Every Tribe and Tongue: A Biblical Vision for Language in Society
Reviewed by Michael Lessard-Clouston, Applied Linguistics and TESOL, Biola University
Christians are known as people who are often concerned about language – what we and others read and write, say and hear. Yet until recently scant scholarship on Christian perspectives concerning language existed.1 Into this void step Michael Pasquale University) and Nathan Bierma (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship) who offer a “biblical vision for language in society,” as the subtitle indicates. Thus, Every Tribe and Tongue (ETT) is a welcome addition to the literature.
In a short introduction the authors begin by answering a question one of them received while giving a presentation at a church on English as a Second Language classes as ministry. Pasquale suggested that perhaps the church could also offer Spanish classes for the English-speaking congregation to be able to learn to reach out to the larger Hispanic community in their native language. Someone raised the question, “Why don’t they all just speak English?” (ix). The answer is complex, as this concise volume demonstrates in eight short chapters ranging from seven to fifteen pages each. The authors start by articulating their belief that language is a gift from God to humankind and that American Christians should also live as “strangers and aliens” in this world because they are called to witness in their communities (x). The audience for the book is thus Christians and churches, especially in the United States. Yet Pasquale and Bierma quickly assure readers that they do not write out of political correctness, but instead from their understanding of language and linguistics, the Bible, and “kingdom citizenship” (x-xi).
In chapter 1 Pasquale and Bierma declare that “God’s creation began with language” (1), and human beings were created “for language, but not for any one language” (3). Thus no particular language (like English) is better or worse than another, as all languages enable people “to employ their image-bearing linguistic ability” (3). Yet rather than use this skill to build up and speak beauty, “because of the effects of sin, we often do just the opposite; we speak chaos into the beauty” through lies, denials, boasts, and even silence (4-5). Con-necting Hebrew dabar (“word”/“thing”) and Greek Logos (6), the authors state that Jesus the Word has brought redemption, and thus language users are enabled to speak beauty once again, largely through dialogue (8).
Chapter 2 draws first on the Tower of Babel narrative to remind readers that while the sin of pride was a major issue there, the God who redemptively intervened “delights in diversity” (12), including the diversity of languages.2 Further, at Pentecost God appears to delight in linguistic diversity and affirm the linguistic individuality of those present in Acts 2, and also in Revelation 7:9-10. From that passage comes the authors’ reference for the title of the book: “God thinks the ultimate victory is for people of every tribe and tongue to shout at once, in their own language;” thus “God made a way for linguistic diversity” (16). Such a diversity of languages leads in chapter 3 (“Love Your Neighbor”) to a discussion of “linguistic hospitality”: “loving and welcoming the foreigner includes welcoming the foreigner’s culture and language” (20-21). Here the authors suggest “making room for the languages of others” (21) in order to build “bridges across racial and cultural lines to form lasting relationships” (22). As elsewhere in the book, the authors’ suggestions are not only for individuals but especially for the church, returning to earlier topics as they conclude that the goal should not be conformity, but instead “a congregation that reflects God’s diversity and creativity through its music, language, and culture” (23).
Chapter 4, “From Every Nation,” is one of the two longest (at fifteen pages), and addresses issues of immigration and their relationship to language in the U.S. The authors provide historical background and consider language policy and language use, identity, and the church for several time periods, up to the present. Indicating that “the original inhabitants of North America” represented hundreds of different languages, some of which were used officially in “local government, the media, schools, and church” (27), they note it was not until the late 1800s after “nearly a century of immigration to the United States before [language] policies at the national level were formalized” (28). The early 1900s saw the initial laws requiring immigrants to America to be able to read English (30), and shortly thereafter World Wars influenced immigrant communities and churches in various ways. Norwegian Lutheran Churches are offered as an example of communities that helped immigrants preserve their language and culture, while “Italian Catholic churches in the U.S. served as focal points to integrate Italians into American society” (34). While in recent years “31 states have designated English as an official language” (35), Pasquale and Bierma see similarities and differences between the current Hispanic church in the U.S. and their earlier examples. In both cases most of the immigrants are Christian, but there may be less homogeneity than with previous groups, and although some churches still help immigrants assimilate, others may enable people to resist learning English, all the while offering helpful services to their local communities (37).
Language in education is the focus of chapter 5, which promotes moving “beyond an anglo-centric view of the world and affirm[ing] to our children that multilingualism, not monolingualism, is in fact biblical” (40). Given the connections between language and identity, the authors argue for schooling which supports second language acquisition for children, and not only for immigrants but also Americans themselves. The authors provide various reasons for helping children become bilingual, not simply to get ahead or to gain an economic advantage but “as something deeply spiritual” (45), which in turn will hopefully lead children and families to an appreciation and “expectation of diversity in the world” (46).
