Speaking in Spirals

One night our taxi driver neighbor called me, asking if his family could come by for a visit that same evening. We readily agreed, excited that this more traditional family felt free enough to pay a visit to us, their strange American neighbors. We also had a Texan friend over that evening, who himself had lived in this family’s home city, one of the few Americans to do so. I was excited for the potential of the visit.

Things went well enough for the first hour or so. We had tea together, munched on sunflower seeds and banana bread, and even joked around some. In what I thought an obvious jest, I told my neighbor that my Texan friend was the nephew of George W. Bush. I later found out the sarcasm must have gotten lost in translation as months later my neighbor was telling his taxi passengers that he had actually met W’s nephew! Attempts at humor in a foreign tongue can sometimes go awry.

About an hour and a half into the visit, the conversation took an abruptly serious turn as my neighbor asked me what the new password was for our wifi. The previous tenant had not had a password and since we had installed one, our neighbors had come to request that we give them the password and thus restore their free internet access. The quiet and focused attention of the family on me when this request was made led us to suddenly realize what the visit had been all about in the first place. Our neighbors hadn’t come and invested an hour and half visiting because they were primarily interested in knowing us. They had a request to make. And an hour and half visit was their way of indirectly spiraling into this one simple request.

We were initially discouraged by this realization. It felt like they didn’t value us as people, but had used the relational visit as a means to increase the force of their request. But the more we learned about the culture, the more we came to understand that this kind of indirect communication, couching requests or statements in visits or metaphorical language, this is meant to be highly respectful. It’s also meant to be clearly understood, but we straight-shooting Westerners sure end up missing a lot of it, much to the consternation of our Central Asian friends.

Indirect vs. direct communication is another prevalent difference in cultures which can often lead to misunderstanding. Many cultures which are more honor/shame oriented speak indirectly as a part of everyday speech. This is certainly true of Middle Easterners and Central Asians.

In our corner of Central Asia, if you mean to accept an offer, instead of a direct “yes,” you should say “no,” “don’t trouble yourself,” “thanks,” or “may your hands be blessed.” Instead of refusing an offer with a direct “no,” you should say “If God wills it,” “May your house ever be this blessed,” or “thanks.”

That’s right, “thanks” can be used to indicate either yes or no, and “no,” for the first three uses or so, actually means yes. Confused? Welcome to the murky world of cross-cultural communication.

“We Iranians laugh and say that we eat like this,” a refugee friend once told me, curling his right arm over his head in order to put a bite in the left side of his mouth. I have often thought about this image as I’ve been in contexts where polite questions are asked about someone’s welfare, their parents’ welfare, their cousins’ welfare, Trump’s welfare, etc., before the actual reason for the visit is stated explicitly. Indirect communicators spiral into serious topics, like a missionary pilot’s Cessna circling a jungle airstrip, trying to find a break in the cloud cover. Let the evangelist take careful note of this point. Just because the conversation hasn’t gotten to spiritual things in the first hour doesn’t mean the evening won’t lead to fruitful discussion. The plane may only be halfway done with its spiral descent.

Indirect communicators also make heavy use of poetic and symbolic phrases. Proverbs, metaphors, and similes are all leveraged for the sake of honorable and gracious communication – or sometimes for the opposite purpose, to take a dig at someone. To tell someone to stop being such a pain in the neck, you can say, “If you’re not a flower, then don’t be a thorn!” On the other hand, when a father and son visit another man’s household to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, they lead with the phrase, “You have a beautiful rose in your garden.” All the men in the room know exactly what that means. An engagement negotiation is about to begin.

“But this all seems so inefficient!” our Western sensibilities cry out. Why not just speak more plainly? Several things are important for us to understand about direct and indirect communicators. The first is that both kinds of people and cultures believe they are being clear. The aim of almost all communication is to be understood, so indirect people and cultures are not usually trying to be opaque – though sometimes they are trying to keep plausible deniability. Usually, indirect communicators have been raised to understand the clear meaning in phrases that, without context, seem unclear or even dishonest to a foreigner. My Central Asian friends believe that everyone knows that the first “no” doesn’t actually mean no.

Second, we need to realize that every culture makes use of both kinds of communication. Even in the West, we tend to speak of sensitive or offensive things in indirect ways. Why is it that no one directly asks about your salary, rent, or your giving to your local church? How would you feel if your waiter asked you directly if his service meant you were going to tip well instead of saying, “And how was everything this evening?” Many a Western marriage has learned that “Little man is stinky!” actually means “Please change our son’s diaper for me.” Or, as many a seminary student has figured out the hard way, it doesn’t usually work to speak too directly about marriage the first time you take a girl out for coffee. Brother, keep the fact that you are interested in marrying her an indirect, open secret for at least the first few dates!

Third, the Bible is full of both kinds of communication. Not only do we have examples like Abraham and Ephron communicating effectively and indirectly, but God himself speaks to us in direct and indirect ways. Much of the Old Testament in God indirectly communicating through narrative that salvation by trying to keep the Law just doesn’t work. What is required is faith in God’s promises of a redeemer. Then he says so directly in passages like Galatians 2:16. When Jesus says in Mark 10:18, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone,” he is saying indirectly that his questioner is not good enough to inherit eternal life (he’s in the category of no one after all), but Jesus is also likely hinting that he himself is good in this true sense, meaning he is God.

As with time-orientation and event-orientation, Christians are in danger of making our preferred directness or indirectness of speech a black-and-white issue, rather than an issue of Christian liberty or preference. If we hold on to the biblical principle of clear, honest, and loving communication (Eph 4:15, Col 4:4), then we are free to leverage different styles of communication as fits the occasion. We all know there is a kind of directness that can be unloving – and that there is a kind of indirectness that can be dishonest. I’m not saying those cliffs don’t exist. But here again I am arguing for a spectrum of biblical fidelity when it comes to the communication cultures of believers.

I can love my American brother by taking his word for it when he says he doesn’t want a cup of coffee. But in order to love my Central Asian brother, I need to press past the first few indirect responses so that I know how I can host him well. Just as we train our children for what questions and observations are polite to deal with directly in our culture, so we can learn these things about the cultures of other believers also. Again, simple spiritual friendship can make all the difference.

What did we do with our neighbors’ request for free wifi? Well, given the honor/shame dynamics of the situation, we made a call on the spot and temporarily agreed to give them the password. But we knew that from a security standpoint we would need to not have others using our wifi network. So a few weeks later, we changed the password again. I think this worked out honorably all around. Our neighbors understood that we were not able to share our wifi as the previous tenant had. They never asked again. We were able to save face by granting their request temporarily, but later indirectly communicating our final decision.

The way to honorably and clearly decline a request is an area we continue to find challenging in our focus culture. And it’s possible we got this situation wrong. Yet we keep trying to learn more so that we can communicate with clarity, wisdom, and grace – whether that be directly or indirectly.

How have you worked through the challenges of direct and indirect communication in your own families and ministries? Feel free to comment below.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

The Image of God and the Wonder of Language

So God created man in his own image, 
in the image of God he created him; 
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV) 

Human language is a stunning mystery. There are over 6,000 surviving languages in the world. Yet not one of these natural languages emerged through a process of careful planning and human creation. They simply emerged in an act of collective unconscious (re)creation, complete with complex rules of grammar and diverse and nuanced vocabulary. How in the world did that happen without any planning?

In tribal Melanesia (where I grew up), there are hundreds of unique tribal languages, some so difficult it is said that no one over forty years of age can learn them. Many of these tribes were living in stone age conditions until the mid-20th century. Yet the complexity and beauty of these tribal languages developed nonetheless, making Melanesia the most linguistically diverse part of the planet. It’s almost as if the creative impulse in these tribes, foiled to some extant by the lack of basic technologies, couldn’t help but overflow somewhere else. The result was a linguistic environment just as rich and diverse as the thousands of plant and animal species in the surrounding rain forest.

Human beings seem to be hardwired to create and hardwired to speak. It’s so deep within our nature that we can’t help it. Entire languages and dialects are born on accident. They continue to change and develop over time with a will of their own, shifting and morphing in spite of most heartfelt protestations of the proverbial grammar nazis. Dictionaries and grammar books try in vain to communicate what “proper” language is, but all they do is provide a snapshot of the never-ending human recreation of language. Once a language is formalized and written, it may result in a slower pace of change, but it does not stop the process of language change. Nothing in this world seems able to stop it.

What is to account for this great mystery of human language? I believe our ability to collectively and unintentionally create thousands of languages must be rooted in our own creation in the image of God. What exactly this means has been a topic of great theological debate throughout the centuries. Does the image of God primarily refer to dominion over nature, relational ability between humans, the possession of a soul, the way ancient near eastern kings set up images of themselves in territories under their rule? While much of this is likely, it does seem that language, the ability to speak and understand speech, is one core part of being made in the image of God.

