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Should we teach classes on how to speak Christianese? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 1)

Church is boring.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from one of my high school students. Probe them a bit, though, and you’ll discover that the problem isn’t just that church isn’t exciting like a video game, an action movie, or a first date. Instead, the problem is often that they don’t understand what’s going on or what it has to do with “real life.” Listening to the songs and sermons, the language seems so odd, so removed from everyday life, that they struggle to understand why any of this matters.

And, like most of us, when faced with an hour or more of something they don’t really understand, they get bored.

And, if we’re honest, teenagers aren’t alone in this. Many people have a hard time understanding “church language.” Faced with words like “sanctify,” “redemption,” or, heaven forbid, “ebenezer,” they feel like they need their own personal translator just to keep track of what’s happening.

Indeed, some people have grown so accustomed to not understanding church language that they don’t even notice anymore. I’m sure I could drop “image of God” into a sermon and it wouldn’t even phase most people despite the fact that they probably have no idea what that phrase even means.

What do you do when the average person doesn’t understand the language of the church?

That is exactly the problem the church faced during its transition into the early middle ages. After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, the church had to deal with the fact that most people no longer spoke Latin, the official language used in all church services. In such a situation, what should the church do? Should it retain its traditional language, or should it try to translate itself into its new linguistic context?

In the early middle ages, the church opted to maintain its language. And, I think that we’re all aware of at least some of the consequences. Few people ever learned Latin, meaning that they often had very little idea of what was taking place in the service. And, as a result, the worship service often became something that the priest did for the people, rather than something that the people actively participated in. Indeed, regular attendance at church services declined significantly as people came to think that even their presence was unnecessary.

When we choose not to translate the language of the church, we risk alienating God’s people from God’s worship.

But, what about the other option? It’s easy to criticize the church for making what looks like an apparently obvious mistake. Why continue worshiping in a language that people don’t understand? But, what if the church had chosen differently? Suppose that it decided to recognize its new context and translate its worship into the various languages of the people. Although I think this would have been a good idea, we should recognize that the church had good reasons for concern.

  1. Something always gets lost in translation. Just ask a translator. It’s never quite possible to capture everything when you move from one language to another. And, when you’re talking about important truths, losing something along the way is never a good idea.
  2. The church risks its “catholicity.” The early church was deeply concerned to emphasize that regardless of what part of the world you are in, you are still part of the one church of Jesus Christ. That is the church “catholic” (i.e. the church in its unity). And, for them, common worship practices and a common worship language were powerful and visible declarations of our Christian unity.
  3. You may end up with a lowest-common-denominator Christianity. If our focus is on what the “average person” is able to understand, and if our goal is to make sure that our worship makes sense to that person, do we not run the risk of “lowering the bar” so much that we lose some of the depth and substance of Christian worship?

So, faced with a difficult situation, the early medieval church had two choices, both of which came with significant risks.

And, both sets of risks are worth keeping in mind as we deal with a similar situation today. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we too struggle with a “church language” that most average people find hard to understand. What will we do?

  1. Will we choose like the medieval church to retain our language, convinced that it conveys important theological truth and maintains our connection to one another and to the broader Christian tradition? If we choose this path, we need to understand that we’ve got our work cut out for us. We must do the hard work of educating our congregations to understand that language, or we risk alienating them from the worship life of the community, leading them to grow frustrated, disconnected, and bored. And, we should also recognize that the tide flows against us in this task as the biblical/theological knowledge of the average person today continues to recede.
  2. Or, will we choose to translate our worship into the language of “the people”? Down this road likes the possibility of greater engagement and understanding. But, I’ve attended worship serves at many churches who opt for this path, and we should also be aware that this can be a road that leads to a theologically shallow spirituality that tries to develop in isolation from the broader life and language of God’s people through time.

As with most difficult decisions, I don’t think a simple either/or will suffice; the truth certainly awaits us somewhere in the middle. Our task is to recognize the dangers on either side and address the challenge with eyes wide open. And, that’s most easily done when we seek to learn from those who have navigated these difficult waters before us.

[This is the first post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

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Flotsam and jetsam (2/9)

These four qualities are indispensable to good preaching, but some are more indispensable than others. The farther you go down the list, the harder the traits come. But the good news is it’s the top of the list that matter most.

To say the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is deathly ill is not editorializing but acknowledging reality.

If the phrase “son of God” is tantamount to blasphemy to Muslims, is it acceptable to translate the phrase differently into Arabic in the name of making the gospel known?

  • Patheos is adding another new blog, and this one looks like it could be very interesting. Evangelical Crossroads features Mark Russell (Asbury), Allen Yeh (Biola), Michelle Sanchez, Michelle Stearns (Mars Hill), and Dwight Friesen (Mars Hill). (HT)

Flotsam and jetsam (11/24)

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

More than ever before the issue of gender has become bound up with one’s own personal identity. Since the zeitgeist emphasises the freedom of the individual to self-create, especially over against any prefabricated notion of ‘roles’, the discussion of ‘headship’ is always going to jar with our wider cultural sensibilities.

