Friday, March 04, 2005

On the Foreign Language of Scipture and the Church (Part 2)

For the longest time the church has found itself in this conundrum: slowly but surely the Language of the Bible and the church fails to communicate to our contemporaries, even our contemporaries in the church. Our children and grandchildren wander off convinced that the language of the Bible is irrelevant and doesn't speak to them. So what do we do, we convince ourselves it is because we aren't speaking their language. And so we must spend our time translating the language of the Bible into the language of the current age( or now the curren recently proclaimed new generation, as things are changing so fast). We have no time to actually learn the language of the Bible, like many in seminaries no longer have time to learn Greek and Hebrew, so the task of translation gets handed off to the experts.
The problem is that we then get jargon. Grammatical jargon. You see to understand a dead language you must always dissect the parts of speech, and so a whole language of analysis of language emerges. This language of analysis is entirely foreign to the original speakers of the language. Because we don't speak the dead language we don't have the implicit comprehension of the rules of the language, and the only way for us to comprehend is through jargon. The jargon of analysis of Biblical and Kingdom language varies depending on your theological or denominational bent. Among evangelicals the jargon of being "born again" of "walk" of "knowing Jesus" all supplant the actual language of Scripture.
Scripture is foreign to us as foreign as ancientGreece and ancient Israel. I loved the stories of the Bible as a child, but it was obvious to me then and is once again obvious to me now, that I am a foreigner to these texts. I have never lived in them, and no one every told me I should. I was to read them like ancient texts, amazing stories of things in the past, that somehow informed my present but the means of the connection was unclear. Given this approach to Scripture it should not amaze anyone that Bultmanian demythologizing tempted me for a while. After all if these are just ancient stories of what God did, and I am not supposed to actually live into the Israelites wandering in the desert or live into the shamed woman at the well, but simply extract the message they have for today, why keep all that troubling stuff of miracles and parting the red sea. Why are those particulars important if the language of the Bible is a dead language that has to be translated into current idiom? If the current idiom repudiates the possibility of those things, then why not abandon what gets in the way of understanding the message.
Now by the grace of the postmodern, I was saved from that route. I found myself friends with witches and pagans who believed in magic and ancient healing techniques, and some who believed in aliens, etc. The light of the enlightenment was waning as I entered college and I discovered this thing called Religious Studies that encouraged me to take seriously the religious experiences of the Hindus and Buddhists, the Muslims and "tribal"religions, shamans and witchdoctors. I was encouraged to write history papers about the encounters in Africa between Christianity and the indigenous religions and to take seriously accounts of phenomena inexliicable to science, such as brooms chasing a missionary out of his mission house, or prophets appearing among African peoples speaking of those who would come with a book to preach about the Creator Spirit. This lead me( though it does not lead everyone) to take seriously again the world of the Bible and the stories of the Saints.
But although this freed me from demythologizing and freed me to take seriously the Christian tradition, it still left me treating it all as an outsider.
And this is where I remain, where most of us who claim the name of Christ remain. You may deny it but it is true. Pastors our sermons attempt to take the language of scripture and translate it into the language of our age. At the moment that is why I think evangelicals are so enamored of the language of the postmodern, it both frees them from the enlightenment (or at least it seems to, but if you look closely postmodern religious studies remains so enlightenment it is just a broader enlightenment, still an outsider to the truly spiritual) and it is the language of the moment that the church must translate the "dead" language of the Kingdom into.