I was a little sheepish about admitting I was trying to talk to tundra swans out at the Navarino Wildlife area. Yet duck hunters apparently talk to ducks so they can eat them. Compared to that, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Better than that, I was heartened to hear about a science teacher in the Southern Door County School District who is teaching his students how to call owls. Not, of course, so his students can eat them. But so his students can see them. And so they can see how owls have a language of their own. Trees and insects exude and respond to chemical signals; bees apparently use flight patterns to communicate information about the location of sources of nectar. Though bugs and birches aren't capable of consciously processing these messages, out of God's love for them, God created forms of communication for the purpose of community-building and protection for even the earliest forms of life and which have always been a survival feature preserved and improved by evolution.
The story of communication among human beings would be an interesting read. I don't know off hand if there are any books written to attempt to tell this entire story from both a historical and scientific perspective. Thinking about communication among Christians several things stand out. "Word of mouth" is absolutely foundational.
• Jesus told stories.
• Jesus sent his disciples to heal and cast out demons as he did, but Jesus also told his disciples to explain why this was happening: the Reign of God has come near to you.
• Even as he was dying on the cross, Jesus was speaking: quoting scriptures (Psalm 22), establishing God's family as a family assuming care for people who are not blood-relatives, and establishing another central message of Christianity: you conspire against, betray, deny, abandon, torture, and murder God? God, in Jesus, prays that, ultimately, you are forgiven.
• The message that Jesus was raised from the dead was not written in a newspaper article or a scientific journal. It was entrusted by Jesus to his women followers who faithfully conveyed it to the rest of his followers.
• This message was meant to be spoken to all nations in all languages -- a daunting task for a few un-educated disciples, a task which may have indeed daunted them, but a task which they embraced, and, by the power of Holy Spirit, at task at which they succeeded.
• Yes, Christian leaders wrote letters, but those letters were simply useful containers for the words they longed to speak to struggling young congregations.
• When the letters arrived, they were read to the congregation.
• The "sayings" of Jesus were collected in writing before his stories were written and were incorporated into his stories once they were written down.
Gradually and ironically, the Church itself took the "word of mouth" essence away from Christianity. In the "Dark Ages," certainly the Christian message was spoken to people, but not in their own language and not in a way that people had access to its entirety. In worship, the message was conveyed in Latin (a language no longer spoken) and was crafted by a few people in power. There was no way for anyone to check the Church's interpretation of the message against the written remnants of the message itself, since the Bible itself was not translated from Latin into any language people could speak. And speaking the message to each other? The Church didn't trust people to do that. The Church thought it was the only entity that could be trusted with that.
The Church was dead wrong.
Which is why Luther is so important. Not so much because he was always right. Which he wasn't. But because he transferred some of the essential power of "word of mouth" Christianity back to all Christians.
• Luther translated worship and scriptures into the language of the people and he advocated for public school for all people, boys and girls.
• Luther wrote the Small Catechism, so parents could speak the message to their children.
• His sermons went on for more than ten minutes, and people actually eagerly stood to listen to them.
• Part of the way we honor Luther's legacy is by placing the scriptures in the hands of our children. We have simpler story book bibles for those learning to read and full translations for children in the third grade.
I enjoyed trying to give those third graders a sense of where the Bible fits into history and geography. I tried to give them an idea of what kind of writing is in the Bible and what primary stories it tells. But very little of what we Lutherans do in Sunday School or Confirmation or even Adult Study is about how, by "word of mouth," we convey the message of Jesus to other people.
I don't think we're alone.
Some famous theologians have said that a new reformation is at hand, because we have lots of new communication toys. But four year olds can operate the toys. The real new reformation needs to be about what do we say when we operate the toys, or even more importantly, what we say when we talk to each other.
It will, I think, become easier to speak the Language of the Realm of Jesus the more our present social order does not. The more racist and sexist and homophobic and nationalistic words and actions become acceptable in our social order, the easier it is to say, "Dude, that's not the Reign of God that Jesus lived and died for." The Reign of God Jesus lived and died for is for "every tribe and language and people and nation." We Christians around the world live under God's Reign; we are one Body, one People, one Family giving our Selves away for each other and for the sake of other people and creation. Unlike oak trees who use chemical signals to protect only oak trees, unlike owls whose language is only for owls, we human beings, made in God's image, are called to use language to express God's love for the entire cosmos (John 3:16) ... every tribe and people and nation, every oak, every owl.