When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
In Jesus’ time, like in many places today, people spoke multiple languages. The official language of the Roman Empire was Latin, but most business was conducted in Greek. Hebrew was the religious language of Judaism, but many Jews also spoke Aramaic. Jerusalem was also a multi-cultural city, with immigrants from all surrounding countries, who brought with them their own languages. Most people would have a native tongue in which they were most comfortable, but also were able to converse in multiple languages.
So now think about this scene in Jerusalem. The disciples began speaking in other languages—languages other than the ones they knew. And people from all over heard in their own native language. So “while it is possible that the Holy Spirit’s gift of languages (Acts 2:4) allowed the apostles’ preaching to reach some who had been previously unable to hear the gospel directly, most would likely have already have been able to hear in a second or third common language. Given this, the real miracle of Pentecost seems not to be so much the fact that the apostles were able to communicate, but rather, that the ‘devout Jews from every nation under heaven’ were able to hear in their ‘own native language…. And when someone reaches out to you like that—when someone sees you for who you are at your core, it’s a lot easier to hear what they have to say in return.”
So let’s look at this story through the lens of Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise.
Starfleet intercepts a signal from an alien race called “The Children of Tama,” also called the Tamarians. It is a mathematical signal—it has no words—but it is directed at Federation airspace and is considered to be an effort to reach out, to communicate. Starfleet has had several interactions with the Tamarians over the last century, but each time communication was impossible. The Tamarians’ language was said to be “incomprehensible.” This is strange because all starships are equipped with a universal translator, which makes communication between all species possible. (From a TV standpoint, it’s also a convenient way of explaining how people on far-off planets all seem to speak English.) But the universal translator doesn’t work with the Tamarians. Starfleet officers can understand the words, but they make no sense. Their language is full of proper nouns—places or people—but what is meant by them is a mystery.
So Captain Picard and his crew approach the Tamarians’ spaceship, which is hovering over an uninhabited planet. Picard and Dathon, the captain of the other ship, begin trying to communicate with one another, but to no avail. Dathon says things like “Shaka, when the walls fell” and “Darmok at Tanagra,” but Captain Picard has no idea what he means. Suddenly both captains are beamed off their ships and onto the planet below. The crew of the Enterprise are furious—they did not agree to their captain leaving the ship, and to make matters worse, the Tamarians have erected a force field that makes it impossible for the crew to rescue the captain, or to beam him back on board the Enterprise.
They begin to realize that the Tamarians speak almost entirely through narrative imagery from the stories in their history and mythology. In other words, they speak only in metaphor, in story. But without any context, the Enterprise crew is still unable to understand what it is the Tamarians are trying to say. Counselor Troi says it would be like us saying, “Juliette, on her balcony.” If you did not know the story of Romeo and Juliet, you would not have any idea what this means.
On the planet, Dathon (the Tamarian captain) and Picard try to communicate, but still nothing works. When a fierce beast arrives, threatening them both, Dathon and Picard must work together to defeat the beast. But Dathon is gravely injured in the fight. Finally, Picard starts understanding what Dathon has been trying to say. (Play clip from Season 5, Episode 2)
Dathon risked everything in order to communicate, in order to develop a relationship with others outside their planet and species. He knew that two people in their past had developed a relationship by fighting a common enemy. So Dathon risked his life to try to do the same. When Dathon died, Picard was able to tell the Tamarians—in their own language—that their captain had died in order to build a new alliance.
I think of our own stories, and how they form us. We all have our own personal stories, and those closest to us may know them but others don’t. I can look at Jackie and say “orange chair syndrome” and she knows I’m talking about someone who is acting like they’re the center of the universe. But maybe even those closest to us don’t know. I can say “My Independence Day is July 5th,” and I’m not sure if even Jackie would know what that date means to me. I say this because maybe even those closest to us do not know all our stories—not those stories. If we are ever to be known, we need to tell our stories. If we are ever to reach out, to share, we have to tell our stories. And if we are ever to know others, we have to listen.
Now, I’m not advocating that we overwhelm everyone with the intimate details of our lives. But if we want to reach out, if we want to connect like the Tamarians did, we have stories that need to be told.
Of course I also think of our biblical stories. Those stories shaped us, too, formed us. I could say to you, “Noah, on the water,” and you would know that I am referring to Noah’s Ark during the flood. I could say to you, “Angels on the hillside, shepherds in Bethlehem,” and you would know that I am speaking of Jesus’ birth announcement.” I could say “Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden,” and you would know that I am referring to resurrection. These are our stories, and they form us.
But not everybody knows our stories. As more and more people are unchurched, our stories are no longer our cultural narratives. We can’t just say “Five loaves and two fish” and expect people to know we’re talking about a miracle. And if we were to mention Paul in prison, even most of us would think of Paul Manafort rather than the Apostle Paul.
My point is, the church needs to speak in the native language of those we want to reach. For example, anyone born after 1980 is considered a digital native because they grew up with technology the rest of us had to learn as adults. How are we speaking to digital natives? How are we speaking to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd—those who may never come to our doors or fill out a pledge card, but who still need what we have to offer? How are we speaking to those who equate Christianity with bigotry and religion with intolerance? How are we speaking to those whose native language is guitars and drums, or TED talks, or ocean waves? Those whose scriptures are Harry Potter or the Hunger Games?
The Day of Pentecost has come. May we speak with urgent fire because we have a story worth telling.
 Allen, Amy. “The Politics of Language.” https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-language-acts-21-21-amy-allen/