The Power of Language
We are very grateful to Dr. Amos Yong for allowing us to share his insights with you. This article, based on a talk given at the National Worship Leader Conference in Dallas, Texas, on October 2, 2015, is a bit more academic than most that are found in Reformed Worship. But after reading it you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the Pentecost event and its implications for our lives and worship today. —JB
Worship: From a Vernacular Point of View
We have been reminded in more recent times of the power of the vernacular, the language of the people. Reformed historians have used language as an analytical lens as they studied the transmission of faith from Latin to European languages starting in the late medieval period. Mission theorists have documented how work on Bible translations in the last few hundred years has revitalized majority world cultures and preserved their local languages from extinction. In this article, I similarly use the analysis of the vernacular to gain a greater understanding of global worship following my own commitments as a theologian by being drawn back to the biblical text, especially the Day of Pentecost account in Acts 2. The Acts narrative provides a five-dimensional framework—linguistic, cultural, temporal, carnal, and sensorial—with which to explore the vernacular aspects of global Christian worship.
One caveat is appropriate before we begin. I am trained not in music and worship but as a scholar of religion and theology; hence, I approach my topic from this outsider’s perspective. As a pentecostal Christian, I bring my experiential and theological perspectives to bear on this arena. Yet since my own understanding is limited compared with the expansiveness and diversity of global Pentecostalism, my account should not be taken as representative of the whole. For precisely this reason, then, the focus on the vernacular highlights the diversity and particularity of worship contexts. As a result we can observe how the Holy Spirit empowers those gathered in a specific place and redeems their gifts for the purposes of the coming reign of God.
The Vernacular and the Linguistic Register
The Day of Pentecost narrative opens in this way:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:1-11)
My italicized text highlights the synergistic character of divine/human interaction: that human beings respond (in this case, speak) as the Holy Spirit enables (in this case, empowers). Christian worship depends on the initiative of God, certainly. However, there is a real sense of human responsiveness even without discounting spiritual enablement.
Although this text is not first and foremost about Christian worship, we ought not minimize the report about the Spirit-filled followers of the Messiah speaking in other, various, and many languages. Acts 2:5-11 (about which I will say more in the next section) reveals Luke (the author of Acts) drawing from the Old Testament “Table of 70/72 Nations” (Gen. 10-11) in a selective or representative way to highlight how the gospel was already going out to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) in the languages of the people, even as those from the ends of the earth were now gathered in Jerusalem on this Feast of Pentecost to inaugurate the last days of God’s redemptive work. The point is that the Incarnational One is now depicted in pneumatological (Spirit-related) and pentecostal (related to the Day of Pentecost) terms. If God’s supreme self-revelation occurred in the eternal Word taking on human flesh (Christ), then God’s ongoing self-revelation occurs in the Holy Spirit coming to human beings in their own languages. The worship principle drawn from this is that people will praise the living God in their own languages, not in the (unknown) tongues of others.
The Vernacular and the Cultural Sphere
I now shift from the linguistic element to the fact that human languages are intertwined with human cultures, traditions, and histories. God redeems not only human languages in the abstract but human beings in all of their cultural particularity. What are the implications for Christian worship?
I suggest not only that human beings praise the living God from out of the depths of their historic and cultural existence, but also that no linguistic/cultural domain is cut off from the redemptive grace of the Spirit of God. Although we could comment at length on this passage’s implications for our theme, I will be focused, even as Luke was selective, and discuss three references.
First, the fact that “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,” were present means that imperial culture is not excluded from divine visitation. If Rome symbolized the oppressive political system, then the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome) can also be caught up in declaring “God’s deeds of power.” Even those native not to Israel but to the totalitarian “other” (Roman proselytes) were not excluded from being reconstituted by the Spirit as the new people of God to worship his name and declare his works.
Second, the stereotyped and stigmatized “other” is also included: Cretans. Their reputation was well-known around the Mediterranean world, even on their own terms: “one of them, their very own prophet, who said, Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). The irony of this so-called saying is obvious: would you believe such a “prophet” if in fact Cretans are “always liars”? Because if so, then what is untrue about this set of ethnic slurs? My point is that even such racialized others are visited by the Holy Spirit, and that whatever the realities of our cultural histories, it is the work of the Spirit to redeem our languages for the lifting up of the divine name.
Last for our purposes (but not least), note also the presence of Arabs at this auspicious Feast of Pentecost event. This semitic other, related from a distance through Abraham’s second wife and child—sibling rivalries are often the most antagonistic—indicates that the promise of Pentecost’s redemptive reach extended across even the widest chasms. Considering how Jewish/Arab history has unfolded across the last two millennia, we might wish that the mutuality of witness across Judean and Arabic tongues at this occasion might have built bridges of reconciliation between the two peoples. Even if such has not materialized at present, the promise of Pentecost is that a future resolution remains possible, so that even these divergent tongues, cultures, and histories can be understood afresh in light of the salvific work of God.
The Vernacular and the Temporal Dimension
That human beings exist in space-time means that beyond our linguistic and cultural spaces is the temporal axis. Luke’s account highlights also this dimension through Peter’s explanation, “ . . . spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’ . . . ” (Acts 2:16-17, emphasis added). The original Hebrew introduces this passage in this way: “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit . . . ” (Joel 2:28). Peter, or Luke as the one providing the account, situates the fulfillment of this prophetic promise eschatologically, meaning within the horizon of God’s final saving work initiated here in the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. The “last days” refer not to any supposed apocalyptic timetable but to the time of the Holy Spirit, unveiled two thousand years ago at this festival in Jerusalem, and continuing on for as long as Christ’s return is delayed, “for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39). In this respect, worship embraces the eschatological work of God with relevance for the here and now, and not only for what lies ahead (in the next world).
My point is that worship in the vernacular unfolds within the eschatological presence of the Spirit’s inbreathing work. If the new heavens and new earth are characterized by worshipers of “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9b), then Pentecost signals the arrival of this new salvific time. That the onlookers said those speaking in the languages of others were “filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13) is true, although not in the intended sense. What was unintelligible was this new filling of and with the wine of the divine and Holy Spirit, as opposed to being drunk with fermented wine (cf. Eph. 5:18), so that worship could arise through new songs in the saving presence of God. From this temporal and eschatological perspective, the old things are passed away and all things are made new (Rev. 21:4-5). Hence, worship emerges out of this new situation, and praise derives from the Spirit’s redemptive achievements across the variables of human lives.
The Vernacular and the Carnal Domain
But the temporal-spiritual is not exclusive of the spatial-material. Hence, what is redeemed in these “last days” is not just human souls (or languages in the abstract) but human bodies, indeed, people in their carnality. As Luke writes (again citing Peter quoting from Joel):
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18, emphases added)
Here of course, I mean by “the carnal” not the fleshliness that the New Testament contrasts with the spiritual and the pure, but what the incarnation redeems. If the divine condescended to take on human flesh so that humanity in its embodied creatureliness might also participate in the divine nature (this was the principle enunciated by the early church theologian St. Athanasius), then the Spirit poured out at Pentecost was indeed upon all flesh so that all human beings might be joined, not just spiritually but also through the dust of their constitution, with the triune God.
And Luke is serious about insisting that the outpouring of the Spirit was on all flesh, even on daughters, the young, and on slaves—the have-nots “owned” by others. In a patriarchal, gerontocratic, and aristocratic society, women, youth, and the indebted were treated at best as second-class citizens. Yet the gift of God himself, through the Holy Spirit, was dispensed impartially (cf. Acts 10:34) upon all. This means that worship is a thoroughly egalitarian affair and none—not women, not children, and not the poor—are excluded.
Worship then ought not to separate the liturgical acts of praise from the ecclesial and sacramental moments, so that each body, each person, not only has access to but can be an instrument of God’s ministerial and redemptive work, as enabled by the Holy Spirit. Thus, each is given a new song, the Spirit’s eschatological song, in his or her own language, to declare God’s new, wondrous, and glorious work in the times, places, and circumstances of their lives. God redeems not merely human spirits but human materiality and historicity, regardless of how much we achieve or what age we attain. The Spirit touches upon each life in and amidst its fragility, vulnerability, and ambiguity, inspiring and enabling the song of the Lord that heralds the present and coming reign of God.
For Further Reading
Portions of this article are based on other material by Dr. Amos Yong, including:
- Monique Ingalls and Amos Yong, eds., The Spirit of Praise: Global Pentecostal-Charismatic Music & Worship (University Park, Penn.: Penn State University Press, 2015).
- “Worship in Many Tongues: The Power of Praise in the Vernacular,” Worship Leader 122 (May-June 2015): 14-17.
- The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), ch. 4.
- Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity, images and commentary by Jonathan A. Anderson (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2014), starting with ch. 2.
- Spirit of Love: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2012).
Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2007
Dale Coulter and Amos Yong, eds., The Spirit, the Affections, and the Christian Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016
- The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), ch. 4
The Vernacular and the Sensorial Realm
I want, finally, to probe deeper into the carnality that constitutes human creatureliness. Human beings are fleshly not just in general but across a spectrum of abilities and impairments, not only physically but intellectually and sensorially. As a theologian who has thought long and hard about disability, I am sensitive to the fact that the Spirit’s outpouring on human flesh is not received by each one of us in the same way. Thus I observe that while some are enabled to prophecy, others are given alternative modes of the Spirit’s revelation: through visions and dreams, for instance. These engage not the cognitivity of the left side of human brains but the imaginativeness and affectivity of our right sides. Worship then is embodied, affective, and expressive.
Further, note that on the actual Day of Pentecost, the Spirit’s arrival was signaled in various ways: through the sounds of a violent wind, visualized in tongues of fire, perceived or felt via resting tongues, and then heard as strange languages (Acts 2:2-4). Hence to ask, as traditionally queried, whether the Pentecost miracle was one of speech (unlearned languages) or of hearing— “we hear, each of us, in our own native language” (Acts 2:8)—is a simplification. There are multiple sensorial modalities through which the Spirit is manifesting or upon which the Spirit is being poured out. There are, therefore, many possibilities of experiencing the Spirit, many sensorial routes through which the Spirit’s redemptive song can be aroused and nurtured. My concerns about people across the spectrum of dis/ability thus turns out to be truly good news for all: that worship can come forth from and through all bodies, no matter how able or impaired, which is precisely St. Paul’s point about the one body of Christ and one fellowship of the Spirit gifted through their apparent weaknesses with the Spirit’s many and multiple gifts (1 Cor. 12).
The Power of the Vernacular: So What?
The vernacular functions to highlight the locality, particularity, and specificity of human lives in their various cultural, historical, and existential contexts. My claim is that worship invites fresh consideration of the power of the vernacular, of how worship in many tongues invites reflection on the multitude of stories (and histories) that are carried in every human body. In this respect, we are talking not only about empowering multicultural worship, although that we certainly are; rather, our emphasis lies on the interculturality and intraculturality of worship, where the plurality of human voices and witnesses informs each other (hence the intercultural), and where each of us now understand ourselves and our own lives as constituted by others in their differences (hence the intracultural).
Come, Holy Spirit, enable a new vernacular to be sung in every heart.