Lost in Translation

How Christianese Hides the Gospel

The terror of criminals sought somewhere to hide.

His pursuer was near and he, outmatched. The eerie voice cried out, “So, you think the darkness will hide you?”

Bane stalked Gotham’s Dark Knight. Shadows refused to assist the hero. Smokescreens could hide him no longer. Before Bane mauled the Batman, he mocked, “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents to the uninitiated . . . but we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce? Members of the League of Shadows!”

I’m afraid many of professing Christians have started our own League of Shadows.

We have mastered the art of theatricality and deception, not in physical combat but in our communication. When we evangelize the unchurched, the uninitiated, the dead, we bruise them with abstract language and distract them with theological jargon. Whereas the early church declared their faith clearly, receiving scoffs, persecution, and souls, we often receive politically correct smiles, dizzied stares, and slow head-nods with a kind, but apathetic “Ah-huh.”

Telling the world about Christ in foggy terms is the bane of our evangelism.

English as a Second Language

Too often, our neighbors don’t respond to the gospel because they have very little idea what we are actually talking about. Many unchurched have only heard the Christian gospel presented in broken English, largely untranslated Christianese.

Now Christian jargon, when used properly in theological discourse within the church, can afford both precision and richness to our speech. But my concern is that many of us winsomely evangelize concerning our favorite sports teams, television shows, and desserts, but as soon as we get around to sharing about our hope in Christ, our voices go up an octave, our hands get sweaty, and we start speaking like English is our second language.

Three Reasons I Shoot over Heads

What’s worse is that our unintelligible gospelings can be premeditated. Here are three reasons that I have used unintelligible language to hide my allegiance to Christ.

1. To look good.

Thomas Watson observed,

The minister must be a plain preacher, suiting his matter and style to the capacity of his audience (1 Corinthians 14:19). Some ministers, like eagles, love to soar aloft in abstruse metaphysical notions, thinking they are most admired when they are least understood. They who preach in the clouds, instead of hitting their people’s conscience, shoot over their heads. (Godly Man’s Picture, 154)

Now you do not need to be a pastor to shoot over people’s heads, or to think you’re most admired when you’re least understood.

Whereas the apostle Paul refrained from boasting so that people might not think more highly of him than they ought (2 Corinthians 12:6), I have taken up a form of magicianry to deceive people into thinking more highly of me than they ought. I have invested more energy into appearing than being, brushing the front teeth more vigorously than the back.

When discussing Christ with unbelievers, especially ones I respect as intelligent, I know they might think me unstable for believing that Jesus calmed storms, rose from the dead, and was God in human flesh. So, I dress what the wise of this world regard as folly in scholastic garb to retain some air of dignity before the scoffing Greeks.

If we ever hope to help our unbelieving neighbors humble themselves before the cross, we better be prepared to humble ourselves before our neighbors.

2. To conceal my own ignorance.

Recently I had a philosophical-theological-political discussion with a friend. Mid-speech I thought to myself, Greg, you have no idea what you’re talking about right now. And I didn’t. But as I listened to myself talk, I realized that my confidence, vocabulary, and assertiveness did not match my ignorance. I was not concerned with whether what I said was true; I just had a concern for appearing knowledgable.

Obscure language often masks ignorance. I have found that bluffing is far easier than persuading, and that I tend to use the biggest vocabulary words on topics I know the least about. So, when I share the gospel, I often explain implications for the Christian life, or attempt to refute the world’s false gospels, without really understanding what I’m talking about. I use grandiose language filled with enough helium to lift a large balloon.

C.S. Lewis provides a great litmus test for ignorance: Can you explain your high thoughts to children?

By trying to translate our doctrines into vulgar speech, we discover how much we understand them ourselves. Our failure to translate may sometimes be due to our ignorance of the vernacular; much more often it exposes the fact that we do not exactly know what we mean. (God in the Dock)

It takes a wordsmith to educate educated men; it takes understanding to educate children.

3. To hide the offense of the cross.

To my shame, I have used unclear terminology while talking about Christ, because I actually was hoping to be misunderstood.

Like Peter, I’ve huddled near the fires of the world, rubbing elbows with skeptics and nonbelievers, and when asked about myself, I bring out abstruse terminology to cover my one great allegiance. I have cowered behind calculated generalizations, clichés, and religious talk that is spiritual but not specific — like the champion athlete who takes the opportunity to give thanks to “the man upstairs,” the more politically correct version of the reigning Lamb of God who sits upon his throne and calls all men everywhere to repentance.

Plain words expose me, so on occasions, I’ve bribed my conscience and told the truth in a tongue that no secular person today would understand.

Oracles of God in Common English

In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter tells us that some places in Paul’s epistles were hard to understand — to which all the saints cry, “Amen!” So, we must have a category of loving people well and using difficult language.

But Paul also chastises those who would speak in tongues publically without there being an interpreter present (1 Corinthians 14:16). He says that he would rather speak five understandable words in the congregation than ten thousand unintelligible words for the sake of the outsider. He also tells us to follow him in becoming all things to all people that we might save some.

As Christians, we want to speak common English to our neighbors because we want them to be saved. We didn’t ambush our neighbor with unpronounceable words when we shared the recipe with them yesterday, so why do so with the gospel today? We didn’t speak in vague abstractions when discussing the football game, so why do with the greatest news in history?

Let the message be the thing that causes distinctions — not abstractions, unintelligible platitudes, or theological terms that they do not know. Let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to our God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name (Hebrews 13:15) — in a way people in the world can understand.

Let’s cast off cloudy words that hide the brightness of the cross.