Translation, not just Interpretation

The crisis of the mainline Christian denominations has come about in large part because they hang on to a model of engagement with contemporary people that is no longer adequate. Pastors and church leaders who were taught to interpret the gospel so that it is relevant to the contemporary situation are finding this isn’t adequate to engage our society. Because our problem isn’t just making the gospel relevant, it is making the gospel comprehensible.

In a previous blog I argued that dialogue is essential to evangelism because it was a witness of Christ’s commitment to life within a pluralistic society. For the Christian this dialogue also fosters a critical skill – translation. We must learn to speak about our faith to those with whom we have little or no common language.

An increasingly large portion of Americans do not understand either the basic language of Christianity or the conceptual framework within which it expresses its understanding of humanity in relationship to God. Indeed, they don’t understand the concept denoted by the word “God,” much less those denoted by the words “sin,” “atonement,” “grace,” and “love.” This isn’t merely because people have become “de-churched.” We are post-Christian in world-view, not just affiliation.

The Christian community needs to understand that it engages an American society that has almost as little in common with a Christian understanding of the world as a indigenous Papuan or Amazonian. Put another way, we should be engaged in cross-cultural mission. Not just because there are so few Christians, but because those who are not Christians represent a different culture, worldview, and language from that of the church. The fact that we mostly speak English simply hides this fact.

From one perspective there have always been three types of religious leader. Let us call them pastors, chaplains and missionaries. Pastors care for a Christian congregation in a Christian society. Chaplains care for those who have carried their old Christian culture into a new social location. Missionaries seek to learn a new culture and its language so that, in partnership with persons native to that language and culture, they can discover what it means that God had come into our world in Jesus Christ.

The classical pastorate is almost done with in our post-Christian society. There remains a need in our churches for chaplains. We have a large number of people whose lives have carried them into this new America even as they live in the old culture and its language. But chaplains are, of necessity, a vanishing breed.

Nor will the pastors and chaplain’s ministry be renewed by the entrepreneurs who try to capture the local born children of the old colonials through re-branding and marketing the old religion. There may well emerge a new generation of Christians from these children, but stirring some warm nostalgia for the language of a half-forgotten past isn’t going to move us into the future. Apart from creating an enduring cultural ghetto these pastor/chaplain-entrepreneurs will lose the grandchildren.

The future of Christianity will be created by missionaries, men and women who do not merely interpret, but learn to translate the gospel.

A missionary knows that the symbol systems of orthodoxy, the structures of its community life, and its understanding of the human situation are all culturally located and therefore limited in their capacity to communicate in a different cultural situation. The missionary knows that awareness of his or her own culture and the ways it is different from other cultures make translation of every aspect of the Christian message and life necessary from the outset.

This means that the missionary is prepared first and foremost to observe difference, learn new languages, and work in partnership across cultures to shape not only how the gospel is expressed in language and behavior, but how it is shaped into community as well.

The missionary isn’t looking for new markets for a religious product that is rapidly reaching its sell-by date back home. The missionary is looking for where God’s love is already present in a society and the ways to bring that presence into full, self-conscious realization by telling of God’s love incarnate in Jesus Christ. The missionary knows that he or she has nothing to sell and nothing to offer except a willingness to join the search for the Spirit of Christ in this or that particular place, this or that particular time. The missionary is neither a chaplain nor an entrepreneur. The missionary is a seeker showing other seekers where she has found truth.

And the role of tradition and its symbols? To come.

  • Nora Ortiz Fredrick

    Great perspective and helpful as we seek to demonstrate God’s love. We look forward to seeing Robert Hunt at the Alaska Lay School of Theology in September. However, I will question his use of the term “missionary.” It is a term outdated and stricken with negative connotations throughout the world, so much so that it may be irredeemable for use in the Christian conversation. “Missionaries” of all persuasions did so much harm here in Alaska. At the request of our Native Alaskan brothers and sisters, the Alaska United Methodists removed “missionary” from our conference name and we became the Alaska United Methodist Conference. We remain a missionary conference within our polity and structure, but not in name.

    • roberthunt

      It is fascinating how a term like “missionary” gains negative and positive emotional value in different worlds of discourse. In Asia, where I worked for more than a decade, the term still has positive resonances, and is being used by third and forth generation Christians to designate their ministry across cultures. The same is true in my experience in Africa. But not so much in the Philippines. And in the Alaskan context even a passing knowledge of the behavior of some American missionaries (and I’ve read a good deal of their correspondence) shows why it has a negative value. Yet for better or worse the term remains in wide, indeed worldwide use. In any case the term is less important than the characteristics of cross cultural encounter I mentioned. It is this openness that will characterize any future generation of Christian leaders.

      • Nora Ortiz Fredrick

        I have lived abroad for many years and for eight years in Indonesia. “Missionary” in Indonesia is also viewed very negatively and has made its way into local slang as a derogatory reference to a pious person of any religious persuasion. To make matters worse, there was continual conflict and competition between fundamental and charismatic missionaries that help negatively shape the perception of both missionaries and Christianity. My experience has been that “missionary” is perceived negatively in most places I have lived and worked.

        It was not just American missionaries that brought harm to Native Alaskans, but it began in the early time of foreign contact through the Russian Orthodox Church. The Jesuits using remote Alaskan villages as a dumping ground for its pedophile priests did not help either.

        Looking forward to your visit to Alaska!

  • roberthunt

    Your comments make it clear why the issue of translation, and sensitivity to context is so critical. Despite long usage in Christian circles and literature the term “missionary” isn’t going to convey the positive meanings of sensitivity to cultural context and the already present Spirit of God in the Alaskan context. I will be interested to see responses from other contexts.

    An interesting and complex part of this, and translation in general, is how self-referential language is understood by others. Within some Christian circles the term missionary may be very positive, but may be understood quite negatively outside those circles. This is true of the term “evangelist” in many parts of the world. I have heard people quite proudly refer to themselves as evangelists, while in the world I was raised in the connotations were negative. (Not so with missionary.)

    The translator of the gospel must be aware of both contexts. And as I hope to mention in my next blog, must sometimes make difficult decisions about how to handle differences in these contexts.

  • Mark Teasdale

    Just read part of your blog to my Course of Study evangelism class. It was very helpful for them to hear that evangelists and missionaries should go into an encounter expecting to be vulnerable and transformed by God just as much as they hope to be a means of God’s transformation for others. They found it much more freeing than the idea that evangelists must have the final answer all the time and inflexibly hold to it regardless of what they experience.


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