Subject: Medium or Message? Language and Faith in Ethnic Churches
AUTHOR: Anya Woods TITLE: Medium or Message? SUBTITLE: Language and Faith in Ethnic Churches SERIES: Linguistic Diversity and Language Rights PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2004
Clay Butler, Department of English, Baylor University, Waco, Texas USA
In Medium or Message?, Anya Woods explores the relationship between language choice and religious/ethnic identity in various "ethnic" Christian congregations in Australia. For example, she identifies a generational tension in some congregations between younger church members who want to assimilate into the larger, English-speaking community and the older members who wish to maintain their ethnic language and more of their homeland traditions and culture. Her research is primarily a qualitative analysis of phone interviews conducted with the pastors of sixteen churches from a wide range of denominations, and questionnaires given to the attendees of two churches forming in-depth case studies. Her insightful and detailed descriptions should be very interesting to church leaders, sociologists interested in immigrant issues, and anyone else intrigued by the nexus of language and ethnicity. The following two sections provide a summary of the contents of each chapter and an evaluation of the book as a whole.
Chapter 1 -- Establishing the Context of the Study
The book begins by looking at various contexts of the study: the Australia context, the Christian theology context, and the ethnic congregation context. Australian officials in the government and the church hierarchy have advocated the acceptance and valuation of diversity within their multicultural and multilingual society and churches. The standard and the reality, however, are often in conflict as there is a strong pull toward the English language in Australia, a pull which leads to difficult choices for ethnic communities. Christian theology sets up a particularly interesting study for linguistic and cultural diversity because Christianity does not look to one language or one culture as its core identity; Christian scripture encourages advancement and adaptation of expressions of the faith. However, the Christian experience is inevitably lived within and tied to a specific language and culture. Ethnic congregations in Australia face the difficult choice of supporting their traditional culture by using and encouraging their community language in their churches or of assimilating into the larger culture by using English. Woods summarizes the problem as one of balancing priorities, "among the many issues faced is the question of whether getting the message across is more or less important than being a vehicle for cultural and language maintenance" (p 7). Woods' research shows how some ethnic churches navigate their way through this defining issue. The sixteen churches in the study are (denomination/ethnicity): (1) Anglican/Chinese-Hakka, (2) Anglican/Persian, (3) Baptist/Arabic, (4) Baptist/Spanish, (5) Catholic/Croatian, (6) Catholic/Italian, (7) Lutheran/German, (8) Lutheran/Latvian, (9) Lutheran/Slovak, (10) Orthodox/Greek, (11) Orthodox/Russian, (12) Reformed/Chinese- Mandarin, (13) Reformed/English of Dutch origin, (14) Uniting/Indonesian, (15) Uniting/Oromo, (16) Uniting/Tamil.
Chapter 2 -- Language-Religion Ideology in an Ethnic Church Context
The second chapter introduces the concept of Language-Religion Ideology (LRI) and discusses the LRI of the seven denominations under study. The LRI of a denomination is "the nature of the link between language and religion…a denomination's actions, attitudes, traditions and official/unofficial policies pertaining to language" (p 41). At one end of the LRI continuum are those groups which emphasize the distant, sacred nature of God and believe there is only one language appropriate for communicating with God, a "sacred" language. On the other end are those groups which emphasize the nearby, personal nature of God and are comfortable using an "ordinary" language with God. There are, of course, many factors influencing an LRI, and even groups that allow an "ordinary" language will chose one variety over another as the preferred mode of communication. Next, Woods describes the LRI of the seven denominations in her study and, in summary, orders them from most aligned with a "sacred" language to most aligned with an "ordinary" language: Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Uniting, Reformed, and Baptist.
Chapter 3 -- Views from the Pulpit
This chapter summarizes the phone interviews between Woods and the pastors of the sixteen churches. For brevity, only the interview with the Arabic Baptist pastor will be discussed. The Arabic church in Melbourne is itself a richly multilingual and multicultural community. Members come from Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria and non-Middle Eastern countries such as Sudan and Somalia. The Arabic language, the language of faith in all of their home countries, brings them together. The pastor takes a pragmatic approach to language usage: as long as immigrants are moving to Melbourne who need an Arabic-language church, his church will continue using Arabic. However, as young people in the church become more comfortable with English, the church should provide more English-medium activities and services. The pastor hopes there eventually will be an English-speaking church specifically for the Arabic community. In terms of its LRI, the Arabic Baptist church clearly is comfortable with multiple languages in expressing their faith.
