Words, Symbols, and Pictures

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Though I’ve finished with my series on the scripture translating The Seed Company, I can’t stop thinking about the importance of translation to mission.

Early Spanish and French “explorers” (their countries refer to them as “missionaries,” others call them “conquerors”) traveled to the New World to expand kingdoms- both God’s and their kings’. Not being able to communicate verbally, the Catholic explorers used the pictures in their Bibles to share Christianity with the natives. When all you’ve got is one picture of a mother holding her child and another with her crying at his feet as he hangs on a cross, you end up with a syncretistic Virgin Mary cult.

Mission is translation. Taking the gospel from one context (the one in which you received it) and translating it into another context (that in which you find yourself) is the human aspect of mission.

Translation into written languages is a challenging enough, but translating the gospel into a culture that has no written language can be extremely difficult. The language must be learned by the translator, codified with the assistance of nationals, and then taught back to the people. The process takes a very long time and requires persistence, creativity, and skill.

Since we’re all missionaries, we’re all translators of sorts- taking the gospel from the Christianized context in which we received the message and translating it out to those around us who do not know Christ. What you may not recognize, though, is that many of the “tribes” we work and live among are post-literate.

A group is post-literate when images, or symbols becomes their primary mode of graphical communication. Post-literates may technically be able to sound out words on a page, but they understand and retain little of what they’ve “read.” They have become so used to bullet-points, excerpts, and snippets that their eyes do not track from one line to the next in large blocks of text. autocorrect has supplanted the ability to spell. Acronyms, emoticons, and avatars have replaced the written word. Reading is becoming a lost art.

In some ways, our efforts to accommodate post-literacy has perpetuated and even caused it. Everywhere you look you can find evidence of reading-attention deficit disorder. News articles became blurbs on a ticker and 140-character status updates. Restaurants traded descriptions of dishes for depictions of them. Churches replaced pew-back Bibles with Powerpoint slides. There are “universal” symbols for peace, laundry, and gay pride. We communicate concepts not with words but with symbols. No one has to write the word “recycle” because we all know that the triangle made of three arrows means “plastic, paper, and glass go here.”

The answer to post-literacy may lie in missionary strategies among the pre-literate. Where people have no written language, missionaries tell the gospel through story. Rather than spending time teaching people to read, Christians are relaying the story of God’s interaction with humanity through simple, memorable, and easily-retold stories. This, of course, is how the Torah was handed down through generations, and how the gospel was retained through the early spread of Christianity, the Dark Ages, and the the 1970s.

Will this work to effectively share the gospel among the post-literate? I think it can, but we must improve our story-telling abilities. As we leave the realm of Bible translation for a more subjective scripture storying, we begin to compete with the best tales and tellers a culture has to offer. As we’ve seen with the mainstream public’s indifference to film and audio adaptations of scriptural events, non-believers are more used to being entertained than challenged. I’m not suggesting we try to outdo Hollywood, I’m saying that we can’t depend on Charleton Heston anymore.

Any discussion of scripture translation is incomplete without addressing post-literacy. While we must preserve both the words of scripture and the ability to read them, we must also be prepared to share the gospel with those who do not and cannot read.

God Is Most Glorified When Wal-Mart Says Merry Christmas

Is God pleased when a non-believer says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?”

Lots of people (mostly in Texas and Florida) seem to think so.  First Baptist Church, Dallas recently launched GrinchAlert.com, (HT) a website that posts user-generate lists: businesses that greet customers with “Merry Christmas” make the Nice list, while “Happy Holidays” earns them a spot on the Naughty list.

Nevermind that the idea of Naughty and Nice lists come from the secular Santa Claus myth. Forget that the Grinch is a (trademarked) character in a secular Christmas children’s story with a dubious humanistic moral at the end. Pay no attention to the overt consumerism displayed on the site. What’s especially troubling about this campaign is that these people actually believe that God is somehow honored by Christian-targeted marketing.

I blame John Piper.

