Learning to Speak in a New Context
The newest Brit on campus muses about language barriers and the contextualization of the Gospel.
"Say that again...?" So begins another conversation over lunch in the refectory, certain to last not less than a quarter of an hour. After five months, one might think that the novelty of a foreign accent would wear off.
"Oatmeal day!" No, porridge actually. "So you actually live in Downton Abbey, right?" What people really want to know is: upstairs or downstairs? And it's Downton, not Downtown.
In the quip commonly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, it is said that Americans and Brits are "two peoples divided by a common language." Whilst the division between us is not as sharp as it might be if we did indeed speak unrelated languages (say, Welsh and Japanese), the fact of my sharing a mother tongue with most of my colleagues here at the Seminary does mask some of the real differences of culture, experience, and perspective which exist between subjects of the Crown and citizens of the United States in the 21st Century.
On the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, as I sat in an unconvincingly–appointed "typically British" restaurant in the departure lounge of London Heathrow's Terminal 4, with a large plate of chips (= fries) and a gin and tonic for company, I pondered how my time at SVOTS would be. What will the other seminarians be like? How will it feel to make the transition from the diverse intellectual hot–house of Oxford to the more cohesive and prayerful environment of the Seminary? What will it be like living so close to one of the most exciting, most cosmopolitan cities in the world? Will I be able to get a decent drop of Earl Grey in a china cup?
One thing I had not fully anticipated was a language barrier—but that there was. The way we communicate—how we express ourselves idiomatically, what we take for granted as common experience, the particularities of our local dialect, even what we call things ("eggplant" = "aubergine")—is a complex matter, which goes far beyond merely the sounds we make to one another. In the few months I have been living "across the Pond," as we like to say, I have learned much about conscious interpretation and contextualisation, considered clarity, and filtering colloquialisms, in order that we may speak without offense or confusion, building relationships founded on genuine understanding and integrity.
Whilst this has been an experience peculiar to me and my context (though one shared analogously by those other seminarians coming from further afield— Mexico, Bosnia, even Canada!), in some ways it is paradigmatic of the experience of all seminarians at St. Vladimir's. One of the ways in which I have come to understand our purpose here, as we learn what it is to love Jesus Christ above all things, and by extension, to love and serve his Church, is by likening it to mastering a language. Of course, this is true in a literal sense: we may learn Greek and Hebrew, Slavonic or Arabic, and we learn to speak in the mode and within the matrix of academic theology. But the language which is more important, indispensable in fact, is the language of the love of God.
As Orthodox Christians, we stand as the inheritors of the most profound tradition known (and unknown) to the world. Yet it is not enough for us only to receive the truth of the Faith—we must also be missionaries, martyrs, and confessors, spreading the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth, passing on the truth of Jesus Christ to our descendants. As we look around us at a world which, in so many ways, barely knows the Gospel, we must learn to speak anew the language of the Word made flesh, crucified and risen for us. We are called to understand how to articulate and interpret that truth afresh, to engage our partners in dialogue in meaningful conversation, stripped of presumption and circumlocution and jargon.
I pray that, as we each walk the narrow path to salvation set before us, our conversations on the way may be truthful and so transformative, not only for those who join us on the journey but also for ourselves; and that the Holy Spirit may enliven us with the gift of Pentecost to speak the language of the love of Christ to those around us who are yet to confess Him.
Gregory Tucker is an MA student at SVOTS. Raised in a village 25 miles east of London, England, he is a graduate of the University of Oxford, having studied at Keble College for his bachelor's degree in Theology and at St. Stephen's House for his master's degree in Patristics. He came to Christianity as a teenager and was confirmed in the Church of England, and subsequently converted to Orthodoxy. Gregory is a frequent pilgrim to the Holy Land, a passionate foody, and a devotee of the fine arts. After family and friends, he misses oblique conversation and unpasteurised dairy products most of all.