The Script of Jesus and the Mongols

Likewise unquestioned is the fact that both Syriac languages and scripts developed out of the Aramaic dialect of Edessa [modern Urfa]. This language, which was widespread in Syria and Parthia and functioned as the lingua franca of Egypt and Asia Minor as far as India, was Jesus’ mother tongue and belongs to the Semitic language family. Beginning in the fifth century BCE, it replaced Hebrew as the colloquial language of the Jews. Its consonant alphabet is a further development of the Phoenician. Thanks to the Syriac Gospel harmony of Tatian (c. 170) and the Tetragospels called the Peshitta (c. 400), Syriac spread rapidly in Asian Christianity… Also belonging to the sphere of Aramaic script culture – in part because of the Nestorian mission to Asia – are the right-to-left and/or top-to-bottom scripts of the Sogdians, the Uigurs, the Mongols and the Manchurians.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 18

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An Idiom For When It’s Over Your Head

It’s like you’re counting walnuts for me.

Local Oral Tradition

This is the local equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me.” Local walnut sellers count walnuts by the handful. They know exactly how many walnuts are in each handful and are extremely fast at their arithmetic as their hands transfer walnuts lightning-quick out of their large sack and into the customer’s bag. For the uninitiated (like me) it’s very hard to follow. But apparently I’m not the only one. This speedy method of the walnut sellers has become a local idiom for any time information has simply been over your head, too complex to grasp.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get any of that. It’s like your counting walnuts for me.”

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To Not Plateau, We Need a Map

“There is learning the culture so we can function well in the guest room, drinking chai and being polite. But then there is a whole deeper level to the culture when you are invited into the family spaces of the home.”

A colleague shared this wise advice with me the other day. His family had just been affirmed by a local brother as the best foreigners he had seen when it came to functioning well in local culture. So I passed on this feedback to my colleague – and asked for all his notes! But as is so often the case, this family’s progress in learning the culture had been a process more intuitive than systematic, more of an art than a science. Some are just natural artists. They sense their way forward, catching the culture as it were. But I have wondered for a long time if there are ways to make culture acquisition more visible for the benefit of all learners, whether we have a high CQ (cultural quotient) or not.

The truth is that culture acquisition is much harder to track than language acquisition. And language acquisition is itself a very subjective and slippery thing to measure. But culture? It’s everywhere and yet at the same time invisible. At least language has academic systems like the ACTFL scale that can provide some handles to know where a learner is at. To my knowledge, nothing like this exists to measure culture acquisition. Perhaps tools have been developed for specific cultures, but is there a universal tool that can be used to approach any culture and provide some kind of a systematic roadmap for studying it?

I have been greatly helped by A. Scott Moreau’s categories for intercultural communication in his book, Effective Intercultural Communication.

Sarah Lanier has charted helpful categories between “warm climate” and “cold climate” cultures in her book, Foreign to Familiar. Lingenfelter covers similar ground in his book, Ministering Cross-Culturally.

An anthropologist specific to our people group has opened my eyes to the importance of categories such as kinship, honor and shame, fear and gossip, the modern state, gender roles, the body, and fate.

I’ve also stumbled into some very different categories I haven’t heard discussed, but which impact our work greatly, such as how a people group is oriented towards institutions and formal organization.

On a practical level, beyond these underlying worldview categories are the important life ceremonies. How does a culture recognize pregnancies, births, birthdays, circumcisions, coming of age, graduations, engagements, marriages, new homes, sicknesses, deaths, etc?

In spite of all of these important areas of culture (and so many more) running in the background, most of us merely acquire just enough of the target culture to become functional. Then we plateau. It mirrors language acquisition in this way. Without a conscious effort to keep intentionally learning, the mind naturally settles in to a level that is merely workable for daily life. This might work well for a season, but it’s often not sufficient for navigating conflict and crises, and it can prevent us from doing deeper contextualization that might lead to breakthroughs.

This post is a call for careful thinking that leads to an accessible method of measuring culture acquisition. If it already exists, it is obscure and not known to the broader missions community (at least my circles). If it does not exist, then it would greatly serve the global church for one to be developed.

We need to fight the tendency to plateau – especially those of us working in cross-cultural contexts. To do this, we could use a map whereby we are able to have some better handles on this whole idea of culture acquisition. If I could give my family and my colleagues a tool like this that could give them some idea of where to focus next, that would be a very practical help for our work.

No one’s ever told us about circumcision rites before? Let’s cover that next. The local culture’s understanding of circumcision (if they practice it as ours does – tragically on girls as well) is bound to be imposed upon the scriptures that speak of it. We would be wise to know what context locals are bringing to that Bible study. But without a map or a tool prompting us to ask about things like this, we could miss it entirely. Plateauing might not seem that serious, but examples like this help illustrate why pressing on in a comprehensive understanding of the culture can make all the difference.

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What Is Central Asia?

Turns out it’s a bit more complicated to define the region of Central Asia than one might initially think. Geographically, I appreciate how this map divides the political states between homeland areas and those areas where some CA peoples are present, but not dominant. Notice all the countries that you might not think of as Central Asian where the darker homeland blue spills over into a predominantly white or light blue nation-state: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and China.

Culturally, the best shorthand for summarizing this region is to organize it around two primary language and culture groups: Persian and Turkic. The largest people groups and the vast majority of the groups in this area are either Persian-related or Turkic-related. That helps bring some clarity to an otherwise messy situation. Someone working in Pakistan is clearly working in what’s normally politically and geographically called South Asia. But if they are working with Pashtuns (Persian-related) in the West of the country, then they are culturally and linguistically (and even geographically) very much in Central Asia. Part of the issue is the huge Eurasian landmass itself and the fact that the the cultural-linguistic spheres don’t necessary match the political and geographic borders. And then of course if you get into the mountains you will always find minority people groups and languages that will add more complexity to whatever principle of organization is used to label things.

Want to get a sense of what this region of the world feels like? Take a look at this intro video below. Parts of this video were filmed in the area where we serve, but yes, for security’s sake I’m going to have to keep you guessing as to which part of this very big region we ourselves live in.

The Cow As Local Shibboleth

Shibboleth [ shib-uh-lith, ‐leth ], noun

  1. A peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons. (Dictionary.com)

A shibboleth has come to mean a type of signal, usually verbal, that betrays what group someone actually belongs to. Having spent some years in the Philadelphia, PA, area, I know that locals pronounce water as wooder and call sub sandwiches hoagies. These verbal cues betray that they have been shaped by the dialect of a particular city. My wife being originally from the Rochester, NY, area, means that she happens to add and “L” sound into the word both, pronouncing it as bolth. Arabs usually can’t say the letter “P” and instead of Pepsi, they say bibsi. And Americans have an awfully hard time with the “Q” sound of Arabic, often mispronouncing the name of the country Qatar as kataar or gutter.

The term shibboleth itself comes from the book of Judges, from one of the many tribal conflicts that takes place in that book of uniquely highlighted human depravity.

Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.” And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell. (Judges 12:4–6 ESV)

Alas, the dialect of the Ephraimites had lost the sh sound and so their tongues gave them away when they were asked to reproduce shibboleth, the Hebrew word for ear of grain. As one who struggled even as a six-year-old to pronounce the tricky American “R” sound, I feel their pain. But I only had to go to speech class and miss my 2nd grade Thursday afternoon movie. Once their lie was exposed and they were found out to be Ephraimites, they were promptly killed.

I was surprised to hear a very similar account echoed by my Muslim neighbors here in our corner of Central Asia. Our region, like many tribal and mountainous areas worldwide, has many diverse dialects. These dialects are supposedly all part of the same language (though linguists debate at what point a dialect becomes its own language). The dialect of our new city is surprisingly different from the dialect of our previous city, for being geographically as close as they are. We are currently in the throes of learning a whole new set of vocab that we thought we had already mastered. Turns out many of the words that are commonplace in our previous city are just not used here, and vice versa. I’m talking about words you use every day like spoon, nose, neighbor, y’all, and cow. Well, maybe we don’t use cow every day, but it would have been a word used daily until the very recent past. But the term for cow used in our city and our previous city are as different as the English words mail and saunter. In other words, there is no connection between them whatsoever.

Not too long ago there was a civil war between these two cities and they unknowingly performed a live-action remake of Judges 12. As they say, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But instead using shibboleth as a shibboleth, they used the words for cow instead. When someone was caught at a checkpoint professing to be a friendly member of the soldiers’ side, they were put to a linguistic test.

