The Language of Faith


Saw this on NPR this morning:  Language Boot Camp for Mormon Missionaries

Then read this on The Guardian:  Loss of World Languages

A jarring juxtaposition.  Here’s the connection I made (that I think we need to make).

As a former missionary. . .at least as a Campus Crusader in the 70’s. . .I remember how “fired up” we were “spreading the good word of the gospel of Jesus.”  We hit the beaches, went door to door, stuck stickers and bible passages wherever we could, to “witness” for The Lord.  We proclaimed the four spiritual laws (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” followed by Jesus, Jesus, Jesus).  We couldn’t wait to talk and talk and talk about One Subject, the Greatest Subject, to Every Subject-Soul we could find.  It was an exciting time.

So, I easily relate with the enthusiasm of the Mormon students as they learn languages for One Main Purpose:

The training center is widely recognized as one of the best language-instruction institutes in the world, though that’s not the only thing that’s taught. In a matter of weeks, these enthusiastic young students will be speaking foreign languages fluently enough to spread the Gospel.

“So we’re working on the grammar structure … and we’re teaching that grammar structure in the context of teaching someone about Jesus Christ and what he did when he was on the Earth,” Hodges says.

The class recites phrases like, “What did Jesus Christ do when he was on Earth?”

Yes, the Language of Faith.

Given that godly grammar, it’s a bit stunning, but not fully surprising, that we hear this:

The approach has also gained traction in the U.S. military. In fact, the ties between the U.S. military and the MTC [Missionary Training Center] run pretty deep. The Army’s Intelligence Brigade, made up of linguists, is based in Utah and draws on former missionaries to fill its ranks. . . .  The military trains soldiers in much the same way the church trains missionaries.

I find that troubling in its own way, but here’s what’s really happening in the Bigger World of Language:

One in four of the world’s 7,000 languages are now threatened with extinction, and linguistic diversity is declining as fast as biodiversity – about 30% since 1970, [a report says].

While around 21% of all mammals, 13% of birds, 15% of reptiles and 30% of amphibians are threatened, around 400 languages are thought to have become extinct in the same time.

Think about that:  the extinction of a language. . .400 languages.

A young man, Benny Wenda, from West Papua New Guinea, feels the loss in a very personal way:

“If you fell the trees then you destroy human culture as well as the birds of paradise. People depend on the forest and the forest has always depended on us. We are as one.”

A Wake-Up Call for everyone.  If we listen to these voices, we may begin to understand what we are losing:  cultures, languages, land, wildlife, human beings.  If we listen.

Something missionaries are not so “trained” to do, or really even interested in doing.

Listening takes time.  Listening is hard and challenging.  Listening is learned from experience.  Listening begins when we learn to close our mouths, that we don’t have all the knowledge, all the answers.  Listening starts from a place of humility and curiosity.  Listening shows respect and a willingness to learn from another person’s life experience.  Listening is risky, because in our learning we may change our minds and even some of our beliefs.

What if all these young people were trained to listen to Benny and other indigenous people of the world?  What if they learned the disappearing languages from the disappearing people?  Heck, what if they went to OUR streets, shelters and hospitals to listen?  What if they devoted their lives to preserving, protecting, “saving” human beings, cultures, languages, the natural environment from extinction?  What if this was the “calling”. . .rather than to save souls for some other, imagined world?

The language of faith raises a whole library full of What Ifs. . .

What if we were all students enrolled in a class named, “The Language of Listening”?

Maybe we are.



2 thoughts on “The Language of Faith

  1. Speaking as a linguist (PhD in linguistics before I switched to chaplaincy), language is a part of culture, and so a loss of a language entails a loss of some of a culture. But take heart: as languages die, new ones are born, and current ones keep evolving.
    Speaking as a chaplain, I recently Tweeted that the job of a chaplain is not to bestow answers but to pose questions.

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