My Ph.D. in Communication is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that when people know I studied communication at the graduate level they actually expect me to be able to communicate. My excuses that my research was theoretical and in rhetoric and public speaking, not in “normal” interpersonal discourse always fall on deaf ears. I sometimes feel like the undergrad who signed up for a course in interpersonal communication only to be very disappointed the first day of class when he discovered that the course catalogue description of a course about “human intercourse” was not exactly what he expected.
You don’t need a doctorate to know that communication is hard. Words are just symbols that represent objects or feelings or relationships. As symbols they can only point to the reality they represent. Communication goes through different filters of both the sender and receiver of the communication, and those filters are unique to each person. And of course communication occurs on multiple levels – verbal, non-verbal, emotional, rational, and all of those are culturally conditioned and affected by other environmental and genetic factors. This explains the popular success of John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
Sometimes the challenges of communication produce humorous and embarrassing results. For example, “The V-for-victory sign was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the early, dark days of World War II, and the proper form is with the palm facing outward. But, a simple twist of the wrist puts you in dangerous cultural waters. Throughout much of Her Majesty’s realm, the palm-in V sign is the equivalent of the more infamous middle-digit salute.” (See the article by William Ecenbarger of the Philadelphia Enquirer for many other valuable tips on cultural competence,
The Hebrew Scriptures explain the origins of different languages in various parts of the world via the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In that story it is human pride, a belief that humans could build a tower tall enough to reach to the heavens and establish their importance that leads to this judgment from God: 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
That story is a mythical way of explaining the reality that languages are unique to different cultures, countries and ethnicities. While I don’t believe God would throw that kind of monkey wrench into the communication machinery as a punishment for our pride, the language barrier is a major challenge to communication. There is a joke that defines “multi-lingual” as a person who speaks 3 or more, “bilingual” as a person who speaks two languages, and someone who speaks only one language as “an American.” That unfortunate state of affairs was demonstrated in a grocery checkout line when a woman finished a cell phone conversation in her native tongue. The man behind her in line said to her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is America and we speak English here. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.” The woman calmly replied, “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”
The task of bridging cultural differences and communication challenges in our global village is very daunting. Technology offers help through on-line language lessons, apps and programs that automatically translate text from one language to another, and systems like the one at the United Nations where people from all over the world can hear a translation of a speaker’s words into their own language through a set of headphones. But those technologies do not solve the deeper spiritual divisions at the root of human suffering that manifests itself in prejudice, racism, economic injustice, terrorism and full scale war.
The on-going cultural and religious conflicts in our world are proof that we’ve a long way to go to overcome our failures to communicate. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 addresses those concerns, not from a technological or academic perspective, but from a spiritual point of view. Acts 2: 5-13 describes it this way: 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Jews and non-Jews from all over the world hear the apostles sharing their faith story in their own language. This is not some ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues, but genuine communication made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. These apostles are not educated linguists. They are common fishermen and tax collectors. They have not suddenly been empowered by Rosetta Stone; they are filled with the only force capable of overcoming human fear and division. At Pentecost the confusion of tongues from the Tower of Babel story is reversed and the response of those who have ears to hear the Gospel is both amazing and confusing.
People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival and some are apparently there on other business – Romans, Cretans and Arabs. The story shows us that as insurmountable as our communication barriers are, be they religious, cultural or political, we cannot just throw up are hands and say “we can’t do that!” Whatever happened in Jerusalem that day, this story makes it very clear the “this is impossible, we give up” excuse simply will not fly. It is easy to despair and say the hatred and divisions in our world today between Islam and the West, for example, are not amenable to any simple communication skills. Anyone who thinks so must be filled with new wine or smoking those funny weeds.
But this story counters with evidence that the Acts 2 audience is exactly like our multi-cultural world. A cross section of the whole world, people from Asia Mesopotamia, Judea, Egypt and Libya are identified; and the message is clear. Because they have received the gift of God’s spirit, a spirit of unity and love that is universal and offered to all of God’s creation, these apostles are able to overcome all of the cultural and communication barriers and share their amazing transformation stories in ways that are heard and understood.
That is a word of hope that our war-weary world desperately needs to hear. We may see no hope for peace and justice because we rely too much on human ways of dealing with our problems. We still think we can build towers or systems or networks that will make us the heroes and heroines of our story. The problem is it’s not our story. And when our best efforts fail, in desperation and fear we think destroying our enemies will bring peace in spite of centuries of evidence that violence and death only beget more of the same.
God’s answer that is blowing in the wind of Pentecost is that the transforming power of the God of the whole universe is the only hope for overcoming human differences and conflicts. The God of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia is still the God of Americans and Syrians, of Islam and ISIS, of every soul that breathes; and those who dare to believe that are not crazy or filled with new wine. We are filled with the Holy Spirit of the Source of our being, and we speak a language of peace and grace that everyone can understand because it is the message that the world is longing to hear.
Peter’s summary of that message follows in Acts 2:14-36 and will be addressed in the next segment of this series on Pentecost.
(All Scriptures are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version)