Forget New Year’s resolutions, how about a commitment to renewed spiritual practices? Or, dare I say, disciplines? I know, I know… the word “disciplines” doesn’t roll off the tongue in our Protestant, post-modern circles, but perhaps reviving it would help sustain our strangeness. Maybe such oddities of word and deed would make us stand out enough to get the attention of others and we could share with them why we speak and live as we do.
Will Willimon in his book, “Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized,” says, “We must learn Christianity, even as we learn a foreign language.” If this analogy holds, then strange words, difficult to pronounce without direct translation, should be expected. Words like disciplines, fasting, Eucharist, worship, baptism and repentance are part of the Christian lexicon even if they seem challenging to express in the lingua franca.
I hear your protest now: This is insider language. Insider language alienates. Insider language distances. Insider language is exclusive and inaccessible. What about evangelism? What about the growing biblical illiteracy? What about the increased suspicion of institutions, especially religious ones?
I get it. Sort of. I would argue that Christians need to claim the language of faith, have conversational classes in the language of discipleship, do a word study or ten, go really old school and diagram a sentence and see what such digging yields. Oh, and be disciplined about it – not haphazard. Practice until we are fluent, reaching that stage when we dream in Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Paul, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I posit that if Christians get fluent in the language of the faith, through disciplined practices of prayer, Bible study, worship and the like, then we might have a better shot at translating this rich, beautiful Word to others. I don’t think becoming proficient in this foreign language isolates so much as frees. If we don’t learn it well, we will be embarrassed to speak up in public, relegated to mumbling the equivalent of “hello” and “thank you” while the great salvation story remains unspoken.
Christine Pohl notes in her book, “Living into Community,” that “we tend to use the language of psychology or therapy for interpersonal difficulties. We also turn to management models and business language when we need to figure out how to make relationships or institutions work.” She presents the possibility of Christian practices as a way to “also use more explicitly theological and moral categories, and language that connects us to the wisdom of Christian tradition.”
Intentionally learning the language of Christianity, through disciplined practice and practices, creates the possibility of a new future, not for us alone, but for our communities and the world. Peter Block writes about the work of Werner Erhard in his book, “Community.” Erhard believes that “if we have any desire to create an alternative future, it is only going to happen through a shift in our language.”
Jacques Ellul goes even further in “The Humiliation of the Word.” The spoken word “calls for a response. Every word, even a swearword, an insult, an exclamation, or a soliloquy, begins a dialogue. … Language is a call, an exchange.” What language then will we speak? Inevitably, the one we know best, the one in which we dream, the one we’ve learned so well it spills forth without need of a dictionary or Google translate.
Do we know the language of Christianity that well? Even if it was spoken in our home when we were children, we must continue to practice lest we grow rusty. We need conversation partners. Occasionally we may have to do a full immersion program to supplement the weekly Sunday lesson.
As the secular calendar turns to a new year and we resolve to exercise or lose weight or get our finances in order, let’s also remember to recommit ourselves to the discipline of learning the language of our faith. Let’s practice the peculiar words of confession and forgiveness, redemption and resurrection, communion and evangelism until they are so embedded in us that they shape our dreams and guide our waking hours. Let’s be so fluent that we aren’t embarrassed to speak in public and even translate for others curious to know what we are talking about.
Grace and Peace,