by Terry L. Todd
Any reference to incarnation must, of course, take into account the miraculous taking-on of human flesh by the Divine.
Any reference to incarnation must, of course, take into account the miraculous taking-on of human flesh by the Divine. Every time we use the term with reference to an ordinary human being, we, to some degree, dilute the incredible truth of Jesus’ incarnation and all that it meant and means to mankind today.
Nevertheless, there is some justification for using the term in those instances where an ordinary human being goes to extraordinary lengths to imitate the incredible personal sacrifices that the Lord Jesus accepted as a given to glorify the Father on earth. And if the motivation of the ordinary human being is primarily to glorify the Father among a people who are otherwise blinded to that glory by barriers that others have been unable or unwilling to cross, it seems to be a legitimate use of the term.
COSMOS PRINCIPLE OF LANGUAGE USE
Part of the cosmos, or world system, that we discover as we study language is a basic principle that determines language use worldwide: People who are born into a language community that is relatively powerless tend to learn a second language that gives them some degree of entry into a more powerful community. On the other hand, people who are born into a language community that is powerful, relative to those language communities around it, tend to remain monolingual. In other words, where two language communities contact each other, there is normally a very strong economic and social benefit to be gained by members of the one community for learning a second language and no benefit to be gained by the other. Thus, language learning between two neighboring peoples tends to be unidirectional. And the direction can be predicted by the relative economic strengths of the two communities.
For example, Kurds in Turkey have long struggled to gain equal footing in the marketplace with ethnic Turks. Economic development has been minimal in the parts of Turkey predominantly inhabited by Kurds. The Turks themselves may complain of lack of opportunity, but compared to the Kurds, they have far better chances of getting jobs, of owning businesses, of getting political appointments, and of being promoted in the military. So many Kurds learn Turkish to better their economic chances, but Turks do not learn Kurdish. It would not help them economically or socially.
We Americans often mistakenly think that only we, among the world’s peoples, are monolingual. Not true. Many people are monolingual in French, in German, in Italian, in Spanish, even in Turkish. The bilingual and multilingual peoples of the world are members of language communities that put them at an economic disadvantage-such as Tzeltal Indians in a Spanish-speaking economic system or Yiddish speakers in a Polish economy. They must go to the pain and trouble of learning a second or third or fourth language. Native speakers of Dutch, living in a regional economy controlled by the richer and more powerful speakers of English and German on all fronts, are far more likely to become bilingual than their neighbors.
Incarnational learners are those who, despite this principle, lay aside the economic and social advantages of being members of the more powerful language community and, against all odds, learn the language and take on the culture of the disadvantaged for no economic or social gain. They expend incredible energy and accept the most painful humiliation of sounding, in the beginning, like a stammering child. And they do this not for monetary gain, but to reveal the glory of God to the natural members of the economically less powerful peoples. They are the only significant exception to the cosmos principle.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Although one could list many phenomena as barriers to the gospel, language and culture together form an interwoven and profound barrier to the acceptance of the gospel. No amount of money or education will have the same powerful effect as one human being who gives up his own linguistic and cultural trappings and instead clothes himself with the "flesh," i.e. the language and culture, of a person who is on the other side of the barrier.
Language and culture are as inseparable as the threads of a well-woven fabric. Just as cloth is made up of both warp and woof threads, the life of a people is made up of the interaction of their language and culture. If we separate the warp from the woof, we can examine the threads, but the cloth no longer exists. Similarly, we may examine some elements of a people’s language in relatively clinical isolation. On the other hand, we can examine some elements of the culture without understanding the language. But both of these exercises are limited and artificial, preventing us from seeing the unity of the "cloth," which is, indeed, a synergy of the warp and the woof, i.e. far more than a sum of the parts.
To appreciate fully the richness of the language, one must participate in the culture. And in order to perceive more than just the outward behaviors, and really to delve into the beliefs, values, and worldview, one must discuss them in the language of the culture. One must enter the culture and language and become, to the extent possible for an adult language and culture learner, an insider.
