It’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”.
How 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.
And 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.