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The Blessing of Babel

My senior year of high school, I started taking Japanese language classes. It was partially on a whim, and partially because I had recently discovered the artwork and writing of Makoto Fujimura, and bit by bit, it was turning my world upside down. But that is a story for another time. The important point for now is that I fell in love with the language. I loved the writing systems, one of which is a thousand years older than the Great Wall of China. I loved the way the words lilted and folded together and rearranged themselves. I loved the rich, unique tradition of storytelling and deep metaphor, and I also think I loved the difference from my own language. Nothing felt familiar, everything was new, and something about that beckoned to me. 

Suffice it to say, I kept studying after high school, and all the way through college. As soon as I graduated, I took a five-part Japanese proficiency test, and was preparing to go to Japan for at least a year to keep learning. But fate (or rather Covid-19) had other plans. 

So, I put down my textbooks, dusted off another dream, and moved to Nashville. 

Just as the many millions of people who have gone to school to learn a language, only to put it away and return to normal life, I watched as a once proud skill slipped away, one word or turn of phrase at a time. I lost myself in other pursuits and truly have loved my life here, but I missed my other world. I felt as though I was losing a little of my sense of wonder as my ability to speak Japanese drifted away. 

This part of my story would appear to be ended, but I think one of God’s favorite pastimes is surprising us. 

About a month ago, without warning, something familiar and strange stirred inside of me, and without knowing why, I started to study Japanese again.

It came back slowly, painfully. Words and writing systems that I had once thought were mine forever looked like strangers again. They had to be dug up, dusted off, and breathed into once more. 

But something happened as I  re-learned words I had forgotten—they began to replace old, tired, overused English words in my heart. The last few years have not been easy ones and words like trust, protection, faith, patience, grace, and many other “religious” words had gained blood-letting edges. Without knowing it, I was desperate for new ways to speak to God or about God, desperate for ways to approach Him that didn’t hurt so much. 

One word at a time, I started to pray in Japanese, think in Japanese, process pain, frustration, and despair in Japanese, and it seemed to me that God was using those same words in return when he spoke to me. English words that had been used against me, had been used too many times and now meant nothing to me, or that hurt to hear because I had trouble believing they were true anymore, were replaced, made new. Perhaps by all rights, nothing should have changed. The Japanese words signified the same things as the English, but something was different. All I know is that 神様はあなたを守るmeans more to me than “God will protect you” even if the translation is the same.

But in truth, the translation is never exactly the same, and perhaps that is part of the magic. I needed ways of expressing love, pain, sorrow, or overwhelming joy that English does not possess. I needed more ways to speak to God. I needed more ways that He could speak to me.  

There are thousands of ways to find deeper faith or renewed meaning, but I believe that one way is literally to use new words. It does not take long to exhaust the acceptable language of religion, at least in my experience. I’m not telling you to go learn Japanese (necessarily), but I think there is a reason so many people turn to Ancient Greek or Hebrew to find new meaning, new impact from texts that have been read to many times or misused in ways that are irreparable. A new language, a new way of seeing things, sneaks past our “watchful dragons,” or at least it sneaks by mine. 

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting in the back of a local international church watching a Chinese New Year celebration. In between the dumpling contests and traditional dances and Kung Fu demonstrations, the church choir stood up to sing “This is My Father’s World” in Mandarin and it nearly brought tears to my eyes. The only word I know in Mandarin is “thank you” and I’m pretty sure I say it wrong, but all of a sudden, I wanted to know more. I wanted to sing about the gospel with these wonderful, welcoming people, in words I had never heard but that pointed in a new way to something as familiar and mysterious as breathing. 

No one language can contain the entirety of a truth, the perfect essence of beauty, the full unveiling of light and shadow, but each holds a piece, a sliver that over the millennia, has become something unique and necessary to the Christian faith. Perhaps a truth is more beautiful for being shattered among the nations, for every language, every culture refracts a facet of it back into the heart of the one who hears and understands. 

The blessing of Babel is that there is always more. There are always new ways to rediscover the glory of God, for the wonder of his Word to be revealed once again. There are always more words. Every idea, every parable, every instruction, every word of comfort has perhaps become more by being broken apart and remade.  

I cannot learn every language. I can’t understand every subtlety and metaphor that makes a familiar truth unique to each subset of the created world, but I do know that God is using the varied words of his many people to draw me back to himself, to reawaken the mystery of a thing that I could no longer look in the eye. If Christ plays in 10,000 places, I am just grateful that I have found a new way in which he sings. 


Carly Marlys (Anderson) is a poet and aspiring author out of Nashville, Tennessee. She recently published her first poetry collection entitled Dust and Dew. Her work has also appeared on the Rabbit Room blog and in The Echo literary journal. You can find more of her poetry at or on Instagram @carlymarlys.


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Photo by Conor Luddy on Unsplash


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