The Barrier to Translating Faith in “Jesus Shaves” by David Sedaris
The main reason the students in “Jesus Shaves” by David Sedaris have trouble explaining the concept of Easter to a Moroccan classmate in their shared French class seems to be that none of them have enough French vocabulary to explain the concept. While the narrator explains the difficulty as nothing but a simple language barrier, a different barrier is also at play: a semantic language barrier. Even if the students were able to communicate effectively in the same language, they would face similar obstacles of explaining Easter to a non-Christian student, as the concept Easter relies on cultural knowledge and acceptance as much as linguistic accuracy. While a language barrier exacerbates the issue, the true difficulty lies in a barrier to internalizing an understanding of a culture not one’s own.
The true language barrier they face is not simply one of denotative language, as the narrator claims “the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp” (Sedaris 464), but there is an issue as well of connotative language, such as what the cross itself means to their faith, which is not as easily translated as the noun itself. He misunderstands the cultural barrier in the classroom, misattributing the miscommunication as solely due to a language barrier rather than as a product of different cultures and faiths, despite being affected by the cultural barrier himself. Even if they were all fluent in French, Easter will not make intrinsic sense to someone not of the Christian faith – it will always sound absurd, with or without the language barrier, because there is a cultural barrier still.
The narrator exemplifies this cultural barrier being just as strong, if not stronger than a general language barrier with his last statements, “I accepted…The virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles…A bell, though, that’s fucked up.” When the narrator learns about the French Easter bell in his native language, and still does not believe in its place in the story of Easter because he does not have the cultural belief for it. His cultural upbringing allows him to have faith in and accept many things, from the religious cornerstones of Easter, to the notion of the Easter Bunny. He does not have this same intrinsic acceptance or understanding of the Easter bell; although the logic of the Easter bell and Easter bunny differ littleother than that the one you are raised with makes more sense, as shown by “the teacher, assuming [he’d] used the wrong word” (Sedaris 464) and their class’s confusion with his mention of the Easter Bunny, because it is not a part of their cultural knowledge. In a similar vein, when correcting him that a bell brings chocolate for Easter, not a bunny, the teacher “sadly shook her head” (Sedaris 464) because for her, the bell is a naturally understood part of her culture, while the Easter Bunny is the odd foreign tradition that she does not understand.
At the end of the story, the narrator wonders if “without the language barrier…[we] could have done a better job making sense of Christianity” (Sedaris 465). I do not think a common language could have solved all their miscommunication, though it would have helped in some ways, because the Moroccan student’s confusion over Easter is emblematic of the larger social issue: a language barrier is easy to quantify and explain, while a cultural barrier is not, no matter how pervasive it is. Cultural disconnect is repeated throughout the story, highlighting its importance to the difficulty the students face, beyond the mere language barrier. The narrator, for instance, remarks, “Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice” (Sedaris 463) after being incredulous at the fact that his classmate had never heard of Easter before, showing how he has internalized his own culture as the default. The cultural barrier colors the narrator’s observations the entire story, most notably how he identifies all his fellow classmates by nationality, as an “Italian nanny…chatty Poles, and a…Moroccan” (Sedaris 463) rather than by name. He acknowledges the difficulty in crossing the cultural barrier with a pivotal observation: “in communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith” (Sedaris 465); though he fails to apply this understanding in explaining Easter, a Christian holiday, to his Moroccan classmate. The narrator does not acknowledge the ways the cultural barrier affects him, it is something that only applies to the others.This shows the disconnect he feels to the other students in his class, and how he is unwilling to understand those culturally different from him, resorting instead to stereotypes.
This is why the Moroccan student ends up confused, why the teacher is confused by his instance of the use of “Easter Bunny” and the narrator is adamant throughout that the “Easter Bell” is dumb; it is a natural inclination to view your cultural experiences as the correct lens with which to view the world, but it causes disconnect with other people when you are unwilling to acknowledge those gaps and differences, which is precisely the dilemma in “Jesus Shaves”.
Back, Kurt W., et al. “Barriers to Communication and Measurement of Semantic Space.” Sociometry, vol. 35, no. 3, 1972, pp. 347–356. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2786499.
Sedaris, David. “Jesus Shaves.” 1955. The Norton Introduction to Literature, compiled by Kelly J. Mays, Shorter Twelfth ed., Norton, 2016, pp. 462-465.