We believe in a trinitarian God, that he is one God in three eternal persons. This means that there has been relationship and indeed, communication between the members of the Trinity for all of eternity. This is so central to God’s identity that one member of the Trinity is named the Word. This same God spoke creation into existence, then spoke to his creatures and gave humans the ability to speak back. He later sent his revelation into the world in the form of inspired written words – in three human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) with loan words from a bunch of others (like paradise which come from Old Persian).

Language is central to the nature of God. As those made in the image of God, language is also central to our own human nature. And it will be for all of eternity. I believe this is a good theological foundation for the wonder of human language. How do we account for the fact that languages seem to emerge out of nowhere with incredible complexity only to be slowly simplified over the centuries? That runs opposite to the logic of Darwinian evolution, where life moves from more simple to more complex. But it does not pose a problem for the Bible, which communicates to us a created world wonderful enough such that the “music” of the world’s founding still has not run out (let the reader understand), but continues to give us a quiet encore each time a new pidgin or creole comes into its own fresh and colorful life.

And, wonder of wonders, this incredible linguistic dance and diversity flows from a God who effectively communicates objective universal truth by the means of our world’s frolicking and unpredictable – even fallen – languages. Again, how in the world did that happen? Yet it did. In spite of the ever-changing nature of language and the overwhelming multitude of global and historic tongues, God and we effectively communicate fixed and unchanging truths through the medium of human language. No language is perfect or comprehensive, but each is effective enough to serve as a vehicle of God’s eternal words. Yet more mystery!

I’m no philosopher, but when I heard it said by some that postmodern philosophy dead-ended in the relativity of human language and epistemology (the study of how we know things) it made sense. What would any worldview without the biblical God possibly do with the problems posed by human language? But for the Christian, it’s not a problem, it’s a mystery that leads to curiosity, more creation, and worship. Oh yes, and Bible translation and literacy for every language of the world.

One final thought. In the face of the mystery of human language and the image of God, we should also embrace a posture of humility. Perhaps by contrasting ourselves with the source of all language, in the style of God’s response to Job:

Were you there when I laid the foundation of grammar? 
When Old Sumerian gasped its first breaths 
And Old Sogdian its last? 
Where were you when I spoke eternal words through the Hebrew tongue?
And forever fixed my truth in what before was like waves of the sea? 
Who wrote the conjugations of Ancient Sanskrit?
And said to Chinese, "No conjugations for you - be verbal aspect!"? 
Surely you know! 
For you are wise and speak maybe two or three tongues,
But I am the source of ten thousand. 

Photo by Joel Naren on Unsplash

Why Should We Invest in Minority Languages?

There are over 6,000 languages in the world and many of them are dying out. Little seems to stand in the way of the growth of English as the first truly global language (since Babel). So why are thousands of missionaries all over the world spending years of their lives learning minority languages and translating the Bible into obscure tongues? Why not save the blood, sweat, and tears and focus only on the regional trade languages or on the globally dominant ones?

My own focus language has somewhere around five to ten million speakers. This means it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s also obscure enough (belonging to an ethnic minority) that it’s not likely to become useful or influential in other parts of the world. So is my investment in this language worth it? I want to outline seven reasons why I believe it is good and worth it to invest in minority tongues.

Theological Beauty and Limitation. Each language is uniquely able to help us worship God and each language is insufficient in itself to fully describe God. Saying that human language is unable to describe God adequately is no mere poetic flourish. Each human language is actually a limited thing, something which can truly describe truth about God, but not ever comprehensively describe him. One of the blessings of Babel is that we now have thousands of languages which can be used to worship God in ways that are uniquely beautiful (and possible) to that language. Specific sounds, titles, adjectives, and verbs exist in some languages and not in others. Some kinds of poetry, songs, and metaphor are only possible certain tongues. In this way, the diversity of human languages acts like a giant choir, where each language gets to sing praises to God in the ways it is particularly gifted. To lose a language is to lose a unique voice of the choir.

