Volume 4 Number 3
In my junior year at PTS, 1982-1983, Professor Karlfried Froehlich encouraged me to start a language table once a week during lunch at the Mackay Center. And so, with some success, Jean-Philippe Bujard, a Swiss M.A. student, and I sat down weekly to eat and converse en français.
I had studied French at Princeton High School and at Rutgers University, but really learned by spending two summers in France after my sophomore and senior years at Rutgers. In France, where I traveled almost everywhere on my Peugeot bicycle, I made the intellectual discovery that, in terms of language acquisition, the world is ones parish. Later I became a United Church of Christ pastor instead of a French teacher.
In my ninth year as pastor of a UCC church in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I applied to become the American participant in a denominational exchange of local pastors with the Protestant Church of France the historic Huguenot church (lÉglise Réformée de France). I was accepted to the program, and in September 1998 my wife, Elizabeth, our five-year-old daughter, Susannah, and I began our year with the French Reformed church of Bourges, a city of 90,000 located near the geographic center of France, about two hours south of Paris. I ministered as a kind of interim pastor to this parish that had been without a pasteur for two years. In exchange, the Reverend Raphaël Picon came from Lillebonne, a small city in Normandy, and served for a year at my church in La Crosse.
Knowing another language is obviously vital to making exchanges such as these. In Europe and in many other parts of the world, learning more than one language is necessary and expected. That so many other people learn English as their second, third, or seventh language has given many Americans yet another reason not to learn a foreign language. However, Im convinced that in such vital areas as mission work and continuing education, the study and practice of a modern foreign language should be part of theological education.
I confess that I do not know how to foster and promote interest in foreign languages among seminary students and clergy. And though it might initially seem an added burden, I feel that modern languages can be an aid to and not a distraction from the learning and use of biblical languages. Ministering in French for a year made me more aware of the importance of understanding something of the Bibles original languages. For example, through saying the Lords Prayer in French, I noticed that the first time Jesus uses the word heaven it is in the plural. I confronted every day what we clergy confront directly every week: the mystery of the relation between our linguistic home and foreign languages.
The French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur has coined the phrase linguistic hospitality as an antidote to the feeling that constant translation requires one to serve two masters. I enjoyed giving and receiving such hospitality among the 250 members of the church I served in Bourges.
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