Today is Pentecost, and I have to admit that the first thing that comes to mind is “Oh, the Pentecostals… you mean those weirdos who speak in tongues?” But the story of Pentecost isn’t about incomprehensible utterances at all. It’s just the opposite.
Jesus’ disciples spoke Aramaic. This made it fairly easy to talk to people who spoke Aramaic, but was a major obstacle when trying to talk to the rest of the world around them. According to the story of Pentecost, God suddenly gave the disciples the ability to communicate in other languages. Or maybe God gave everyone else the ability to understand Aramaic.
When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” They stood there amazed and perplexed. “What can this mean?” they asked each other. But others in the crowd ridiculed them, saying, “They’re just drunk, that’s all!” Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles and shouted to the crowd, “Listen carefully, all of you, fellow Jews and residents of Jerusalem! Make no mistake about this. These people are not drunk, as some of you are assuming. Nine o’clock in the morning is much too early for that.”
Well, the skeptic in me has to admit that Peter’s reasoning is flawed. Maybe the crowd was just getting their drank on a little earlier than usual; after all, it’s five o’clock somewhere. But drunkenness does not make one capable of understanding other languages, at least in my experience. So I don’t think booze had anything to do with it. On the other hand, maybe Peter was just repaying one joke with another: “Surely none of these fine people would ever have a drink at an improper time.”
The important part of this story is that language is both a means and an obstacle to communication. There might be a few certain things that can be communicated without language, but for the most part we rely on words to get our thoughts into each other’s heads. When we don’t know our neighbor’s language, we get frustrated. I’ve heard people say, “Look, you came here by choice, learn our language or get out!” Oddly, I’ve only ever heard anyone say that in English — not in Muskogee or Cherokee.
The other approach is to learn your neighbor’s language and/or help your neighbor learn yours. There are free language courses available in English for anyone who wants them, and many churches in Atlanta have an English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry. That’s not one of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church’s outreach ministries, but it could be if there are a few people willing to do it.
But here’s the thing: even between native speakers of the same language, there’s potential for miscommunication. If you’ve ever been in a romantic relationship with another human being, I’m sure you can think of at least one time in your life when you thought y’all had agreed to one thing and your sweetie thought y’all had agreed to another thing entirely. Deborah Tannen has some great practical books about how to identify and understand communication problems. In short, even with the best of intentions, it’s not enough merely to speak the same language. Each of us has a different set of assumptions about how the world works and how the world should work, and that’s enough to bite us in the ass.
The miracle of the Pentecost story is that human beings were able to understand each other at all. We have to remember that, absent some miraculous occurrence, we’re likely to misunderstand each other without even realizing it. We must make a conscious effort. One of my linguistic mentors likes to cite a word in Aymara — aruskipasipxañanakasakipunirakispawa — which she glosses as “It is my personal knowledge that it is necessary for all of us, including you, to make the effort to communicate.” I agree. Perhaps God will bless us with miraculously better understanding of each other, but the surest path is for us to make the effort.