A while back, one of our blog readers sent me a link to this fascinating New Yorker article, “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto, which combines academic controversy, the interplay between theory and practice, and the (dis)integration of faith, life, and learning. It tells the story of Dan Everett, professor of linguistics at Illinois State University, a former evangelical Christian and Bible translator with SIL who, as he advanced in his academic career, lost his faith in Christ.
The heart of the article involves an academic debate over the nature of language. I’m not a linguist, so I won’t try to recreate the argument, but Everett, based on his life of work with the Pirahã, an isolated tribe in the Amazon with a very unusual and difficult-to-learn language, has taken a strong stance against Noam Chomsky and his theory of universal grammar.
The article, though, also deals with Everett’s journey of faith.
As a teen-ager, Everett played the guitar in rock bands (his keyboardist later became an early member of Iron Butterfly) and smoked pot and dropped acid, until the summer of 1968, when he met Keren Graham, another student at El Capitan High School, in Lakeside. The daughter of Christian missionaries, Keren was brought up among the Satere people in northeastern Brazil. She invited Everett to church and brought him home to meet her family. “They were loving and caring and had all these groovy experiences in the Amazon,” Everett said. “They supported me and told me how great I was. This was just not what I was used to.” On October 4, 1968, at the age of seventeen, he became a born-again Christian. “I felt that my life had changed completely, that I had stepped from darkness into light—all the expressions you hear.” He stopped using drugs, and when he and Keren were eighteen they married. A year later, the first of their three children was born, and they began preparing to become missionaries.
This journey, as it turns out, would be crucial to his later academic career. An early interest in linguistics (spawned by My Fair Lady) was nurtured by SIL, and Everett turned out to be naturally gifted in learning and translating difficult languages. For several years, he and Keren bounced between the academy and the missions field, alternating between advanced degrees and Bible translation. Along the way, Everett lost his faith and later his marriage. Keren, meanwhile, remains a Bible translator among the Pirahã.
I recommend reading the article. There’s much there, more than I am able to reflect on here. One aspect that could be teased out is the privileging of Everett’s conclusions about the Pirahã language over Keren’s, even though Keren has spent more time among them and even Everett admits she knows aspects of the language better than he. But then, Everett is an academic, while Keren is a missionary.
If you are interested in reading more, I also commend Dan Everett’s home page, which provides links to many more articles and interviews with him. He also has a book out about his experiences, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. An interview with the BBC on his home pages promises to be “about how the Pirahãs affected [him] spiritually,” though I haven’t listened to it yet.
Any linguistics or language readers who have thoughts about Everett’s work, or the connections between linguistics and Christianity? I know little about this discipline, so I’d very curious to hear about some of the points of integration between faith and linguistics, or areas in which the Christian faith is challenged by or challenges the academic norm.
(HT to Elizabeth for reminding me about this terrific article. Thanks!)
4/11/2012: Updated home page link.