Seeing with a New Tongue

Sometimes we need to be shaken from familiarity

stephen matlock
5 min readAug 27, 2023
Arnold Gatilao from Oakland, CA, USA / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I’ve been a peripatetic Jesus-follower for some time now. (Last I checked, about five decades.) I’m not anyone who can claim sainthood; I think the evidence shows far more instances of failure than anything else, but still, I continue.

And in those decades of following Jesus, I’ve listened to uncountable sermons and Bible studies, often led by people with great earnestness, who have said “oh, if you only knew the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic you’d see stuff in the scriptures that are hidden to you because you only know English.”

Given that language itself is not unknowable, and that there have been countless examples of translations between two languages and cultures in the last three thousand or so years, I’ve scoffed at the idea that there is something special about a Greek version of the New Testament versus a modern English translation.

I still hold to this today. Sure, learning the original languages can perhaps bring a bit more understanding of shades of meaning, but with the many, many professional translators and linguists working on transferring ideas expressed in ancient tongues to our modern language and culture, I’m certain that we get close to 98% fidelity of the underlying meaning and that our translations are, as far as translations go, accurate.

With that said, yes, it helps to have a deeper understanding of ancient times and climes. We might not fully grasp the meaning of a symbol in the old texts, given how they are from cultures and governments that have entirely vanished from our experience. I can no more understand the concept of being a Roman citizen than I can understand being a player on the Zocalo field — both are not just flat ideas that we can describe but a certain kind of being that comes from living within a culture and language and shared community. The best I can do is to arrive at an approximation of what it means using ideas and words that make sense to me here in the 21st century in the most powerful nation that’s ever existed, where people from Europe created a society in layers of privilege and power. Perhaps there are analogs to Roman times. Perhaps there are ways to see the striations in ancient Central American sports as compared to today’s elevation of sports as symbols of regional or national status.

I don’t know enough to be sure, but I try to understand enough that I don’t say or do dumb things.

Still, I wanted to express something that hit me today during our communion at church that comes from having a second language and culture handy.

You might remember from previous posts that I have been learning Haitian Creole. (According to my teachers, I have not been learning much at all, but they are just faultfinders. 😊) And as part of my learning process, I try every day to keep immersed in Haitian Creole, whether it is through reading or listening or speaking.

Today during communion, we read, as we have been for a while, from Luke 22 in the “First Nations Version” (FNV). This version translates and localizes the text in ways that reflect the traditions, idioms, customs, and cultures of the First People on the North American continent. It’s a helpful way to look at the events described in the scriptures with a different take, giving fresh insights into contextual meaning.

I decided that today during the reading of the word that I’d follow along with my Haitian Creole text. Now as a reminder, I don’t think that a one-off translation of the original text is “better” than knowing only the English. But every so often I think it’s helpful to see an alternate.

It’s one reason to read from the FNV. And it’s the reason why I picked up the New Testament text in Haitian Creole, to get a fresh insight or deeper understanding.

Today was a good day for that. As we read the text from Luke 22, we gather our elements for communion (each of us in our own homes because we meet as a virtual worldwide community). We hear the familiar story of Jesus and his followers as he leads them through the meal, telling them a wonder about a new world that he sees before him. Before us.

After fifty or so years, it can grow a bit too familiar, though, right? Without trying, we memorize the words and the cadences and the moments, and we participate albeit almost unconsciously.

So reading in Haitian Creole made me stop and listen and think.

The opening of the chapter just grabbed me, and that was a good thing: Fèt Pen san ledven yo, ki vle di fèt Delivrans jwif yo, te prèt pou rive.

Just seeing that in Creole, talking starkly about the conditions and the background with no acculturation of church ceremonies and liturgies, brought it to life: “The Feast of the Unleavened Bread, meaning the celebration of the deliverance of the Jews, was already come.”

And in the context of that, a ceremony celebrating events from 1200 or so years previously, Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine. That is now this. What was then is now. What was a journey by foot to the Promised Land to free a people under oppression is again a journey for the kin-dom of the Beloved Community to become the people of God living in celebration of freedom.

I felt like I saw the flickering oil lamps. The rough tables. The smoke and stuffiness of the room. The murmur of voices and the scattering of food and drink. The calm voice of Jesus as he starts with the familiar story and then overturns all their expectations, making himself the center and the reason.

It’s hard to remember the crudeness of the event. It was a make-do meal using the pieces they had. Cheap wine, cheap bread, in a room hidden away from prying eyes.

Reading the text in a new language helped to make the vision fresh. I’m glad for that, as much as I am glad for the day-to-day familiarity of faith that tells me with regularity of the events of Jesus’ life. Every so often it is good to have that familiarity refreshed to break through the ritual and make alive again what happened back there in a small room in an occupied city where a few unremarkable people found themselves in the middle of a strange new thing.

I can imagine them thinking “What is going on here? What is going to happen next?” But I guess that is the nature of joining the familiar celebrations with the realities of the moment.

It is good to have those events that break into our patterns, to refresh them for a deeper meaning. It is good to have the new tongues to tell us the old stories again so that we hear them as if it was happening even as we listen.

Originally published at on August 27, 2023.



stephen matlock

Writer; observer; sometimes doer. Fiat justitia ruat cælum. More at Mostly off Medium now & writing elsewhere