Preachers translate as a calling. Called by God, they are given a message, and for most of their hearers it is to one degree or another a message in a languagefrom afar, with strange concepts, sometimes with a more familiar ring, sometimes with a strange sound.
Since even before Babel, human language was confused so that we have not understood God’s speech. Adam and Eve mistook his intentions in the Garden. Cain did not the message straight, either. Today preachers bring the words that the apostles and prophets received from the Holy Spirit and try to make both words and worldviews from Scripture grasp and claim the hearing and understanding, the thinking and feeling, of their hearers.
The Yale Divinity School missiologist Lamin Sanneh, born and raised in a Muslim family in the Gambia, has observed that if a Muslim truly wants to speak with God on the most intimate basis possible, he or she must learn Arabic. Though translations are possible, the Koran works best in Arabic, as do prayers to Allah. In contrast, Christians recognize that God has translated himself into human flesh. Jesus’s own words in Aramaic or later Hebrew are recorded in only a very few instances; all that we have is a Greek translation. Missionaries have hardly landed in the place where they hope to serve before they are learning the language. It is the very nature of the Christian faith to be translating the divine into the specifics of every human situation [ Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message. The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009)].
University of South Florida religious studies professor Michael DeJonge and University of Zurich systematic theologian Christine Tietz have suggested that all religion is translation. Every religion attempts to convey the proclamation and the practice of the past into the lives of its living adherents. Even between generations growing up in the same household slippage in understanding and perception of what is being taught and learned occurs. It is the nature of religious traditions—that which is handed down—to be translating: carrying what is most precious from one chronological and cultural location to another, even when the geographical location remains the same [Michael P. DeJonge and Christiane Tietz, eds. Translating Religion. What Is Lost and Gained? (New York/Abingdon: Routledge, 2015)].
Martin Luther translated. His Bible translation remains one of his most profound means of continuing to influence German culture. Not only did he translate the text of the Bible into the German language. He carried biblical concepts and the biblical worldview from the Hebrew and Greek texts into German speaking and thinking. He took the Latin language of theology and rendered the terminology of his predecessors into definitions and usages that he perceived to be faithful to the prophets and apostles. He found words and expressions that conveyed much more authentically what God is saying in Scripture than had the scholastic and monastic theologians before him.
Lutheran Orthodox theologians in the following century worked hard to translate much of Luther’s insight into Aristotelian language in order to give ecumenical witness to Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians since that philosophical framework remained the lingua franca of their trade. Lutheran missionaries departed for foreign shores, and in the mid-seventeenth century Johann Campanius translated Luther’s Small Catechism into the Lenape language of the Delaware natives he encountered in New Sweden. A half century later Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg learned Tamil in order to make Scripture and the Catechism speak to his southeast Indian hearers.
North American preachers today face hearers who are ever less familiar with the biblical narrative and ever more surprised and even offended by the challenges Scripture hurls at some of their fundamental presuppositions. Even those relatively well-schooled in the traditions of their churches will find it difficult to digest some basic presuppositions and perceptions of the biblical writers. First, while North Americans increasingly are uncomfortable in their surroundings and often in their own skin, they lack the common vocabulary for the debt of their guilt to a Creator or even the missing of the mark of the Good Life, however defined, to digest what Scripture has to say about sin. Second, that God could restore human living to the joy and peace that Christ gives through his own death and resurrection boggles the imagination that lies behind even many a pious recitation of the Creed. Third, that the Good Life comes in self-giving and self-sacrifice, in community, rather than in pursuing “my rights” and collecting “my toys,” does not quite make sense, even to those who really want to be Christ’s people.
The translators in the pulpit must know the language of both conversation partners well. They must be steeped in the biblical story out of which and in the midst of which God has revealed and is retelling the plot for truly human living—life as the Designer intended it to be and continues to will it to be enjoyed by his human creatures. God has made it somewhat easier for us by revealing himself in his own story, in history. People seem to learn best from stories so long as the point is clearly explained and often repeated. The story gives us something upon which to hang the ideas. That is why Scripture contains both Genesis, in which the stories have their points but leave gaps inviting explanation, and Deuteronomy, in which stories and explanation are explained. And God even gives us words with which we can respond, particularly in the psalms.
But knowledge of Scripture is not enough. Preachers must listen to their hearers and absorb their stories as well. Their stories may appear to be straight from the asylum, and they do come from the caves where we live with only mere shadows of God’s reality. That reality has taken place not in the heavens, as Plato suggested, but on earth, in God’s narrative, in our history that is also God’s history as well. As we soak up how are conversation partners, who in meeting us have become God’s conversation partners, view the world, we are given more and more clues about what they need to deconstruct in their perception of reality. Through listening and more listening we gather clues on how we can aid them in constructing their own biblically-shaped view of what human life is truly designed to be. The Holy Spirit is polishing his tools when we are listening to our hearers.
Preachers today translate to a world filled with bad news, discouragement, disgust, despair. But we come with more than just a plan for finding contentment and peace, stability and shelter from storms and chills of all kinds. We come with a person, for in the end we stand in the pulpit to facilitate a relationship, a conversation, a commitment between the Lord Jesus and those for whom he died and rose, those for whom he came to gain and give the abundant life.