I’m sure Dr. Piper would never advocate for something like GrinchAlert. But I can’t help but think that this sort of “boycott lost people for not acting like Christians” mentality has some relation to Piper’s assertion that the greatest good is whatever brings God the “most glory.” While I don’t disagree with his premise, I’m pretty sure we need to clarify what we mean by “good,” “glory,” and, well, “God” for that matter. Otherwise, we get GrinchAlert culture warriors who care more that people act like Christ-followers than that they would actually become Christ-followers because it, you know, brings glory to God.

Is it a “win” for Christians if secular businesses say “Merry Christmas?” Is that part of our mission on this earth? Is a coerced profession of Christmas our mission? I’m no expert in degrees of God-honor, but “If you don’t say Christmas we’ll go elsewhere to buy the Chinese-made junk we don’t need” doesn’t seem like it’d be that high on the list.

It all comes down to marketing. The reason Starbucks insists that its employees greet customers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is that they want to make money.  Their audience isn’t just Christian Christmas-celebrators. “Happy Holidays” covers everyone- Christians, Jews, Qwanzaans, and atheists who don’t believe there’s anything to celebrate, but still take a couple days off work this time of year.

The other side of the question remains: is the non-believer brought any closer to belief by saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?” Will the clerk at Borders know Jesus better if we include his store on the Naughty list?

By the way, my favorite comment on the GrinchAlert site?

“American Airlines: Excessive use of “holiday”, no mention of Christmas. With a name like American Airlines, come on.”

Syncretism

Syncretism is a key missiological concept that refers to the all-too common practice of overlaying one set of beliefs with another, disparate one. People often go to great lengths to reconcile different, even opposing, belief systems in order to make sense of the world around them.

When African tribes were (forcibly) “converted” to Christianity by imperialist missionaries in the 18th century, tribal leaders responded by adding the Holy Spirit to the collection of spirits they depended on to keep them safe. As the “Holy” Roman Empire expanded, nations were assumed into it by renaming their pagan gods, saints, and feasts after Christian ones.

This kind of syncretism is bad because it ignores the transformative power of Christ. It creates a veneer of Christianity that is devoid of the character of the Most High. The result is a broad misunderstanding of what life in Christ truly ought to be. Jesus isn’t just another prophet. Mary isn’t analogous to “Mother Earth.”

Of course, it isn’t always the pagans adopting Christian language and imagery; syncretism works both ways. December 25 was the date of a Roman pagan festival having to do with stars long before it was selected by the Church for the celebration of Christmas. Easter wasn’t always a holiday of remembrance of Christ’s resurrection- it began as a celebration of Spring, fertility, and an Anglo-Saxon goddess called ?ostre.

syncretismThe problem with this “reverse” syncretism is that changing the name of a holiday doesn’t necessarily replace the object of worship with Jesus the Christ. Equating freedom in Christ with political freedom grossly understates the true meaning of freedom and makes too much of the worldly version.

Adopting cultural forms and methodologies without retaining a prophetic voice is syncretistic mimicry. But interjecting the God narrative into the culture is different from syncretism.  As Christians engage the cultures in which they live, they retell the culture’s stories back to it from God’s perspective.

The culture’s worship looks to the stars? We can’t say, “At least you’re looking up!”  We can say, “Let me tell you about the star that led wise men from the East to worship a baby in a feed trough.”

The culture celebrates new beginnings? It isn’t enough to encourage that celebration- we must point people to Jesus, whose resurrection makes possible the ultimate new beginning for humanity and all of creation.

Our culture values freedom? The Bill of Rights can only get you so far (and can be amended!). Only Jesus can make you truly free.

Jesus did this with Jewish law in the “You have heard… but I say to you…” sayings of His Sermon on the Mount. Paul filled in the blanks of Athenian religion when he addressed the philosophers at the Aeropagus. It is the spiritual takeover of a worldly stronghold. This isn’t syncretism, it’s redemption; reclaiming the truth that can be found in all cultures as God’s truth.

Image HT: Eric G. at Circular Thoughts