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Review of  Medium or Message?

Reviewer: Clay Butler
Book Title: Medium or Message?
Book Author: Anya Woods
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 16.1761

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Subject: Medium or Message? Language and Faith in Ethnic Churches

AUTHOR: Anya Woods
TITLE: Medium or Message?
SUBTITLE: Language and Faith in Ethnic Churches
SERIES: Linguistic Diversity and Language Rights
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2004

Clay Butler, Department of English, Baylor University, Waco, Texas

In Medium or Message?, Anya Woods explores the relationship
between language choice and religious/ethnic identity in
various "ethnic" Christian congregations in Australia. For example,
she identifies a generational tension in some congregations between
younger church members who want to assimilate into the larger,
English-speaking community and the older members who wish to
maintain their ethnic language and more of their homeland traditions
and culture. Her research is primarily a qualitative analysis of phone
interviews conducted with the pastors of sixteen churches from a wide
range of denominations, and questionnaires given to the attendees of
two churches forming in-depth case studies. Her insightful and
detailed descriptions should be very interesting to church leaders,
sociologists interested in immigrant issues, and anyone else intrigued
by the nexus of language and ethnicity. The following two sections
provide a summary of the contents of each chapter and an evaluation
of the book as a whole.


Chapter 1 -- Establishing the Context of the Study

The book begins by looking at various contexts of the study: the
Australia context, the Christian theology context, and the ethnic
congregation context. Australian officials in the government and the
church hierarchy have advocated the acceptance and valuation of
diversity within their multicultural and multilingual society and
churches. The standard and the reality, however, are often in conflict
as there is a strong pull toward the English language in Australia, a
pull which leads to difficult choices for ethnic communities. Christian
theology sets up a particularly interesting study for linguistic and
cultural diversity because Christianity does not look to one language
or one culture as its core identity; Christian scripture encourages
advancement and adaptation of expressions of the faith. However,
the Christian experience is inevitably lived within and tied to a specific
language and culture. Ethnic congregations in Australia face the
difficult choice of supporting their traditional culture by using and
encouraging their community language in their churches or of
assimilating into the larger culture by using English. Woods
summarizes the problem as one of balancing priorities, "among the
many issues faced is the question of whether getting the message
across is more or less important than being a vehicle for cultural and
language maintenance" (p 7). Woods' research shows how some
ethnic churches navigate their way through this defining issue. The
sixteen churches in the study are (denomination/ethnicity): (1)
Anglican/Chinese-Hakka, (2) Anglican/Persian, (3) Baptist/Arabic, (4)
Baptist/Spanish, (5) Catholic/Croatian, (6) Catholic/Italian, (7)
Lutheran/German, (8) Lutheran/Latvian, (9) Lutheran/Slovak, (10)
Orthodox/Greek, (11) Orthodox/Russian, (12) Reformed/Chinese-
Mandarin, (13) Reformed/English of Dutch origin, (14)
Uniting/Indonesian, (15) Uniting/Oromo, (16) Uniting/Tamil.

Chapter 2 -- Language-Religion Ideology in an Ethnic Church Context

The second chapter introduces the concept of Language-Religion
Ideology (LRI) and discusses the LRI of the seven denominations
under study. The LRI of a denomination is "the nature of the link
between language and religion…a denomination's actions, attitudes,
traditions and official/unofficial policies pertaining to language" (p 41).
At one end of the LRI continuum are those groups which emphasize
the distant, sacred nature of God and believe there is only one
language appropriate for communicating with God, a "sacred"
language. On the other end are those groups which emphasize the
nearby, personal nature of God and are comfortable using
an "ordinary" language with God. There are, of course, many factors
influencing an LRI, and even groups that allow an "ordinary" language
will chose one variety over another as the preferred mode of
communication. Next, Woods describes the LRI of the seven
denominations in her study and, in summary, orders them from most
aligned with a "sacred" language to most aligned with an "ordinary"
language: Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Uniting, Reformed,
and Baptist.

Chapter 3 -- Views from the Pulpit

This chapter summarizes the phone interviews between Woods and
the pastors of the sixteen churches. For brevity, only the interview
with the Arabic Baptist pastor will be discussed. The Arabic church in
Melbourne is itself a richly multilingual and multicultural community.
Members come from Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt,
Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria and non-Middle Eastern countries such as
Sudan and Somalia. The Arabic language, the language of faith in all
of their home countries, brings them together. The pastor takes a
pragmatic approach to language usage: as long as immigrants are
moving to Melbourne who need an Arabic-language church, his
church will continue using Arabic. However, as young people in the
church become more comfortable with English, the church should
provide more English-medium activities and services. The pastor
hopes there eventually will be an English-speaking church specifically
for the Arabic community. In terms of its LRI, the Arabic Baptist church
clearly is comfortable with multiple languages in expressing their faith.

