The Church and Language

This painting, The Tower of Babel, is by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, drawn from the story in Genesis 11 concerning human language.  Photo credit:  Google Art Project, Wikimedia Commons


the church and language

Messages and Essays on the Church and Language

Athanasius as Evangelist: God Haunts Us Through Our Own Words (New Humanity Institute blog, Jan 22, 2018) a brief examination of Genesis 1 - 2 and a short passage from Athanasius’ Discourse Against the Arians 2; shows how words like good and evil, justice and injustice, love and selfishness, etc. are morally “larger” than us, and are therefore ways that God reminds us that we are moral agents in a framework larger than ourselves

The Role of Language and Community in Spiritual Formation, in Plato and Jesus This paper - written for Dr. Evie Holmberg's class on Greek from Plato to the Greek Fathers at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Fall 2018 - examines the communal contextuality of language, as well as the relationship between kataphatic and apophatic language.  Part of its original purpose is to argue against a synthesis between Christian theology and Neo-Platonic philosophical paganism, despite the similarities in terms.  This observation can become an argument for the simultaneity of church and Scripture on linguistic-historical grounds (because Jesus himself used human language in particular ways), but the priority of church over Scripture on linguistic-philological grounds.  The paper also serves to illustrate how an apophatic approach to language does not negate kataphatic language, as analogical language does not collapse into equivocation. 

Paul's View of Headship in Marriage: How 1 Corinthians Interprets Ephesians and Colossians The word “head” (Greek kephale) has stirred up much interest and controversy because of the way it is used in husband-wife and preacher-congregation relations. This paper argues that Jesus and the apostles established a Christian liturgical practice of men and women preaching and praying, in order to stabilize the meaning of the word kephale. It argues that the word kephale as found outside the New Testament and the LXX Old Testament demonstrate too much instability of meaning that it could not possibly be deployed by Jesus and the apostles unless a normative Christian practice stabilized it and accompanied its use. In fact, only if this is true can 1 Corinthians be fully integrated with Ephesians and Colossians, ethically and philologically. The paper draws on a longer exegetical analysis of 1 Corinthians 11:2 - 16 called Men and Women in Worship Together. This position challenges Protestants who believe that Scripture comes before church, which effectively means that the Christian liturgical context did not play a role in the interpretation of words found in Scripture. It challenges Orthodox and Catholics who believe they have faithfully and thoroughly preserved the original Christian liturgy from its origins. These papers argue that neither position is true.

The Council of Nicaea, the Origin of "the Trinity," and the Limitations of Human Language on the linguistic, theological dimension of language which made the Nicene Creed both possible and necessary. This exemplifies the need for the Church to standardize its own language, to stabilize the meaning of key words, and to take an active interest in the work of translation.  Prior to the debates about the Trinity, Greek and Latin had no words to express “person” as an eternal reality. The Greek prosopon and the Latin persona, were words used in the theater for the masks worn by actors. They were temporary, which was reinforced by various philosophies insisting that our human lives on this earth were temporary.

Slavery and Abolition in the Early Church: How the Early Church Got It Right (short ppt presentation) and Slavery and Abolition in the Early Church: How the Early Church Got It Right (long ppt presentation). These demonstrate that the Bible is against chattel slavery, and most other forms as well, and that Christian faith began to abolish slavery immediately, eventually formally abolishing it in northwestern and northern Europe by the 1300’s. This challenges the narrative that Christianity is ambiguous at best on slavery. Rather, Christianity is the only belief system that has generated abolitionist and anti-trafficking movements. These studies highlight especially how the Hebrew word ebed (translated into English as slave) was transformed and stabilized as it was brought into the story and laws of Israel. This continued in the New Testament. But Protestants (especially) who were already de-stabilizing biblical words to craft new meanings justified chattel slavery under the biblical words. In the U.S., “conservative” Christians thought that to defend the Bible, they had to advocate for chattel slavery. Meanwhile, post-Civil War “liberals” believed they had done better than Jesus and Paul by abolishing it, so in order to retain a place for Scripture, now perceived to be ethically inferior and primitive, they continued de-stabilizing words to give them new meanings, a trend which continued in liberal mainline Protestant churches on resurrection or marriage and so on. Both “conservatives” and “liberals” were wrong, which is why they encouraged/allowed for racialized criminal justice under the 13th Amendment, along with massive indebtedness, situations strenuously limited by the Hebrew ebed institution and New Testament ethics. For the full studies see Slavery in Christianity, Part 1:  Slavery in the Bible, Slavery Today (and ppt) and Slavery in Christianity, Part 2:  Abolitionism from the First to Fifteenth Century

A Theology of Living Systems (ppts) a presentation given for Jeff Bass, for his class Living Systems Ministry, in Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in May, 2019. It highlights how God designed creation, humanity, and human language as living systems which we need to study in order to learn about Him and ourselves.

Ethnicity, Culture, and Christian Faith: A Paradigm and a Questionnaire a brief informal questionnaire which highlights cultural differences among people; touches on language as a factor in cultural differences

Books and Articles on Language and Culture

Uyghur Script (Omniglot website) based on Sogdian, which was based on Syriac, which was based on Aramaic; traditional Mongolian script was based on Uyghur script

David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Amazon book, 2007) about the Indo-Europeans

Theresa Elms, Lexical Distance Among the Languages of Europe (blog, Mar 4, 2008)

Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Amazon book, Jan 1, 2009)

Lera Boroditsky, Lost in Translation: How Language Influences Culture (Wall Street Journal, Jul 23, 2010)

Peter McGraw, What Makes Things Funny? (TEDxBoulder, Aug 2010)

Alex Wain, 25 Handy Words That Simply Don't Exist in English (blog post, Apr 29, 2012)

Alan Massie, In Everything We Say, There Is An Echo of 1066 (The Telegraph UK, Oct 13, 2012) on why the Norman invasion of England elevated French words like "dine on beef" over English words like "eat cow."  See also Sian Ellis, How the Normans Changed England (British Heritage Travel, Sep 1, 2012).  See also M, How the Norman Conquest Affected England and English Literature (Jotted Lines blog, Dec 15, 2012) for some academic citations concerning the Magna Carta as more of a facade, and tension between Norman Episcopal see and traditional English abbey - fascinating to consider when the English reasserted their language as the language of law and governance in the 1362 by royal command:  an act of linguistic decolonization.  Noted by Barbara A. Sasso, In Code Switching: Celebrating Cultural Dialects in American Speech (Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 2015) on how to teach the history of the English language in a way that is relevant to modern debates about English, Ebonics, Spanish.

Oliver Raphael Phillips, Culture Trumps Religion, Every Time: The Ethno-Cultural Challenge for the Church (Amazon book, 2013)

Sara Gates, Tonal Languages, Music Ability Linked in New Study of Cantonese Speakers (Huffington Post, Apr 5, 2013)

Olga Khazan, How Parents Around the World Describe Their Children, in Charts (The Atlantic, Apr 12, 2013)

Ella Frances Sanders, 11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures (Maptia blog, Aug 26, 2013)

Walter Hickey, 22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Different From Each Other (Jun 5, 2013)

Noam Chomsky, What is Language and Why Does it Matter? (youtube video, Jul 27, 2013)

Prospero, Do Different Languages Yield Different Personalities? (Economist, Nov 5, 2013)

Alan Yu, How Language Seems To Shape One's View Of The World (NPR, Jan 2, 2014)

Jamila Lyiscott, Three Ways to Speak English (TED Talk, Feb 2014)

WNYC, 60 Legal Words That Blurred the Lines Between War and Peace (RadioLab, Apr 18, 2014) about legal language since 9/11/2001, and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland, CA) voting against war

Alice Robb, Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities (The New Republic, Apr 23, 2014)

Karthick Ramakrishnan, Slate, You're Doing it Wrong (AAPI Voices, May 15, 2014)

Economist, Gained in Translation: When Moral Dilemmas Are Posed in a Foreign Language, People Become More Coolly Utilitarian (Economist, May 17, 2014)

Mitch Mosley, Can Language Influence Our Perception of Reality? (Slate, Jun 2014)

Admin, Report: Some 2nd Century Roman Christians Hated Latin Mass Because It Was Said in the Vernacular (Eye of the Tiber, Aug 7, 2014) a satire, but on some level it must have been true, as Romans once spoke predominantly Greek, as reflected in the fact that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in Gre

Arika Okrent, Feast Your Eyes on This Beautiful Linguistic Family Tree (Mental Floss, Oct 23, 2014)

Priya Joshi, Learning a New Language Stimulates Same Pleasure Centres in the Brain as Sex and Chocolate (International Business Times, Oct 25, 2014)

Jessica Love, Psycho Babble (The American Scholar weekly column)

Paul Langley, Liquidity Lost: The Governance of the Global Financial Crisis (Amazon book, 2015) is not a Christian author that I know of, but this book is invaluable as a record of how Anglo-American bankers and politicians defined the financial crisis of 2008. They defined it in terms of liquidity with regards to themselves (to which the answer was "quantitative easing"), but in terms of risk of default with regards to Greece (to which the answer was "austerity"). This suggests that some people get to define problems and solutions for political reasons, where the labeling of the crisis already prescribed a solution, and how the labeling favored Anglo-Americans and crippled everyone else; this is an excellent study in cultural anthropology; see also book review by Sarah Hall (Journal of Cultural Economy, Jul 2015) and Journal of Cultural Economy.  

Laura Santhanam, Linguists Link English, Hindi to Single Ancestor Language Spoken 6,500 Years Ago (PBS, Feb 20, 2015)

Conor Friedersdorf, Gays, Traditionalists, and the Feeling of Being Under Siege (The Atlantic, Apr 6, 2015)

Ian Sample, Neuroscientists Create 'Atlas' Showing How Words Are Organised in the Brain (Guardian, Apr 27, 2015)

Daniel Dalton, 23 Perfect Words for Emotions You Never Realised Anyone Else Felt (Buzzfeed, Apr 27, 2015)

Alberto Lucas Lopez, A World of Languages - and How Many Speak Them (South China Morning Post, May 27, 2015)

Jack Jenkins, What The GOP Candidates Meant When They Were Talking About God At Last Night’s Debate (Think Progress, Aug 7, 2015)

Donald T. Williams, Philology the Handmaid (Lantern Hollow Press, Oct 19, 2015)

Angus Chen, Did The Language You Speak Evolve Because Of The Heat? (NPR, Nov 5, 2015)

Matthew James Roberts, Every Word So Employed: George MacDonald and the Theological Imagination (Fellowship of the King blog, Nov 14, 2015)

Charles Taylor, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity (Amazon book, Mar 14, 2016) relates language and moral development

R.K.G., China's Tyranny of Characters (Economist, Jul 5, 2016)

Gaia Vince, How Language Is Processed By Your Brain (CNN, Aug 16, 2016)

Julie Sedivy, How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language (Scientific American, Sep 14, 2016)

John Metta, It's Not About Race! (Medium, Sep 18, 2016) race is a proxy for culture

Jessica Brown, English Words That Have Totally Different Meanings Around the World (Indy100, Oct 16, 2016)

Rod Dreher, On Time: Arrival (The American Conservative, Nov 24, 2016) great exploration of neuroplasticity and language

Philip Perry, Does the Language We Speak Affect Our Perception of Reality? (Big Think, Dec 4, 2016)

David Robson, The Untranslatable Emotions You Never Knew You Had (BBC, Jan 26, 2017) words for emotions that don't exist in English but do in other languages

A.R. Williams, Ancient Parchments Reveal Old Texts Concealed by Newer Ones (National Geographic, Mar 2017) “In a sixth-century Egyptian monastery’s library [Saint Catherine’s], high-tech imaging of parchments reveals thousands of pages of hidden text.” Demonstrates the interest that Christian scholars and monks took in languages from early times. See also Richard Gray, The Invisible Poems Hidden in One of the World’s Oldest Libraries (The Atlantic, Aug 9, 2017) notes the recovery of Christian Palestinian Aramaic, previously unknown Greek poetry, and medical treatises. See also Kathy Brown, Lost Ancient Texts Recovered and Published Online Through International Partnership (UCLA Library News, Dec 19, 2017) for fantastic images of the manuscripts.

Tim Urban, Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future (Wait But Why, Apr 20, 2017) note the early section on language and its impact on human life

Alix Spiegel, Invisibilia: A Man Finds An Explosive Emotion Locked In A Word (NPR, Jun 1, 2017) an emotion blending furious anger and deep lament

Michael Gavin, Why Do Human Beings Speak So Many Languages (The Conversation, Jul 16, 2017) an intriguing theory by ecology and environment

Susannah Rigg, The Confusing Way Mexicans Tell Time (BBC, Jul 26, 2017)

Eli Cook, How Money Became the Measure of Everything (The Atlantic, Oct 19, 2017)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, When Words Don't Belong to Everyone (Random House, Nov 7, 2017) short youtube video

Jackson Wu, Unity and the Korean Language (Patheos, Apr 25, 2018)

Lena Boroditsky, How Language Shapes the Way We Think (TED, May 2, 2018)

Ben James, A Sneaky Theory of Where Language Came From (The Atlantic, Jun 10, 2018) with mention of Noam Chomsky and others who believe that linguistic complexity emerged near-instantaneously

Lily Loufbourrow, We Are in a Linguistic Emergency When It Comes to Trump (Slate, Jun 14, 2018) an intriguing consideration of how political and media use of words shapes perceptions

George Repper, 'For I will Pass Through the Land of Egypt This Night, and Will Smite All the Firstborn': St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Allegorical Sense of Scripture (Eclectic Orthodoxy, Feb 6, 2019) a trend from Origen of Alexandria, and later Gregory of Nyssa, to deal with difficult questions in the Hebrew Scriptures, but de-Judaized Christian faith in favor of Platonic Hellenism.  This is a linguistic-cultural-philosophical decision that had a major impact on Christian faith.

Densho, It’s Time to Retire WWII-Era Euphemisms for Japanese American Incarceration (Densho blog, Apr 26, 2019) highlights the importance of language in naming political crimes and misdeeds

John Iadarola and Brett Ehrlich, Study: Republicans Afraid of Different Languages (The Damage Report, May 9, 2019) demonstrates a political dimension to a psychological and spiritual challenge

Tradecraft and Joe Navarro, Former FBI Agent Explains How to Read Body Language (Wired, May 21, 2019)


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