Thursday, August 14, 2014

At the Tower of Babel They Knew What They Were After ... But I Don't

The sound from a television in the student union was turned up high this morning, so C-SPAN's story on state laws mandating English as an official language caught my attention as I passed by.  They were taking calls from viewers, and the one that started as I came along was from a guy in Michigan who cited the Tower of Babel.  Since I'd recently read Tim William Machan's Language Anxiety (Oxford, 2009), which uses the story of Babel as a unifying metaphor, I stayed to hear how the caller was going to use it.

Alas, the Holy Spirit wasn't helping the caller; he recounted (or probably read aloud) the story, and then lost momentum.  First he started to invoke the Christian-racist line that God had put different peoples in different countries for a reason (which would imply that he himself should go back to Anglo-Saxia, or wherever these people came from), but dropped it for another tack.   He said that he wasn't "afraid" of other languages, he'd studied Latin and German in high school, and, uh... The host cut him off at that point, saying that they wanted to talk to more callers from Michigan.

For your convenience, here's the story from Genesis 11 in the New King James Version:
1  Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Pretty short, isn't it?  The epithet often applied to the Biblical manner is laconic,  and it certainly applies here.  It's always a good idea to look at the canonical versions of famous Bible stories, since thousands of years of use have decorated them with details that are not in the originals, re-shaping them according to official agendas and laypeople's fancies.  Even Machan did this, mixing in post-biblical revisions of the story throughout his book, and I was never sure he knew he was doing it.

When I first took a serious look at Genesis 11 a couple of decades ago, I noticed that Yahweh seemed really to worry that the Tower would reach Heaven.  I found that funny, since a tower of baked clay bricks with tar for mortar wouldn't even get close.  (Those of my generation will recall that many people in the Fifties and Sixties warned that the US space program was analogous in its sinful pride to the Tower, an attempt to usurp God's prerogatives.)   In this, the story resembles Genesis 3, where Yahweh says that Adam and Eve, having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, have become "as gods," just as the serpent had promised them they would, and he drives them out of Eden to keep them from eating from the Tree of Eternal Life and living forever.  This version is very different from the standard Christian interpretation, and it raises interesting questions for Christianity.  For example, the Jesus of the gospels promises eternal life to his followers -- isn't that just what Yahweh didn't want us to have?

Machan recounted how the Babel story has been used by people who were anxious about English from the Middle Ages to present-day America:
From the very different perspective of a native Anglophone, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., protests what he calls the ‘cult of ethnicity’ in modern America but likewise uses the Babel model for non-linguistic purposes.  Mixing literary and biblical allusions with emotive metaphors, he bluntly warns of what will happen if variation is allowed to proceed unchecked: ‘Will the center hold?  Or will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel?’  [quoting The Disuniting of America, rev. edn. Norton, 1998, 22]
While I listened to the caller on C-SPAN today, it occurred to me that Babel might not be the most comforting model for English-only cranks, since it implies that having just one language makes Yahweh nervous, and you don't want to see him when he's nervous.  Maybe the influx of foreigners with their foreign languages is Yahweh's way of keeping America from becoming too proud and powerful, just as he did in Shinar a few generations after the Deluge?  It's odd how people who invoke Babel in this context see linguistic confusion as something to be resisted, instead of humbly accepted as the will and chastisement of the Lord.