This week I read 1 Corinthians 14 and it made me think a lot about the history of American Sign Language actually. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is talking to the church of Corinth about speaking in tongues. He acknowledges the ability to speak in tongues as being a spiritual gift from God, however, he strongly urges the church of Corinth not to practice the speaking of tongues unless everyone can do it. Paul explains this by stating, “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” Men that possess the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues can use it to speak to God, yes, but they shouldn’t use it to speak with the rest of the congregation because they won’t be able to understand him. When we enter the church it should be to honor and glorify God and to help our brothers and sisters and Christ to do the same and to better come to know God and his words. If we can’t even understand what the members of the body of Christ are saying then how can we really come to know God and learn at church, let alone properly worship him in his home?
Paul went so far as to suggest that speaking in tongues could be the equivalent of just making noise without understanding what that noise actually means in verses 7-11. Here he states:
And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? For ye shall speak into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me (1751).
Wow, definitely a lot of things going on in these verses! Let’s look at the first part of this first, verses 7-8:
“And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”
A deaf person may never hear the sounds of a pipe, harp, or trumpet. You could blow that trumpet as hard as humanly possible and that deaf person may never prepare himself to battle if that’s all he has to go on because he’ll never know. To him, the sound of a trumpet is completely meaningless.
For me prior to getting my cochlear implant, I missed out on many sounds. I’ve discovered many of them since getting my cochlear implants, but every day I am also still learning more and more sounds. It’s not uncommon for me to jump a little in class as a train goes by or someone talks or fidgets or I hear an unknown sound. I’m constantly trying to define the source of the sound and what it means. This is what the congregation must’ve been like back in Paul’s time when they tried to understand what the speaker was saying when he spoke in tongues that they did not understand.
I also relate this to ASL. The Deaf community needs ASL so that they can understand what is being said in the church. To them, the verbal communication means nothing. They have no idea what the pastor is preaching without the use of ASL. They will never hear the gospel or understand the message that day. The pastor might as well be speaking in tongues because they’d never know otherwise. Here, Thomas Gallaudet’s arguments for using sign language in the church makes sense.
But hold that thought…
Thomas Gallaudet and the manualists didn’t just think that the use of sign language in the church would help the deaf to better understand sermons; they took it a step further. Gallaudet along with the other manualists felt that sign language would bring the deaf closer to God. In Tracy Morse’s dissertation, “Saving Grace: Religious Rhetoric in the Deaf Community,” she quotes Douglas Baynton’s Forbidden Signs when she says:
For manualists, this view was interpreted in Protestant terms: sign language was an original language and meant “closer to the Creation,” not inferiority (Baynton “Savages” 98). However, for oralists, sign language was associated with lower evolution or “inferior races” (Baynton Forbidden 9). Oralists made arguments that deaf students needed to learn spoken English and lip reading or they would be viewed as animals or savages (Morse 51).
Now, let’s look back to the scripture and focus on verse 11 which states, “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.
The word “barbarian” here is what stands out the most to me. Do you know who else really loves the word “barbarian”? Alexander Graham Bell who was NOT a manualist like Thomas Gallaudet, but rather an oralist that believed that the deaf needed to move away from sign language and instead learn to speak verbally and read lips and live in the hearing world.
So, what am I saying here? Do I think that this verse is saying sign language is barbaric? Absolutely not, but at the same time, it could be absolutely so. So it’s a yes and a no for me.
Here is what I think that verse is saying, or what the core message Paul has for the church of Corinth is:
We need to speak in a way that people can understand what we are saying in church so as to not cause confusion or anything that can inhibit man’s understanding of the gospel and man’s ability to honor and glorify the lord.
Back in the time of the church of Corinth, speaking in tongues was a barrier for people in the church because it might have benefited the person speaking it, but it did not benefit the church. Paul is calling for the unity of the church – everyone needs to unite as the body as Christ and work in a way that best serves God and not themselves and that involves speaking a universal language they can all understand.
What does this mean for the deaf in the church? Should they be forced to lip-read and practice the oral method? No. I think the deaf should have a right to hear the sermon in a way that is the most accessible to them. Many churches offer the hearing loop to help hard of hearing and deaf people to hear (depending on the degree of hearing loss of course). If a deaf person needs an interpreter, they should have access to it.