Chapter 4 -- Case Study 1: The Latvian Church
In addition to the phone interviews with the pastors, Woods also distributed questionnaires to two of the congregations. Chapter 4 describes the language environment of a Latvian Lutheran congregation in detail. In contrast to the Arabic Baptist church, the Latvian church has a strong LRI connection. Its governing constitution states that the church is to "inspire and support the Latvian cultural and social activities" and that "its religious services shall be performed in the Latvian language" (p 67). The church was founded in part to maintain Latvian nationalism during the period of Soviet domination. Even after Latvian independence was achieved in 1991, this ethos has continued in the church. While the pastor would prefer an "open door" style of church in which the gospel is presented in a manner relevant to a broad range of people, much of the congregation, in particular the elderly members, feel there are many other churches for English speakers and want their church to focus on Latvians.
Chapter 5 -- Case Study 2: The Indonesian Church
The second case study focuses on an Indonesian congregation of the Uniting Church. This congregation contrasts sharply with the Latvian. The Indonesian church is not attempting to protect Indonesian culture, but to serve the immigrant and migrant populations, many of whom value skill in English because it is seen as an asset in their work or education. While the Latvians have a relatively unified language, culture, and religion as their heritage, the Indonesians speak a variety of languages in their homeland with the Indonesian language serving as a lingua franca, come from a variety of cultures within Indonesia, and worshipped in different denominations before coming to Australia (e.g., Pentecostal, Reformed, Lutheran, and Seventh-Day Adventist). In light of this multicultural, multilingual background, it is not surprising that the pastor and the congregation are generally comfortable with adapting the liturgy and language of the church to changing social needs. Unlike the Arabic Baptists, however, the Indonesians feel there is a preferred dialect for expressing their faith, the most prestigious variety in their homeland, Javanese. Since Javanese is not a language known to a majority of the congregation, a pragmatic choice was made to use Indonesian.
Chapter 6 -- Some General Trends
This chapter summarizes the findings discussed in previous chapters, which answer two basic questions: (1) why is the community language important, and (2) why is English important? The community language is important for three primary reasons. First, it is the easiest for many participants to understand. Newcomers to Australia enjoy the use of a familiar language. In the case of complex cultural backgrounds such as that found in the Indonesian congregation, the use of a community language allows the members to relate to a larger community of immigrants and serves as a cultural unifier. Second, the community language for some groups, such as the Latvians, Greeks, and Russians, is considered a sacred language and crucial for a genuine expression of faith. A final reason the community language is important is the church's perceived role in language maintenance. This perception is particularly important for those who consider the community language a sacred language and for older members of the churches who wish to maintain a connection to their homeland. The primary reason English is important in ethnic churches is because it is often the primary language of the second generation and the only language of the third generation. Without a constant flow of new immigrants, an ethnic church in Australia that does not adapt in some way to English will likely die out.
Chapter 7 -- Towards a New Framework
The final chapter revisits the LRI continuum developed in chapter 2 and adds a second dimension of language attitudes and practices as discovered in the current research. Thus, ethnic churches can have a weak or strong link between language and religion, and they can have a variety of practices in actual language usage. For example, the Dutch Reformed have a weak LRI and have over time shifted from using Dutch to using English. The Greek Orthodox, on the other hand, have a strong LRI and have preserved the central role of Greek in their services. Woods concludes with her own implications following from the study. In general, she asserts that the medium should serve the message (p 174), meaning that language choices should be governed by which language best communicates the message.
As the first book in Multilingual Matters' new series, Linguistic Diversity and Language Rights, this book sets a fine standard in focusing on a group of under-represented people and highlighting their experience from their perspective. In particular, I appreciate the care in describing the various perspectives on language without criticism. This approach allows the reader to understand each congregation's experience on their own terms, from the participants' perspectives.
There are several keen insights mentioned that deserve fuller description. For example, the text describes the Spanish Baptist church as pluricentric (p 153), meaning the Spanish language has many homes and standards of appropriate usage. How do these groups negotiate their preferred variety? Also, the text mentions that some of the congregations immigrated from cultures in which Christianity is not the dominant religion: China, Indonesia, Iran, and Sri Lanka. How does the movement from a culturally non-Christian nation to a culturally Christian nation influence a congregation's LRI? Similarly, how does the paramount importance of Arabic in Islam influence the LRI of non-Muslims such as the Arabic Baptist congregation from Iran? The text mentions their reluctance to accept a modern translation of the Bible because of the criticism it would bring from their Muslim acquaintances. A fuller investigation of this issue would certainly reveal a confluence of many language-religion- culture dynamics.
One drawback to the text is the overemphasis on the numbers from the questionnaires when the samples are too small for relevancy. The author notes this limitation, but then spends dozens of pages discussing the numerical results. Readers who persevere through the tables and charts will find excellent sections in chapters 4 and 5 with short, revealing comments from respondents describing their opinions and perspectives. These sections provide a rare and fascinating view into the struggle of experiencing and expressing faith through language.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clay Butler teaches in the English Language and Linguistics program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, USA. His courses include Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Semantics and Pragmatics, and Cross- Cultural Linguistics. His research interests are in discourse analysis, linguistic politeness, and the construction of identity through language.