Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Christian Influence Writing Part II: Watch your language!

Have you even went with a friend or spouse to a company party or some other gathering of people who all worked in the same field which is different than yours? You stood around hearing them talk shop without you understanding a word they said. You know they are speaking your native tongue, but you still felt like you needed a translator.

Non-Christian visitors to Christian web sites or readers of Christian fiction (even some intended as "evangelistic") often feel the same way. They are hearing the words, but they don't understand the conversation. Not only do they have to struggle to understand what is being said, they also begin to feel isolated. They begin to see spirituality-based literature as being "insider" literature which excludes anyone who doesn't have the key to unlock the code. This just reinforces the image of Christians as being elitists looking down on everyone else. Whether or not that is true of some, it is not the image we want to project, if we want them to hear our message.

When I was in journalism school, we often used the "man from Mars" test to see if a story was understandable. It went something like this: If a man from Mars landed on Earth yesterday with a rudimentary knowledge of the language, but no knowledge of current events, could he understand the story?

The same test can be applied to Christian-Influence writing. Can a person with no prior knowledge of the tenets of Christianity understand what you are writing? For instance, writing a story about a time traveler going back to the First Century with an automatic weapon to try and prevent the crucifixion can't assume the reader understands the importance of the death of Christ as the propitiation for our sins. They won't even understand what "propitiation" means.

But it's not just Biblical allusions and doctrinal knowledge that can push people way. The very language we use can do so as well. Every culture develops its own "insider" language. This language helps to bond the individuals of the community together, and it also acts as a type of short hand communicating concepts quickly within the community. There is nothing wrong with this. It happens in every cultural group.

Unfortunately, we often forget that everyone doesn't understand these culture-specific expressions. We are as much at loss to understand, as Captain Piccard was to understand the alien who spoke entirely in allusions to the history and legends of his planet. Communication effectiveness depends in part shared fields of experience. One must remember that non-Christians do not share the same religious experience that Christians do. They don't know what we mean when we say things like "serve the Lord," "Get saved," "be convicted," "Confess Christ," "witness," "pray through," "get right with God," "be born again," "on fire for Christ," and a thousand other pieces of Christian jargon.

So, what should we do? The following are some simple suggestions for inclusive writing.

  1. Remember, it's about them and not about you. It isn't easy to turn off the Christian jargon many of us grew up with. But if I am going to communicate spiritual matters with anyone outside the four walls of the church, I need to speak their language. I've known some Christians to scoff at "seeker-friendly" writing and preaching. They often view it as compromising the message. This is ridiculous. Taking the time to put our message into the language of the people is simply good sense. You wouldn't go to a remote village in Africa as a missionary and give all your messages in English and expect to have any success. If we say we care about evangelism, then we need to care enough to speak their language. It all starts with being willing.
  2. Be careful about allusions to Bible stories. I grew up in Sunday school. By the time I was out of grade school, I could tell you the biographies of The patriarchs, David, Solomon, a few prophets, Jesus, Peter and Paul. But I can't assume my reader has the same background. If the reference to a Bible story is called for, then give a good summary of the entire story and not just a passing reference. The same advice goes for other Biblical references, too. For instance, Christians often make quick references to common Bible passages by the chapter and verse or a well know appellation. For instance, John 3:16, Acts 2:4, I Corinthians 13 (or more popularly, "The Love Chapter"), the 10 Commandments (And by the way, can you quote all 10?), or the 23rd Psalm. To the non-Christian these are just meaningless labels for the most part.
  3. Drop the jargon. We have already alluded to this before. Put Christian Jargon into more common language. It takes some work, but it can be done. For instance, instead of talking about "getting saved" or "converted," you can say "deciding to become a follower of Christ" or "accepting God's forgiveness." Sin can be explained in terms of failure to live up to God's standards. Instead of "witnessing" or "sharing my testimony" say "telling about my experience as a Christian." There are many examples. Here are three helpful web sites about dealing with Christian Jargon.

    Unlearning the Lingo

    When Words Get in the Way

    How Insider Jargon Excludes People

    It isn't easy learning a new language, but if we truly want to reach a wider audience than other Christians, we have to make the effort to communicate spiritual truths without using church jargon.

    Next time, sermonizing or storytelling.


Blogger Frank Creed said...

Paul spoke differently in Jerusalem than he did on Mars Hill. It's all about being an effective communicator. Always be considerate of your audience and you'll know how to speak. Be in the world but not of it.

His will,
Frank Creed
Home: http://www.frankcreed.com
Book Review Blog: http://afrankreview.blogspot.com/
Lost Genre Guild Site: http://www.lostgenreguild.com/
Lost Genre Guild Blog: http://blog.lostgenreguild.com/

Frank Creed's Biblical fiction is available through The Writer's Cafe Press. Tales for the Thrifty Barbarian: An Anthology of High Fantasy, July, 2006. Light at the Edge of Darkness, a Biblical speculative fiction anthology, April, 2007. Flashpoint: Book one of the Underground, a Biblical cyberpunk novel, June, 2007.
Frank Creed is also the founder of the Lost Genre Guild, a literary home for artists, editors, agents, promoters, and fans of Biblical speculative fiction: e-mail frankcreed@insightbb.com

March 7, 2007 at 1:45 AM  
Blogger Terri said...

*Be in the world but not of it.*

Thanks for that. You are foreshadowing my last article in this series I'm calling, "Shining light into darkness without joining the Dark Side."

But I've got a couple of more before then.


March 7, 2007 at 2:41 PM  
Blogger LaShawn said...

This series caught my eye. I'm really learning a lot about writing with a Christian influence. Thanks for putting it up!

March 10, 2007 at 9:17 PM  
Blogger Candace said...

There is another danger in Christianese. Let me explain by sharing a personal experience. I have a friend that really needs the hope and peace of mind that God has to offer. I have tried to lead her to that hope and peace with no success. She calls herself a Christian and knows all the Christianese words, but she (along with her church) defines even simple words like forgiveness in a different way than we would. I am taking great interest in the websites you mentioned. Maybe I will be able to speak plainly to her and bring her the hope and peace she needs at last.
What message would my story even send to her? Not the same one I am trying to send.

April 18, 2007 at 9:07 AM  

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