Chapter 4 -- Case Study 1: The Latvian Church

In addition to the phone interviews with the pastors, Woods also
distributed questionnaires to two of the congregations. Chapter 4
describes the language environment of a Latvian Lutheran
congregation in detail. In contrast to the Arabic Baptist church, the
Latvian church has a strong LRI connection. Its governing constitution
states that the church is to "inspire and support the Latvian cultural
and social activities" and that "its religious services shall be performed
in the Latvian language" (p 67). The church was founded in part to
maintain Latvian nationalism during the period of Soviet domination.
Even after Latvian independence was achieved in 1991, this ethos
has continued in the church. While the pastor would prefer an "open
door" style of church in which the gospel is presented in a manner
relevant to a broad range of people, much of the congregation, in
particular the elderly members, feel there are many other churches for
English speakers and want their church to focus on Latvians.

Chapter 5 -- Case Study 2: The Indonesian Church

The second case study focuses on an Indonesian congregation of the
Uniting Church. This congregation contrasts sharply with the Latvian.
The Indonesian church is not attempting to protect Indonesian culture,
but to serve the immigrant and migrant populations, many of whom
value skill in English because it is seen as an asset in their work or
education. While the Latvians have a relatively unified language,
culture, and religion as their heritage, the Indonesians speak a variety
of languages in their homeland with the Indonesian language serving
as a lingua franca, come from a variety of cultures within Indonesia,
and worshipped in different denominations before coming to Australia
(e.g., Pentecostal, Reformed, Lutheran, and Seventh-Day Adventist).
In light of this multicultural, multilingual background, it is not surprising
that the pastor and the congregation are generally comfortable with
adapting the liturgy and language of the church to changing social
needs. Unlike the Arabic Baptists, however, the Indonesians feel
there is a preferred dialect for expressing their faith, the most
prestigious variety in their homeland, Javanese. Since Javanese is
not a language known to a majority of the congregation, a pragmatic
choice was made to use Indonesian.

Chapter 6 -- Some General Trends

This chapter summarizes the findings discussed in previous chapters,
which answer two basic questions: (1) why is the community language
important, and (2) why is English important? The community language
is important for three primary reasons. First, it is the easiest for many
participants to understand. Newcomers to Australia enjoy the use of a
familiar language. In the case of complex cultural backgrounds such
as that found in the Indonesian congregation, the use of a community
language allows the members to relate to a larger community of
immigrants and serves as a cultural unifier. Second, the community
language for some groups, such as the Latvians, Greeks, and
Russians, is considered a sacred language and crucial for a genuine
expression of faith. A final reason the community language is
important is the church's perceived role in language maintenance.
This perception is particularly important for those who consider the
community language a sacred language and for older members of the
churches who wish to maintain a connection to their homeland. The
primary reason English is important in ethnic churches is because it is
often the primary language of the second generation and the only
language of the third generation. Without a constant flow of new
immigrants, an ethnic church in Australia that does not adapt in some
way to English will likely die out.

Chapter 7 -- Towards a New Framework

The final chapter revisits the LRI continuum developed in chapter 2
and adds a second dimension of language attitudes and practices as
discovered in the current research. Thus, ethnic churches can have a
weak or strong link between language and religion, and they can have
a variety of practices in actual language usage. For example, the
Dutch Reformed have a weak LRI and have over time shifted from
using Dutch to using English. The Greek Orthodox, on the other
hand, have a strong LRI and have preserved the central role of Greek
in their services. Woods concludes with her own implications following
from the study. In general, she asserts that the medium should serve
the message (p 174), meaning that language choices should be
governed by which language best communicates the message.


As the first book in Multilingual Matters' new series, Linguistic Diversity
and Language Rights, this book sets a fine standard in focusing on a
group of under-represented people and highlighting their experience
from their perspective. In particular, I appreciate the care in
describing the various perspectives on language without criticism.
This approach allows the reader to understand each congregation's
experience on their own terms, from the participants' perspectives.

There are several keen insights mentioned that deserve fuller
description. For example, the text describes the Spanish Baptist
church as pluricentric (p 153), meaning the Spanish language has
many homes and standards of appropriate usage. How do these
groups negotiate their preferred variety? Also, the text mentions that
some of the congregations immigrated from cultures in which
Christianity is not the dominant religion: China, Indonesia, Iran, and Sri
Lanka. How does the movement from a culturally non-Christian nation
to a culturally Christian nation influence a congregation's LRI?
Similarly, how does the paramount importance of Arabic in Islam
influence the LRI of non-Muslims such as the Arabic Baptist
congregation from Iran? The text mentions their reluctance to accept
a modern translation of the Bible because of the criticism it would
bring from their Muslim acquaintances. A fuller investigation of this
issue would certainly reveal a confluence of many language-religion-
culture dynamics.

One drawback to the text is the overemphasis on the numbers from
the questionnaires when the samples are too small for relevancy. The
author notes this limitation, but then spends dozens of pages
discussing the numerical results. Readers who persevere through the
tables and charts will find excellent sections in chapters 4 and 5 with
short, revealing comments from respondents describing their opinions
and perspectives. These sections provide a rare and fascinating view
into the struggle of experiencing and expressing faith through


Clay Butler teaches in the English Language and Linguistics program
at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, USA. His courses include
Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Semantics and Pragmatics, and Cross-
Cultural Linguistics. His research interests are in discourse analysis,
linguistic politeness, and the construction of identity through language.

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