This is the text of an article published on Friday 18 May (pre-Pentecost) in the Yorkshire Post:

Does Teresa May speak French? Or German? Or any other foreign European language?

I dont know the answer, but the question is not merely academic. As the UK finds itself at a point in its modern history where we need more than ever to understand and speak with our neighbours, not to be able to do so in their language is problematic.

Every other European leader speaks more than their own language. Recently Emmanuel Macron addressed the US Congress in English, a language in which he comfortably subjects himself to political and media interviews. Angela Merkel speaks English and Russian as well as German. Our senior EU negotiators and administrators all operate in several languages without problem. But, the British?

Well, I ask this question as the UK approaches Brexit and the Christian Church approaches the celebration of Pentecost, and there is a connection between the two.

Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter and marks the intrusion of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the first followers of Jesus. They had been scared to death by the crucifixion of their messiah (messiahs are not supposed to end like this); they had been confused beyond imagination by their experiences of the risen Jesus; and they were terrified that they might be next for the chop at the hands of the Roman occupying forces.

At Pentecost these weak and fragile disciples became empowered to go public with all they had experienced and what they understood it to mean. They left their hidden rooms and went onto the streets to speak about Jesus. And, according to the account of this in the Acts of the Apostles, people on the streets of this cosmopolitan place were able to hear and understand in their own language.

Now, put to one side the actual mechanics of this (this was about what people heard, not the languages that were being spoken). Original witnesses of these events would immediately have thought of the story in Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel. Here the hubris of people led to the collapse of mutual comprehension as a multiplicity of languages confused the people. No wonder it fell apart. Pentecost sees intelligibility and mutual comprehension restored.

And this is the point. Pentecost is seen as good, Babel as bad. When people look purely after their own interests, their own internal conversations and their own isolated concerns, the confusion that follows an inability to communicate becomes serious. This is why it is so important for those committed to any religion or none to learn each others’ ‘languages’ … in order to understand clearly before thinking to speak. Christians who differ must measure their language and their conduct against this Pentecostal demand.

After all, it cannot be a coincidence that we have one mouth, but two ears.

To bring this back to some of the challenges facing us as Brexit approaches, the language problem says more than we might think.

We live on an island. We dont have borders to cross where cultures are so different and languages are so diverse that language learning becomes a practical necessity for basic living. We still easily speak of going to Europewhen we are actually firmly part of it (not the same as belonging to the EU institutions, of course). So, with statistics for foreign language learning at school and universities in rapid decline, and with the UK being unable to supply adequate professional linguists for work in business, politics and institutions, it is not too dramatic to claim that the UK faces a crisis.

I once met some English businessmen in a hotel in Germany where they were doing trade deals. They laughed about my language concerns and said they didnt need to know any German as the Germans all speak great English and the negotiations are always done in English. Then one of the Germans said: But, you dont know what we are saying behind your back and that is where the dealing gets done.

Yet, look within many of our UK communities and we see young children moving easily between two or three languages. Many of our minority communities operate clearly in English, but speak a different language at home and a different one still with friends where language facilitates communication and social belonging. If young Asian children can do this, why are the Brits so reluctant to make the effort?

It is common to use the language of conflict resolution, social cohesion, diplomacy, national security, and so on, without ever making reference to language. Yet, language knowledge is essential to all these areas of life. And the advantage always lies with the multilingual partners, not the monolinguals.

Furthermore, as I have mentioned many times, Helmut Schmidt (former Chancellor of Germany) wrote a book in which he offered his advice to Germans thinking of entering politics. He warned that they should not contemplate this unless they spoke at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Because, he says, you can only understand your own culture if you look at it through the lens of another culture and for that you need to know language.

I agree with him, but on a wider level than the political. Failure to understand (let alone speak) a foreign language leaves us impoverished culturally, weakened economically, shallow intellectually, and vulnerable politically.

On Sunday, as we celebrate Pentecost and the challenge to Babel, I will be reflecting more widely on language and communication. Not only about how we do politics, but also how we enable others to hear good news in ways they can understand.

Advertisements

One of the best bits in the film Lost in Translation is when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson end up doing karaoke in a Tokyo bar. Bill Murray belts out Elvis Costello’s What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? I love the film and I love that scene.

But it’s the song that’s running around the inside of my head just now. Driving to Manchester Airport en route to Kazakhstan for the fourth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, I had Elvis (Costello) on CD and played that song four times so I could belt it out with him.

The Congress is also the fourth I will have attended – the first one being back in 2003 in Astana. We came back from that one with all sorts of questions and misgivings – particularly regarding some socio-political phenomena in Kazakhstan itself. I have continued to press those questions ever since, but on the basis that engagement is better than shouting from the sidelines. So, we have persisted in working with other religious leaders and their representatives from all over the world and been able to discuss all sorts of stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be discussed through ordinary diplomacy.

