Translating Christianese: Updating Our Language for the 21st Century

I went to a class at church recently where we were discussing some issues of doctrine and our denomination’s positions on them and Pastor Nancy made reference to something that has been percolating in my head for quite some time now. In discussing the idea of sin, she commented that she hardly ever uses the term, because it has become so loaded. I nearly jumped out of my seat and said “Amen!” She explained that she liked to use the word brokenness, because she thought it more accurately described the concept of sin. We are a broken people and in our brokenness we hurt ourselves and others. I like this approach and probably will begin to use it as well, although I have in the past year or so been using the word “selfishness” instead of sin.

The two words can really work together. I guess I would state the concept like this: “In our brokenness we often act selfishly and hurt other people as we attempt to meet our needs without consideration of the needs of others.” You know something? I’ve found an interesting response from people since I’ve changed the language I’ve used to describe this idea of sin. When I used to talk about how we are all sinners, many people would object and say that they weren’t really “that bad.” Sure, they would admit they weren’t perfect and “messed up” once in awhile, but not so bad that they should be called “sinners.” The problem is that the culture understands “sinner” to be people who are “really, really bad” like drug dealers, prostitutes, and murderers. However, something funny happened when I changed to using selfishness and would talk about how we all have that part of us that acts selfishly at times and has hurt other people. The change: I’ve never, not even one single time, had somebody disagree!

And this has led me to conclude that I think some of the problem with the Christian message not resonating with people who live in a 21st century world is that we are speaking the language of centuries past and are failing to translate ideas in scripture into language suitable for postmodern society. For example, the most popular version of the Bible continues to be the NIV (New International Version). However, the language used in that translation is from the 1960s and 70s. Other, newer versions are more readable and are less literal so that they allow what is called “dynamic equivalency” which is where the main idea of the passage is reworded and stated in a way such that our contemporary society would grasp the ideas presented (the NIV uses this approach too, but, again, it’s out of date).

But, lo and behold, the fundamentalist conservatives come along and protest this approach. The problem is that it doesn’t fit within their theological understanding of the Bible and inspiration. They claim that God inspired the human authors of scripture to write what they wrote such that the exact words those authors chose are the very words God wanted them to write. The problem (one that they freely acknowledge) is that we don’t have the original manuscripts! The response to this problem goes one of two ways. Either they take some extreme, uninformed position such as believing that the King James Version is an inerrant, inspired translation of the Bible, or they admit the problem, but appeal to the accuracy of the copies we have. I believe that this whole problem can be avoided when we stop legalistically holding to the “letter” and instead seek out the “spirit” of what has been written. Words are important, but most often people don’t remember words or even sentences. They do remember ideas and concepts! This is why Jesus told stories that made sense in the context of the culture of His day in order to communicate His message. It is the point that God was trying to make that matters, not being OCD about the exact way it is expressed. I maintain that we need to be like Jesus by updating the language for certain ideas and concepts in the Bible so that we are using language that is the “dynamic equivalent” in our culture to convey the gospel message to a new generation of people.

While this certainly could extend to Bible translations, and should, we don’t even need to come up with a whole new translation to do it. We can start by focusing on the way in which we communicate the gospel message in our every day conversations. I already gave the example with “sin”, but what about “God’s glory.” People say all the time that “we’re doing this for God’s glory.” Yet, how many that say that, actually know what it means, nonetheless how to translate it into today’s language? What exactly is the glory of God? The glory of God is the greatness of who He is. Honestly, though, when Christians talk about God works all things out in our lives to show off the greatness of who He is, it makes God sound like some sort of an ego maniac. And this is exactly how many theologians understand it. “God is great simply because He is. He doesn’t have to show it, He just IS and you better believe it!” they expound. Many theology “experts” believe that God is only interested in you worshipping Him for His greatness, even if He never shows it or expresses it in your life. I’m sorry, but I have to have a heretic hissy fit for a minute and just say that the idea that our God is a God who wants me to worship Him for being a great God even if He doesn’t actually do anything great for me is patently absurd! If He’s great, He’ll do great things!

How about this instead? “The glory of God is the radiant essence and expressive beauty of His loving heart.” Since the greatness of who God is in His essence is His glory, and God is, in His very essence, love (1 John 4:17), then the glory of God is simply the manifestation of his loving heart. So, living a live to glorify God should simply be expressed as: “I’m living my life in such a way that people might see and experience the beauty of God’s loving heart toward them.” Wow! What a difference! It doesn’t make God out to be some obsessive narcissist hell-bent on getting to people to see how great He is without doing anything to earn it, but instead a loving being who seeks to bring the beauty of His love into the hearts and lives of every person. Do you see how the former is sort of detached and archaic sounding, like something that you would hear in an old movie about some ancient English king who put portraits of himself up all over the place so that people could be reminded of how great he really was, even as he lived detached and disinterested in doing anything great in the lives of his countrymen? The latter is so much more descriptive and uses colorful words to paint a picture in someone’s mind of something that is truly desirable – even irresistible at some level!

