keeping it simple

One of the things I lose sleep over (Somebody get Serta on the line. I want answers!) is our inability as Lutherans to translate theological language into the vernacular when we write. I’m not suggesting we dumb theology down, rather that we speak in such a way so as to not lose our readers.

C. S. Lewis, in his Christian Apologetics, has something to say on this. “Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning,” he says. “A passage from some theological work for translation into the vernacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every Ordination examination.”

He’s on to something. In my job as editor, I see nearly every day that pastors in the church have faithful, pious, weighty things to say about our Lord, but a markedly smaller amount are actually able to translate those wonderful things into something readable by the average pew-sitter. And so I’m left to wonder if, in our zeal to plumb the depths of our Lord’s goodness, we end up drowning our brothers and sisters in Christ in verbiage.

That is not to say there is not a place for Logia and academia and deeply intellectual Lutheran volumes. There is. They are necessary, and they are good. Nothing brings me greater joy that reading an article from Logia or Gottesdienst eleventy-two million different times to truly understand it. But there is also a great need for Small Catechism-esque style writing. And I’m beginning to believe that those of us who are theologically trained are actually the worst at doing it.

People “are not irrational,” Lewis reminds us. “I have found that they will endure, and can follow, quite a lot of sustained argument if you go slowly.”

When he says to “go slowly,” I don’t think he means to speak loudly and clearly like we do to our deaf grandmothers.

Or maybe he does. I don’t know. I never met his grandma.

I think, instead, that he means for us to do exactly what our freshman-year English teacher taught us: Know our audience. That means that pastors must know their sheep. They must know how not to water theology down. They must also know how not speak about it in a way that is beyond a person’s comprehension. They must know how best to explore the profound biblical and confessional foundations of the faith. They must know how to draw out the faithful attention of their sheep. They must be able to take that which is timeless, which is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and make sense of it today, right now, in all its richness and doctrinal purity.

Maybe I am way off on this one. Perhaps I’m simply picky in the style of theological writing that makes sense to me, and I want all theologians to be able to write in the same way.

Or perhaps sometimes, in the joy and wonder of being caught up in our Lord’s Word, we simply need to remember those with whom we’re sharing it.

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6 thoughts on “keeping it simple

  1. If I can’t preach at the level of the 8th grade confirmation students, then I probably am not reaching most of the people in the pews—at their heart level. If fact, I would go further, if I can’t preach to those 8th graders, maybe I don’t know the material as well as I should so that I can speak in their language. That should give us all pause. Covering up my lack of depth in the material with academic/”educated” terms may satisfy the academic but it does not make me a better preacher, or even a preacher.

    I am a big proponent of teaching people and raising their level of understanding. But preaching at the level of the people with their everyday language is the real test for preaching.

    And a good dose of humility in this department helps tremendously. If the people struggle to understand what I preach, maybe I am the one struggling—more than they

    Thanks for your words on this, Adriane.

  2. I’m a big believer in translating theology into words everyday people can understand. And while I can see the point Matt @1 is making – about not being afraid to increase people’s knowledge – I’m not sure that’s best done by simply increasing their vocabulary with words like “hypostatic union.” It’s the meaning that’s important, not the specific words used to convey that meaning.

    In fact, our confessions teach exactly what you’re looking for. Consider this bit from the Epitome of the Formula of Concord:

    “Now, consider the Latin terms substantia (substance) and accidens (a nonessential quality). They are not words of Holy Scripture and, besides, are unknown to the ordinary person. So they should not be used in sermons before ordinary, uninstructed people. Simple people should be spared them.”

    That’s right y’all. Speaking everyday language and not dropping too much theological jargon into sermons is a confessional Lutheran idea. I expanded on this topic shortly after an article I wrote for The Canadian Lutheran in 2010 started similar discussion north of the border.

  3. I think Lutherans’ big problem on this subject is that we have two false alternatives that are at war with each other. On one side you have people diving for the lowest common denominator to reach the most people. On the other side you have people so repelled by this dumbing-down that they’ll never waver from 16th century phraseology for fear of accidentally missing a nuance or giving a wrong impression.

    Lost in the middle is the option of actually teaching people theological terminology. Heaven forbid somebody actually come out of a sermon or bible study with a larger vocabulary than they had coming in!

    So teach your people what “hypostatic union” means, and then use the term. Meet them where they’re at, but for the love of God, don’t leave them where they’re at.

  4. I really think that the Reformed have the Lutherans beat on this one. I don’t know how many times I have heard Brody lament that he can only find literature aimed at new converts or pastors with advanced theological training, but nothing for the educated layman. As for myself, I have read a number of expository writings geared toward the layman that were written by Reformed authors, and often long to find something on the same level of depth and accessibility by Lutheran authors. I think you have identified a genuine need within the Lutheran Church. The light we bear should not be hidden under the bushel of incomprehensible jargon on the one hand nor of superficiality on the other.

  5. When I blog on a religious topic, I think of my Methodist mother-in-law. I usually state why the topic is important, and then I gently try to show my point, being firm without making her mad. I don’t succeed all of the time, but it works. 🙂

  6. You are spot on! Luther believed strongly in the art of communcation – that is – speaking the common language of the people – that even children could understand. Can this be modeled at the Seminary level? Can professors retain the academic language while at the same time teaching seminarians to speak the people’s language without dumbing things down? I have always contended that sem profs lose touch with reality when they either are not serving in a congregation or have not served long enough in a congregation. It also speaks for the ned to read a variety of different genres, topics, and books!

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