Speaking Two Different Languages

On further reflection, I think I figured out why I was saddened by my class yesterday. For those of you who haven’t read my previous post, here it is in a nutshell: when the professor asked a class of twenty-five undergraduates what evangelicalism was, the words that ended up on the board were ones like “extreme” and “pushy,” not “Jesus,” “the Bible,” or “salvation.”
I understand the negative public image of evangelicals, who yes, are often quite pushy and judgmental (believe me, I know it!), but what frustrates me is that I realized in that class that the average person has no real understanding of how the evangelical thinks or understands the world. And upon further reflection I realized that the exact opposite is true: evangelicals have no idea how the average person thinks or understands the world. In a sense, evangelicals and average Americans are speaking two completely different language, and neither can understand the other.
It’s this lack of mutual understanding that makes actual discourse difficult or even impossible and can stymie the political process completely. I get frustrated by the lack of understanding and the amount of miscommunication that occurs - on both sides.
I am not an evangelical, and I don’t sympathize with evangelical goals at all. However, I am a scholar, an academic, and as such I seek to understand. In another class yesterday a group of graduate students discussed how we deal with people who believed in and supported abominable things in the past, such as slavery or apartheid. The consensus was that we don’t have to agree with our subject’s views to understand why they held them and how they saw the world. The goal should not be to stereotype or condemn, but to understand and empathize, because even historical actors who did or supported horrible things were people, not some sort of inhuman monsters. And it strikes me that when it comes to each other, neither evangelicals or other Americans do that. Instead, both sides stereotype and condemn.
To average people, evangelicals are pushy and judgmental. To evangelicals, average people are selfish and hedonistic. You see what I’m saying?
I disagree with my parents a lot, but at the same time I understand how they see the world and why they do what they do. I get it. I may think they’re wrong and that some of what they do is harmful and that their view of the world doesn’t line up with reality, but at the same time I understand. I’m saddened by it all, and I wish things were different, but I understand. Why? Because, in a sense, I am bilingual.
Unfortunately, my parents don’t understand me. At all. In their eyes, I am following after my own pleasure, trying to drown out the things I hear Jesus and the Holy Spirit telling me through engaging in hedonism. I am selfish, I am rebellious, I am ungodly, I am unhappy. You see, they don’t understand the language I speak or live at all. They are not bilingual.
Instead of stereotypes and judgment, I would like more attempts at understanding, from both sides. We can’t have productive discourse or effective political discussions without being able to speak the other’s language, or to at least understand it. We may still disagree, but at least then we would each understand where the other is coming from. I know that I’m asking the impossible, but then, I’ve always been an idealist.
Or perhaps I should go to Washington and offer my services as a translator.

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On Indiana
A Matter of Patriarchy
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Wendy

    "In their eyes, I am… unhappy."Where I live, in Knoxville, you can practically identify the deeply religious by the frowns etched into their faces–turns out your face really will freeze that way.With a couple of exceptions, my Baptist or otherwise fundy neighbors and friends seem really unhappy all the time. I can't say what is in their hearts, but their expressions and body language is no advertisement. ("I'll have the OPPOSITE of what she's having!")

  • Anonymous

    I love this post! In fact I wish I could share it with my in-laws, but as they are also not "bi-lingual," it would inevitably wind up, a "lets all gang up on Kat and attack her with the love of Christ" kind of thing (Has happened. Not pretty).The interesting thing is, I was raised Roman Catholic (My family was very observant–church ,every Sunday, all Holy days of obligation, CCD weekly, etc. but my church, and even more so my parents, who staunchly were pro-women priests, pro-married priests, and pro-birth control, were pretty liberal as far as Catholics go).My church (as is the way with most Catholic Churches) did not tend to encourage Proselytizing/evangelizing, and my parent's actually taught me that it was immoral to try to lead someone away from their own religion or lack of religion and to your own (a belief I still, personally hold very strongly, but to my parent's Religion and culture were very closely, and an attempt to convert someone was seen as an attack on that person's heritage and culture and family…not quite sure how I feel about this, I think people should be able to convert to whatever religion they want to, but I don't ever think it should be through coercion or proselytizing). Imagine my shock when I married someone who was raised in the Christian Patriarchy movement (though his parents have now become more "mainstream" evangelicals)…There's me, who was brought up with an impression of evangelicals very similar to that of your classmates, and my husband who was brought up to believe that proselytizing was the "most moral" thing anyone could possibly do! Major disconnect. I'm still trying my best to understand "the other side" here, but it's really mind-boggling, (I really hope this isn't too offensive, but…) the best I can come up with is something like "the poor saps, they're brainwashed to think that their way is the "only" way and they really think it's moral to try to convert people." Not too gracious, I realize, but pitying them has made me a bit more nice/compassionate, than seeing evangelicals as scheming, arrogant, and conniving has (OK, so I guess I'm not really bi-lingual either)…. -Kat

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Kat – Haha, maybe you're not fully bilingual but you do know some of the language – you know what I mean? I'm a "native speaker" so to speak. And I do think that "pity," as you call it, plays a big role. I have to say, I do feel a bit sorry for my parents, largely (like you say) because they think that their way is the only way and they can't see the beauty and complexity I do. But I can only feel that pity because I understand how they see the world. Many Americans feel only disdain for evangelicals, and distaste, but they can't feel pity because they don't understand them, and understand why they think the way they do.

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Young Mom

    Yes! I am bilingual too, and it's getting to the point that I mix up the languages, dream in either one, and sometimes forget to whom I am speaking. So frustrating!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Young Mom, that made me laugh! I do it too! You sort of have to mentally switch, actually, or you get tripped up. And sometimes if you're in the one mindset and then hear someone say something in the other language, your mind sort of grinds painfully for a moment. It really is like actual languages like that!

  • Anonymous

    I am bilingual as well, but to be frank, I am sick of trying to explain evangelicalism to the rest of the world only to have the evangelicals show up and make me look like an asshole for trying to explain their side. Sorry about the language, but that's how it ends up. If they want people to understand their world view, they need to present something other than "HEY YOU'RE GOING TO HELL. I WANT TO ENSURE THAT THE GOVERNMENT DOES NOT REPRESENT YOU. I WANT TO ENSURE YOU LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE PEOPLE WHO AREN'T WHITE MEN DON'T HAVE RIGHTS. AND THEN I'M GOING TO BE GLEEFUL THAT YOU'RE GOING TO HELL. LOL."In other words, I'm out of sympathy. I was sympathetic for over 20 years of my life and I am done.J

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11046641822669890457 Jenny

    Good post. One thing that I try to stress to my students is that they need to be able to analyze something from other points of view. Even if their conclusion don't change, it's important to have a clear understanding of what the opposition believes.

  • http://lotuslandfineart.com/velvetrope/ wlotus

    I'm with J. I still have some patience for explaining evangelicals to others–I was one all of my life, until my early 30s–but my patience is running mighty low.wlotus

  • Anonymous

    "The consensus was that we don't have to agree with our historical subject's views to understand why they held them and how they saw the world. The goal should not be to stereotype or condemn, but to understand and empathize, because even historical actors who did or supported horrible things were people, not some sort of inhuman monsters.You're leaving out the relief we feel that we are not trapped by those societal vices. We understand how they were trapped.The evangelical language is one of aggression. Communication to aggress is one of those traps. Can't wait for the day we are relieved of this inhumanity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    Yes, this is definitely something I've come to experience first-hand, moving from an evangelical family to atheism. I find that on the relatively few number of occasions where I've gotten into a religious discussion with family, as long as I manage to keep my temper (which isn't always, unfortunately), I find myself doing everything I can to choose my words to carefully head off the misconceptions of "unbelievers" that I was inundated with as a child.For example, if confronted about why I don't believe, I will often say that I care very much for the truth, and given the evidence I cannot in good conscience think that Christianity is remotely likely to be true. I focus so much on this aspect of it because I was always told that unbelievers are "angry at God" or other similar rationalizations.

  • Anonymous

    "[my parents'] view of the world doesn't line up with reality."This is a matter of an ideo-centrism antagonisitic to "translation". Even metaphor cannot bridge the gap because the captured ideologues have "the truth" which trumps all metaphor.Language is the root of this malignancy and experience the cure.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04790685195479659134 Ana

    I'm also bilingual, and then I have this huge disconnect because my country is mostly Catholic, and I really don't understand their language at all, which makes it really hard when I try to discuss religious themes. Like, in my mind, the bible is either literally true or not at all, and it boggles me that they just cherrypick…xDAnd sometimes I even miss some cultural aspects. Like the music. Somehow, I feel guilty/weird listening to evangelical songs (maybe because they're so emotionally charged and spiritual), but I used to always be humming some song to myself, and it's like part of that childlike 'someone is watching over me' atmosphere that I sometimes miss. It's not always easy becoming a grown-up… =)