If marriage is a foretaste of the relationship between Christ and the church, and sex likewise a foretaste of our ultimate and intimate union with God, Ambrose deduced that devoted virginity simply dispenses with the appetizers and skips on to the main course.

  • Perspectives in translation is discussing how best to translate ‘hilasterion’ in Romans 3:25, with Mike Bird arguing that it refers to a sacrifice that appeases divine wrath (propitiation) and Darrell Bock arguing that it refers to the place in which th sacrifice takes place (mercy seat).

Flotsam and jetsam (11/15)

One cannot underestimate the importance of 1 Timothy 2:12 in the intra-evangelical debate over gender roles and women in ministry. There is a reason why countless articles and even an entire book have been written on the interpretation of this single verse. In many ways, this verse is the most disputed text in the debate. It is clear that Paul is prohibiting something, but just what he prohibits has been fiercely contested.

The women’s ministry paradigm has been undergoing a subtle but important shift over the last few years. Many evangelical women are now discussing and operating according to an alternative to the emotional, therapeutic, and pretty-in-pink cliché that has dominated for so long, encouraging women to think beyond the contours of the current paradigm and develop a vision for women’s ministry that more actively and intentionally involves the life of the mind. They are identifying and rejecting the experience-driven model as insufficient because without theological substance any impact is merely temporary.

The solution, as I see it, is what I call  “Kevlar theology,” that our theology should be as unbreakable and as elastic as a bulletproof vest.

Sacramentality is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible.

  • And, Roger Olson is working at reclaiming Pietism (part 1 and part 2).

Flotsam and jetsam (11/12)

Here are a few good links from the last couple of days:

The Hermeneutical Dilemma

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

I was happily finishing our week’s reading, relieved I was almost through, when I was taken aback by this quizzical statement:

A more recent philosophical development of theological interest, hermeneutics…

I stop the quote here not because there is not important information to follow but because this is where I dropped my book. Could it be!?! I asked myself, apparently aloud for my study partner raised his head. I gave him that snide look that says, That was not for you; get back into your reading, before continuing my reverie. Could it be!?! this time I asked in silence, has the purity of our biblical studies been tainted by this vile beast of philosophy at its very source. Subtle monster. Again, I must have spoken this last bit aloud for my study buddy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His eyes did not rise from his book.

I took a breath and continued. “…hermeneutics, actually has its source in a theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).” This statement on page 203 of Allen and Springsted’s Philosophy for Understanding Theology, Second Edition (creative citation) held my attention for some time as I sought several ways to dismiss it without serious thought. After feeling I had succeeded I continued on and finished the book certain I had escaped the shameful conclusion that our interpretations of Scripture are informed by, based on, or are in any way influenced by this insurrectional specter otherwise known as philosophy.

Alas, at night my thoughts held me captive and the name of a German theologian tormented my waking dreams: Schleiermacher.

Morning came. After discussing the origins of liberal theology with my wife over our morning tea, at her behest, (gosh, I need to learn to keep these inner thoughts to myself!) I waved goodbye, as she set off for work, and sat down to consider my day’s labor. How could I overcome my fears of this encroaching philosophy? Forgetfulness had failed; it must be faced head on. I decided to study the man himself.

Apart from his reputation bestowed by future generations as the Father of Modern Theology, Schleiermacher was a masterful translator, if not a mediocre philosopher. His translations of Plato’s works were highly influential for a century after his death and are still considered quite good.

Philosophically, Schleiermacher believed that there are deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual differences between people. He also believed that thought was bounded by (even identical to?) word usage. Taken together these two concepts declare that every individual has a vocabulary that, while heavily informed by their culture and time, is in fact unique to themselves – as unique as their own minds. This makes absolute (and sometimes basic) understanding between any two people challenging, and this challenge is only exacerbated by distance in time and culture. Consequently, the task of the interpreter is to get into the culture and ultimately into the mind of the writer, to learn the language the way it was used at that time and particularly the way it was used by that writer. Understanding is not a given, it is a challenge, and hermeneutics was developed to deal with that challenge. (For more about Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Schleiermacher:  . Similar concepts are discussed from different vantage points concerning different individuals in Philosophy for Understanding Theology, p203 ff.)

After reading the principles of interpretation as described by Schleiermacher I was stunned… they seemed so similar to my own. And yet, his work was considered ground breaking for its time (even if he was only one of many at that time breaking ground). Could it be that my beloved historical-critical method was not lifted directly from the pages of Scripture but was actually birthed and laid at theology’s doorstep by that whore, philosophy? If so, it is already too late. I cannot disown her now; I love her too dearly. If I were to leave her on this account, who would take her place?

Whoa is me! What is the pure theologian to do?

[Correction: When this was first posted, I accidentally omitted the word “philosophical” from the opening quote. That has been corrected.]