Gospel & Culture blog
Linguist and anthropologist Eugene Nida argued that religious conversion is like learning a second language in adulthood: Just as languages have surface structures (vocabulary and grammar), they also have "deep structures" or underlying meanings. It's the same with religions: baptism is a surface structure, but its underlying meaning is about the sinful nature, regeneration, repentance. And, Nida continues the analogy, just as languages manifest in multiple dialects, so do religions-- there are different ways to do baptism, for instance, or different ways to pray to God. To complete the analogy, Nida said that just as we have accents when we learn a language as an adult, we carry this "accent" of our first religion into the religion that we learn later on in life.
That is, we learn our first religion- that of our parents and home culture- the same way we learn our native language. But if we convert, we have to learn the new religion like we learn a language in adulthood- we have to learn by immersion, of course, and also by analysis, by having things explained to us-- it's not as implicit and "organic" as the process of learning the religion of our youth.
This gets me thinking- can you ever forget your native language? And to extend the analogy, do you ever "forget" your religion of your youth, when you convert as an adult? To extend religion to all aspects of culture-- maybe this is why assimilation is so difficult for any of us. If all of culture is like Nida's analogy of language- then we carry these "accents" of our home culture into the host cultures where we sojourn. And we can never seem to learn the nuances of all these new cultural "dialects".
There are many ramifications of this notion of conversion as a sort of "second language acquisition." It means when we disciple or evangelize, we have to be aware of the "first religious language" of the people with whom we are sharing Jesus. In some ways, the structures and underlying meanings of their native religion help facilitate the learning of this new religious language of Christianity (ideas about morality, for instance, or obligation). But in some ways, learning Christianity is like a foreign language (when it comes to grace, for instance)
Nida, E. 1978. "Linguistic models for religious behavior." In Smaley, G (ed) Readings in Missionary Anthropology. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Every few years, a story comes out about the discovery of previously un-contacted tribes --- usually in the Amazonian jungle. A few days ago the Guardian reported that photographer Ricardo Stuckert's helicopter was diverted, and his flight took him over one such tribe. Stuckert posted his photos of the Indians (this is how they are referred to in the news story) looking up at the helicopter, bows and spears in hand. In 2014, the Guradian had a similar story about un-contacted Indians who fled their home and crossed into Peru to seek help.
I have become curious about why we are so fascinated by the notion of tribes that have little knowledge about the outside world. I have few hunches:
I think the issue warrants more of our attention than just a lookey-loo at people with brown skin, hand-fashioned weapons and loin cloths. Survival International says there are as many as 100 un-contacted tribes, whose land, way of life, and even existence are threatened. The push and pull factors of modernity and cultural preservation is a complicated issue: How do indigenous peoples balance their desires to protect the land, the need for modern medicine, their interest in modern conveniences, their need to have a political voice at the national and international level. Plus, the interests of the national government and international businesses (loggers, oil companies, etc.) are also at play.
Perhaps, without articulating all of these conflicting interests in a nano-second, it's the extremely complicated nature of all of this which catches our imagination and makes us stop to look at the stories about the discoveries of unknown tribes.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor