The Legacy of Babel: How Learning a Language is Learning to Love

By R.J. March on July 21, 2017

Imagining the Tower of Babel is perhaps easier for citizens of the United States than citizens of any other country. Think about it: We are one of the world’s largest countries with a single, dominant language that is spoken around the world. It seems easy enough for us to imagine everyone speaking the same language to coordinate and build that infamous tower to heaven.

Language is a powerful cultural tool. But God, for the world’s good and His glory, diversified human language. In Genesis 11, God humbled a proud people bent on their own glory (and, if you read the Bible and pay attention to the daily news, you will often see that self-glorification is a recipe for self-destruction). And so God fittingly introduced babel.

For a proud people, it is a humbling prospect to try and communicate with someone when all you hear is babel.

Today, we all live with the legacy of Babel. When we attempt to understand someone else’s babel, we are entering into the humiliating, humbling work of loving that person.

That’s part of what makes language learning truly a labor of love.

In Barcelona, a church planter named Xaví has started CN22@, one of the few churches that holds worship services in Catalan. Most worship services are in the national language, Spanish, making it easier to have resources for biblical learning and guest preachers to help support the work. However, Xaví and his worship director Guido are committed to speaking love in the local language.

Yale University missiologist Lamen Sanneh puts it this way: “Language is the intimate, articulate expression of culture, and so close are the two that language can be said to be commensurate with culture, which it suffuses and embodies.” We must learn the language if we are going to understand the culture in which we hope to serve. This is because language is “the force vital of interpersonal encounter and experience.”

Last year, Serge missionaries in Uganda celebrated the fruit of 30 years of work in the first publishing of the New Testament in the Lubwisi language. “What a beautiful thing it was to witness a people group receive for the first time ever God’s Word in their own language,” says Michael Stevens, the Serge Bundibugyo Team Leader. “It was said by a Ugandan leader that the people here used to think that God must only hear them if they prayed in languages that the Bible was written in. But now they know God hears their heart and must love them because His Word is now in their heart language.”

Over the years, a group of local pastors from a variety of denominations formed a translation review committee. As each book of the New Testament was completed, they would review it carefully, ensuring it was consistent with the Lubwisi language and providing input on key biblical terms.

“They could sit from morning to evening looking at every word, every verse, every chapter to make sure the Lubwisi meanings were clear,” says Charles Musinguzi, a Presbyterian pastor who in more recent years became the head translator, along with Bishop Hannington Bahemuka of the Episcopal Church. Together, the committee saw the project through to the completion of the New Testament, in addition to the Old Testament books of Genesis and Jonah.

“The main purpose,” Musinguzi says of the translation, “is to see hearts transformed into the image of Jesus.”

Many Americans who find themselves compelled by love for a people group or place, are often held up from joining in international mission work by the intimidating prospect of learning a language. It is important to see that learning the language is not a separate project from loving the people group or place God is calling you to serve. And this why a course in Catalan or Lubwisi is really a crash course on learning to love.

R.J. March

About R.J. March

R.J. studied Philosophy at Furman University and focused his research on the ethics of globalization and minority perspective. He has integrated this research with service on Serge teams in Ireland, London, and Southeast Asia. R.J. is interested in how technology shapes community and has worked as the Digital Media Specialist for Serge and the Director of Communication for Global Counseling Network. You can find his other (digital) handiwork at rjmarch.com. R.J. holds an M.Div. from Covenant Seminary. R.J. and his wife Carolyn and their two children reside in Seattle where R.J. is the Assistant Pastor of All Souls Church of Seattle.