On a hot August day in Illinois, I sit at a long table in the cool, quiet archives of the Billy Graham Center. Playing on my headphones is Elisabeth Elliot’s 1982 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. Elliot, who died in June, was a polished speaker and skilled mimic with a sharp sense of comic timing. In her low, cultured alto, she tells stories about her time as a missionary in Ecuador and the things she learned there about Christianity and cross-cultural communication. Although the events she describes happened more than 4,000 miles away, her observations seem particularly relevant to Cascadia. By virtue of the Northwest’s much vaunted status as a region of religious “nones,” anyone here with a religious “some” is engaged, in some sense, in cross-cultural communication.
Elisabeth Elliot is famous because in 1956 her husband, Jim, (a Portland native, who grew up on Mount Tabor) was one of five American missionaries killed with spears by members of an indigenous Amazonian tribe.
Elisabeth Elliot is famous because in 1956 her husband, Jim, (a Portland native, who grew up on Mount Tabor) was one of five American missionaries killed with spears by members of an indigenous Amazonian tribe. The five men wanted to tell the story of Jesus to people who had never heard it before. The people they chose were the Waodani, a tribe that had successfully defended their privacy for so long that in the 1950s no one knew their real name. They killed anyone who approached them; their frightened neighbors just called them Aucas−”Savages”.
The story of how the five men made contact with the Waodani and were subsequently killed−and of how Elliot and her little daughter went to live with the people who had killed them−has been told and retold until it is easily the best known missionary story of the twentieth century. Elliot spent two years working to create a written form for the Waodani language. Then she moved back to the US and settled in to raise her daughter and write for a living. News coverage of the events in Ecuador had made Elliot a household name. Her books−about the five men, about Jim, about her time with the Waodani−made her an evangelical celebrity.
Capa was fascinated−the women were so calm, they bore up so well. What kept them going?
When the five men were reported missing in Ecuador, LIFE magazine sent a staff photographer named Cornell Capa to cover the unfolding story. He arrived in the jungle just as the last body was being towed through the river to the common grave, shared the return trip to the mission station with the search party, and captured the moments when the five widows learned all there was to know about their husbands’ death and burial. Capa was fascinated−the women were so calm, they bore up so well. What kept them going? He returned to Ecuador the next year to report for LIFE on what the widows were up to. Later, he collaborated with Elliot on her book, The Savage My Kinsman, and then on a documentary-style film about the five men called Through Gates of Splendor.
As they worked together, Capa grilled Elliot: “He hadn’t met very many Christians,” Elliot tells the audience at the convention. “He had hardly heard of missionaries. He did not know why we were there or what it was we were trying to tell these Indians. . . . And in my desperate attempts to tell him what Christianity was about, he would stop me, again and again, and say, ‘Wait a minute. What does that mean? What are you talking about?’” Elliot found that the vocabulary she had used all her life−growing up in a Christian home, going to church every week, attending a Christian high school and a Christian college−couldn’t convey the ideas she believed so strongly to this talented, intelligent man.
Sin. Righteousness. Judgement. Grace. Salvation. Gospel. These words and others like them carry ideas that are important in Christian belief. But they weren’t special Bible words when the Bible was written.
Sin. Righteousness. Judgement. Grace. Salvation. Gospel. These words and others like them carry ideas that are important in Christian belief. But they weren’t special Bible words when the Bible was written; they were how people talked while they wandered through Pike Place Market on a sunny Saturday. So what do they mean? Can we explain the ideas behind them without using any other special Bible words? A goodly number of people in Cascadia aren’t familiar with these words or the concepts they signify. As Elliot said: “We forget we are giving a message cold to people who have no idea. . . .”
And then there are words and phrases that aren’t even in the Bible. “I’m in ministry.” “We’re doing life together.” “We just want to love on them.” “I want to live missionally.” “It was a divine appointment.” These and many more like them are “Christian” shorthand for ideas that non-Christians talk about too−going to work, hanging out with friends, and so on. But to someone who’s not “from” this (sub)culture, the dialect must be perplexing at best.
In high school, my English teachers made us rewrite poetry in our own words to make sure we understood it. This could be a useful exercise with words that are not in the daily vocabulary of the Pacific Northwest at large. As with English poetry, it would increase the chances that we really understand what we read, what we think, what we say. And it would increase the chances that we can communicate with people around us who see the world differently, often very differently.
As she worked to learn Wao Tededo, the Waodani language, Elliot discovered that proper intonation was essential, and difficult for an American tongue to capture. Often when she got a word or a phrase down, her intonation would still be incorrect. The Waodani appeared to think (quite reasonably since most of them had never heard another language) that all humans were born able to speak and understand Wao Tededo. Her inability to do so meant she must be deaf or mentally disabled. For Elliot, it was obvious that if she wanted to communicate with the Waodani, she would have to live with them long enough to learn their vocabulary and intonation, and then change her own speech to be intelligible to her listeners.
We may be talking, but we’re not communicating. Elliot told her audience in 1982, “We have to stop, and listen to ourselves, and think.”
The lines are less clearly drawn for Christians who live in their own culture of origin, surrounded by people who more or less speak their mother-tongue. But if we’re using a specialized “Christian” vocabulary that’s not part of the larger cultural vocabulary of our region, we’re effectively isolating ourselves in a ghetto populated only by people who already think (and speak) like us. We may be talking, but we’re not communicating. Elliot told her audience in 1982, “We have to stop, and listen to ourselves, and think.”
Let’s do that.
And then let’s get rid of Christianese in favor of the lingua cascadia.