If the majority of church attendees are Deaf and rely on sign language, then perhaps that church should consider doing full sermons primarily in ASL, as that is what will benefit that church and help the attendees to learn and honor and glorify God the best.
We don’t have to worry too much about the speaking of tongues in modern day. 1 Corinthians 13:8 says, “Whether there be tongues they shall cease”. People cannot speak in tongues today (I acknowledge that many claim they do – I have my own feelings on that but I’ll be nice and go the route of “no comment” on that…). I think that whereas the church of Corinth had to worry about the speaking in tongues today our issue is more or less about what language or what style/tone to use in church. I think it all depends on the congregation and choosing what is the most accessible to your church goers.
Going back to the discussion on the deaf community…
In Baynton’s Forbidden Signs he explains how many oralists feared that by relying too heavily on sign language the deaf community would isolate themselves from the rest of the world. He stated:
Like their contemporaries in other fields of reform, oralists worried that the lives of people were diminished by being a part of such communities as the deaf community; they would not, it was feared, fully share in the life of the nation. The deaf community, like ethnic communities, narrowed the minds and outlooks of its members. “The individual must be one with race,” one wrote in words reminiscent of many other Progressive reformers “or he is virtually annihilated”; the chief curse of deafness was “apartness from the life of the world,” and it was just this that oralism was designed to remedy. Apartness was the darkness manualists redefined for a new world (Baynton 32).
Sign language was (and still is) very different from spoken English or any spoken language, really It’s different from what the majority is speaking and when people can’t speak our language, either they or we miss out. Isn’t this the same as what was going on in the church of Corinth in a way? Paul wanted to see the church of Corinth come together to honor, serve, and glorify the Lord and to unite as the body of Christ. Speaking in tongues was something very few church members could do that caused a separation or divide between those who could speak and understand it, and those who could not. It became a distraction that kept people from coming to know God.
Is sign language a distraction that keeps the deaf from doing things in their daily lives? It is obvious that it causes a divide from the hearing and the deaf worlds. In the church, it can make things better for the deaf and I can see how it can strengthen their personal relationships with God, but if we only signed and didn’t speak spoken English, the rest of the congregation would suffer. I don’t see sign language as being a form of language that brings a person closer to God in the sense of it’s a superior or holier language than standard English. I think it’s just another language that for some is their primary and therefore the best and for others is just another language in the world that exists but one they don’t partake in or use in their daily lives.
Image Credits: Jumonville Photo Blog
I’ve been blogging a lot lately. Sorry, not at all sorry about that. It’s the weekend and I haven’t had many plans. Larry has been a bit busy with his family this weekend so we just pushed our usual weekend plans back to Monday for this week. In an effort to protect me from getting sick, my mom skipped out on her church service at GCCC. I’ve spent most of my time this weekend at home with the exception of a hair appointment, grocery shopping, and attending my church’s Sunday service. I guess you could say being at home a bit more than usual has given me a lot of time to think. And one of the only things on my mind these days is my upcoming cochlear implant surgery. So, since I’ve been thinking about it so much anyway, why not blog about it, right?
Today as I attended Sunday school and Sunday service at my church, Washington Baptist Church which is located in Turnersville, NJ, I began to think about what church is like for me now and how it may be a completely different experience in the upcoming weeks/months. Sometimes church can be difficult for me with my hearing impairment.
I grew up attending The Church of the Nazarene in Pitman, NJ. I went there until I was at least 3 (maybe even younger) until I was around 14 or 15. I remember Sunday school and youth groups very well. I remember being a part of vacation bible school when I was little and going on to teach it as I got older. I remember the songs very well. I do not, however, have very strong memories of the sermons. I don’t remember leaving the church and thinking “Wow, I was very moved by that sermon”. Maybe it was because I was still pretty young and wouldn’t have been able to connect with and understand it the way I do now as a 24 year old believer. But the more likely reason? I could not hear.
You may be thinking “Couldn’t you ask for a listening device?” Or, “Why didn’t you sit up front?” Well, listening devices do nothing for me. My hearing is way too bad to benefit even the slightest bit from that. I did sit up front, it just didn’t matter much. I heard the volume of the sermons perfectly fine. I just could not understand them. It was a pastor talking. I knew he was talking about the word of God. But I could not understand what he was actually saying.