This time we (I am leading a delegation of five from the Church of England) will address themes such as multiculturalism, the role of women, sustainable development and young people. In among these themes there will also be space to address other issues of import and concern. The important thing is to articulate such concerns in ways that will enable them to be heard. There is no value – other than the smug feeling it gives you – in saying things that don’t get heard… however ‘prophetic’ or true.

There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding; but they’re dead hard to work on unless we are satisfied with platitudes and sentimentalism.

Perhaps it isn’t entirely inappropriate that today is Pentecost in the Christian calendar. Before leaving for Manchester I confirmed some adults in a Keighley parish this morning and addressed a vast collection of Christians, passers-by and curious onlookers at a Pentecost celebration in Lister Park, near where we live in Bradford. It was loud, colourful and celebratory. But, it reminded me that Pentecost is not about creating a uniform church or a monochrome culture; rather, the key point about Pentecost (at least, as it was experienced by the ‘outsiders’) was that people from all over the place where enabled to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways they could both hear and understand.

The job of the church is to work hard at speaking different ‘languages’ to different people in order that the good news might be heard and understood by a vast diversity of people who don’t start from the same place. This is what makes communication interesting and challenging. But, if it seems to be God’s priority at Pentecost, maybe it should be ours, too.

It might even help create a little more peace, love and understanding if we start from where people actually are and speak a language they understand.

Which, I realise, is a statement of the bleeding obvious (as someone once said).

 

I once heard academic and journalist Timothy Garton Ash on BBC Radio 4 offering a mischievous definition of a nation:

A group of people united by a shared hatred of their neighbours and a common misunderstanding of their own past.

Original? Or did he nick it from someone else? I have no idea, nor do I care. But what he describes is the opposite of what happened to the beleaguered and frightened friends of the crucified and raised Jesus of Nazareth on the Day of Pentecost.

Instead of being united by a shared hatred of those who had put Jesus to death and now threatened them, they were empowered to go into the heart of the ‘neighbourhood’ and tell the story of Jesus in ways that could be heard and understood by all-comers. Fear of the neighbour (and what he might do to them) was transformed into a rather reckless and fearless openness about God loving even the crucifiers and opening to them a new door to freedom.

But, rather than simply obliterate the past and start a ‘new’ future, the Holy Spirit seems to have taken seriously what Jesus said about new wine and refreshed wineskins: you don’t dump the past, but renew and refresh it. So, the Spirit who moved on the waters of the world’s first day, who breathed new life into the dead bones of Ezekiel’s vision, who inspired the prophets to recall their original vocation (to give up their life in order to be a blessing to the world), and who anointed Jesus to fulfil what had always been the calling of Israel, now reminds the bereaved and surprised disciples that their story makes sense after all. Instead of being the aberration or even denial of God’s intentions, Jesus has made sense of them.

So, Pentecost isn’t about something necessarily new. It is about God’s people being reminded of their story and vocation and being empowered to live it out in a still-hostile world. Thrown together as a ragbag of saints and sinners, this new community re-members its past and unites in shared love for its neighbours.

Revolutionary.

Yesterday I went to Stansted Airport to collect my elder son and his wife from their holiday in Germany. Airports intrigue me because of the complexity of life and relationships you walk into. I think I was the only person speaking English in the Arrivals area. As travellers came through the doors they were greeted by screams and hugs and laughter. The cacophony of languages and the joy of new beginnings inevitably made me reflect on today – Pentecost – when people of all nations and languages were able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways they could understand and celebrate.

In Germany for the Kirchentag last week, I was asked during a panel discussion (on the future of the church) what I thought was the major challenge to the church. I could have offered many responses, but I settled for saying that the most urgent challenge for the church is to speak a language (or languages) that people ‘out there’ can actually hear and understand. For too many people church is associated purely with bad-tempered conflict between people who haven’t got a life – they never get as far as ‘God’ and ‘spirituality’ and ‘good news’. So, the challenge is to enable people to hear and see good news – to create the space in which they can find that they have in fact been found by the God who created and loves and redeems them.

In the light of this, I remember preaching a sermon at Pentecost that clearly did not strike the right notes for some of the visitors in the church that day. Then I concluded by singing (badly) a Bruce Cockburn song with a lovely guitar accompaniment. The song – with Cockburn’s poetry – went where my sermon had not managed to reach:

Cockburn nothing-but-a-burning-lightSomebody touched me
Making everything new
Somebody touched me
I didn’t know what to do
Burned through my life
Like a bolt from the blue
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

Somebody touched me
Deep in my bones
Turned a key in the hole
There was somebody home
Some would say that I’m dreaming
But I swear that it’s true
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

Somebody touched me
Like the rain on the wind
Left me alone
Feeling like I’d been skinned
But I know you’re with me
Whatever I go through
Somebody touched me
I know it was you