Did you know that the word atonement only appears once in the English version of the New Testament? And did you also know that it is a new word created by William Tyndale while he was preparing his English translation of the Bible during the fifteenth century? I learned both of these fascinating tidbits a few weeks ago while reading an article as part of my weekly scripture study. When I study the scriptures or teach about them, I gravitate to language-based approaches that focus on aspects such as point-of-view, word choice, context, etymology, and symbolic language. I love closely focusing on a particular passage and reveling in its language.
However, I could not use my newfound knowledge of the history of Bible translation in my Gospel Doctrine class. I am teaching in Spanish and the clever worldplay of the word atonement doesn’t exist in that language. Most of the time, the Spanish scriptures use the word expiación, a venerable word with a well-traced Latin heritage that shares cognates in other Romance languages. It’s a fine word, but it just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of neat explication that atonement does.
It was my love of languages that led to the creation of this Spanish-language Gospel Doctrine class in the first place. I had been called as a Sunday School teacher at the beginning of the year, and after teaching for a few months I realized that there were several members of my ward who did not feel comfortable commenting in class because their English skills are not strong. Well, to be honest, I’d noticed this for years, but never felt sure if I should suggest any sort of solution. I’m not a native speaker of Spanish, but I learned it on my mission and then went on to make it the subject of my undergraduate and graduate education. I’ve long felt that speaking this particular language is a gift I have been given and that I should use it—so I screwed up my courage and made a suggestion to the bishopric. To my surprise, the answer was immediate and enthusiastic, and for the last few months I’ve been leading a small class that spends the entire hour discussing the scriptures in Spanish.
What started out as a terrifying experience has become wonderfully uplifting for me. Our class includes a mix of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers who have learned the language at some point (usually as missionaries). We even sometimes get a few visitors who have extremely limited Spanish skills but want to attend in order to support a friend or family member. Like any church class, we have a mix of levels of scripture knowledge and preparation. Everyone participates in our discussions, and I love hearing from some members of the class who otherwise spend most of our weekly church meetings without contributing at all.
The Church has a long history of multilingual membership, and a long history of varied responses to this particular conundrum. Sometimes the solution is to create specialized wards based on language, sometimes it is to do nothing, and sometimes the solution lies somewhere in between (like what we are doing in my ward). I live in Utah where wards are small and nearly everyone within a few blocks attends church together. There is a Spanish-speaking ward available and I have some neighbors who attend. Others, however, want to attend our ward for a variety of reasons—they have friends here, they want to practice their English, or their kids are more comfortable attending an English-speaking ward.
My class only really serves the needs of about ten people in my ward. During the time that I’ve lived in this area, I thought we were doing all right simply serving the majority and not making accommodations for this small group. Now, however, I can see the wisdom in the fact that it does not take very many more resources at all to reach out and minister in a more personal way. I’m also beginning to wonder whether I really want a future, Adamic language where everyone can perfectly understand one another. The slippages and imperfections of multiple languages provide a richness to life; I know I would miss the crazy long compound words of German, difficult to translate words like saudade and ilusión. I like the moments in class where we are all reading from different translations of the Bible and trying to determine what the best interpretation is (and discovering that some words, like eunuch, are a bit hard to parse in any language). The struggle to bring meaning across two languages is treacherous and sometimes fails. However, sometimes it works and results in transcendent moments of at-one-ment.