A Record for Future Generations. Even languages that die are worth preserving. If the sad day comes where there are no longer any living speakers of a language, having that language recorded and documented is still worth it. Again, it shines an important window into how a certain group of people uniquely spoke about creation and about God. This can help us. Every individual language also contains data that helps us learn about the way language in general can function. Even secular reporters who bemoan the supposed “culture changing” of tribal missionaries celebrate the fact that by learning the language enough to translate the Bible, many missionaries are preserving a record of languages soon to be extinct.

Spiritual Power. The mother tongue or heart language of a person usually speaks to their soul with greatest potency and clarity. To feel this point, you will probably need to be bilingual yourself or have experience learning language in a multilingual environment. It wasn’t random when the Holy Spirit used the native languages of Elamites, Medes, Arabs, and Libyans at the day of Pentecost. When you hear someone speaking your mother tongue, you pay attention. The mother tongue is often the language of dreams, desperate prayers, and curses. It is the language most intimately entwined with our affections. So, if we want to cut to the heart, we should preach in the mother tongue when possible. Many of my friends who come to faith out of Islam report having dreams about Jesus where he spoke to them, not in the trade language or the speech of the foreigners, but in their own language. The thought that God knows my language is a very powerful one to those who have never heard this truth before.

Love and Honor. Learning the language of a minority group is a powerful way to show love and honor, especially if they have been oppressed by others. Denigrating another group’s language as somehow inferior is an age-old form of hatred. Many minority groups around the world have never had an outsider learn and love their language. When a missionary does this, it often communicates a deep love and respect for the people themselves. If a foreigner will love them that much, then perhaps the wild thought that God also loves them and knows their language is true after all.

The Priesthood of All Languages. Here I’m playing off of the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” No one language is holier than another. It is no accident that the Bible was written in three languages with loan words from many others. No one human language is the language of heaven (though there may be a spiritual language that is?). All languages are equally affected by the curse, meaning they preserve some of the image of God, though now in marred form. However, they are also redeemed in the worship of God forever in Revelation 7:9. There are many things about Islam that make my blood boil, but the claim that other peoples must worship God in 7th century Arabic and not in the language that God has sovereignly given them is particularly odorous.

The Mysteries of Providence. We don’t know what God might do with a given language in the future. No one 800 years ago could have predicted that English would come to dominate the globe. At the time, Old English was dying out due to the influence of the Norman French of the ruling classes. Yet here we are. English is the primary language not only of global business and education, but also of the modern missionary movement. When Patrick learned Irish, he could not have known how God would use the obscure Irish Christian scribes to miraculously salvage the biblical and classical literature of the Western Roman Empire after Rome fell. Their descendants would then go on to reintroduce Christianity to mainland Europe and found monastery missions that would later become cities like Vienna, Austria. We simply don’t know how God might take a humble, unknown language and do mighty things through it.

The Internet Resurgence. Many endangered languages are experiencing revival with the tools the internet provides. This has given an unexpected vitality to many languages that were supposed to die before now. The internet provides a place for native speakers to easily develop content, classes, and resources in their mother tongue which can be used to help the next generation. Sometimes languages even come back from the dead, like modern Hebrew. Languages are a lot like hobbits. They are full of surprises.

So, are we wasting our time investing in minority languages? No. Each language has unique value to God, to the Church, to current speakers, and to future generations. Learning a minority language is an act of faith. We just can’t predict the future of languages. But we can trust that on the last day, any investment made in these languages for the sake of love will not be made in vain.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

How Grammar Became Glamour

Whether insoluble political realities or inner spiritual sickness is more to blame for the fall of classical civilization is, finally, beside the point. The life behind the works we have now been studying – the passionate nobility of Virgil, the cool rationality of Cicero, the celestial meditativeness of Plato – this flame of civilization is about to become extinguished. The works themselves will miraculously escape destruction. But they will enter the new world of the Middle Ages as things so strange they might as well have been left behind by interstellar aliens. One example will suffice to illustrate the strangeness of books to medieval men. The word grammar – the first step in the course of classical study that molded all educated men from Plato to Augustine – will be mispronounced by one barbarian tribe as “glamour.” In other words, whoever has grammar – whoever can read – possesses magic inexplicable.

Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 59-60

Photo by Esther Wechsler on Unsplash

Pay Attention to the Guarded Definitions

I once endured a hour-long lecture on why I should never again use the term “mold remediation.” According to my zealous guest, once mold exists in a structure it can never be fully remediated, though it can be mostly dealt with. Needless to say, I learned my lesson to guard which verbs I use around our organization’s logistics and maintenance personnel. I’ve also had coworkers who were very keen that the word “strategy” be used only in very defined and particular ways. In Western culture’s current social media wars, the ever-fluctuating proper use of terms for identity groups and new and emerging sexual self-identifiers are policed with a vengeance. And now that I am a team leader of a church-planting team, it bugs me when my colleagues use terms like “church,” “shared the gospel” and “believer” in sloppy ways.

In reflecting on these things, I have come to believe that every person has their own set of terms which they think should be defined and used accurately, terms which should even be policed when used incorrectly. Further, this personal set of terms reflect things that are very important or valuable to that individual, or things that they put their identity and hope in. This is probably unavoidable. This is probably good. After all, if the meanings of words are constantly shifting throughout time, oozing around on top of a fixed grid of possible meanings (as linguist John McWhorter’s helpful analogy describes), then we should naturally fight to maintain stable meaning for those terms which are the most important. We can’t fight every battle and not all words are worth fighting for. I don’t mind that “googling” has become a verb. But I am a little concerned about the fact that “jealous” has now largely taken the old meaning of “envious.” This bothers me because our English Bible translations call God a jealous God and through this shift of meaning most of my contemporaries are going to misunderstand this statement at first reading.

If each person really has a set of definitions they guard jealously (in the old sense of the term), then this calls for some self-reflection. What are the terms that I feel should be policed? Why am I bothered when certain terms are used incorrectly or sloppily? If we can isolate the kinds of terms we feel most passionately about, that is a good window into what we are placing our hope in, or what we feel is most important for those around us to hold onto in the instability of life and communication. Most importantly, does our list of words-worth-policing reflect the concepts that are the most important in the word of God? It could be that an awareness of our carefully-guarded vocabulary betrays some trust put in the wrong places. Too many missionaries place their hope in their strategy. Too many Westerners root their identity in their ethnicity or sexual expression.

As in many areas, the question is not if you will have a list of definitions that you guard – the question is which ones? Instead of operating by default, let us instead strive to guard certain definitions intentionally. Though some words will need to be replaced as their former good meaning is lost forever, others can be redeemed and put to work serving the Church for thousands of years to come.

Photo by Vasco Sousa on Unsplash

Twelve Aspects of Culture that Can Impede Communication

Have you ever felt like you and another person are not speaking the same language, even though you are speaking the same language? Effective communication happens when the words and forms you are using convey your intended meaning to the one you’re speaking to, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, a different meaning is often what is understood despite our best efforts to make ourselves clear. What is going on when this happens? Turns out there are quite a few cultural elements at play in the midst of our miscommunication. It’s often when you study another culture and language that your eyes are opened to these dynamics of your native culture that have been there all along. But we like to assume that if we share the same language, we share the same culture of communication. Often, this is not the case at all. Here are twelve aspects of communication culture. How many of these dynamics might be at play in the conflicts we are currently experiencing? Given the complexity of communicating clearly, we should even more seriously take to heart the biblical wisdom of being “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:9). This post will be a flyover, with hopes of digging into these various aspects one at a time in the future.

