In this post and the next, I want to think through some of the potential strengths and weaknesses that would result from intentionally seeking to produce “bilingual” Christians. By this I simply mean a person who is fluent in both the ancient worldview of the Scriptures and our contemporary Western cultural perspective, able to comprehend them each on their own terms and with integrity. It may be clichéd to point out that conservatives tend to churn out experts in the former, while liberals one-sidedly emphasize the latter, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Most of us recognize that it is relatively easy to speak one language (our native tongue) fluently and to also go about educating ourselves in another language with half-hearted measures, so as to only pick it up poorly and incompetently. Indeed, many of us pick up this second language just well enough to be dangerous with it, unaware of our own ignorance and yet bold enough to pretend we know what we’re doing. I would take it as self-evident that a great many Christians fall into this category, intellectually speaking. Either we are intimately familiar with our world from countless hours of exposure to MTV and the NY Times (or whatever source you prefer), yet have never really sacrificed our time and energy to immerse ourselves in the internal coherence of the Christian meta-narrative with any seriousness—or, vice versa. Why must we do both? Here is Karl Barth’s take on the matter:
“[The people of God] possessed and at all times possesses its own language. Nothing can change this. For it has in history its own special history, its own special road. It speaks, when it confesses, in relation to this special history. It stands in the quite special concrete historical context, which has at all times formed its language and will continue to form it. Therefore the language of faith, the language of public responsibility in which as Christians we are bound to speak, will inevitably be the language of the Bible…There is a specifically Church language. That is in order. Let us call it by the familiar name by saying that there is a ‘language of Canaan’. And when the Christian confesses his faith, when we have to let the light that is kindled in us shine, no one can avoid speaking in this language. For this is how it is: if the things of Christian faith, if our trust in God and His Word is to be expressed precisely, so to speak in its essence—and time and again it is bitterly necessary for this to be done, so that things may be made clear—then it is inevitable that all undaunted the language of Canaan should sound forth…One thing is certain, that where the Christian Church does not venture to confess in its own language, it usually does not confess at all…
“But this cannot be the end of the matter…The Church’s language cannot aim at being an end in itself. It must be made clear that the Church exists for the sake of the world, that the light is shining in the darkness…Where confession is serious and clear, it must be fundamentally translatable into the speech of Mr. Everyman, the man and the woman in the street, into the language of those who are not accustomed to reading Scripture and singing hymns, but who possess a quite different vocabulary and quite different spheres of interest…By the very nature of the Christian Church there is only one task, to make the Confession heard in the sphere of the world as well. Not now repeated in the language of Canaan, but in the quite sober, quite unedifying language which is spoken ‘out there.’ There must be translation, for example, into the language of the newspaper. What we have to do is to say in the common language of the world the same thing as we say in the forms of Church language…If a man cannot, let him consider whether he really knows how to speak edifyingly even in the Church. We know this language of the pulpit and the altar, which outside the area of the Church is as effectual as Chinese.” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, pp. 30-33)
I am especially helped by Barth’s metaphor of translation for the process of communicating the gospel as insiders to outsiders. If there is any truth to this, then I would give these rationales in defense of producing “bilingual” Christians:
*Good translation requires mastery of both the original culture and the incoming receptor culture. If a translator (i.e. mission-minded Christian) is adept at only one or the other, spectacular failure will ensue. The piece of communication will be either woodenly literal in the new receptor tongue, or hopelessly inaccurate with respect to the older original. And it doesn’t matter on which side the translator proves to be amateurish. Most of us, I assume, are just as instinctively embarrassed by fundamentalists who preach confidently about the literal flames of hell in strong southern accents from on top wooden boxes in Harvard Square as we are by the signs and chants of northern mainline liberals who uncritically adopt (it would seem) every popular moral sentiment of secular culture, no matter how profoundly contrary to Scripture, and “baptize” it in vaguely Christian language as if that settled it. What goes wrong for each group, I propose, is a dramatic failure to really listen to the other language they superficially speak (and in so doing, distort radically). A little more commitment to serious classroom time on the other language could do wonders.