BEYOND CULTURAL SENSITIVITY
Many believe the classical era of modern mission was, to the great shame of the Western churches, inseparable from Western imperialism with its brutal economic exploitation and political domination of peoples and whole countries. A very important course correction in the few decades since imperialism collapsed has been the development of mission strategies and missionaries that are more sensitive to cultural issues. Mission agencies now strive to be more alert to the fact that their missionaries inevitably, though often unintentionally, carry something of their own culture as unnecessary baggage along with the gospel.
The incarnational learner goes a step farther. Not only does he acknowledge the native’s right to see the gospel through his own cultural lens, as it were. The learner also does everything he can to escape the bonds of his own culture in order to behold God and his Word through that lens that is brand new to him and most natural to the members of the economically disadvantaged people group.
For the missionary, it is far more comfortable to remain a card-carrying member of the privileged set and to educate the disadvantaged in the language and worldview of the wealthy, along with the gospel from that perspective. And it can be attractive to the members of the disadvantaged people to acquire the language and trappings of the economically and politically more powerful missionary. But for the missionary to abandon his privilege and to become, as much as is possible, a member of the underprivileged is supernatural. It is a reenacting of the story of salvation, not just a retelling of it.
Many, though admittedly not all, missionaries of the era of imperialism approached the "heathen" with an attitude of superiority which, in effect, said, "Look at us and see what you can become if you acknowledge your unworthiness. If you clothe yourselves appropriately and learn a real language that has grammar and a rich literary heritage, if you apply yourselves diligently and learn to work well for us, you can be saved. Gaze over this enormous barrier between us and realize that you must become civilized like us if you are ever to become worthy servants of those of us on this side of the barrier."
The "corrected," more culturally sensitive missionary looks across the barrier and has compassion on the disadvantaged. He acknowledges the equality of all men created under God’s heaven. He may even learn the language of the disadvantaged and study his culture, giving glory to God for the wondrous structural complexity that reveals the hand of the Creator among a people who has not invented gunpowder nor implemented the principle of the wheel. But in effect, he is like a man who holds out his hand across the barrier and says, "Come on over, brother. Let me help you escape your poverty and your darkness." It is not yet enough.
The incarnational learner, on the other hand, is like a man who humbles himself and takes it upon himself to cross the barrier in the unnatural (anti-cosmos) direction at great personal sacrifice. Instead of helping the disadvantaged to cross the cultural and linguistic hurdles to success, he crosses them himself and asks, "What is it like over here? Teach me, please. How can I become like you?"
Sadly, some missionaries still hold the attitude of, "They know I am an American. I’m not going to fool anybody by pretending to go native. It would only confuse and insult them for me to try to become one of them. They all want to learn English and become full-fledged members of the world economy."
While it is true that the incarnational learner will confuse many, it is precisely the kind of confusion that may be necessary to get them to look at anything beyond economic motivation and suspicion of exploitation. The privilege and power of wealth are clear to them, as is the universal human yearning to attain these for one-self. What is mysterious and inviting is the person who exhibits a yearning for the benefit of someone who is less fortunate. That is Christlikeness. He yearned not for more power and privilege, nor did he even yearn to protect the privilege he had. Instead, he emptied himself and became our servant.
And it does not insult the disadvantaged to have an outsider take the trouble and pain to try to understand the world from their perspective.
People who have learned to be ashamed of their own language and culture feel that way because outsiders have exploited them economically, excluded them socially, and ridiculed them publicly. And when an outsider, in contrast to all that, exhibits the attitude of an eager, humble learner who seeks their economic benefit, who wants to be included socially within their system, and who honors them publicly, they are not insulted.
RELATIONAL NATURE OF LANGUAGE
Culture, which by definition is something shared by all members of a group, is obviously a relational phenomenon. But although language is primarily useful for communicating not with oneself, but with others, it may not be intuitively obvious that language is also relational. There is a widely accepted notion that language can be learned from books, from recordings, in classrooms, and so on. Though one may learn a great deal about a language from these things, one will never become a speaker of a second language until he develops a relationship that is based in that language.
When I was in high school in Colorado in the early 1960s, I chanced upon the possibility of studying Russian at Littleton High School. I was motivated primarily by curiosity and the opportunity to study something more exotic than the French and Spanish that my brother and sister, respectively, had studied before me. I experienced moderate success in the class for two years but did not conclude that I had any particular gift for languages.
