our advances in computers and technology, our inability to talk to each other still limits our capacity to work together across borders.

In college, I thought I'd take a step toward fixing that by learning Chinese. I had been on missions trips to China and felt I'd have a better chance at communicating with sensitivity on future journeys if I used the people's heart language. Not to mention that it would help me travel, and it wouldn't hurt my job prospects if I could speak a language that almost a sixth of the world's population uses every day.

It's been hard. Chinese is a tonal language, and a word like ma can have 5 different meanings depending on the inflection of the voice. Chinese is also monosyllabic, meaning one word is usually one syllable, represented by one character. But today's Mandarin Chinese employs a lot of compound words like feiji, the word for airplane. "Fei" means to fly, and "ji" means machine, forming the literal and quite logical "flying machine."

Even with my struggles, I've had one strength in Chinese that a lot of foreigners don't have (and I'm only saying this because people have told me so): I can keep myself from imposing a standard of what the language should and shouldn't do based on my English-tinged mind.

The point of learning a foreign language is that it's foreign, something outside the realm of what your mind has processed before. This is both the maddening and the beautiful part of tackling the task of conversing in a different tongue. Getting there can be tough, but even in little victories you feel like you've opened up another identity, taken up a new self and joined an exclusive club.

Following God is like that, too. He's so holy, set apart, so other, that everything about his character is incomprehensible to us, infinitely more difficult to understand than Greek or Chinese to the English speaker.

I think it's pretty obvious that spiritually, weakness, sin and selfishness are our vernacular, and it's going to take some hefty studying in life to get to the point where our conversations are seasoned with salt and productive for his kingdom.

I like to say I'm "studying Chinese," probably because it makes me sound impressive and exotic (to people who don't already know better). Truth is, I rarely pick up my many Chinese books, and I've failed to get a language partner who can help smooth my conversational skills.

The same goes for learning God's language. The vocabulary of forgiveness, grace and peace pop up in my head too infrequently. The textbook is often too heavy on unfamiliar themes. I rarely speak to God on his terms or listen when he pronounces how I should order my steps. A language is a way of life, and I disregard with my actions that which I desperately desire to master in my head.

Good thing God sent an Interpreter who makes plain the complex realities of who God is. His Word is my spiritual dictionary.

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