Bible translators and translation consultants tend to be ‘word people’. They love learning new languages, studying word derivations and making puns. A United Bible Societies (UBS) translation consultant may use several different languages regularly: one with their spouse and children, another with their parents, another at the office or with students, and others when communicating within the UBS fellowship (international languages like Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish). And, of course, yet other languages when reading the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek).
All this doesn’t include the many other languages they work with as they help Bible translators to revise their spelling system, analyse their grammar, establish rules for punctuation and translate foreign biblical terms and expressions – and the entire message of the Bible – into their language and culture. Letters and words, dictionaries, grammars and semantics are what they live, think and breathe.
Similarly, many Christians, whether language professionals or not, have a very word-based spirituality, whether their key text is the KJV, the Westminster Catechism or the Catholic Mass. It’s undeniable that human beings need words. Most of these are spoken, though some cultures also use graphic systems of writing to preserve their words. (If you’re reading this, this includes yours, but this isn’t the case for most cultures in Nigeria, where I live.) Other cultures use manual sign language (such as the deaf).
Even very ancient Jewish traditions say that language is what distinguishes us from the animals. But, just like chocolate, you can have too much of a good thing! Sometimes even ‘word people’ become weary of it all – like the writer of Ecclesiastes – and start to wonder whether it really is all about words. Then they may start taking an interest in icons, or contemplative and even silent spiritualities.
Sometimes, it is when we have despaired of words that we really get what it means for the ultimate ‘Word’ – God’s message itself – to have ‘become flesh’ (John 1), for words to have been embodied, incorporated, lived out … made into a picture! Jesus is the ‘picture’ of the invisible God, and the Church is now his own image in the world.
Help them engage with the words
I have just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books to two of my young children. I usually read snuggled up between the two of them in bed, and with the tone of my voice, the grand, funny and scary accents I put on, and even the tensing of my body in the exciting bits, I try to help them engage with the words on the page. Their engagement with these very special stories is extremely important to me – I believe it is opening their hearts and souls to know the greater Aslan.
For months they’ve been pleading to be allowed to watch the films too, but I’ve insisted we finish the books first. So, of course, moments after I’d read the last sentence of The Last Battle, they both chimed in, ‘Can we watch the films now?’. We did, and you can imagine the mixture of delight and disappointment. The truth is, pictures on a screen in our living room are also just a two-dimensional embodiment of the story, not necessarily more ‘real’ than what their imaginations had conjured up during the reading. What my children really want is not just words or pictures – they want to be present in the story, they want to go to Narnia and meet Aslan!
Paul tells us that everything we think we know is just a feeble reflection of the ultimate reality: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
We do well to remember this, whether we communicate the Good News in words or pictures, audio or print, video or digital, or in other ways. One day, my children and I will take a leap that is much greater than the leap from words to the pictures of an icon or to the moving images of a film. We’ll see Him face to face, and know him like He knows us, and understand, and feel, and interact, and engage …
We may then look back, like the inhabitants of the ‘new Narnia’ and say that everything we knew before was just a dream … or a nightmare …