The language of christians

Having looked at the language of Jesus a couple of weeks ago, there ensued an interesting conversation on Twitter. If I can find the all the tweets in my history, I’ll try and transcribe it for you sometime. The verdict seemed to line up with my post, though it did get embellished with the grand title of ‘the educated Rabbi theory.’

What I want to do here is try to apply the principles drawn out of that. Specifically, the issue that motivated me in writing this couple of posts is clear communication. Regular readers will be aware that I often make grammatical errors, changing my sentence structure half way through, so I am as much chiding myself as anyone else.

If Jesus spoke in the everyday vernacular using down-to-earth examples, why shouldn’t we? As Kenneth Bailey puts it in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:

Both Judaism and Islam have a sacred language. Christianity does not. This fact is of enormous significance.

Although different churches have their nuances, something I notice across denominations is that there is often a failure to use straightforward English.

To give a few examples:

1) High churches will often use the transliteration ‘Eucharist’ to describe a communion meal. Of course, ‘communion’ is not the most common of words, and there is a proliferation of other words used to describe the same meal. The lack of a straightforward word, commonly understood, can act as a barrier. Other words such as “mass” then carry connotations that not everyone finds helpful.

2) Lower churches will often throw around words like ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption’ without properly defining what they mean. As these words are in more common use, but with different connotations, there is a risk of being misunderstood. This can be a greater risk than the obfuscation mentioned above.

3) Some churches I have been to insist on using some translation of the bible whose language is no longer the lingua franca of today. The most common of these is the King James, though I find the language to now be archaic. As for the 9 appearances of unicorns…….

This is something I can get quite passionate about, as I think the church ought to make as much effort as possible to communicate the gospel as clearly as possible. While I choose to accept the gospel, as I understand it, I don’t force it on anyone else, but I do think that if someone is going to exercise their free will to reject it, that christians should do a good job of educating the world; so if the gospel is to be rejected (or accepted) then it should be done so for the right reasons.

So if we preach sermons, write articles or chat to friends using obscure or antiquated words, then we are asking them to use a dictionary just to understand us. This is the antithesis of good communication. Surely it’s better for us to be the ones putting in the efforts so that others can be in possession of the facts and ideas in as clear a manner as possible, so they can choose to make up their minds based on the best information.

Anything which separates people from God is a bad thing. I’m opposed to turning christianity into a religion, where ritual (which may have originated as trying to get close to God) is now a major turn-off or else the ritual is mistaken for being the entirety of the faith, rather than a symbol pointing to something greater.

One word that has crept into the vocabulary which describes the alienating words used by christians is “christianese.” Kristin Tennant has written a few really good pieces on this at her Half Way To Normal blog (Should all Christian jargon be taboo? & Trimming back the Christianese) and at the end I’ve included a video which tackles the issue in a very tongue-in-cheek way.

This is not a new issue. When Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate his aim was to make the bible understandable in the common tongue. Long after it became outdated, its continued use became more a tool of social and political control, since the ordinary person could no longer understand it and relied on their local priest to tell them what it meant.  William Tyndale translated into a more modern vernacular and was murdered for doing so.

I’d like to think that no one these days would kill one another for democratising faith, though use of ecclesiastic and religious terminology, which may have been useful in another era, now serves to distance people from God, rather than help bring the two together.

The idea of God coming to earth in human form (incarnational theology) has a strong emphasis of God meeting us where we are, which transformed the Jewish paradigm of ritual purity before approaching God.

So my proposition is that christians should extend this courtesy likewise. We need to be aware of the language that we use, recognise where definitions commonly interpreted by modern folk differ from the interpretation we have and also to refrain from using turns of phrase. The gospel may be hard to accept, but it shouldn’t be difficult to understand. Let’s not put any obstacles in another’s way by our use of language.


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