As a child, one of my favorite Bible stories was about the Tower of Babel. It comes from the book of Genesis and is an ancient myth told in many religions and cultures. It concerns the time after Noah’s flood, when human beings repopulated the world and rebuilt civilization. As they got stronger and stronger and prouder and prouder, they aspired to be more godlike and built a great structure that would reach the heavens.
As someone attached to the Judeo-Christian tradition, I think it’s fair for me to write that the God of the early scriptures can come off as a bit vindictive. First, he casts Adam and Eve out of the garden, then he drowns any creature not on the ark, and then he destroys the tower and curses human beings with a confusion of languages.
What do we get out of it? The word “babble.” In a clever turn, a company named “Babbel” sells language learning products.
About 50 days after Easter, Christian churches celebrate the feast of Pentecost (a word that means “fifty”). As a Catholic boy, I was fascinated by the celebration — the only day that priests wore red vestments — and by the story that comes down to us from Acts of the Apostles. The followers of Jesus, who are now without their leader, are gathered in a room in Jerusalem for a religious observance that attracts pilgrims from many nations.
Something amazing happens. The disciples hear a great wind, and tongues of fire descend upon them, filling them with the Holy Spirit. This gift, one that Jesus promised them, inspires them with courage and the power of language. The next day, Peter, not known as an orator, tells the story of Jesus to a great multitude, and they are amazed. Even though they come from many places with many languages, everyone in the crowd can understand him.
It is perceived as a miracle, and one not need be a Biblical scholar to see that Pentecost is the antidote to Babel. Instead of confusion of language, humans get to hear the “good news” in a harmony of languages. Public writing at its best.
The spirit of public writing
I am retelling these stories not to evangelize, but to draw energy and inspiration for all of us who consider ourselves public writers. In the American tradition, some of the most important expressions of public language come from the rabbi in the temple and the pastor from the pulpit. While we think of them as serving certain communities of believers, their influence extends beyond the walls of their holy places.
Consider the reach of preachers and teachers throughout history, from Jonathan Edwards to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to “I Have a Dream.”
We know that the words of the anointed and self-anointed, including some notorious televangelists, can be venal and vicious, which is why selfless and virtuous speech must be celebrated wherever we can find it. In that spirit, I want to share what I see in that journey from Babel to Pentecost.
A superficial moral of Babel is that human beings should know their place and not make God angry. Or to tweak a lesson from the great Jim Croce: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape; You don’t spit in the wind; You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger; And you don’t mess around with Him.”
What if we framed the story as not one of overweening pride and loss, but of the way in which humble and steady work can lead to the reconciliation of differences? God has given human beings a problem to solve: how to come together and make meaning.
Writing across difference is one of the great challenges and opportunities of the current age. At a time when citizens contend about the nature of science, the verifiability of facts, even the meaning of words, public writers have a big job on their hands, and on their tongues. Limited by our own biases, by our own cultures and experiences, public writers need intense periods of listening and learning.
Good public writing requires what has been called not the golden, but the platinum rule. In the first, we treat a person the way we would like to be treated. In the second, we treat a person the way they would like to be treated. We can’t know that without asking, listening, interacting and then writing in the public interest.
Which brings us back to Pentecost. The word “spirit” as in the Holy Spirit, comes from the Latin word for “breath.” Someone who expires is dead. If you are “inspired,” it means something has gotten into you, perhaps a talent or a gift — of writing or speaking or understanding or learning — that helps you do your job and reach others in a special way.
So many people who write all the time tell me, “I’m not a writer.” There is a lot of evidence that a fisherman from Nazareth named Peter was not a great intellect or orator. His failures are the stuff of history.
And yet something got into him one day in Jerusalem and without invitation he faced a multitude, spoke his truth, told it like it was. And the people were amazed.