The other longest chapter, 6, is on the language of Scripture and worship. It begins by speculating that Jesus likely used a northern Jerusalem accent, which might be similar in (lower) status to a southern U.S. accent in English. This point aims to help readers understand that “to truly see every human language as God’s gift, equally worthy of our attention and equally adequate for praising God as any other, we need to topple a sense of our own language or own accent being linguistically superior” (48). Next a brief overview is given of biblical languages, including Hebrew’s simple sound and structure, as well as its ambigu-ity, and the precision of Greek. The authors use linguistic properties and literary styles to emphasize the original languages and cultures, which “make the works of Scripture even more meaningful than we might imagine,” but also to “remind us that any translation into any other language… is imperfect at rendering the full linguistic character of Scripture” (53-54). In the last section Pasquale and Bierma give examples of some biblical words and expressions where they believe something is lost in English translations, and conclude by arguing for the “need to recover the original biblical languages in worship to whatever extent possible” (60), to remember “the orality of Scripture,” and “to bring a variety of languages into the mix in worship,” since “no one language can fully capture the full scope of God’s revelation through his Word” (61).
Chapter 7 offers a sociolinguistic take on prejudices reflected in emphases on language purity, suggesting “Standard English” is a dialect like any other, but our preference for it is mainly related to its dominance in “institutions of power” (64). Transitioning to more creative language, the authors discuss slang (“language with its sleeves rolled up”, 68) and the language play reflected in puns and other language uses. The concluding chapter (“Go Into All the World”) indicates that to live out the ETT vision requires embracing “multilingual and multidialectal diversity” (73), which the authors believe can lead to transformed linguistic communities emphasizing cross-cultural mission, heterogeneous worship, and differences that both enable and reflect linguistic transformation. Consequently the final part of the book is dedicated to case study examples of how four churches have become transformed communities reflecting those the authors envision. The book closes with a four-page bibliography.
ETT is a beautifully written book which brings together two authors and their areas of expertise to discuss thoughtfully the significant language issues for individuals and the church. At first I was surprised by its brevity, given the breadth and depth of potential issues in a biblical vision for language in society, but this is perhaps one of the book’s strengths, since in recent years I have concluded that is usually better to leave your readers wanting more than to overburden them with too much detail. Such is the case here. Although the treatment of topics is somewhat uneven (two chapters are each fifteen pages long, for example, while most are only seven to eight pages in length), in those chapters where the authors do elaborate on their views, they offer many good, rich insights. Another strength of the book is that Pasquale and Bierma do not shy away from difficult topics, like language and immigration, and they challenge readers to think outside the box and imagine what the implications of truly having a biblical vision of language might be for them and their churches. ETT also seems to be written largely with a lay audience in mind, so it would be relatively easy for someone in your church to read and be impacted by, especially if they are American. Yet for readers of other countries and nationalities, the American focus may distract them.
From an academic perspective, though, I believe ETT has some weaknesses. I was disappointed, for example, that the authors do not expand very much on the “society” of their subtitle, except perhaps in relation to the church. The brief introductions to applied linguistic issues are accurate and helpful, but may often oversimplify things. One example on pages 44-45 is where the authors introduce reasons for promoting childhood second language acquisition, referencing some literature on topics such as the critical period. The arguments for and against such issues are complex, and the authors’ summary is simplistic here. The good thing is that they introduce readers to the topics and provide further references, yet the challenging part is that they seem to downplay the complexity and to discount potential issues that might detract from their argument. Another example occurs when Pasquale and Bierma overstate the challenges of Bible translation, even though they make clear that “any translation… done by skilled and knowledgeable translators is… adequate for conveying the basic message of the Bible” (55). True, we could all benefit from a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, but we are also blessed with many wonderful Bible translations (particularly in English) and the Holy Spirit to teach and guide readers in understanding and applying their linguistic properties, whatever translation they use. Finally, while I agree that we should welcome foreigners’ culture and language, I was reminded of how the Israelites went about this, and Nehemiah’s response in chapter 13 of his book certainly appears to challenge the view the authors present in chapter 3.
Despite these observations, in my own research on Christian views of language and their applications, I have located seven main biblical themes, namely creativity, understanding, communication, community, sin, diversity, and redemption.3 Though independent of Every Tribe and Tongue, I was delighted to conclude that Pasquale and Bierma similarly identify and address each of these themes, though to varying extents. I thus heartily recommend this slim volume and will be using it as one of the textbooks in my Introduction to Language and Linguistics course.
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Notable exceptions include Moisés Silva, God, Language and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990); David I. Smith and Barbara Carville, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); Fred Field, Essays in the Design of Language (Santa Ana, CA: Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2005), Vern S. Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: Language – A God-Centered-Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), and Richard Robison, “Language from a Christian Perspective Reconsidered,” Journal of Christianity and Foreign Languages 12 (2011): 10-28.
- M. Paul Lewis, ed., Ethnologue, 16th ed., (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2009), states there are currently 6,909 living languages [http://www.ethnologue.com/ethno_docs/distribution.asp?by=area (accessed May 28, 2012)].
- For a concise summary, see Michael Lessard-Clouston, “Seven Biblical Themes for Language Learning,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 48 (April 2012): 172-179.