September 6, 2009


I am a member of an on-line speculative fiction (this field includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate futures and other, not-so-easily-defined fiction) writer’s group. Group members vary widely in political views, socio-economic status and religious beliefs, yet because we are all interested in writing speculative fiction and have all had publications ranging from single stories in collections like WRITERS OF THE FUTURE to individuals with multi-book, six-figure advance deals, we pretty much gets along with each other. We happily expose ourselves to a wide spectrum of viewpoints (that sounds…um…bad doesn’t it?) and ask each other questions rather than torpedo viewpoints we don’t agree with on sight.

One of the members of this group posted an anecdote and question recently: “Driving home from a lovely picnic today, we passed one of those sign-boards in front of a little Christian church. You know, the ones with the movable type on which someone spells out some sort of brief, thought-provoking message that’s intended to pump up the church-going crowd? I think they’re the preaching equivalent of hearing that ‘Y’all ready for this?’ song before a sporting event.

“At any rate, this particular sign caught my eye because it boldly pronounced the following:

“‘Sin has no minimum wage’

“That sounds good and preachy, for sure, and it even has a sort of home-spun familiarity to it. Yet, at the same time, it’s been several hours and I’m still uncertain what it actually means.”

I took a deep breath and responded: “OK -- I'm a Bible Thumper and I had to think about this for a while before I ‘got it’. There is a verse in the Bible that says, ‘For the wages of sin are death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ’ (ref: Romans 6:23). The implication, if I'm reading between the words right, is that sin is sin; there is no ‘little’ sin; and the wages of ANY sin are death -- so EVERYONE (murderers to gossipers to gluttons) need the free Gift of God.”

This exchange made me think in all sorts of directions. First and foremost was that this is yet another example of Christians speaking a language foreign to anyone who is NOT a Christian. This in turn brings to mind an old STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION episode called “Darmok”. In a nutshell: a technologically advanced race called the Tamarians who have their own powerful starships, their own territory – and their own way of looking at the universe meets the crew of the Enterprise. The universal translator works exactly as designed. Alien words are translated into clearly understandable English and everyone on the bridge of the Enterprise understands the opening words of the exchange between the Federation’s Finest and these intelligent, sincere people: “Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Ri of Luwani. Luwani under two moons. Jiri of Ubaya. Ubaya of crossed roads at Lungha. Lungha, her sky grey.”

No one on the Enterprise has any idea what the Tamarians are saying because they lack any sort of common context frame. The captain of the other ship kidnaps Picard and forces the issue until Picard understands that the Tamarians speak in metaphors. The episode ends with Picard responding to the Tamarian first officer using Tamarian metaphors to tell them that Dathon, their captain, died.

All this to say that many Christians assume that all Americans have a common context frame – that we “all speak the same language”. But we don’t, especially when it comes to matters of faith. Even though I responded to my writer’s group friend, I’m still not sure he’ll understand, and to tell you the truth, that’s not his fault, it’s mine. Mine is the storehouse of metaphors that have passed out of common use, so it’s my responsibility to make sure the ideas of my belief system are communicated in ways the culture I live in understands.

Another example: when I was in Liberia, I stayed for a month with Bible translators. We talked one night about the difficulty of translating the Bible not only into another language but into understandable metaphors: The people they were working with had a strong aversion to sheep. They found the animals revolting, unclean and shuddered at the idea of having them around for any reason. I don’t know why – that was simply a part of their culture. As translators then, my friends were faced with a dilemma. When translating John 1:29 into an image this culture can understand – and communicate the right idea, how would they frame “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”?

I don’t know how they resolved the dilemma, but they had to or risk lose the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Once again:

“Can we be culturally relevant for the cause of Christ without becoming spiritually irrelevant?” Beth Moore, DANIEL Bible Study (p 125)

“The point is not to adopt the culture and lose the message, the point is to understand the culture so we can build bridges to it for the sake of gaining a hearing for the Gospel of Jesus.” Reggie McNeal, THE PRESENT FUTURE (p 51)

I’ve waxed long enough. To summarize: Even today, even here, we have to make sure that the message of Jesus’ life-changing power is clear to the culture we’re addressing. We may all speak English (more or less!), but we have to use the right metaphors as well.

Lastly: crises in the Stewart family kept me from writing last Thursday. Sorry. Some days seem like weeks. Some weeks seem like days (summer weeks are especially susceptible to time dilation effects.)


Mike Duran said...

I think I'd agree with you, Guy, about the church sign -- it requires a biblical paradigm to be appreciated or understood fully. While I, as a believer, think it's witty, it probably leaves the "uninitiated" scratching their heads.

From my perspective, the American Church has not done a great job adapting her message to the language of the culture. However, adapting our message is still no guarantee the culture will "hear" us. Sometimes I think we confuse "cultural relevance" with the "acceptance" of our message. On the contrary, sometimes the evidence that we ARE getting our concepts across is that people reject them. We just need to distinguish between rejection of the Gospel based on our incompetence or our effectiveness. Great post, Guy!

Anonymous said...

A thought-provoking post, Guy. I've thought about the problem of understandable references in terms of writing before, generally coming to the conclusion that any reference that isn't nearly universal had better be something that just enhances the story as opposed to bearing any of the structural weight.

But I haven't thought as much about this in terms of getting other communication across to people, and of course this gets more important the more urgent the message.

Nicole said...

What Mike said!

(Sorry for any crises in the family. May you be immersed in the Lord's Spirit. God bless you.)

Anonymous said...

I watch Jeopardy, and am often amazed at the Bible categories where contestants miss what are, to me, terribly simple questions.

I forget that others don't share my experience base...

Although I probably wouldn't have gotten that sign immediately, either. ;o)

Anonymous said...

After some recent thinking I went back to Genesis to find out what the penalty for eating "of the tree of knowledge" ... and oddly enough, it is not death (although God indicates "surely you shall die") ... besides being kicked out -- Adam and Eve are sentenced to a life of hard labor:
pain in child birth for Eve, sweat of the brow for Adam.
God then posts guards over the tree of life, the fruit of which provides immortality so the mortals remain mortal. The fruit of that tree is not forbidden ..
and given technology advances, may well be obtained in the next generations.