Do you speak Christian?

9 Apr

WS4It’s that time of year again when I find myself in Llanelli, South Wales, teaching a group of trainees introductory linguistics and language learning skills. I trust that by the end of this two weeks they will have learned a thing or two about how languages work, and how they can best learn one. And somewhere in the midst of all this, I hope that they will also understand why language is important. As for me, it gives me an excuse to write again about language. Way to go!

In an engaging scene towards the end of the adventures of Don Quixote, the brave knight, his faithful Sancho and their entourage come across a traveller and his companion, a lady dressed in “Moorish” style. Poor thing, she didn’t seem to understand the kind words they spoke in her direction, for she merely crossed her hands over her chest and bowed in appreciation. She evidently did not speak “Christian”.

QuijoteHow many of us speak “Christian”? However we want to define “speaking Christian” – and in Cervantes’ day, it was a simple synonym for Castillian Spanish – that isn’t really the main issue. More to the point is how many people beyond the walls of our churches speak Christian? Because if we are not speaking the same language, we are never going to make ourselves understood. As Taylor Swift would say, “never, ever, ever”.

God has always come to humanity speaking our language(s). Whenever you find an angel in the Bible, they speak in the language of their interlocutor, not in “the language of angels”, whatever these might be. God’s words to people in dreams and visions were always perfectly understandable. Jesus used his native Aramaic but also seems to have managed to communicate happily with Greek speakers in their own language. And the vast majority of the New Testament is written in Koiné Greek, “common” Greek, or that which was spoken by the masses, the trade language of the Mediterranean world and beyond, not the cultured Attic Greek of Homer and Plato.

God addresses people in their own language. And we should too. The second century epistle to Diognetus says it well:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. […] But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.

Christians did not stand out from the crowd in anything but their godly living. They dressed the same – I guess that might mean hoodies and low-slung jeans these days, not to mention the odd piercing –, ate the same food, did the same jobs, spoke the same language… yet somehow displayed a “striking method of life” that was soon to overrun the mighty Roman Empire.

To “speak Christian” roots us firmly in a bygone age and severs our connection with those that actually need Christ. We risk becoming an irrelevant relic, a quaint nicety that is tolerated, more or less, by outsiders, but little understood.

imagesAnd it’s not just the “thees and thous” that mark us out as travellers in time. So much of our communication is built on an overestimation of the place of “preaching”, a premise of shared values and shared knowledge and basic “biblical literacy” that can in reality no longer be taken for granted. Concepts of sin and morality, the question of whether God even exists, the reliability of the Bible… we assume so much and fail to connect.

And so our message misses the mark, quite simply lost in translation, from “Christian” to however we wish to label contemporary communication.

We simply have no alternative – to follow faithfully in the footsteps of a communicative God, we must live out our faith in ways that other people can understand. Whether in the way we construct our corporate life, our communication style or the very words that we use, our language must be their language; anything else is a distortion of the gospel.

It’s time to stop speaking Christian and live it.

P.S. If you are interested in one theologian’s perspective on Speaking Christian, see this review of Marcus Borg’s book of the same title or an interview with the author.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Do you speak Christian?”

  1. Hannah April 10, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

    I appreciate the sentiment of working hard in order to use language that will be understood, but I think this article oversimplifies the issue somewhat. The language that people easily understand will be shaped by what they do, what they think about and what they talk about. Some Christian concepts will be completely alien to many people who are not Christian. When this is the case, it would be good to introduce them to new words, provided you are talking to them about what those words mean.

    • eatingwithsinners April 10, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

      You are right – it is oversimplified. I normally find that is the best way to focus a short(ish) post. But I would still maintain it is valid. It is the careless use of jargon and presentation of the “entrance level” gospel message in terms that are incomprehensible that bothers me. Whether through the actual words we use, the format of our presentations, the unfathomable (to the outsider) paraphernalia that surround our religious events or the pseudo-spiritual aura that we try to project, we so often do not connect with the intended recipients of our message. I don’t see this as in keeping with the way our role model, Jesus, engaged with the people of his day.

      What is at fault in the church is not the careful use of language to define our concepts and communicate these – much theological writing actually does a good job of this. And someone coming in from the outside can certainly learn this language, and appreciate the concepts that are communicated through it, in much the same way as the necessary technical language employed within any specific domain or field of study. I have no issue with that. New disciples and interested inquirers do need to learn what salvation, sanctification and the like actually mean, as you rightly say.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Living in the Shadows – No More | The Inspired Verse - April 10, 2013

    […] Do you speak Christian? (eatingwithsinners.wordpress.com) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: