Once upon a time in a land far, far away (unless you live there), a bunch of smart guys got together and discovered that if they baked bricks in the sun, they could build all sorts of useful things. They take this know-how and decide to build a kick-ass tower to show everyone around how great they were and so that they felt secure against any sort of attack. You can read the story for yourself here. But basically, the outcome of these men’s scheming to make a name for themselves is that God confuses their language and scatters them around the earth – a further consequence of the Fall in alienating humans one from the other.
Now, as a linguist (dahling), I find this story a little weird because really I LOVE languages and therefore kind of benefit from this scenario in a way that, on reflection, doesn’t seem to go hand in hand with the idea that confused languages is baaad. Off the top of my head, I reckon maybe my appreciation for languages has more to do with dechipering and understanding them, making sense of them than revelling the confusion or communication malfunctions they bring. Maybe linguists are part of God’s plan to redeem those things…
But, anyway – this isn’t really about that aspect of languages. Allow me to elaborate…
Although this story of the Tower happened geographically in a land far, far away (unless, as already conceded, you live there), we experience direct consequences of it every day – not even when we’re away from home in a country that speaks a language unknown to us, but in the sheer minefield that is communicating with one another, day to day, human to human.
There are the small things – the figurative language that, unless you’re a foreigner/thicko, you’ll tend to understand:
eg “I’m dying for the toilet” – Bit of a strange reason to invoke martyrdom. Or “I’d kill for a cup of tea” – Again, extreme reaction meriting 20 years or so in the slammer.
Then there are the medium things:
Then there are the big things like when someone says one thing but their best friend hears something different and a whole pile of shizz ensues. Or when a girlfriend says one thing but means something different and her boyfriend doesn’t get it and the excrement hits the air conditioning.
But the thing is, that communication – whilst arguably a large part of it is verbal, there’s a heck of a lot going on that has nothing to do with words. What is left unsaid often communicates more than what is said, ‘actions speak louder than words’ they say. There’s even a very definite form of communication that can be best described (I think) as how it smells! Not a physical smell, you understand, but just a feeling an instinct that something smells a little… off. And (she says, knowing that its grammatically incorrect to begin a sentance with ‘and’…) the thing is that all these things come together – verbal and non-verbal, explicit and implicit, past and present – in the large slippery mass that is communication.
In the story of Babel, the immediate consequence was that the people were alienated one from the other – they could no longer understand one another and then were physically scattered from each other. The enduring consequences are devastating: immigrant people groups pigeon-holed, work life complicated, friendships broken, families separated…
Remember back in primary school? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Do me a favour and never teach your children such bullshit. Words and their misuse or lack of use is, I believe, one of the single most harmful weapons humans can wield.
Soapbox ruminated a while ago about this sort of stuff (here), raising the question of our responsibility in communication – if we are misunderstood we cannot just assume that the problem is with the other person. Rather we must be ready to apologise not just ‘if’ they misuderstood, but that we did not communicate well or ensure good understanding of our meaning or our true feeling.
So, what to do? How do we deal with situations where bad communication has caused such damage that all subsequent interchange is tainted? What do we do if we say something or do something that hurts another person? How do we fix it? What does it take to rebuild that trust?
Or what do we do if we are the one who gets hurt? It may not have been intentional, but does that mean our hurt is invalid and we should just get over it?
How do grace and justice work together at Babel?
On Pentecost Sunday my church had asked Mr Preacher Man to follow church tradition and do a sermon on Acts 2. (He did such a good job that my well-practiced ‘slain-in-the-spirit-shoulda-boughta-honda’ move wasn’t necessary. Shame.) He pointed out something I’d never really thought about before – linked the arrival of the Spirit in a miracle of languages to this story of the Babel confusion of languages. The literal symbolic act of restoration an obvious link to Babel to the God-fearers present at the time…
God is at work restoring all things through Christ. This includes the confusion caused by the story of Babel.
Holy Spirit, come.