  1. Personality – This one is a no-brainer. Different people with different personalities communicate accordingly. The complexity of individual personality bears on the way we communicate, as extroverts and introverts will readily attest.
  2. Family – Many a marriage conflict has been affected by different family cultures of communication. Growing up, did your family communicate directly or indirectly? Was there a lot of joking and sarcasm or serious conversation? How much emotion was normal in the home?
  3. Subculture – Generations have a particular subculture of communication about them, as do those who associate with different social movements. Evangelicals have a different vocabulary than Catholics do. Hipsters like to speak in tones that are emotionally-muted. Why? The effects of subculture.
  4. Region/Nation – Ever moved to a different region of your home country or to a different country altogether? It’s no secret that Yankees speak more directly than Southerners do, and that Southerners are far more likely to greet a stranger on the street. Regional culture affects communication, as does national culture. Canadians attach the friendly “eh?” to the end of their statements and Americans like to drop the honorary titles, “Just call me Jim.”
  5. Orality and Literacy – Most would be familiar with the categories of literate (able to read and write) and illiterate (not able). But literacy should be thought of as a spectrum, with many gradations along the way from illiteracy to highly literate. Many never read for pleasure, but only when necessary. Others can technically read, but struggle to summarize a text in their own words and write a response. The poor the world over lean more heavily on proverbs and truisms than the wealthy do. Some think in soundbites while others think in paragraphs. These are the effects of orality and literacy.
  6. Honor vs Justice – When it comes to motivation, does a culture primarily speak about what is right and wrong or on what is honorable vs what is shameful? Is a person guilty by nature of what he has done or guilty only if pronounced so by the community? How is one praised or condemned?
  7. Gender Roles – How does a culture idealize gender roles? Are they viewed as largely interchangeable or as distinct and unable to be exchanged without bad effects? Some cultures, for example, even forbid communication between unrelated men and women. Restaurants have sections for men only and sections for families. Western culture, on the other hand, used to distinguish between waiters and waitresses, but now uses the generic term “server.”
  8. Social Power – How does a culture idealize differences in positions of authority? Should the playing field be leveled or should the power differentials be maintained and strengthened? This effects the use of titles, first names, how communication proceeds to superiors (and back down to employees), and how the young relate to the elderly.
  9. Contexting – This is how directly or indirectly a culture communicates. In a culture with high contexting, individuals assume a shared understanding with those they are communicating to. Therefore, their communication is more indirect since everyone is supposed to know what a certain action or phrase means. In a culture with low contexting, individuals do not assume that there is a shared understanding of meaning, therefore communication is more direct and explicit.
  10. Individualism vs. Collectivism – Individualism and collectivism represent a spectrum of how people define themselves in different cultures. Is a person defined as primarily an individual or as primarily a member of a group? Which is more prominent, “we” or “I”?
  11. Time – Cultures tend to be either monochronic or polychronic in their beliefs about time. If a culture is monochronic it believes that time is unitary and dividing up time is not valued. Time is viewed as more of a circle and less like a line. If a culture is polychronic it believes that time is a commodity that can be divided up and used like a resource. Time is viewed like a line or a road. Does the meeting starting at 10 am mean 10:00 sharp or anytime from 10:00-11:00?
  12. Non-Verbal Communication – This refers to aspects of communication apart from verbal speech. These parts of communication account for the majority (75 percent!) of actual communication that takes place. When a person’s verbal communication contradicts their non-verbal communication, those on the receiving end tend to believe the non-verbal, emphasizing the power of this kind of non-speaking speech. This can include body language, the use of physical space and distance when communicating, and choice of clothing.

This flyover should suffice to demonstrate many of the factors that might be affecting our communication. While none of us can keep all of these things in mind at the same time, it’s helpful to be aware of these categories just enough to recognize when a conflict may be the result of some clash of cultural background or values. Sometimes merely clarifying that a conflict is a difference of culture rather than only a sin issue can bring needed grace into the conversation.

For items 6-12, I’ve relied upon the categories spelled out in Scott Moreau’s excellent book, Effective Intercultural Communication.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Can the Name of Allah Be Used for the Christian God?

Short answer: It depends.

Long answer:

First, some historical background. There were Arab Christians before the emergence of Islam that used Allah to refer to the Christian God. These were Arab tribes such as the Lakhmids, the Banu Taghlib, and the Ghassanids who lived on the borders of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. In fact, one of the oldest sources of written Arabic is a monastery inscription written by Hind, mother of the Lakhmid king, Amr, which reads “This church was built by Hind, mother of King Amr and servant of Christ… May the God for whom she built this church forgiver her sins and have mercy on her son.” Arabic Christians have continued throughout history to use the name Allah to refer to the God of the Bible to the present day. The name Allah is linguistically related to the Aramaic name for God, Alaha, and more importantly, to the Hebrew name, El. So in terms of history and etymology, Allah has a strong case. It has been conveying the meaning of the God of Bible’s identity for at least 1,500 years among Arabic-speaking Christians. Its sister languages have been similarly using its cognates for even longer than that.

But what about Islam? What happens when a rival religion emerges and hijacks the name for God the Christians have been using, filling it with unbiblical meaning? The god the Qur’an describes is vastly different from the God the Bible describes. The god of the Qur’an is a simple unity who is transcendent, but not imminent. The God of the Bible is a complex unity, a Trinity, who is both transcendent and imminent. The nature of the former means he cannot become a man to die a shameful death on a cross for the atonement of sins. The latter did, as the eternal Son took on flesh and became the man, Jesus Christ. Despite this and many other differences, Arab Christians throughout history, including our evangelical brothers and sisters, have held onto the name Allah for God. They are the linguistic insiders, the ones best qualified to know whether the biblical meaning of God can still be communicated by the form, Allah. English speakers should defer to native Arabic speakers, agreeing that within the Arabic language, Allah can be used to speak of the Christian God.