Here’s another one that throws people for a loop. The word “holy.” Nobody on earth uses this word anymore, but we do use an equivalent word that means the same thing: whole. They come from the same root and the idea of wholeness is what the word is seeking to convey. But it may be even more accurate to say that God is “healthy.” I can hear the fundamentalists sighing sharply, followed by pursed lips with a lot of head shaking. But watch this. Do you know what health is? It is soundness of body and mind that entails freedom from sickness or ailment. Guess what the root of this word “healthy” is? It is “hal” (old English) which is the word “whole” and the same word from which we get the word “holy! Holy and Healthy come from the same word “hal” which means whole! Holiness is the Bible’s way of saying healthy! This is nothing short of stunning to this author. This concept of wholeness as the main understanding of holy has been lost on the western church for centuries. You know where the problem started? When the people who translated the Bible into English stopped updating the word and using the modern equivalent. Holy or holiness is nothing but an English word that keeps being used despite the fact that it fell out of common use centuries ago. The appropriate translation of the Greek word hagios is “whole” or “wholeness” or “healthy.” You want to know the funny thing? This is exactly how the Eastern Greek Church has understood the word since the beginning of Christianity! That is why in the Eastern Orthodox Church they present the concept of sin as – well, now look at this – brokenness or disease that needs to be healed! I am not making this stuff up! I’m on a roll so I’m going to keep going. Ready for this next one? The word “to heal” in Greek is the verb soteria. Guess how we translated that word? SAVED!!! I am literally bouncing up and down in my seat right now as I write this, because I think my persistent, obsessively ruminating mind has happened upon something truly earth-shattering – poor translating and the failure to update old English words has actually hidden the meaning of these concepts from us.

So, let’s put this in perspective. I’m now going to write two paragraphs (below). In the first, I am going to use the traditional words to express the Christian message. I am then going to use our modern 21st century equivalents to express the exact same message and then I’m going to leave you with some thoughts to make you think more deeply about this and then maybe in the days ahead I’ll offer more suggestions for other words and try to do this type of post again. So here we go:

God is a Holy God who desires that we be holy like Him. However, we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God. So God glorifies Himself by saving us from our sin and making us holy again.

I know that’s simplistic, but let’s keep it simple for now and then we’ll build on it in later posts on this subject. Doesn’t that short paragraph just inspire awe and wonder in you? Yeah right. Actually, I was thinking something more along the lines of old, emotionless, or boring, like a bunch of disgruntled senior citizens sitting in pews that are ten thousand years old singing songs that that were written sometime just prior to the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Now, here’s the way we would say it in a postmodern world where the words of our culture are used to express the exact same message.

God is whole and desires that we be healthy like Him. However, we are all broken and have failed to demonstrate the beauty of God’s love in our relationships with others because, at times, we give in to those dark, selfish parts of us. So God shows forth the radiant essence and the expressive beauty of His love into our lives in order to heal us of the disease of selfishness and make us whole again.

Some people will probably accuse me of going wacko new age on them, but the reality is that this would be an accurate way in our culture of expressing the exact same message used in the traditional language. Isn’t it so much more vibrant and illustrative of the heart of the Bible’s message? Think about it. You can use this language about brokenness and healing and love when talking with people in everyday life. They’ll be drawn to it and it will speak to their hearts. And then you can throw them for a whirl by telling them that this message is the message of the Bible. Scripture says that when the crowds heard Jesus speak that they delighted in His words (Mark 12:37). The only threat in the gospel is the threat to our selfishness, while at the same time it speaks to the genuine longings of the human heart. People will listen and respond if we use the right words in faithfully proclaiming the message in a way that makes sense to a 21st century, postmodern person.

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5 thoughts on “Translating Christianese: Updating Our Language for the 21st Century

    • Hi Amanda…thanks for the comment. I appreciate your concern, but I assure you there is absolutely no attempt here to water down God’s word. I am simply trying to take language that is old and concepts that have dust on them and trying to put them into the language a 21st century person would understand. In many ways, it’s no different than what translators do when they translate Greek words into modern English. If anything, we’re trying to take the teachings of scripture and make them come alive in the context of our language and culture. It is never “changing” God’s doctrine to express the same truths in a new way that will communicate God’s love in an invigorating way that will reach people who are disenfranchised by a static church that would rather stay stuck in centuries past and use language that is outdated and, in many cases, loaded by cultural and theological baggage. I’m sure God would be very happy with that. He loves to bring dead things to life!

  1. ChristianIndependent.
    The thing is your are trying translate the translators translation into something even more.
    Scholars have already spent numerous hours upon hours upon hours finding the best word to fit what was revealed to the writers by God.
    I say this most respectfully…. are you wiser than a group of a 100 scholars who have already determined the best translation for a word?
    Get a good modern translation and use it, it best uses the modern word to get God’s message.
    HCSB is a great one and there are several others.

    God’s word brings dead things to life, it is His message, not ours.

    • Hi JD – Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your candid and honest reply. I have a couple things to say in response. FIrst, it’s likely that I have a different view of inspiration and the Bible than you do. I believe that the truths expressed in scripture are not found in taking the text literally. There is, in my mind, a developmental progression in the people’s understanding of God and His plan for the world. Thus, while I think word translation is important, using words that clearly convey concepts is more important than literal transliterations. Second, translations are also interpretations, since Koine Greek and especially Hebrew do not have exact English equivalents in many cases. Though they would be reticent to admit it, translators often use their own theological paradigms to translate passages. This is why there are so many different translations and so many arguments over them. Third, I do not think I am wiser than the combined knowledge of many linguistic scholars and I should point out that nowhere in the article did I claim any such thing. Fourth, the word usages I employed in the article are consistent with two-thousand years of Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition where salvation is seen as a healing process that leads to wholeness. My ideas, therefore, are not taken out of left field. So, I’ll turn the question around on you. Do you believe that a group of modern translators who have determined what you say is the best translation of a word can rightly discard two-thousand years of tradition and the people who knew the native languages as their own, as they so often do, in favor of modern interpretations of the text? I should hope your answer to that question is in the negative. Finally, there is nothing wrong with taking what we read in the Bible and putting it into the vernacular of the day in order to more accurately communicate its message to people who may not be steeped in theological parlance like the translators often are. This is the essence of the Message by Eugene Peterson. A paraphrase that puts the truths of scripture into modern, accesible language for people that are not familar with “Christianese” is invaluable in teaching postmodern audiences. Thanks again for your reply and I welcome any further thoughts you have. Peace, Jordan

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