Pentecost, 2018

I’ve had the basics of an essay of Pentecost in mind for awhile now. And next Sunday is it, so I am going to try to pull a set of analogies together for you. These analogies are emotional access points to the story.

The other half of the Tower of Babel 

Pentecost is a big deal in the church calendar. It is “the birthday of the church,” as they say. I’ve been accustomed to think of Pentecost as the bookend event with the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The story of the tower has men with a common language and so they misuse it to plan a campaign against God. God thinks that maybe if they couldn’t understand each other, that would slow down the attack on heaven, so he “confuses the languages,” so that no one can understand anyone else anymore..

pentecost 1And then at Pentecost, something happens—the accounts in Acts are not consistent—the result of which is that everyone can understand what the Galileans are saying. God, in this story has devised a way to speak to men so that each can understand God’s message in his own language. The Eleven, each with a tiny flame of fire on his head, is speaking Aramaic, which is, so far as we know, the only language they knew, but everyone is hearing what they are saying in their own language.

So the communications barrier is “broken,” in a sense. These men still can’t communicate to each other—the solution to the Babel problem still eludes them—but they can hear Aramaic spoken and it sounds to them like their own language. At Pentecost, God finds a way for all these language groups to hear His message even though it is spoken in only one language.

So there goes my old “bookend” analogy. The only repeating theme is that God acts on human language first to make plans incommunicable—they were bad plans anyway—and then to make His own message available to everyone regardless of the multiplicity of languages. The two stories are clearly related to each other, but they are not bookends.

The United Nations

So how shall we understand the event as an event? Not the significance of it; just the “what happened” part. Well, it isn’t like the U. N. When I was in high school, I was part of the Junior Council on World Affairs and we went to New York to sit in on a session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. On the back of the seat in front of you is a black box with a switch that clicks over from one side to the other. You put on your headphones, and you discover that at each click, you hear a different language. There were five official languages established by the United Nations for their own use (they added Arabic in 1980) and as I clicked across the box I heard French and then German and then Russian. And so on. But I wasn’t hearing the speaker. I was hearing a translator. The translators are very good, I have been told, and trustworthy as well, but they are not the voice of the speaker.

Maybe Pentecost is like that.

The Last Starfighter

I think there is a scene in The Last Starfighter that is closer. Alex Rogan, a mere earthling, is spirited away to the planet Rylos where he is introduced to a Babel of languages as well as a huge variety of physical forms. He can’t understand a thing.

Then an male officer and a female aide come up to him. “Listen,” says Alexpentecost 3, “There’s been a big mistake.”  The aide attaches a button to Alex’s collar and the officer says, “Welcome to Starfighter command.”  You speak English?” asks the dumbfounded Alex.  No,” replies the aide, “You hear English, thanks to your translator device.”  Here is Alex with his pilot and navigator.

In this scene, there is no “translator” in the U. N. sense. The button simply converts the speakers words into the language of the wearer of the button. The “translator” is a computer algorithm.

Maybe Pentecost is like that.

The Right Stuff

But maybe it isn’t. Let me direct you to another analogy. This one isn’t as spiritual as Pentecost or as old school as the U. N. or as fantastic as The Last Starfighter, but I think it has advantages of its own. I’ll describe the scene, then I’ll come back to the advantages.

There is a scene in The Right Stuff that I’d like to offer as another way of understanding Pentecost. The first group of astronauts has been assembled by NASA. The program is going badly, from the standpoint of the astronauts, because the spacecraft is being designed by people who know nothing about pilots and also because the astronauts have not been able to make their voice heard.

In the film, the reason they have not “made their voice heard” is that they do not have “a voice.” They have many voices and the men themselves have many different priorities. They are not a team in any sense of the word and that is why they have no voice.

pentecost 5In the middle of all this cacophony, Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) changes the agenda. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he says, “The issue here isn’t pussy. The issue is monkey.” Grissom is not presented in this film as a scintillating intellect, but what he says changes the group entirely. John Glenn (Ed Harris) has been saying that the astronauts are all public figures and should lead exemplary lives. In this situation, that means not accepting the sexual advances of the flocks of young women who are trying to make the rounds of all the astronauts. The astronauts are not of one mind about Glenn’s proposal. They have not been, to this point, of one mind about anything. And that is why they have had no voice.

