Do you Speak Christianese?

…they shall call his name Immanuel which means, God with us. Matthew 1:23

It is ironic that some of Christendom’s greatest efforts to proclaim and exhibit God’s presence on earth have frequently caused exactly the opposite. God is usually obscured, rather than revealed, to the very degree that our religious attire, architecture, titles, music and language become strange and otherworldly. We then portray him not as “with us” but as distant, elusive and incomprehensible.

Our habit of speaking “Christianese” is a prime example. Like medieval ecclesiastical Latin, many of the terms that Christians use in everyday language is completely incomprehensible to people outside the church. Sadly, due to the fact that a number of Biblical Greek words were not translated into English but transliterated (the transcription of a word in one language into corresponding letters of another language without regard to the original meaning), Christians possess a distinct vocabulary that is gobbledygook to outsiders.

Consider the sentence: “A bishop and an apostle went to the church to speak to a pastor and a few deacons.” This sentence is not only unintelligible to a person untrained in religious language, but is also interpreted completely differently by people from different denominations. It is noteworthy that these terms had no religious connotation in the original Greek, but were everyday terms used to convey obvious meanings. And so a Greek simpleton in the first century would have understood the above sentence as “The supervisor and the delegate (or “sent one”) went to the gathering to speak to a herdsman and a few servants.”

The difference in meaning between the two sentences is astounding. The former is ambiguous whilst the latter portrays Christianity as a practical, functional, down-to-earth faith that calls for personal involvement.

God does not speak Christianese. He speaks in a way that we can all understand.

(Bloemnews 18 February 2011)


6 thoughts on “Do you Speak Christianese?

  1. Chris February 24, 2011 / 10:22 am

    I like what you said in the first paragraph, Tobie:

    “… to the very degree that our religious attire, architecture, titles, music and language become strange and otherworldly. We then portray him not as “with us” but as distant, elusive and incomprehensible.”

    I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but it’s true: by doing those things we obscure him and make him distant.

    I always try, wherever I can—even when I’m talking to Christians—to use my own words instead of Christian terminology. It not only prevents misunderstandings and people ‘switching off’ (because they don’t understand), but also challenges me to think about those terms and what they really mean. It’s easy to use terminology mindlessly.

    • naturalchurch February 24, 2011 / 3:42 pm

      Hi Chris. I think the problem is much more acute than what we realise. The best example of dead(ly) religious speech must surely be that given by Jesus: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not what I say?” In the Sermon on the Mount he says “”Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” The word Lord means “controller” or “master”. As a religious word it means nothing. To say “Lord” while you are not controlled by him is a contradiction in terms. We have overused the term and robbed it of its meaning. And so Jesus says that an understanding of, and practical submission to the word’s meaning is essential for salvation, not mere lip-service.

      The term “disciple” is another example – a nonsensical transliteration of the Latin “discipulus”. In reality it means “learner”, “pupil” or even “apprentice”. If you are not being apprenticed, you cannot call yourself a disciple.

      Another transliteration that has caused confusion is “angel” (Gk. angelos). The word simply means “messenger”, but the transliteration of it has forced Bible translators to choose on behalf of their readers whether the Bible has a winged creature or an earthly messenger in mind in verses such as Rev 3:1, 2 Cor. 11:14; 12:7 etc.

      There are other examples. First century readers of the Scriptures would have thought of Jesus as the Anointed One (not the Christ, Gk. Christos) and of John as the Immerser (not the Baptist, Gk. baptistes).

      The idea is not to split hairs, but to make the point that the Bible is void of religious language. Biblical words have meanings, and meanings come with implications, that is, they demand action. In contrast, religious words are like rituals – having an appearance of godliness but with no power.

      • ChrisLT February 24, 2011 / 9:28 pm

        Yes, I’m familiar with most of those examples. And you’re right: When they’re communicated with their plain meaning, the implications are unavoidable.

        I’m interested to know, do you have a preference for a particular Bible translation, one that uses some of these everyday words (master, apprentice, messenger etc.) instead of transliterations?

        Although it’s probably not suitable for study, I often find Eugene Peterson’s The Message helpful because of the straightforward language it uses.

        The other one I’ve found a bit better than some is the New Living Translation.

  2. naturalchurch February 25, 2011 / 3:27 am

    I use the English Standard Version, although it does not address the issue above. I prefer a literal translation above a dynamic equivalence translation, but I agree with you that the latter can be used as a commentary. Unfortunately, literal translations have a habit of sticking to the transliterated words mentioned above whilst dynamic equivalence translations have a habit of going too far in their interpretation of the original. In my view the Amplified Version is the translation that does the best job of addressing the problem above. As a young Christian it helped me tremendously to get a sense of the original text. The ideal, of course, is to learn to read the Bible in its original form. I think it is more possible to do so than what most people think. We associate Koine Greek with professors in theology and forget that it is a common dialect that was spoken by peasants.

  3. Chris February 25, 2011 / 7:27 am

    Thanks for your comments, Tobie.

    I do sometimes look up words in the Greek section of my Strong’s Concordance, and maybe someday I’ll have a go at learning Greek!

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  4. Carla Swanepoel February 28, 2011 / 7:02 pm

    Hi Tobie en Chris.
    Your conversations always stimulates me. I have in my life fallen into the trap of names, titles and everything that makes people different from each other. And it is so complex that this type of lifestyle almost makes you feel more holy or more just: but at the end the road to hell is paved with good intentions. An example I want to use is the ESV translation. In our house we have many Bible translations, except the ESV. Why? Because we have devided people between arminians and calvinist and John Piper uses the ESV. It is so rediculous how we have become biased towards the totality of Jesus Christ, we have divided Him by giving back stage pases to those we can relate to and those who understand what is the difference between pre-tribulation or post-tribulation. I feel we have severed the head from the body and only the intellectuals have a place, and with great respect I see churces with no knowledge or wisdom popping up, and I see the intellectual churches just surviving due to new babies born into their own families. Both of the churches above mentioned misses the bigger picture: Jesus Christ. I do believe their is a place for everything. Their is a place for philosophy of comparison religions and also bush churches we must just find out were the heart of the gospel lies. Because the power is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ who lives.

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