“Say cow.”

Their answer, at least until word got out, determined their fate. Their chosen word for cow, of all things, was the difference between life and death. Though civil war is always tragic, locals do find humor in this tale of their recent conflict. It seems to somehow appropriately highlight the absurdity of conflicts that really boil down to the basic competition between two tribes, and nothing deeper than that. “It was a stupid war,” locals will say. “To this day we really don’t know why it even happened.”

Stupid and inexplicable. Like most human conflict. In the new heavens and new earth, if we still have shibboleths, I’m sure they’ll only be used for fun. “So, you’re a Philly boy, eh? I caught that usage of wooder.” Thankfully, the age where shibboleths are used for evil will then have finally passed away.

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Harmony-Tongued Sumer

Is there evidence that other ancient civilizations believed in a past where the world had one language, as Genesis 11 teaches? Yes, apparently.

11:1 one language. A text from Mesopotamia called the Enmerkar Epic indicates that the people in that culture also believed that the earth had previously had a single language. The tablet reads in part:

“Man had no rival.

In those days the lands of Shubar (and) Hamazi,

Harmony-tongued (?) Sumer,

the great land of the decrees of princeship,

Uri, the land having all that all is appropriate (?),

the land Martu, resting in security,

The whole universe, the people in unison (?),

To Enlil in one tongue…”

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 27

Like the better-known parallels to the great flood (e.g. Gilgamesh), it appears that language disaster of Babel was also remembered and passed down in other Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Fascinating.

Of Brides and Wives and Language

Jacob calling Rachel his wife prior to the wedding followed common practice – a betrothed woman had the status of a wife (Deut. 20:7; 22:23-24). The Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi attests to this custom in laws 130 and 161.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 52

I took note of this information on Genesis 29:21 because this custom is still carried out among our focus people group. Early on, I ended up in thoroughly confusing English conversations with local friends after they told me they now had a wife. I would respond with hearty congratulations and ask them when the wedding had taken place. When they would respond in the negative, that the wedding had not yet taken place, I would insist that they must have meant they had a fiance, not a wife. But they would insist that no, they meant wife.

Clarity eventually came when we realized that the local language often refers to a woman as a wife from the moment of engagement. Even though they are not living together and there hasn’t been a wedding, she is still considered officially the wife of her betrothed. My local friends were carrying this aspect of their language into English, much to my confusion. Turns out our sequential understanding of male-female romantic relationships in the West is quite different from how these things are spoken of in Central Asia. But their way of doing things probably has stronger precedent than ours, going all the way back to the time of the patriarchs and even Hammurabi!

Another linguistic surprise was how families would speak of brides. An elderly man once told me that he had four brides, one of them new. But it wasn’t polygymy that was going on. Sometimes that does happen among our people group, leading to this very un-Islamic but honest experience-based proverb: A man with two wives is a man with a liver full of holes (i.e. he leads a painful life). However, in this situation, this man’s son had just gotten married. In the communal (rather than individualistic) thinking of this man, the brides who married his sons were obviously the family’s brides. He could even accurately say they were his brides. The mother-in-law could say this also. It is said in the West that you don’t just marry an individual, you also marry their family. Well, in the Middle East and Central Asia, that concept has been taken to a whole new level and is communicated even by the languages themselves as they speak about who the brides belong to.

After a successful proposal, a man in the West might say, “This is my fiance and my future bride.” In Central Asia, during the same stage you’re just as likely to hear him say, “This is my wife and our bride. Want to come to the wedding in six months?”

Photo by Ramiz Dedaković on Unsplash

Cracking Tails, Roasted Hearts, and Resurrection

While walking in a park yesterday, a friend and I spotted a bird with a long blue/black fan tail. My friend wasn’t sure what it was called in the local language. Apparently, it doesn’t show itself very often in the city. I shared with him that it reminded me of a bird we had in Melanesia called the Willy Wagtail. As I explained to him what wag means in English, and how we use it for the tail of a dog, he exclaimed, “Oh! That’s what we call tail cracking! Like when you crack your knuckles. We use the same verb for both situations because it’s like the animal is cracking it’s tail.”

