Thursday, 12 November 2009

can you say 'shibboleth'?

Cultures are defined by their history and their language. In fact, their history creates their language and their language preserves and explains their history. Thus a culture is a community of people who share in a common history and language.

Language is powerfully cohesive (and divisive). When God wanted to scatter peoples across the earth he simply divided their language. People groups are language groups. Indeed all subcultures within a main culture find their identity in a common language. There is the language of the dancer, the footballer, the lawyer and so on. Without their own ‘language’ these community groups would have no real identity, could not function and actually would cease to exist.

Where is all this going?

It is simply to observe that the Christian Church must of necessity have its own language. To be a Christian is to share in a common community history. It is to be part of a ‘peculiar’ people, part of a story that has generated its own language and vocabulary. This language expresses all that is rich and valuable in its heritage. Without its language the Christian Church loses its links with its past. It loses its understanding of the past. It loses its distinctiveness. In fact, it loses its gospel.

If the Christian Church discards for the sake of cultural engagement its own vocabulary and so history it will become so culturally assimilated that it loses its identity. This is what happens to communities that assimilate.

Thus, the church must preserve and protect its language and heritage, just as other communities seek to do. It must make its members familiar with its biblical history and with its distinctive language for in this language and history lie its identity, its cultural richness and its very existence. It is important that Christians understand words like justification, reconciliation, redemption, creation, providence, the fall, sin, Messiah, Son of Man, and so on for these are its life blood. Phrases like ‘the stone the builders rejected’ are meaningless to outsiders but to those in the Christian heritage they are culture- rich.

Christians are often eager to rid themselves of ‘in-house’ language. More about this in a moment, but for now I want simply to observe that this is mistaken for all the above reasons. More, we should not be embarrassed by a degree of ‘oddness’. Every alien culture seems odd to a resident culture. And Christians are ‘resident aliens’. They belong to a country with a different heritage and different values and so different language to the one in which they live and as a result will always be ‘different’.

Now a word of balance is needed here. This is no plea or excuse for unnecessary eccentricity unrelated to the gospel heritage. Nor is it an excuse to avoid engagement with an alien culture. We cannot excite others about the Christian heritage, nation and commonwealth to which we belong unless we engage with them. If we live in a foreign country we must learn its language. However, learning its language is one thing, losing our own is another. When we lose our language, we lose our history and so we lose our identity. We are culturally assimilated. We lose the gospel.

Do you speak the Christian language? Are you familiar with its vocabulary? Does it identify you? Can you say shibboleth?


Nick Mackison said...

Maybe some modern bible translations err on the side of assimilation. It really bugs me that words like 'propitiation' are sacrificed in the name of relevance.

Donald Ferguson said...

Not so long ago I would have said that your basic points [in the words of Basil Fawlty] fall into the category of the ‘bleeding obvious’. But times change! To simply restate what you said – there are three things we need to come to terms with.

1. Christianity, like all areas of specialist knowledge, has its own technical vocabulary.

2. Christians need to understand the meaning of the theological words used in the Bible [and in the Christian community] and it is the responsibility of the Church to teach them.

3. Christians must try to avoid the use of technical language when talking to those outside the faith [or at the very least explain technical terms in ordinary language].

Unfortunately, we can fall short on points two and three. Many evangelical Christians would struggle to explain expiation, redemption, propitiation etc and the responsibility for that lies primarily with the Church. At the same time, services which are, in theory, specifically aimed at the unchurched can be full of theological language that is not explained in terms that someone entirely unfamiliar with the bible would understand.

Whether the Church should be holding such ‘services’ is another issue.