Snakes in the grass

Here’s a book for your 2013 reading list: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett. Well, only put it on your list if you’re okay with your mind being blown, with your innards being a bit unsettled. But if you are, and if you’re constantly wondering, “What on earth is Kyria talking about when she says ‘applied linguistics’?”…well then, this is a book for you.

I read the book last semester, though for myself rather than for class. About as interesting as the subject matter were the responses I got from people when I told them what I was reading. Here’s how the exchange would usually go:

Curious Onlooker: Oh what are you reading?

Kyria: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. It’s by a man who went to the Amazon as a Bible translator, and after years of living there decided he no longer wanted to be a missionary and was no longer a Christian.

Curious Onlooker: Whoa…are you sure you should be reading that?

I admit that I was a  bit intimidated by the plot at first — someone who had done something like what I hope to do and who lost his faith in the process. But I figured that plot made it exactly the kind of book I should be reading. Better to know the risks of what I’m getting into, right?

Most of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is about Everett’s experience living among an Amazonian tribe with his family. He makes astounding discoveries about their language that offer a window onto how they think and view the world. I don’t want to spoil the book, so I’ll just tell you enough to get you hooked. After Everett spent years making friends with the Pirahãs and learning their language, they told him that he could stay but only if he stopped talking about Jesus. They’d heard what he’d told them about Jesus but didn’t want him. For some time, this announcement troubled Everett. Eventually, though, he realized that he agreed more with them and less with the message he had been trying to translate into their language. Everett writes:

The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile. I have learned these things from the Pirahãs, and I will be grateful to them as long as I live… I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have every known.

Everett assures his readers that others would have most likely learned different lessons than the ones he learned among the Pirahãs. But even if his response were rare or isolated, I think it’s probably still unsettling to most Christians. He quotes the well-known missionary-martyr Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” And then he goes on to write:

I have given up what I could not keep, my faith, to gain what I cannot lose, freedom from what Thomas Jefferson called ‘tyranny of the mind’–following outside authorities rather than one’s own reason.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is full of fascinating linguistic analysis and proof for why it is necessary in order to understand a people’s culture. I really enjoyed reading it for that reason. But I couldn’t help but feel sadness in reading where Everett’s linguistic analysis and his efforts to understand the Pirahãs took him.

There was something that drew me in to Everett’s loss of faith. Why was I so gripped? There’d been a question churning somewhere in me and reading Everett’s experience helped me get closer to articulating it. The question relates to communicating God’s Word in a new language & new culture. I came across this quote in a course reading by Guiora, and it’s totally relevant to this topic:

The task of learning a new language is a profoundly unsettling psychological proposition… What is required of the learner is not only a cognitive shift in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but something much  more formidable: the necessity to re-categorize information… that inevitably must lead to a demand to…[re]conceptualize, and ultimately experience events in and around us… It is here that individual differences in the psychological defense systems and flexibilities will be reflected in a capacity of willingness to attempt the shifting…without fear of losing the grip on the psychological integrity for which native language serves as such a powerful anchor.

According to Guiora (and anyone who’s dug into a language unrelated to their mother tongue), learning a language requires a lot of the learner psychologically. It shouldn’t surprise us then that learning a language for the purpose of communicating the gospel in it would require even more — psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. In fact, I’ve concluded that doing so would require nothing less than being willing to second-guess everything about your own culture’s interpretation of the gospel — in essence to second-guess the entire culture you come from and therefore, yourself and all you’ve ever known, if those things would somehow impede God’s Kingdom from going forth into every culture and language.

I sometimes wonder if I can handle such a stretching experience, such a dying to myself. It leaves me feeling a bit lost and afraid, like I’m going to the brink of something. Like I could “lose the grip on the psychological integrity” of my native language, my native cultural framework, my native understanding of God. And to read about Everett’s journey to the brink and subsequent loss of his faith haunts me.

It’s not necessarily that I’m afraid the same thing will happen to me, although I’m sure Everett never imagined the outcome when he first set out as a missionary. One could argue that his approach or his perception of his task were flawed from the beginning. But regardless, any shred of confidence I have lies not in my approach or perception, for mine are surely flawed too. Rather, my assurance comes from knowing that, even as I’m going to the brink of something, I am steered by a Pilot who is sovereign, who knows my weakness, and who promises the best. And with that assurance, I suppose I can sleep in peace, snakes in the grass or not.

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1 comment
  1. Mike P said:

    This one made me think. I know where it led me wasn’t exactly where you were pointing but I’ll share my thoughts anyway. (Surprise!) I believe that it is often necessary to lose our religion in order to find God, by that I mean we must often set aside the box that our culture, our parents, our church, our school or we ourselves have put God into. God, by His nature, is beyond our comprehension, at least in the total sense, Being human, we feel the need to “fill in the blanks” which leaves our accurate understanding of Him woefully inadequate. This compounded by the “filling in the blanks” contributed by our culture, parents, church, schools and others, can cause us real problems and will rock our faith to the core when God doesn’t act or behave in the way that we expect Him to. Asking ourselves the difficult questions about why we believe certain things the way we do, is not evidence of a weak faith, rather it is a quality that the apostle Paul complimented the Bereans for. The important thing is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater and prayerfully ask God for discernment in understanding and wisdom.

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