Despatches from the front line of the Church
I don’t understand what any of it means. I’ve never understood it. There was a brief moment during Euro ’96 when I stood a reasonable chance of keeping up during a conversation with the barber, having presumably absorbed key facts by accident.
I know that England aren’t as good as they are convinced they should be (1966 anyone?), like a singer who had one great hit in the Eighties and has never been able to let go and get used to being a motor mechanic. I know that Sir Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United until, like, just now. But as I go on, I am rapidly reaching the brim of my espresso-cupful of football understanding.
This enables other men to draw all sorts of inferences about my overall masculinity. This isn’t hard, as I am also about the size of a Cadbury’s mini-roll. (You may wonder, if this is the case, how I can use a keyboard – it’s simple. I use an Iphone. It’s tiny keys are apparently designed for people like me, children and goblins.)
Sometimes I meet other guys who tell me they don’t know much about football, and for a brief but wonderful moment I don’t feel quite so much like the weirdo in the supermarket who smells all the cheeses (and then buys only toilet paper). For a short time, I think it might be possible to be a normal man and not get football.
But this is always irritating false modesty, as despair inevitably strikes when a Real Man (TM) comes along and starts a football conversation with the two of us… and the person who said they didn’t really know much turns out to know that Reading are doing all right this year, Arsenal is managed by Arsene Wenger and Plymouth Argyle is a real team (not a type of jumper). Apparently, I know even less than people who don’t know much.
What are you talking about?
So what’s the point of this, I hear you ask, other than the vaguely cathartic feeling of confession? Well, it’s this – I don’t understand what Christians are saying half the time either.
It’s not through lack of knowledge. I am no expert, but I grew up in a church setting, and I have a degree in Theology. So I would hope that I’d be broadly familiar with the cast of the Bible and all the best scenes.
It’s because we have an unchecked relationship with metaphor and jargon. We’re addicted to them. We can’t help ourselves. We don’t even know we have a problem. We think we’re in control of our relationship with metaphors, but by the end of a Sunday morning we’ve knocked out seventeen of them and didn’t even realise we were doing it.
“What?” you say, indignantly. “I don’t have a problem! I can give up metaphors and jargon any time I like!”
Oh, really? When was the last time you tried to explain Jesus to a non-Christian? How many times did you use phrases like ‘personal relationship’? When was the last time you tried to help another Christian going through a difficult patch? How many times did you use phrases like ‘walking in the Spirit’?”
Exactly. You are a dirty addict just like the rest of us, chugging phrases like ‘outpouring of the Spirit’ in dimly-lit rooms on a Friday night. You use the word ‘just’ forty-three times in a prayer at the start of a cell-group (“Lord we just want to thank you and just lift this evening up and just listen and just…”). Goodness, you might even be a long-time addict who uses words like ‘redemption’, ‘missional’ and ‘justification’ on the bus.
There’s a parallel phenomenon as well, which is that we tend to ape Biblical sentence construction. So rather than say, “let me tell you about Jesus and what he stands for,” we’ll say, “let me tell of the glory of God’s Kingdom!” as if we’re a medieval prince in Game of Thrones. And we think we’re being authentic when we do this, we feel ‘closer’ to God when we speak like a Victorian gentleman giving a speech at the Royal Society about their mermaid-hunting expedition.
But the truth is, it’s nonsense – the Bible is written the way it is because the translators are trying to convert an ancient language and culture into a modern one without losing any meaning. Which is really difficult, so you end up with some awkward-sounding, old-school sentences. The original Greek for the New Testament is ‘Koine’ Greek… which is street-language. Normal, everyday speak.
Is this really a thing? I mean, really?
Yes, it is. And it’s a thing for two groups of people. First of all, it’s a thing for non-Christians and people who’ve recently become Christians. When we use jargon, and metaphors that haven’t been explained, people who don’t know what these things mean feel alienated. We’re creating an in-group of superspecialChristians and an out-group of everybody else. We’re making it harder for people to learn about God and making them feel unwelcome.
It’s also a thing for Christians. Are you completely sure when you urge me to ‘do it in God’s strength’ that I have any idea what you’re talking about? Because I’ll tell you now – I don’t. What do you actually mean? I can’t do something ‘in God’s strength’ unless it involves physical heavy-lifting and some sort of supernatural ability to heave a truck takes over my negligible muscles. What is the practical meaning of that phrase? Do you mean, “pray about it and don’t worry, because God’s got it under control and makes everything work for your benefit?” Well say that, then. Don’t just quote the Bible – explain what it means.
Everybody’s doing it
There is a time and a place for metaphor. When we’re talking about the Divine we need to use it sometimes. The Bible uses it loads. But we need to pick our metaphors, and pick our times.
In the age of the informationmegasuperuberduperhighway, everybody’s going jargon-tastic. There’s jargon everywhere. I’ve noticed people rather depressingly referring to pictures, stories, poetry and prose as ‘content’. I was watching 4 On Demand the other day and was told that ‘my content would appear in 30 seconds’ – a message intended as helpful I’m sure but one that only made me think my breakfast was about to re-surface.
But as Christians we need to stop. Because it’s hard enough following an invisible God in a world that opposes Him, and hard enough for people to find out about Jesus, without inventing new barriers like jargon and over-used metaphor. Let’s, er, leave some of the metaphors at the… door…
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