As English speakers, a little reflection on our own word, God, can be helpful here. In spite of its polytheistic Indo-European and Germanic baggage, the name God has been redeemed and filled for a millennium and a half with biblical meaning. Therefore, our own experience tells us that names of deities with pagan baggage can become faithful linguistic servants of the true revelation. Let’s say Mormonism, with its own unbiblical views of God, overtakes Christianity in the West and becomes the dominant religion. Would we abandon the name, God? Unlikely. We would probably labor for thousands of years to refill the form with its biblical meaning, not unlike what Arab Christians have done.


The name Allah should not be used to refer to the God of the Bible outside of Arabic-speaking communities. There are at least three reasons for this.

The first is that Christian history and missions history have shown that whenever possible, Christians should seek to redeem the indigenous word for the all-powerful creator God that already exists in that language, if one exists. Again, we English speakers live this reality every day when we say God instead of YHWH or El. Why has redeeming the chief divinity’s name been so effective throughout history in hundreds of languages? My theory is that the name for the all-powerful creator god in a given language represents an ancient remnant of early monotheism, diluted sometime after Babel into polytheism, but still there, waiting like a time-bomb for a Christian missionary to come along and connect that name back to its source. He has not left them without a witness to himself (Acts 14:17).

The second reason for not using Allah in other linguistic contexts is that Allah primarily represents/means the god of Islam in those other languages, making it more harmful than not to communicating the biblical God. Languages other than Arabic don’t have the broader range of meanings of Allah that Arabic has, in which Allah continues to be used also as the God of Arabic Christians and Jews. These languages often have another name for the all-powerful creator god in addition to the more narrowly-understood Allah proclaimed among them by Islam. This is true of the Muslim Central Asian people group that we work among and many others. Our focus people group, interestingly enough, has a name for God that is a very distant cousin-cognate to our English term, God. When they use this indigenous name, it carries a broader sense than Allah does, thus giving us more room to build biblical categories. We sense this even in English. When someone speaks of Allah we understand that that person is speaking of the god of Islam in a narrower sense than we use the term God in English. Words really do carry around meaning-baggage with them, and we need to acknowledge it and carefully judge if a name is already so tied to unbiblical meaning as to be not worth the salvage effort. In other languages, Allah is not worth the effort it would take to redeem it, especially when God has preserved an indigenous name for the all-powerful creator god in that language.

That brings me to my third reason to not use Allah to refer to the biblical God in non-Arabic contexts. Islam teaches that in order to please God, you must pray, worship, and live like a 7th century Arab. It teaches that Arabic is the language of heaven and thus holier than all other languages. This means that all those other people groups who are Muslim have been raised to believe that their language is inferior for praying to Allah and that they will only get the spiritual merit they need to gain paradise if they pray in 7th century Arabic. In a real sense, they must become Arabs or they will go to hell. Why have the Persians, the Turks, the Kurds, the Berbers, the Dari, the Pashtun, the Baloch, the Somalis, and so many others blindly accepted this linguistic and cultural colonialism? It is tragic that no one has taught them that gentiles don’t need to become Jews in order to be saved, and therefore, they do not have to become Arabs. Missionaries run the risk of contributing to this Arab-supremacist heresy when we thoughtlessly or “creatively” use Allah among non-Arab people groups. Instead, we should be proclaiming that the true God knows their language and knows their people, that he loves them and desires for them to worship him in their own language as a unique manifestation of his glory – that he will even preserve worship in their language for all eternity (Rev 7:9). These truths are precious and powerful for oppressed people groups in a way that dominant people groups (like English and Arabic speakers) sometimes struggle to understand. Yes, the gospel will call them to transcend their ethno-linguistic identity as members of the race of Christ, but first it will honor their ethno-linguistic identity. In salvation, God will come to them and will speak to them in their mother tongue. So should we.

So, can Christians use the name of Allah to refer to the God of the Bible? It depends. If it’s in Arabic, absolutely. In other languages, let’s avoid it wherever possible.

Arab Christian History Source: Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 92

Photo by Rumman Amin on Unsplash

The Oldest Poem in the English Language

My wife bought me Leland Ryken’s The Soul in Paraphrase for a Father’s Day gift. It begins with this gem, the oldest extant poem in the English language, which is fittingly about creation.

