C.S. Lewis wrote a short essay called “Meditations in a Tool Shed,” in which he discusses the difference between looking at a beam of light in the toolshed as opposed to looking along that beam of light as it finds the toolshed.
Simply looking at the beam of light, one might see specks of dust and other debris, but looking along the beam one would see what is outside, the leaves of trees, the sky, and on towards the sun from which the beam is coming.
This two-way contrast of looking at something is a concept like one used in linguistics and anthropology, called the ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ viewpoint. The words were first coined by Professor Kenneth L. Pike, who proposed the names to describe two contrastive and different kinds of information about human behavior. The etic view is one familiar to the observer and can also be called the outsider view. The emic view is meaningful (consciously or unconsciously) to the speaker and is commonly called the insider view.
When I look at the photo of my wife, I am looking at it from the outside, an etic view, just like I look at hundreds of other photos. I can describe what she is wearing, the colors, the smile on her face, her jewelry, where she is sitting, and so on, just by looking carefully at the picture. But only by knowing her personally can I have an emic or inside view, and only then as much as she has revealed to me.
From the Biblical perspective, when a man and woman become married, they are “one.” Not physically, of course, but instead in a way that can be described as “one in spirit.” They are no longer simply looking “at” one another, they are looking “along” or inside of one another. They are finding out things they never knew before, and it is uniting them in a way that physical attraction alone does not. For example, I knew that Joice was left-handed, but I didn’t how much left-handers often think and act differently than right-handers. I also knew that she loved music, but how that music penetrated her soul was a revelation to me. I knew that Joice was half British (from her father), but I didn’t realize that the royal family and England would give her goosebumps. (I tried, but I could never find the same experience.)
My joy, as a husband, was to find out new things about my wife—even after many years of marriage. I could always look at her and admire her beauty, but looking inside her was a different matter.
It is the same with etic and emic discoveries. I had studied anthropology, so I knew something of how kinship systems were classified. Joice and I worked out elaborate charts to define kinship relationships and the terms people called one another. However, it was not until we became a part of the system (even as ‘fictive’ kin) that we began to understand the obligations, the taboos, and the elaborate network of relationships that we had become a part of. The inside view looked quite different than the outside one, but both were necessary.
Another example: One of our goals was to describe the phonetic properties of the Kewa language(s). We had been trained in descriptive linguistics and knew how to transcribe the sounds of an unwritten language. But, in order to read, the people needed an alphabet and reading materials.
An alphabet needs to be utilitarian and not introduce peripheral and unnecessary symbols (like the /q/ in English). We needed to get “inside” the system and have an alphabet that would help people learn to read as quickly and efficiently as possible. The outside phonetic transcription of sounds was turned into words that already meant something internally to the speaker and hearer. The process becomes more difficult when certain features are added, such as tone, length, nasalization, and other factors. The analysis helped us to get inside the system once we learned to speak the language in its cultural context.
A further example: I read the Scriptures and know about the Holy Spirit—I can look “at” him, finding all the references in the Bible that mention him (no deliberate gender implications intended). But I don’t really understand the workings of the Holy Spirit unless he is “inside” or “along” with me. It is not simply a matter of knowing where verses about the Holy Spirit are found in the Bible, it is discovering how the gifts of the Holy Spirit are found in me. And, although the wonderful discovery process in marriage may take years, it is also comparative to the life-long process that God provides for me to experience the Holy Spirit’s work in my life.
The next time you look at someone or something, reflect on what features may lie inside that thing or person. Life, as someone has said, is full of surprises—and so are people.