Youth groups worked a bit better for me. Sitting in a smaller group, closer to the people meant that it was much easier for me to read their lips. I was able to gain more clarity. But youth groups and sermons aren’t the same. Youth groups are helpful, yes, but I always thought the sermons were the “big picture” or the most important part of church. I was missing it.
I left the Church of the Nazarene when I was around 15. I have moved away from town and it was just too difficult to travel back and forth especially since I was in college and working two jobs at the time. I lived around 20-30 minutes away and it was too much of a hassle to travel back and forth and I often times had to work on Sunday mornings anyway. I would attend my grandparent’s catholic church on occasion. Usually only on holidays. This was not a very pleasant experience for me. For one, I am not nor have I ever been catholic. Catholic churches are in an entirely different league compared to The Church of the Nazarene. I never really knew what to do or understood why I had to do it. It was confusing. Even more so because I could not hear. The catholic church was much bigger than the Nazarene church. And much more difficult to hear. The priest was always an older man who I struggled to hear and understand. I feel like a horrible person saying that church was very boring — but it was. I got absolutely nothing out of catholic church. It was just like sitting staring at a man you know is speaking and yet you have 0 clue what he is saying. So you just sit and pretend you know what’s going on for the next 2-3 hours.
I attended the catholic church because it meant a lot to my grandparents who have always been catholic. Going to church on them for the holidays, especially Christmas Eve, became an important tradition. However, the tradition came to an end after their deaths in 2011 and 2012. During this time I had no church.
I held off for a long time finding a new church because I thought it was a waste of time. I had no hope. I can hear my boyfriend yelling at me for this right now. He always yells at me to “keep faith and hope”. But I really didn’t have either at this time. Sure, I was a Christian and I believed, but I didn’t think church was of that much importance to me at this time. I mean, I could never hear the sermons anyway. What good was it to get up early on Sunday morning and sit and listen to a church sermon you know you won’t understand a word of? I could just as easily put the TV on mute at home and stare at it for 2 or 3 hours and get the exact same results…
But the thing is— being a christian and believing in God really isn’t always just enough. Christians need church in their life, too. Church is like a special form of school where you are taught how to interpret the word of God and live a christian life. These are things you can’t always do well enough on your own. My need for church must have shown because I had many friends offer to bring me to churches or suggest churches for me to attend during this time.
One of the first churches that was recommended to me was Solid Rock Baptist Church. A co-worker at Walmart recommended it to me because of my hearing. Solid Rock Baptist Church is known for serving a wide variety of different people including the deaf and hard of hearing. She thought it would be perfect for me.
Before attending the church I reached out to the deaf pastor explaining my situation and how I struggle to hear sermons. I requested information about what kind of services they provide to the deaf and hard of hearing. I also explained that I do not sign but rely a lot on lip-reading and written texts. I asked if the deaf sermons would be the most beneficial to me or if I should just stick to a traditional service.
I’m still waiting on that response….
I did attend one church service. I think it was in around July of 2013 or something. Unfortunately, we unknowingly went during a big revival or something where other churches attended to or something. Not a normal service. The people were very unwelcoming and almost cold. I couldn’t hear a word of the sermon. I never went back.
Months passed by and a friend invited me to go and try out her Presbyterian church. At first I went to just a few fun church functions like church pasta dinners and potlucks and all. They were okay. I thought I might enjoy the sermon so I went to two. One right before Christmas and one on Christmas Eve. I didn’t hear a word of either sermon. My parents went to the Christmas Eve sermon. They were not a fan. They say the pastor went off topic a bit and launched a whole anti-gun debate. As licensed, responsible gun owners, this didn’t fare well with us. I just wish I could have actually heard what was said. Needless to say, we never attended again.
More and more months passed by and it seemed like we were never going to find a church. I have just about completely given up on ever finding a church and being able to actually hear the sermon. But then we moved to Washington Township. One of my dad’s biggest goals after we moved was finding a new church. There is one church we drove by all the time: Gloucester County Community church. He decided we should attend sometime. It always had things going on and he was intrigued. So right around Easter time we attended our first service.