But NASA has decided to send a chimpanzee into space first, rather than a man. Furthermore, the spacecraft, the capsule in later conversations, is being designed with a chimpanzee’s abilities, not a seasoned pilot’s abilities, in mind. That has irked them all, but it is Grissom who says it. “The issue isn’t [what divides us], it is [what unites us]. [1]

Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) sees immediately what Grissom is talking about and puts the matter into a more comprehensible form.

What Gus is sayin’ is that’s we’re missin’ the point. What Gus is saying is that we’ve all heard the rumor that they’re thinking of sending a monkey up first. Well none of us wants to think that they’re sending a monkey up to do a man’s work. But what Gus is sayin’ is that they’re tryin’ to send a man up to do a monkey’s work. Us a bunch of college-trained chimpanzees.

It is at that point that Grissom utters the iconic “Fuckin’ A, Bubba” the precise meaning of which has been debated by cinemaphiles for 35 years now. But it is clearly intended as agreement. He means that Carpenter’s rendition of the point is the direction he intended to go.

With Grissom’s agreement, Carpenter continues.

What Gus is sayin’ is that we’ve got to change things around here. We are pilots and we know more about what we need to fly this thing than anybody else.

At that point the direction is clear and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) joins in, continuing the idea that each person is “interpreting” what Grissom had said. “What Gus is sayin’ here is that we got to stick together on this deal.”

And that is what they do. They approach the German scientists who are designing the capsule with chimpanzees in mind and force them to revise it with real pilots in mind. [2]

I’m proposing that the model in The Right Stuff casts a new light entirely on Pentecost. It might feel a little odd because the tone of the two settings in so different, but look at it this way. The setting of Pentecost is completely fantastic. This is Acts 2.

2when suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of a violent wind which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; 3 and there appeared to them tongues as of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.

And they began “speaking in tongues” in such a way that some in the crowd laughed, thinking that they were simply drunk. And no one understood what was being said any more than the astronauts understood what Gus Grissom meant when he said “We are the monkey.”

So we have in each setting a powerful but incomprehensible utterance, which someone is able to unfold as meaningful. It is Peter in the Pentecost scene. It is Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper in the astronaut scene.

Peter says [3] is this:

16 On the contrary, this is what the prophet [5]was saying: 17In the last days—the Lord declares—I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young people shall see visions, your old people dream dreams. 18Even on the slaves, men and women, shall I pour out my Spirit. 19 I will show portents in the sky above and signs on the earth below. 20The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the day of the Lord comes, that great and terrible Day. 21And all who callon the name of the Lord will be saved.

You have just heard and seen something you could not comprehend, says Peter, but what these men are tryin’ to say is this. You can hear there, I hope, “What Gus is tryin’ to say is…”

In both of these scenes, so incompatible in some ways, the reference is to something that just happened. The speaker (Peter, in Acts, Carpenter and Cooper in The Right Stuff) declares what it means. The utterance in The Right Stuff, and the event of tongues in Acts, are taken as the common property of the group. The logic of both events goes like this. This just happened. You all saw it. Now let me tell you what it means.

That’s how they are alike. But in the sermon in Acts, Peter cites Joel’s signs and identifies Jesus of Nazareth as “the Christ of God.” The crowd responds like this.

37 Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, brothers?’ 38‘You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the movie, nothing that dramatic happens, but it is true that now that the issue is changed to how we (the astronauts) can replace the chimpanzees in NASA’s plans, the astronauts are united and powerful, where before they were quarreling among themselves and completely ineffective. [5]

We will never know what happened at Pentecost. The treatment is symbolic, not descriptive. But we can appropriate an understanding of how it felt for that great event to happen before our eyes and trying on one—and then another—of the analogies that are useful in their own partial way.

Here are two I have loved.

[1] I have a longstanding issue with the formula, “the issue isn’t X, it’s Y” as if there is one issue and it can be interpreted in either of two ways. What that formulation really means is, “Instead of talking about X, as you prefer, let’s talk about Y as I prefer. Y is better than X.” That’s what it means.
[2] That is where the line “No bucks, no Buck Rogers” comes from.
[3] Prefacing his remarks with one of my favorite scriptures. “These men are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day.” That would be 9:00. The joke is that these men are not drunk because they have not yet had the time to get drunk. Come back in twelve hours and you’ll see what you are expecting.
[4] Joel, chapter 2.
[5] There is considerable disunity in the book of Acts too and in every instance, the issue is reformulated from one that divides them to one that unites them. And that is all done without anyone having to say, “What Gus is sayin’ is.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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