In the April 16, 2007 issue of The New Yorker there’s a profile of the linguist Dan Everett and the Amazonian Indian tribe, the Paraha. The Paraha speak a language with characteristics that seem to defy some current theories about what makes language language. Plus which it’s very difficult to learn. And the Piraha themselves aren’t much interested in anything the outside world has to offer so don’t try to learn anybody else’s words. You want to talk to them, you gotta learn their language, which they don’t seem averse to teaching if it’s not too much trouble.
Everett began his linguistic career as a missionary. He married a devout woman whose family had done missionary work. When he attended an evangelical program for learning linguistics (goal: translate Bible into every language in the world and save dem souls!) he experienced a joy akin to being born again. Everett showed so much promise he got a real tough assignment – the Paraha. Though previous missionaries had worked with the tribe, none had succeeded in getting Christianity across. In this tradition Dan Everett’s own success with the Piraha language is not matched by Piraha interest in Christianity.
Long story short: a second degree later, plus a personal crisis or two and Everett faces the Piraha with new resolve:
“He threw himself into missionary work, translating the Book of Luke into Piraha and reading it to tribe members. His zeal soon dissipated, however. Convinced that the Piraha assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either.”
One of the many things that’s long puzzled me about Christianity is the idea that you need it. Billions of people around the world don’t need it. What about all the billions over the last two thousand years who’ve never heard of it? I mean Jesus, the very son of God, the only one, the only son, the only God, pops out of a virgin in a deserty little property off the Mediterranean, a sea more like a lake than an ocean, traipses around muttering and expostulating for a few years (was it even that long?), turns a little water to wine, brings a dead guy or two back to life, then gets nailed to a couple of boards. He dies, presumably in agony. It’s a story, all right.
However great the Jesus trip was, on a global scale it looks pretty small. Get a globe. A big globe. So big it won’t fit in your lap. Touch Israel with your pinkie and you’ve covered more ground than all that Jesus saw in his lifetime. Christianity, as a global phenom, lucked out when it got adopted by the Roman Empire. So the Roman Empire was poised for Dark Ages, at least it had the dim light of Christianity to squint by. Right?
Meanwhile the rest of the world – China, Mesoamerica, India – doing just fine, thanks. Waiting for Christianity to break free of stinky ol’ dirty Europe? Dying to be swept up in the Jesus craze? No. Really not.