<%image(20050311-babel.jpg|57|87|babel)%> The title of the book struck Julie and myself as really odd. If the tower of Babel story is all about God’s judgment on people who wanted to make a name for themselves, why would we want to return there? Why would we want to relive the curse of being dispersed all over the world with various languages? Our disconnect from the title is because we are Americans.
As part of the American melting pot, we often think of standardization in a positive light. As the ones who win the arguments and settle disputes, typically getting our way, we think of the Tower of Babel as a tragic moment in human history. Just when everyone was speaking the same language and was able to get along, God came down and brought judgment. Confusion and disorder are all that can come from such a divine decree. (If these aren’t your exact views of the story, I hope you get the basic idea of what I’m hitting on).
Upon reading the introduction of Return to Babel, I realized that my view of the story is very American.
Consider the Latino or African who has experienced oppression and marginalization. They may not speak the language of the majority. They may have different customs and practices. Poor housing, limited job opportunities, and meager respect are all part of that package. Therefore, should these people on the margins live in a country that aims for complete standardization under one language and one way of life, they stand to lose their basic communication, their culture, and their identity.
In other words, theologians from around the world view the story of Babel as an act of mercy or perhaps justice, not as an act of judgment that brought disorder. When humans were trying to squelch the diversity of the world into one group, God came down and made sure that this could never happen through the confusing of languages.
Whether or not you agree with this interpretation of the Babel story, we have to admit that our story is just as influenced by our own setting. In fact, if we dismiss out of hand the reading of these theologians who have known marginalization, then we only prove the point that we have a narrow and limited view point!
The rest of this wonderful book is a collection of theologians from all over the world on various passages of scripture. It’s an easy read and comes in manageable chunks. It has down wonders to open my mind to new ways of thinking and reading the Bible.
All that to say, Americans may still prefer the interpretation that diversity of language was in fact a curse if we need an excuse to hate our languge classes in high school . . .