We all really enjoyed the sermon. The pastor could preach pretty well and I COULD ACTUALLY HEAR. Not 100%, but pretty good compared to most other sermons I attended anyway. It was exciting. We continued to attend this church and the sermons were alright, but I didn’t feel the connection I was craving for from this church, so I began to look elsewhere.
I had befriended another male christian this past summer. He was a very strong believer who definitely knew the word of God. He was a nondenominational christian attending Fellowship Bible Church. He had invited me to go along with him one day. I enjoyed the Sunday school sermon, but couldn’t really hear the actual sermon. I kept watching him take notes. That’s how I followed along. I thought I could connect with his church more if I attended more. But in reality I was interested in the church more for him and less for the church aspect of it. When it came down to it — it was his church, not mine. I needed a church to call mine.
Washington Township has a couple of churches — but not as many as my old town of Woodbury. In Woodbury pretty much every two feet is another church. In Washington Township, you’ll have to keep walking to find one… I went on a lot of walks in Washington Township and I began to search for a possible new church to attend. I have walked past a church called Crossroads Assembly of God church. I walked by it a handful of times. It was a little bit of a far walk (about 25 minutes) but I was always intrigued by it. I planned to find it again on one of my walks in July of 2014 and see about attending service that following Sunday.
Long story short, when I actually made plans to find this church (in the past I always randomly walked past it without planning to), I could not find it anywhere. I found another church instead, my current church, Washington Baptist Church.
Washington Baptist Church was very different from any other church I ever been to. For one it doesn’t quite look like a church. It’s more like a long one-floor house. I wasn’t entirely sure it was a church at first. I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for the sign outside. But I felt that God was calling me to this church. I just found it so randomly. I had to attend.
When I went to my first church sermon in July, I was amazed at how welcoming everyone was. Whereas all of the other churches I’ve been to in the past months haven’t been at all welcoming, this one totally was. Everyone introduced themselves to me and kept saying “We’re glad to have you and hope you come back.” When I went the next week they remembered me. When I missed church one week, they said they missed me. Everyone was so humble and down to earth. It was exactly what I was looking for.
When people found out about my hearing impairment they were genuinely concerned about how well I could hear the sermons. I could actually hear it very very well. I couldn’t pick up on every word, but I got around 90% of it. When I couldn’t hear what the chapter the pastor was going over was, I could ask the person next to me and they’d help me out. The pastor spoke very clear and loud, but not too loud at the same time. It was the perfect tone for my type of hearing.
I did struggle a little with some of the music though. It can be hard for me to really hear the rhythm and beat of the music. I can read the words, but sometimes I can’t hear the music well enough to tell exactly where they are in the song. Singing the hymns can easily get a little bit awkward for me. This is especially a problem when I attend my parent’s church (they still go to GCCC by the way) where there is about 10x’s more singing than WBC has.
I have been attending WBC for about 4 months now. I have gained so much from the sermons and Sunday school services and this church feels like family for me now. I can usually hear the sermons pretty clearly, but some weeks (usually ones where my tubes are in need of a replacement on my hearing aids)I still struggle and don’t get as much of the message. I had a good day today with being able to hear and follow along in Sunday school and church. There was just one small part where I didn’t catch what chapter of the bible the pastor was referring to. I struggled with the music today too. They were hymns that I wasn’t too familiar with and didn’t know the beat/rhythm to so I kept getting a little lost with those. Overall I did okay with it all today.
I kept thinking though about how my experience with church will change after I get my cochlear implant. I talked a bit about it to some people at church today including the pastor and his wife which made me more excited to. I know I have a whole church of people praying for me and those prayers have not gone unanswered. The lord wants me to hear the sermons and the word of god in church each week. I’m beyond excited by the blessings he bestowed upon me and I can’t wait to attend church post-activation and to be able to hear every word of the sermon no matter where I choose to sit. To hear people when they share prayer requests in news. To be able to follow along and sing praises during our songs of worship and to not get lost. My implant will allow me to experience church in a whole new way and I can’t wait. It is through the work of God that I am being blessed enough to receive such an amazing and powerful gift and what better way is there to use this gift than to learn more about God’s word and to worship and praise him?
God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.