A couple of years ago my brother and I were in England with my Dad. We started to worry about unscrupulous salespeople knocking on his door and taking advantage of his failing mind. So, we went into town to the hardware store and asked for a “No Soliciting” sign, which is what we would post in Canada. The look on the clerk’s face told us that we really didn’t want a sign that said “No Soliciting”. She explained that a sign that said “No Soliciting” would mean “No Prostitutes” – fine as far as it goes, but not quite what we were looking for. She explained that we really wanted a sign that said “No Hawking”. It was a good reminder that words mean different things, even if I’m sure what I intended to say. The language issue affects everything, including the way we communicate and understand biblical concepts. Ron Martoia writes:
I had come to recognize that we as Christians used language that other people either did not understand, or that pushed all the wrong buttons with them. As a result, we had little opportunity to have extended conversations about spiritual things with our friends and neighbors.
Ron explains that we ourselves face the language barrier as we read the Bible:
When Jesus spoke, there were details that would be understood easily by his first-century audience, figures of speech and other nuances that they would automatically be familiar with. For us, being removed from the first century by two thousand years, a different language, and a totally different culture, we have a lot of missing pieces to uncover before we can reasonably say that we’re getting the whole story. And we have a lot of gaps to fill in before we can say we’re even close to being on the same footing as those who heard Jesus’ teaching firsthand.
As we get closer to understanding Scripture, our work is not over. We also have the challenging task of translating the Bible’s message in a way that others will understand. Ron continues:
Faithfulness to what God has called us to do requires more than our own understanding of the basic message he has for the world. We also have to translate the message into a “language” other people will understand. Effective translation is often quite a bit more complicated than many of us are willing to pause and consider.
As Ron says, this is anything but easy. Instead of abandoning words, we’re called to drill down and understand their true meaning, and then find “better and different English words to reflect their original meaning.” All of this is to make sure that “the biblical text was accurately translated into our context.” Here’s the funny thing. We accept – even expect – missionaries to do this. But we find it scary to do this in our own context. I can understand why too. This requires hard thinking, and there are all kinds of ways for us to go off the rails. Pretending that the language gap doesn’t exist, though, isn’t exactly a great option. Static is a stimulating read on this issue. The publisher’s book description says:
Words communicate. Christians often use words to communicate to others; however, these words aren’t understood by many of those outside the church. We can be so absorbed in our “christianese” that we don’t realize others don’t understand the jargon and cannot figure out what it is we mean by what we are saying. Static readers will become aware of what we are saying so we can re-focus our thinking to communicate clearly to those outside the church.
It’s a book that’s definitely worth reading. I’m also looking forward to another one of Ron’s books that is coming out later this year called Yearning: A Starting Point for a New Conversation about Jesus. I still have one more post in the pipeline on Static, as well as a review. You can pre-order Static at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca. It’s scheduled for release in April.