POSTED ON JANUARY 19, 2011:
Herd the Good Word?
Bison and Religion Have a Lot to Say About Context
"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo."
Believe it or not, the herd words above is actually a complete sentence. In 1972, a computer science and logic professor named William J. Rapaport developed this sentence to illustrate the puzzling nature of language. Where does Rapaport teach? At the University of Buffalo, of course.
The "Buffalo Sentence" combines three words, which are both homonyms and homophones in relation to each other. In other words, they are spelled alike and sound alike but have different meanings. Using the proper noun for the city of Buffalo, N.Y., the alternate word for bison and a verb meaning "to bother," the sentence can be rewritten as follows: Some buffalo from Buffalo bother some other buffalo who are bothered by buffalo from Buffalo who also bother some buffalo.
A number of variations of the "Buffalo Sentence" exist. Some have created similar sentences with dogs, cats, and mice. Many languages have similar humorous constructions. In each case, such linguistic conundrums have several applications.
First, context often dictates how words are used and understood.
Second, minor explanation can sometimes clarify words and ideas that we might easily misinterpret.
Lastly, when a person fails to hear or understand something in the right context or with a clear interpretation, mistakes and confusion are sure to result.
In my opinion, this type of situation develops easier within the contexts of religion and spirituality than in any other place. For those outside the group, whatever that group may be, words, signals and symbols are strange and may sometimes seem fanatical.
This experience is similar to observing a conversation between people who have a shared knowledge on a subject about which you know little or nothing or, better yet, being on the outside of an inside joke.
The ancient Hebrews had a term for this, which is still used today: Shibboleth. A Shibboleth is a word or practice that originates and is understood only within a particular group. In most cases, a Shibboleth is only understood clearly by those who use it regularly.
Other times, however, outsiders learn the meaning, or a meaning, of a Shibboleth. The outsider will then cognitively assign membership in a particular group to the person who uses the Shibboleth. In other words, people will often label others based up on the words they use and the things they do.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote the majority of the New Testament in the Bible, understood this idea very well. He discussed the idea of using languages and even "tongues" within the context of churches. According to Paul, "If the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?" (1 Corinthians 14:23, TNIV).
Paul saw the dangers of incorporating confusing Shibboleths into the practice of the churches because at least two misinterpretations could arise. First, the outsider could fail to understand the words or practices and thereby confuse their meanings with something foreign, bizarre, or even ridiculous. Second, the outsider could assign their own meanings to the words or practices, which would eventually lead to even more misunderstanding.
Paul's solution to the problem: avoid the Shibboleths and stick to teaching truth for the benefit of outsiders. He went on to say that if outsiders witness those within the church speaking truth to one another and helping each other to grow, "they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, 'God is really among you!'" (1 Corinthians 1:25b, TNIV).
In any context, our words and actions have consequences. The first principle that a student learns in Communication 101 is: Know Your Audience. Using language and personal practices carefully is not only wise, it is also considerate of others. If we fail to use such consideration we run the risk of excluding others. If they somehow manage to navigate through their confusion into inclusion, their misunderstandings might cause them to join under false pretenses.
Remember this sage statement from our North American church leaders of old: It's always a good idea to keep buffaloes outside of the church.
Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and Teaching Pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa
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