Now we must praise the Keeper of Heaven's Kingdom, 
The might of the Maker and his wisdom, 
The work of the Glory-Father, when he of every wonder, 
The eternal Lord, the beginning established. 

He first created for the sons of earth 
Heaven as a roof, Holy Creator, 
Then middle-earth the Protector of mankind, 
Eternal Lord, afterwards made, 
The earth for men, the Lord Almighty. 

The poet is Caedmon, an illiterate English farmhand in the 600s who did not know how to sing. When he fell asleep one day in a barn, someone in a dream told him to sing. Caedmon protested that he did not know how, so the voice told him that he should sing about creation. When he awoke, Caedmon was able to sing this song. Ryken says, “The new poetic gift never left Caedmon. English poetry thus began with a miracle of the word.”

I enjoyed the unique titles that Caedmon uses to speak of God, the “Keeper of Heaven’s Kingdom,” the “Glory-Father,” the “Protector of mankind.” This is one of the advantages of being exposed to the worship of God in other languages or in an archaic form of your own language – different kinds of titles are possible and prominent (For example, Acts 1:24 in Greek calls God “Lord Heart-Knower”). I also noticed how the verbs come at the end of some of the sentences, an old trait of Indo-European languages that has also held on in the Indo-European language we are learning in Central Asia. And I always find it interesting whenever I come across an account from church history where the Holy Spirit communicates in dreams, a phenomenon quite common among those who come to faith in Central Asia. Strange as it might seem to us now, dreams are more common in our own spiritual lineage than we might think.

As I read, I wondered if this first poem of the English language also hints at some influence of Celtic Christianity, the main cultural source of English Christianity, with its Patrick-esque emphasis on the goodness of creation (See this post on St. Patrick’s Breastplate). Like creation, English poetry has since been abused and broken in many ways, but it sure had a good and beautiful beginning.

For the linguistically curious, here is “Caedmon’s Hymn” in Old English and in Bede’s Latin translation.

Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard,
metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc,
uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes,
ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ
hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum
heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen.
Thā middungeard moncynnæs Uard,
eci Dryctin, æfter tīadæ
firum foldu, Frēa allmectig.
Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis,
potentiam creatoris, et consilium illius
facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille,
cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor exstitit;
qui primo filiis hominum
caelum pro culmine tecti
dehinc terram custos humani generis
omnipotens creavit.

-Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase, pp. 19-20

-Marsden, Old English Reader, p. 80

-Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

The English Language Was Saved by a Pandemic

Photo by Kuma Kum on Unsplash

In this time of global pandemic it’s worth recalling that the English language would likely have gone the way of the wooly mammoth had it not been for a pandemic, specifically, the Black Death. In the year 1066, William the conqueror of Normandy and his fellow francophone viking descendants (Norman = Northman = Viking) successfully invaded Britain. The linguistic effect of this conquest was that Norman French became the language of the ruling class of society for the next several hundred years. The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) of Beowulf steadily lost ground to the language of the conquerors, only holding on in the countryside and among the lower classes. The English that remained absorbed an incredible amount of French vocabulary in this period, leading to a distinct stage in the language called Middle English. As the influence of French grew among the upper and middle classes, taking over the cities and all literary endeavors, the future of English was in danger.

Enter the Black Death. This plague which attacked the lymphatic system was spread by fleas, rats, and also by airborne transmission. The Black Death devastated the cities of Europe in the mid-1300s, killing as many as 1/3 of the population. This meant that many of the urbanite French speakers who would have continued to advance the victory of French in Britain were instead killed by the plague. The literati and political class were decimated. This aftermath of the plague gave the English language the chance to not only survive, but to regain prominence in Britain, and eventually, to emerge as the first truly global language. Well, first since Babel anyway.

What might be the linguistic effects of this current Covid-19 pandemic? Certainly it will mean the creation of new vocabulary as concepts such as quarantine and social distancing are translated into the official languages of every country. Our local Central Asian language has coined a new verb: “karantîn” + verb form of make/do. Will the pandemic save an endangered language that will one day go on to rule the world? Unlikely, but as history demonstrates, by no means impossible.

*I’m indebted to Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word and John McWhorter’s Words on the Move for the information in this post – great books if you enjoy the combination of language and history.