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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Whose language are you learning?

I gave in to peer pressure.  Everybody else in my household speaks some degree of Spanish.  Over the years I've picked up a few words here and there, but being able to say "Dos cervesas, por favor," does not mean you can speak Spanish.  (NOTE: I did not learn that phrase from my family.)  So starting last winter, I have been intentionally focusing some of my spare time on learning -- actually learning -- Spanish.

So I went through the Sesame Street phase, when you can understand about twenty-five words and it seems like fluency is right around the corner.

I enjoyed the "recognizing Spanish phrases" stage, when you can understand most of the words on the bilingual signs behind the counter at the auto parts store.

I struggled through (and frequently return to) the frustration stage, when you throw up your hands and say (en Ingles) "Why do they say it like that??"  At this point fluency seems totally impossible.

I've drifted in and out of the obsessive stage, when you find yourself in spare moments trying to figure out how to string together the words to say, "I wanted to send Mom an email" but you realize this is about as attainable as slam-dunking a basketball.  At your age.  (See "frustration" above.)

I'm toying at the moment with the methodical stage, when I'm tempted to give in to my wife's suggestion that I should make charts of irregular verbs, past tense endings, and various other eccentricities of language, because sometimes it comes down to the sheer hard work of memorization.  Sigh.

(By the way, if you're interested in learning a language and you have time, I highly recommend the Rosetta Stone programs you see advertised everywhere.  I've been very impressed.)

So what's my point?

Christianity by its very nature demands translation.  While many religions require you to learn the language of the religion -- to read the Qur'an properly you need to learn Arabic, and good Jewish children have to learn Hebrew to read Torah correctly, for example -- Christianity has always moved into the language of the hearer.  Though scholars learn Greek and Hebrew to better understand the Christian scriptures, the message of Jesus and his love has always found its home in the heart language of the hearers.

This has been true all through history, from the earliest times.  Jerome translated the Bible into the language of the common people, which at that time was Latin.  (Thus Jerome's translation was called the "Vulgate" because of the common, or "vulgar" people it was intended for.)  Luther's biggest break with the Roman Catholic Church came not when he nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the University Church in Wittenberg -- he could have been forgiven for that -- but rather when he translated the Bible into German so the common folk could read it.  Wycliffe was burned for translating the Bible into English.  Today people all over the world give years and years to the complex task of learning an unwritten language, figuring out how to write it, and then translating the Bible into that language so that a people group can have Jesus' story in their own language.

This is what Christians do.  Translation.  We are constantly being driven by the Spirit to find new wineskins.

This push always lives in tension with our innate tendency to get comfortable with our old familiar wineskins.  Thus we like to worship in our own forms, rather than translating our worship styles into something different that will reach people who don't sit in our pews currently.  We like our own old metaphors and phrases, the ones that helped us to know Jesus back when, rather than finding new terms and new language that communicates effectively with those who laugh at our old, tired Christianese terminology.

So here's my question -- whose language are you learning?  I hope there is someone in your life who doesn't know Jesus, and that you are praying for them.  Are you learning their language?  Perhaps they speak a different tongue, like Spanish.  Or maybe they think and speak the language of postmodernism, or the language of tinkering in the garage, or the language of a style of music that you don't speak.  Are you willing to be pushed by the Spirit to speak their language?

Whose language are you learning?

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