Lost in Translation?

Sunday morning. Christians gather for worship: meaningful fragments of hymns are offered, praise choruses are repeated to create a mood, Jesus songs inculcate pious devotion and warm affection,thematic preaching that tells people what they want to know, and prayers beseech God for help. The house is packed. Is the gospel in all its power finally being translated into contemporary language?

In a previous blog I spoke of how translation, an essentially missional enterprise, is the key to the future of the Christian community. Unfortunately it is never immediately evident that the presentation of the gospel in a new language is really the gospel and not some populist fragment or distortion. How do we know that the Jesus to whom a self-identified contemporary group of worshipers is the same Jesus that Christians have known down through the millennia?

The relational nature of response to the Christian gospel is the key.

As the preaching of the good news unfolds in Jesus’ ministry, and then that of the apostles, it is never merely a statement of fact about the world and its people, nor even about the nature of God. It is an invitation to engage one’s self more and more fully in God’s Reign by entering into a relationship with Jesus and his Church. The gospel makes claims, but they are claims on the hearer as much as they are claims about God. So translation of the gospel (as opposed to doctrine) must also include an invitation into a relationship with Jesus and the fellowship of his followers (his earthly body) through the ages.

Community is thus critical to translation. Even as the gospel is translated into a new vernacular, those hearing it and heeding its invitation into relationship with Jesus need to be drawn into the existing Christian community.  Whether the gospel as invitation has been made, and accepted, will only become clear if new believers and and old believing communities engage in an intra-religious dialogue.

The likely result will not only be lively, but a deepened understanding on both sides of just who Jesus is. And of course, only out of this conversation can there emerge a shared language of faith experience that carries the community forward into the future.

The absence of this conversation is one of the tragedies of the contemporary American Christian community, and of many individual churches. To often we have segregated ourselves into liturgical ghettos where the emerging language of a new generation is untested through conversation with the older language, while the older is  not enriched by that which is emerging.

In many ways the history of the Christian engagement with new cultures – which begins even as Jesus encounters the diverse Jewish cultures of the first century – is a history of constant movement from translation to dialogue within the community and back to translation. Each new culture and situation forces us as Christian to reassess the language we use, while each emerging Christian language must engage the embodied tradition of the community both to enrich and be enriched through dialogue.

Unless. . . unless you believe that there is a single normative cultural matrix which has been privileged by God as the appropriate location for those who believe. There are those who believe this, and that poses one of the thorniest issues in both inter-religious and intra-religious dialogue. . . . More to come.


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