*We do it anyway. Every single time we either a.) read the Bible or b.) express our faith as 21st century Americans, we are engaged in handling two languages, in balancing two worldviews in reference to each other. There is no escaping it. Those who persist in believing in a flat earth and that the King James version is God’s inspired book are translating as much as those who hold to evolution and read The Message. If it is unavoidable, we might as well admit it and become competent speakers in both worlds.
*The Incarnation demands it. In Christ, God took on flesh and condescended (in Calvin’s wonderful image) to interact with us in “baby talk”, in our own humble languages, so that we could know Him from “within” our own way of understanding the world. And yet, in that very act, He remained fully God and absolutely true to Himself. He did not water down His claims upon us or diminish His glory in any way. Therefore we must emphatically reject the hermeneutical nihilists who contend that the very act of communicating from one worldview or culture over to another is linguistically impossible—or, at least, that it is bound to fundamentally betray one pole or the other. The gospel itself contradicts this nonsense. It may not be easy, but with diligent work it is not impossible to translate faithfully between two worlds.
*Considerate mercy to others requires it:
“Could I now reach who I once was? Every preacher [insert “Christian” here!] needs to ask this question. Every preacher is a human being who once was a child needing to grow up, whose stories are mixtures of tragedies and triumphs. Every preacher is a human being who has given wrong answers, prayed incorrectly, misquoted the Bible, daydreamed, and longed for things that now embarrass or have hurt other people. And it was there as such a person in such environments that God came and found us. Anything good we ever preach has been made possible by a prior testimony of God’s mercy…Until we remember that God drew us to himself and nourished us before we even knew where to find the book of Exodus in the Bible or that such things as Arminianism and Calvinism even existed, we will withhold from others the same mercy that was required for us to learn what we now know. (Zack Eswine, Preaching to a Post-Everything World, p. 11)
Do unto others as you wish they would do unto you—the Golden Rule. For me, that means an older believer proficient enough in both my language and the language of the gospel to converse with my unbelief in a delicate yet natural balance. That is the type of person who I (from my current vantage point) would have desired to first share the good news about Jesus with me. It would have spared me a lot of unnecessary baggage over the years since then, from having to untangle the hermeneutical false steps that I so often mistook as essential to Christianity but which are actually nothing of the sort. And the only way to avoid this as we reach out to God’s estranged image-bearers is to inhabit or “indwell” both the gospel and our culture until both are second nature to us.
*The success of the mission of the Church depends on it. A glance at the New Testament (start with Acts) or a perusal of early Christian history makes patently clear just how committed the early Church was to translating the gospel in new contexts. And not only into the actual languages of the surrounding nations, but even into the very thought patterns of countless pagan cultures. Admittedly, at times this was done with less success than at others. Yet we must recognize that people generally find a challenging, invasive message (as the gospel inevitably is) far more compelling if it comes from within—within the thought forms currently in vogue, within the everyday manner of speech on the street, within the so-called plausibility structures current in a society. Of course, if done faithfully, the gospel will at the same time end up undermining and radically refiguring any given receptor culture. But it must be from within.
So much for the promises of being a “bilingual” Christian. I am sure that much more could be said (and do point out my omissions in the comments). Next week I’ll move on to the corresponding perils of producing such believers in our communities, for this is indeed a dangerous business. It’s much safer and easier and more comfortable to just go to one extreme or the other, as it always is. But for now I give the last word to C. S. Lewis, who proposed an interesting requirement for ordaining ministers of the gospel—one that possesses merit and deserves significant consideration today:
“[A]n essential part of the ordination exam ought to be a passage from some recognized theological work set for translation into vulgar English–just like doing Latin prose. Failure on this exam should mean failure on the whole exam. It is absolutely disgraceful that we expect missionaries to the Bantus to learn Bantu but never ask whether our missionaries to the Americans or English can speak American or English. Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test.” (1958 letter to the editor of The Christian Century, in Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 3:1006-7)