And I certainly did not become bilingual. I knew a fair amount about the grammar and had learned a significant amount of vocabulary. I could recite certain dialogues verbatim and, when required, could make a few substitutions in certain places in those dialogues. But I was not a speaker of Russian. At university I took a couple more semesters of Russian, but to this day ! still am not a speaker of Russian, though I can read some materials with the help of a dictionary.
My wife and I became members of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1972. Over the next several years I had opportunity to study numerous languages either in classrooms (French, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish), in short-term cross-cultural experience (Tzeltal, Choctaw, Bahdini Kurdish, Luri Kurdish, German), or both classroom and cross-cultural exposure (Spanish, Sorani Kurdish). And I did well in all these studies, learning grammar, vocabulary, dialogues, etc.
But when I arrived in Germany in 1983, despite all the language exposure, I was still monolingual. I was very nervous about that. There I was posing as a linguist, holding a Master of Arts degree in linguistics, having my Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages (except for the dissertation) from the University of Michigan, and I was still just a monolingual American. Two and a half years later I was not just bilingual or trilingual but quite fluent in four languages.
It was a huge relief to discover that I could become a speaker of another language and not just a scholar of it. And it was richly rewarding. But what made the difference? Relationships. For the first time in my life, I was forming relationships with people who could not speak English. And since they could not speak English, the relationships had to be formed in other languages.
My conclusion: Language learning, as opposed to language studying, is relational; you can study a language forever and never become a speaker of it until you establish a relationship with someone based on that language.
Virtually all human relationships are based in one language or another. Even people who share two or three languages in common will find that their relationship is based in just one of the languages.
For example, my wife and I share three languages and can communicate in any of the three. But except for unusual circumstances, we normally only communicate in one of them. If we want to make someone fee! included in our conversation and that someone does not share English, we often speak German or Kurdish as appropriate to include him. On other occasions we may resort to one of those languages to exclude someone, such as our children (who know German but not Kurdish), from a brief, private interchange. But if we just want to relate to each other from the heart, we resort to the language in which our relationship is based, English.
And since language and culture are inseparable, when we say that a relationship is based in one language or the other, it is equally true that the relationship is based in the culture that goes with that language.
Thus, it is next to impossible to get two American university students, for example, to relate in French even though they are both learning French. First, the students have likely already established at least the beginnings of a relationship in English.
And second, they are participating in American culture, and in American university classroom subculture, neither of which is compatible with the French language.
Some might argue that, as adult learners, we can never become accepted as insiders in a society into which we were not born. I disagree. We adult learners can never completely rid ourselves of the last trace of an accent. And we may never become absolutely natural with every nuance of gesture in every situation in the culture we adopt. But that does not excuse us from exerting every effort. And it does not mean that we cannot become insiders.
Though I have an American accent in my Kurdish, Kurds do not believe that I am not a Kurd. Though I make mistakes culturally while among them, they believe that I am one of them. Even when I swear that I was born in America and never heard of the Kurds until I was a young man, they look at me knowingly and ask, "But what about your father? He must have been a Kurd."
The very reason for this is the cosmos principle: People from powerful communities do not become members of powerless communities. People who speak Turkish do not learn Kurdish; how much less a person who speaks English, the most powerful language in the economic world. Therefore, anyone who speaks Kurdish is a Kurd. There can be no other natural explanation.
When a member of a privileged group lays aside his own language and culture to become an insider among the underprivileged, he takes on the flesh and blood, as it were, of those people. He exists among them not as a foreigner who cares about their condition, but as one of their own who may coincidentally have spent significant time in his youth outside the culture. One cannot choose where he is born nor the language and culture into which he is born. But he can, as an adult, choose which language to speak and which society to be a member of. But it is contrary to the principles of the world system to abandon privilege and choose disadvantage for oneself. Only one who imitates Christ will try it.
It is one thing to view a person on the disadvantaged side of the barrier as one’s equal under God. It is wholly another to submit yourself to him and to submit your family to his family as people who need something from him, people who cannot know the full glory of God without looking through his particular cultural/linguistic lens.
Terry Todd served as a member of the Summer Institute of Linguistics and is working on his Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages at the University of Michigan.
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