The sun shone brightly at the Indiana State Penitentiary, but as the prisoners gathered for a Prison Fellowship program, I felt a cold chill. The black inmates veered to the right side of the yard; the white inmates huddled on the left. When Mike Singletary, retired Chicago Bears linebacker-a black man-addressed the crowd, the black inmates clapped and cheered; when I spoke, the whites cheered. Never before in 20 years had I witnessed such self-segregation among prisoners.

I felt the same chill when I watched Louis Farrakhan at the Million Man March, with his esoteric numerologies. Farrakhan cited the 1968 Kerner Commission Report about two Americas, "one black and one white-separate and unequal." Ever since the Simpson trial, a crescendo of voices is telling us that whites and blacks do not see things the same way, that they have vastly different "life experiences," that they don't even speak the same languages.

Are we on the same path as Canada, which recently came within a hair's breadth of breaking apart? Americans, after all, do not share a single ethnic background. Instead, our cultural fabric is woven from the threads of a shared language and a common culture of "liberty and justice for all." And both are threatening to unravel. Proponents of "Black English" in the schools insist that blacks don't speak a dialect of English but a separate language altogether. Some African Americans are dropping the second half to call themselves simply "Africans." A Native American student was asked on a Denver television program what she thought of the term "Native American." She replied that she saw herself as "a Native" but not as an "American."

Increasing numbers of Americans seem eager to opt out of our national culture. Postmodern literary criticism argues that human language is inadequate for expressing ultimate truth-that it expresses only the limited, culture-bound perspective of the speaker. Farrakhan and his followers seem to have absorbed this philosophy. As Leon Wieseltier writes in The New Republic, "Race, in America, has become epistemology: There are white truths and black truths, but there is no truth." America is becoming a modern Babel of confused tongues.

Indeed, the story of Babel may be a hermeneutical tool for interpreting our predicament. Genesis 11 recounts that at an early stage in human history, "the whole world had one language and a common speech." But that cultural unity inspired a fatal hubris: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves." As political philosopher Michael Oakeshott writes, the project represented "a cosmic revolution," aimed at "forcing open the gates of heaven."

So far, notes Gene Edward Veith in Postmodern Times, the story bears a striking parallel to modern culture. In the Enlightenment, modern thinkers supplanted belief in God with belief in Reason (often capitalized), through which they hoped to discover universal truths, cure disease and poverty, and create a rational social order. Reason would confer godlike omniscience-in essence, building a tower to heaven.

But Genesis tells us that God judged the original Babel by destroying the basis of their pride: their common language. "Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. . . . And the Lord scattered them over the face of the earth." Note again the parallel to our own time. The universal truths supposedly discovered by Reason (the "self-evident truths") are now being dismissed as creations of a particular time and culture. Even a shared language no longer unites us, according to postmodernists, because of our varied "life experiences." No wonder Americans are asking what is left to bind us together.

How can Christians have a reconciling influence on the contemporary confusion of tongues? By articulating a biblical understanding of truth.

Contrary to postmodernists, we believe that human language can express ultimate truth-the truth necessary for salvation-not because it is discoverable through autonomous human Reason, as Enlightenment thinkers vainly hoped, but because God has spoken in Scripture. The divine perspective is communicable in human terms-not completely, but sufficiently. Richard Rorty, himself a postmodernist, acknowledges that the very notion of objective truth makes sense only in the context of revelation: It is "a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own." This is the "legacy" we Christians keep alive today.

Yet eternal truth comes to us as temporal beings, living in a diverse and contingent world. The counterpart to Babel is Pentecost, when each listener heard the same glorious news of salvation in his own tongue. The universal message of salvation is meant to be received and embodied by an endless variety of individuals through their local cultures.

This delicate balance of the universal and the particular-rooted in the biblical concept of revelation-must undergird our efforts to rebuild cultural coherence. As Russell Kirk writes, a culture grows organically out of a "cult," or common worship. Lacking that, all other forms of cooperation fall apart. Our nation may indeed become two Americas-or more-unless Christians revitalize the "cult" at the root of culture.

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