Gibberish, Theological Communication, and “I don’t understand, can you speak English please?”

I don’t know about you, but I read lot’s of partial books nowadays; between my Nook and Iphone I have access to samples of whatever book I can find, for free. lewistimeUsually with the types of books I can find in the area I like to read, the samples are just about right (if they whet my appetite, for me I can usually get the full text at my local theological library, Multnomah).

Anyway, I was reading one of my sample books the other day—Alister McGrath’s Mere Apologetics—and in the early part of that book (the only part I have access to 😉 ) he offers a quote by the ubiquitously present C. S. Lewis; Lewis writes:

[W]e must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use laying down a priori what the “plan man” does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience…. You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular…. I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your own thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood your own meaning. [Alister McGrath citing C.S. Lewis, Mere Apologetics, Iphone version, p. 60]

I find it interesting that Lewis uses a priori in this paragraph of his; but hey, that’s just me ;-).

Seriously though, this reality that Clive is speaking to is not lost on me; it really is quite true. But having said that, this is often what makes blogging so challenging; there is the gamut of audiences reading blogs (my blog included). And so to try and gauge who the audience is, is rather difficult. I have come to the conclusion that, in general, blogging itself self-determines its audience. In other words, the way the blog author writes (the level, reader expectations etc.) will determine who his/her audience ends up being. This is why, I would venture to assert that some blogs have bigger followings (name recognition of blogger obviously helps with this too) than other blogs (like more academically written blogs which usually have smaller audiences).

The way I blog is cross-gamut in orientation (I think). Often my posts are academically shaped, and this is because I am simply reflecting on whatever I am reading at that moment (which is always and usually, anyway, academic in orientation). But then I do put up posts that I am intentionally trying to engage a larger audience through; I intentionally seek to be more accessible in my language, and conceptually as well (or I just try to move slower with these posts).

I think Lewis makes a great point, but I do find it interesting that he is assuming a certain audience in his quote; he is presuming that the primary audience is the uneducated. What about the “educated” audiences? Is there the same burden to translate in non-technical parlance as there is with the uneducated? Of course not! There is an unapologetic space for just speaking, and getting thoughts out, no matter how “technical” it ends up being. And I would want to argue a bit with Lewis in the sense that not all concepts are actually translatable into uneducated verbiage; I would argue that the fact that there are actually complex and deep concepts require that a correlate and commensurate grammar and lexicon are invented in order to precisely capture and signify said deep concepts. Once this lexicon is invented, and used contextually with meaning; indeed, then the real work of unpacking this can happen—or teaching and/or education can commence; i.e. the uneducated become educated (meaning they stretch up, not backward or down), and the circle of life continues on as it transects with the giver and embodiment  of depth himself, Jesus Christ.

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6 thoughts on “Gibberish, Theological Communication, and “I don’t understand, can you speak English please?”

  1. Clive? I think he’d rather you call him Jack!

    And good comment on blog shaping readership: I’m trying to get in on the ranter-on-a-sopbox market. Not necessarily the most popular! 🙂

    Pax,
    Cal

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  2. I’m calling him by his given Christian name; I like to keep things Christian here ;-). Blogging is definitely a fluid and sometimes fickle thing, no doubt.

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  3. Ah, and here I am trying to get you to “dumb things down” 😉 I agree w/ Lewis, if these are such important topics that will shape how we approach God and the way we do theology isn’t it crucial to get it to somewhere that it is less technical and more understandable?

    If the unfathomable complexity that is God could come to earth (condescend to us) in order for us to understand Him, surely you can work a little harder on speaking to those of us who aren’t buried in “complex and deep concepts [that] require…a correlat(ive) and commensurate grammar and lexicon…invented in order to precisely capture and signify said deep concepts.” I personally appreciate that you are making me stretch in my understanding of things, but in the end, this will never preach unless I can make it understandable! 🙂 (so how about a little koinè theology?)

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  4. Steve,

    My blogging, ultimately, is really a matter of me getting my thoughts out in a raw form. I do try to communicate as clear as possible given the content, but often times I am still in the process of working through the material I am blogging about too.

    A lot of this has to do with time. Trying to figure out how to “bring a lot of this down” into common lingo w/o loosing conceptual force is hard work that is time consuming. If I was getting paid to blog full time, and I saw it entirely as a teaching media, this would all be a different story. But I don’t really have that much time, I am not getting paid to blog, and I don’t totally see my blogging as a teaching space (even though I know it does do this, at points).

    I have taught at the college level (Bible College and Seminary), and I can bring stuff down (so to speak); I know this because I received good marks by my students in their evaluations of me at the end of the semester :-). But like I said, that’s not totally how I intend to use my blog, and I’m not getting paid to be able to take the kind of time it would take me to try and “teach” all of this stuff in the lingo required to actually teach (even though I still hope that much of what I write still has this effect).

    My kids aren’t Evangelical Calvinists yet ;-).

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