One of the great joys of language learning is stumbling onto new ways in which to describe reality and connect its different parts. I never would have seen a connection before between the wagging of a dog’s tail and a person cracking their neck or their knuckles. But my Central Asian friends have seen it and reflected it in their language. I guess when a happy dog is next to a door, there is a rhythmic crack crack crack as his tail repeatedly hits the surface. Perhaps this is where it came from. Or just the swaying action looks similar to a human trying to stretch back and forth in search of a refreshing series of pops. This crack/pop verb is also the same one used for the firing of a gun and related to the word used for the explosion of a bomb. Indeed, the more you chew on it, the more you can see the common thread tying these things together.

Later in the afternoon we had a language lesson. As we studied a regional folktale together, our tutor pointed out the phrase used when a character suddenly fell in love – her heart was roasted. The same verb used to roast something in the oven, which is also used in adjective form for a rotisserie chicken. Not too distant from certain poetic ways the English language speaks of love, such as being inflamed or burning with desire. But roasted? What an interesting way to conceptualize having a serious crush on someone. It carries with it a certain completeness in the effect of the emotion upon the heart, deeper than you might get from the mere idea of a flickering flame.

As we discussed folktales and oral tradition, we learned that the phrase used to describe how a story is passed from father to son is that it has come from chest to chest. This is because the historic understanding here was that memory was located in the chest, the core of the person. So, naturally, something which is memorized by one generation and then passed on to be memorized by the next is understood as passing from chest to chest. I really like this one. It reminds me of 2nd Timothy 2:2, “and what you have heard from me, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Pass it on from chest to chest, dear Timothy.

Speaking of entrusted, the very name of this blog comes from discovering a new way to speak of death in our local language, that a person is entrusted to the dirt. A dear friend told me last week that the name of this blog sounds to him like Lamentations, like a “face in the dust.” While my title does certainly reference death and its connection to the dirt, I actually chose it because of the subtle hint of resurrection implied by the word entrusted. When something is entrusted, it has not been lost or abandoned. There is a certain stewardship implied, a certain aim, perhaps even a return. Like 2 Tim 2:2, that aim might be faithful preservation and multiplication of a body of teaching. In the case of believers’ bodies and the soil, it is a trust given anticipating a glorious return. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). We entrust our dear ones to the soil and we eventually entrust ourselves, knowing by faith that glory and resurrection will be the sure and unstoppable outcome. It’s still dirt, it is still death, it’s still not the way things are supposed to be. But that’s not the end of the story. The dirt holds a mighty secret. All of creation whispers that resurrection is coming. And so our tears are mingled with a certain flicker of joy.

Each language is like a unique form of poetry, all of them attempting to describe creation as God has allowed us to experience it. As such, there is fascination and even delight to be found in the ways other tongues speak of things like tails wagging, hearts burning, stories passed on – and even of death itself. Take heart, weary language learners out there. There is more wonder in the end than there is drudgery. One of the things I’m looking forward to in the New Heavens and New Earth? Being with believers speaking thousands of complex and poetic languages – and all the time we need to learn each and every one of them.

Plus a resurrected brain with which to learn them. Let’s not forget about that part.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The Age of the Translators

Nestorian translators and scholars built the bridge linking the knowledge of classical antiquity with the European Middle Ages.

During the ‘Age of the Translators’ (sixth to ninth centuries), Nestorian and Jacobite physicians and scholars translated the Greek classics of philosophy, mathematics, geometry, medicine and astrology from Greek into Syriac and then into Arabic. The greatness of their reputation can be seen in the fact that Caliph al-Ma’mun (ruled 813-833) appointed the Nestorian philosopher and physician Yuhanna Ibn Massawah as head of the state library and university that had been founded in 832 and was called the ‘House of Knowledge’, and paid in gold for the translations of the most renowned Nestorian scholar, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (808-873). Thanks to these translation projects, the Arab-Iranian culture preserved the treasures of Greek knowledge and, through the University of Toledo, offered them to Europe, which had lost them in the darkness of the early Middle Ages. Finally, the revival of Aristotle and the starting points of the work of Thomas Aquinas would have remained unthinkable without this Nestorian-Arab bridge.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 6

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, classical and biblical manuscripts were preserved by two unlikely sources, the newly-Christian Irish scribes and the minority Christian scholars of Mesopotamia, living under Zoroastrian and then Muslim rule. Both preserved the written treasures of the West, with the Irish preserving mainly the Latin texts and the Eastern Christians preserving the Greek. Thus, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that some of Western Civilization’s most forgotten and unlikely heroes turn out to be the ancient monks of Eire and Baghdad.

