Linguistic Distance and Speaking the Same Language

This afternoon, I walked into my local coffee shop and ordered what I thought was a black tea. I received a 20 oz mug of English breakfast tea, which was, to the barista’s credit, black. But it was twice the size of what I intended, and it turned out that the barista thought I said “large” tea when I said “black.” It was a simple miscommunication, and I’m not one to say no to more tea, even if it is a few pence more than I’d intended.

I’ve grown used to these communication mishaps, even in areas where we share the same language. I get them, correct them when necessary, and have even adapted my language to new contexts and situations (one incident of telling your British friend to put on “proper pants” will ensure you say “trousers” from that moment on).

The guy I'm dating speaks several different languages. He’s German, and I know some German, enough to use random words here and there and attempt to have conversations with him “auf Deutsch.” I imagine him laughing and shaking his head at my little foibles and weird phrasing and consistently present-tense verb use. I’m really bad at this new language, despite a few years of it in high school and an intensive translation course at Baylor.

But a month long intensive translation course back in 2009 isn’t going to give me the tools to grasp and know the correct articles and assignation of gender to random nouns in the way a native speaker does. I used the wrong “mein” the other day, and he patiently corrected me, explaining that he has no real rubric for knowing what the right ending is—he just does, and I’ll probably need a massive chart. Or I’ll just stumble through and hope people are patient with me.

This morning, I woke up and checked Twitter like I usually do, and found my dear friend Sarah mocking the ignorant tweets of a man who has decided he loves gay men so much that he’d write a whole book about why they’re biblically wrong. This is a thing that happens regularly with a lot of us queer Christians—we’re told that love means keeping us from going to hell, that love means we should listen to God and make our identity in Him (always Him), instead of in our sexuality. The complicated politics and psychology of how identity forms are flattened into an either/or proposition: either you call yourself “gay” and find your identity in “the world,” or you happen to experience same-sex attraction but find your identity in Christ.

The language of the “Love the Sinner Hate the Sin” kind of movement is such that it’s very hard to parse unless you are, to roughly adapt the analogy, a native speaker of the evangelical language. The intricacies of the arguments, of the gender of the language, are the type that only make sense to people already intimately familiar with the arguments and the language used to express them. “Do you believe the Bible?” isn’t a simple question in this world, just as learning the proper gender of a noun isn’t going to make me a native speaker of German. For people on the outside looking in, this linguistic trickery must seem a massive puzzle, something that has to be charted and explained in detail in order to get all the meanings of a single sentence.

It’s a matter of language. It’s a matter of translation. In a lot of ways, we’re looking at the same text, the same ideas, and coming to immensely different conclusions.

I made a joke the other day in a message to him, and it took a few minutes for him to figure out why I found it funny. It was a play on words, a double-meaning of a word in English that depended on the listener being aware of both meanings. He's quite fluent in English but still tripped up by some things, and he didn’t get it right away. About a minute after I made the joke, the light bulb came on and he laughed.

Inversely, there are times he’ll say something in English that’s a literal translation of the German but doesn’t make sense in English. In those moments, I stop him and ask him to explain what he was going for so I can understand fully what he means. In a short time, we’ve developed a casual, egalitarian relationship for knowing and learning each other’s languages, making it easier for us to move past communication errors and ensuring that we’re always on the same page.

The inability to do this between the hard-right literalist and the liberationist theologians creates a dissonance in the language that starts small but echoes out into larger and larger rifts. Part of the reason Matthew Vines has found such success is that he can easily and quickly speak the evangelical language and can be trusted to understand and start from the same place as the evangelicals he’s discussing these issues with. There’s a level of authority there that I consciously gave up when I decided to declare myself a pro-choice, feminist, bisexual theologian. I can’t be trusted to be on the same page as the evangelicals anymore, despite us starting from the same book, from the same Scriptures, and from the same faith in a creator God who loves us.

Like two languages branching out from the same root, like German and English, the similarities and ability to understand aren’t yet enough that we can each speak our language and understand the other. The two branches of the same evangelical family tree might as well be grafted from two different breeds.

I don’t have answers for how we can begin to speak the same language again, or whether or not it’s even useful. To make that communication a priority again requires an equal commitment toward understanding and grace that I don’t think either side is capable of giving right now, save for some unique bridge builders.

For the rest of us, the question stands: Do we want to do the emotional labor to try and speak the same language again?

And that’s not one that has a definitive, universal answer. Not in any language.