Monday, February 28, 2005

On the foreign language of Scripture and the Church (Part 1)

What follows is written to the attention of my colleagues in the Emergent Church movement, and all who seek to speak the language of our age hoping to translate the foreign language of the church
I have read the scriptures since I could first read; yet I never learned to speak the language of the Bible. I have discovered that the greatest challenge of preaching is the need to speak the language of the Kingdom of Scripture of the church, and that I must now nearly 37 years after my baptism learn to speak a language I have read my whole life. In fact no Christian I personally know whether they be Charismatic, Evangelical, Conservative or Liberal, etc. speaks the language of the Bible. In fact I am quite certain that no Christian has been taught to speak this language in a very long time. I was taught in Sunday School by very good evangelicals to read the Bible as a dead language. We memorized scripture like you memorize ancient literature. That is to be a cultured Christian, to have the key texts of the faith memorized, proving that I was a Christian. I hated these exercises as a child;I preferred to read whole passages and books. What's the point of memorizing John 3:16 if you don't remember that it is the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night, and Jesus speaks to him incomprehensible words. Perhaps it is because if we spoke the language of Jesus we would have to admit that we are all Nicodemus, that like Nicodemus we have read the Scriptures but we do not speak their language we do not speak the language of the Kingdom. We would have to admit that we are all foreigners in the Kingdom of God, treating its language as if it is Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
Don't get me wrong I can read the Bible quite well, I can decode the symbols on thepage, and all my teachers growing up could do the same. But we read the Bible like I was taught to read Greek and Hebrew. No one asked me to speak it. It was enough to show that I could read and speak what I had read or memorized back in the language of our time. That Sunday School and catechism were to be the place where I learned to speak the language of the church, or even that worship might be a place where the language of Scripture of the Church of the Kingdom was spoken exclusively, never crossed anyone's mind.
We don't realize it but we do not inhabit the world of the Kingdom of God because we do not inhabit the world of Scripture. (If you don't believe me try to read the PhiloKalia, or even take time to really pay attention to how Origen, Clement, Augustine, Athenasius use scripture in their writings, the way allusions to Scripture are ever present and then read any contemporary piece of Christian literature from the pop-theology of Rick Warren to the works of Radical Orthodoxy and you will begin to get a sense of how we treat Scripture and the language of the Kingdom very differently.) After two years of Classical Greek I could pick up most ancient Greek texts and comprehend more or less what I read and even give a decent translation to much ofit. After nearly 37 years of being a Christian, being raised in the church and having gone to seminary (note, what I say here has nothing to do with the quality of my seminary education which was all in all excellent. In fact it was that education that has lead me here to this realization), I have about the same amount of competency in the "dead" language of Scripture as I did after two years of studying the dead language of Classical Greek.