Tuesday, December 6, 2011

English, Dragonish, and the Problem with Fundamentalism

Yesterday, as I bumbled my way through a reasonably productive Monday, I encountered two things that got me thinking about faith and language.   The first of those two things was the video below, which was pitched out onto Facebook by the former head of the religious school at my family's synagogue.   It's a pleasant little bit of history, the history of the English language, presented by the inimitable Open University.   The Open University, in the event you haven't heard of it, is a British institution, one that allows easy access to quality, college-level coursework to anyone who has the desire to partake of it.   Back then I lived there in the late 70s, much British daytime programming during the day on one of the three television channels was dedicated to Open University lectures and course preparation.   Those wacky socialists and their educations!  Anyhoo, here it is, ready to sop up 10 minutes of your life.  It's a bit naughty in that wry British way, so thou art forewarned:

After this little excursus into the organic evolution of the English language, I took a break from FB and blogging, did a few chores, and then settled in for a bit of day-off gaming.  I'm playing my way through Skyrim on the PS3, and it's a remarkably entertaining, deep, and well-constructed game.  One of the elements that Bethesda Softworks has really nailed in both this game and others is a well-crafted soundtrack.  It's a contextual soundtrack, meaning the music shifts and varies depending on location, time of day, and whether or not you're blowing up zombies with balls of magical fire.

As I settled in with my controller yesterday, though, something caught my attention.  At the beginning of the game, during the initial load screen, there's a song.  It's a big bellowy hoo-hah song, all pomp and bombast, the sort of music that stirs the small Viking fragment of my genetic heritage.   In the midst of drums and blaring brass, a big male voice choir grunts and vocalizes, and then starts yarping gibberish in an MMA-meets-Glee testosterama.

When the yarping began, I realized, suddenly, that they weren't singing nonsense words at all.  For the purposes of verisimilitude, the game has a language that was made for it, a language spoken by dragons.  The words in that tongue are spoken throughout the game, and in a moment of geekish epiphany, I recognized dovakiin, the Dragonish word for "dragon-born."  And then the word Anduin, the name of the great dragon who brings about the end of time.  It was a bit like that time I first attended a synagogue service after learning Hebrew.  Only geekier.

I went online, and found the...cough...English "translation," which goes like this:

So here's a language, or the framework of one, that exists solely in-game.   I'm not sure there's enough there there for the American Bible Society to attempt a translation into Dragonish, but I figure if you can translate the Bible into Klingon, anything is fair game.

Twice in one day, then, there came the reminder of the ephemeral character of human language.  It's one of the reasons I find fundamentalist literalism so completely bizarre.

Sure, the nature of God is unchanging, and the nature of the Being that God speaks is boundlessly, deeply real.  But words?   As much as I love 'em, words in human tongues aren't the thing itself.  They can evoke.  They can suggest.  They can point to, and lead to, the Holy.  But they are not the Real that rises from our Maker.

Perhaps that's why we find it so easy to fight over them.   As MacDonald puts it:
God has not cared that we should anywhere have assurance of His very words; and that not merely perhaps, because of the tendency in His children to word-worship, false logic, and corruption of the truth, but because He would not have them oppressed by words...even He must depend for being understood upon the spirit of His disciple.
Viva la Neoreformacion!