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We Need A Whole New Language

We had been teaching through the sermon on the mount and the portion on oaths had fallen to me. It was not necessarily the text I would have chosen to focus on in that busy season of our fledgling church plant. But we had committed to teach through Matthew, believing that every part is God-breathed, even the parts that felt less relevant. So I studied Matthew 5:33-37 as best I could and labored to explain it and apply it in the local language. After the meeting finished I approached *Frank and *Patti, two local new believers.

“Was everything clear? Any questions?” I asked. I wasn’t really expecting a lot of response.

Both stood with furrowed brows.

“Yes, very clear… But if this is true, then we need a whole new language,” Frank responded.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Patti chimed in, “It’s impossible to speak our language without starting every other sentence with an oath. We need to learn a whole new way to speak! We knew that following Jesus would mean change, but this is going to be really hard!”

“This was a very surprising and important part of the Bible for us to learn about. Thank you,” Frank said.

If my local friends were surprised at this part of Jesus’ teaching, I for my part was surprised by their response. Didn’t see that one coming, I thought to myself, and not for the last time. We later debriefed with our teammates about this conversation.

It was true. How could we have missed it? The local language was absolutely chock-full of oaths. Coming from a culture and language where oaths are mostly archaic, we hadn’t really noticed them, even as we ourselves learned to start our sentences with some of them, mimicking the cadence of our local friends’ speech.

By God. By the sacrifice. By the Qur’an. By my grandmother’s grave. By both of my eyes. By the top of my head. By my honor. As we reflected we realized just how hard it was to make a serious statement in the local language without prefacing it with an oath. This passage from Matthew may have been very practical after all.

We were at that point just beginning to learn that the Central Asian culture where we serve is riddled with deceit and duplicity. This is the real downside to an honor-based culture. Everyone is lying all the time to save face. This is likely where the oaths came in, trying to create a more reliable kind of statement where the hearer can be assured that the speaker isn’t just lying to save face. But it didn’t really solve the problem. Like some strange cousin to the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception, it just punted the problem up one level. How does it help you believe in Jesus’ sinlessness to claim that Mary was born sinless also? What about her parents? How does it help you believe your friend who would normally lie to you just because this time he used an oath? Wouldn’t a liar just keep lying, even if using an oath?

We began trying to purge the local oaths we had learned out of our speech and it did prove remarkably difficult. We held on to using By the Truth, feeling like we had some precedence to lean on by Jesus’ usage of Truly, truly, I say to you.

Going deeper in our understanding of the local culture helped us better understand the first-century culture Jesus was rebuking. To cultures and languages that try to maintain two levels of speech, normal and oath-backed, Jesus says, “Enough! Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” No more tolerating certain lies and trying to convince others to believe you by linking your statement to something holy or something you foolishly think you have power over. In the kingdom of God, followers of Jesus will be known for honest character and honest speech such that oaths are now no longer needed.

It may be the distant echoes of this teaching that lead Muslims to still say about the local ethnic Christians and about Westerners, “They are honest people compared to us.” Islamic teaching advocates for deceit in the cause of good. This, of course, has been like pouring gasoline on the dumpster fire of human deceitfulness. Lying and duplicity have in time become some of the deepest besetting sins of the Middle East and Central Asia. This makes me truly appreciate the local translation of Romans 12:9 – “Let love be without two-faced-ness.”

Frank and Patti were partially right. In one sense, they would need a whole new language. But not in the religious sense where some human tongue is elevated as more holy than another. No, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, or English are not superior spiritual languages, regardless of the bad precedent set by Christianity and Islam. Rather, Frank and Patti’s fallen language, not unlike their fallen bodies, was now under new ownership. Their language was to be redeemed and made part of the eternal Revelation 7:9 choir. That would mean purging some elements, like oaths, and the addition of many others, such as new forms of theology, thanksgiving, and worship.

Jesus is transforming Frank and Patti’s language from the inside-out. It will be remarkable to see the future church there speaking the same tongue, but now transformed into a mature vessel of glory. A language remade! Now that is encouraging to think about.

*Names have been changed for security

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