Christians need their own language to understand reality but must also be able to communicate with the rest of the world.
Blogging and academia can be closer than you think: if you’re careful with your references you can end up quoting someone who quotes another who may in turn be quoting a fourth party. That’s possibly the case with the words below by David Nienhuis, which caught my eye on Justin Taylor’s blog:
Language mediates our reality, expands our horizons, inspires our imagination, and empowers our actions. Literacy therefore isn’t simply about possessing a static ability to read and write; it is a dynamic reality, a never-ending life practice that involves putting those skills to work in reshaping our identity and transforming our world.
This got me thinking about something I often wrestle with. The Christian community needs to understands the truths God has revealed to it, and to do so it must learn to be literate in them. As authors quoted by Nielhuis say, “Articulacy fosters reality.” This has to mean understanding and using theological terms that are not found elsewhere. But then there is a serious risk that Christians make themselves incomprehensible to everyone else. If there ever was a time when the vast majority of people (outside of church, let alone in it) were familiar with theological terminology it certainly isn't now, so what should we do?
The fact that I’m "blogging", making "hyperlinks", etc. shows that the Church isn’t the only community with an internal language that baffles outsiders. In fact, every community does because words (and abbreviations and acronyms) are used as short-hand to describe what everyone in the community understands. This is the point of the quote. But the Church is called not only to speak with itself but to converse with those outside of its community – it has good news to share and if it is to do that comprehensibly then it needs to avoid using jargon.
The challenge is to make sure we are still communicating God's truth and not allowing it to be altered through translation into more commonly-known words. This is risky because the words most known by our culture express the values and beliefs of the culture, and they are in opposition to God. For example (kind of), “Have you been washed by the blood of the Lamb?” is a question about the most important issue in life, salvation, but to ask it in this way to anyone who isn't thoroughly versed in biblical imagery would be ridiculous. But to say "Do you have a relationship with Jesus?", which many might consider an acceptable translation, runs the risk of promoting the idea of Jesus-as-boyfriend rather than Lord and Saviour. Christians and non-Christians will suffer if we only ever speak in this way.
It's also worth remembering that Jesus taught in parables that some people couldn't understand and He seems to say that this is a sign of judgement on them. (Andrew Brown offers another, more sceptical, perspective on this.)
As a young preacher with sermons to prepare, it sometimes feels like I’ve reached my goal when I understand the truths I’m to share. In fact, I’m barely half way there because I then need to make those truths understandable to those who will listen. And I’m still not really done because I should, in my preaching, help others learn how to discover these things for themselves – which would seem like the subject for another blog were it not for the fact that unless you really understand something yourself you cannot communicate it effectively to others, which is the calling of all Christians and not just the preachers!
Thank God that it is He who saves and He who illuminates, but He doesn’t leave us without work to do. I’m still not quite sure how to get through on this but I really want to.