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More than words: Voice, translation, and teachers

June 2020 | by David Last

Thirty years ago I submitted my final year undergraduate project: a computer conferencing program for Unix workstations. Unlike the conferencing apps we’re all using today, thanks to Coronavirus, it didn’t include photos, audio, or video it was simply words typed onto a screen. However, it did have emojis as part of trying to handle the limitations of human communication via technology. Now, of course, I would have lots more data and theories to help me assess what those limitations are, thanks to the mobile and internet age.

But what might Scripture say to me about all this? It comes from an age long before the rise of computers. I found myself pondering this recently, having seen the usefulness of technology for keeping in touch and the harm of technology to folk left bullied, isolated, confused, or miserable by it. So in these guest articles I want to explore some of the communication features we find in Scripture to help us reflect upon our use of modern communication.

Paul writing an epistle, by Valentin de Boulogne 1619
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The first feature which strikes me is the use of the voice. As we know historically, and as is visible in Scripture’s literary design and explicitly stated at times (1 Tim. 4:13; Rev. 1:3): the Bible was written to be heard. For centuries, most people learned from Scripture as others read it out to them. The Bible was written for the human voice, not just the eye and mind. Hence, churches must take care with the reading of God’s Word in meetings, to make sure it’s done often and well.

But it also reminds us how significant the relationship is between the mouth, ear, and mind. One of the weaknesses of my 1990 app was the absence of audio; one of the beauties of our technology is the ease with which we can speak verbally. The voice is a magnificent invention by God (as Alan Thomas reminded us in April’s ET), reflecting his own being. Creation did not spring to life when God wrote words in the dark using a divine sparkler. Creation sprang to life when God spoke a divine conversation between Father and Son (Col. 1:16).

Recognising this should raise prayers of thanks for phones, voice messages, and audio conferencing. It also warns us to take care with our text-only communications. They are great for certain purposes, like long, thoughtful emails and letters, or short snappy responses. But in some contexts their lack of sound can lead to misunderstanding in both meaning and tone, as our imagination fills in what the characters cannot convey. Scripture reminds us to value using our voices.

Secondly, Scripture needs translators and teachers. God gave the gift of tongues to the early church to challenge Israel (1 Cor. 14:21). But it also showed his grand reversal of Babel, that God would now be heard in the languages of the world. As Paul wrote, Christ unites not just Jews and Greeks but even the Barbarians (Col. 3:11). Thus was laid the foundation for the Christian church’s project to put Scripture into the world’s languages. However, the Bible also calls for teachers to explain the Word (Eph. 4:11). Christians are not left to hear and learn the Bible with our own limited brains.

These things cause us to give thanks for God’s gifts to his church. They also remind us of our post-Babel (post-Fall) capacity to misunderstand one another. The Lord has worked hard by his Spirit to help us understand him. In smaller ways, we must take great care to understand one another. Think before you speak or write. Ask what the best form of communication might be. Consider how you might be misheard or misread, especially when talking to someone from a different place. Scripture reminds us to be prudent when communicating.

There, then, are two thoughts from the Bible on communication. We’ll go on to two more next month.

David Last is Pastor Forest Baptist Church, Leytonstone, London.