Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hot Dogs, Puppies and the Gospel, Pt. 2

For those of you new here, this post continues the discussion begun in my last post. In that post, I summarized the concept of semantic noise, which occurs when communication suffers because the communicators bring different assumed meanings of words into the conversation (e.g., I think "dog = frankfurter" while you think "dog = puppy" in the statement, "I can't wait to get a dog"). Now, to bring this around to the gospel...

I'm currently reading N.T. Wright's "Simply Christian." In it, Wright makes the point that common English usage of the word "God" contributes to much confusion in presenting the gospel biblically (i.e., on the Bible's own terms).

Simply Christian, N.T. Wright, 2006 Harper Collins

Part of the problem lies in the word we use. The English word "God," with or without a capital G, does double duty. First, it's a common noun (like "chair," "table," "dog," and "cat"), denoting a divine being. When we say, "What kind of gods did the early Egyptians believe in?" we all understand the question: there are, we take it, various possible types of gods, and indeed goddesses, worshipped and spoken of in various traditions. But the word "God" and its equivalents is also regularly used, in those languages affected by the great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as a kind of proper or personal name. If you ask someone, even in today's Western world, "Do you believe in God?" the question will be heard (and presumably intended) in the sense of "the one God of the Judeo-Christian tradition." That's quite a different question from, "Do you believe in
a god?" - p. 56-57

Wright is wonderfully insightful on this point. And yet, I wonder if perhaps the slipperiness of the word "God" runs deeper than even he suspects. I'm afraid that in many cases, when Christians attempt to speak of God to a biblically illiterate world, they fail to account for the possibility of semantic noise when speaking of "God" in English.

I wonder how many people, particularly in the West, noting the Judeo-Christian usage of "God," recognize that they themselves believe in a "god" (i.e., a vague spiritual entity) of some sort, and thereby count themselves believers in the Judeo-Christian God? When orthodox Christians and Jews use the word "God," they mean (or ought to mean) "Yahweh," the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, when many Westerners speak of "God" in everyday usage, they mean "the spiritual entity or reality that most appeals to me." "God/god" language becomes an avenue for the smuggling of non-biblical notions of God into an ostensibly biblical framework. Is constructive dialogue, let alone evangelism, really possible with such semantic confusion?

Undoubtedly - it is possible, and often occurs, in contexts steeped in the Judeo-Christian worldview. For example, in the Southern United States, even many unbelievers, having grown up with a cultural memory of the Judeo-Christian God, hear something akin to "Yahweh" when "God" is mentioned. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is never constrained by the limits of language, and is perfectly willing to cause the truth of the gospel to break out of linguistic constraints in amazing ways. Nevertheless, as cultures grow more detached from the biblical metanarrative and biblical illiteracy rises, I'm afraid that in many contexts, the slippery nature of the general English term "God" serves as a barrier to effective communication of the gospel.

How many Westerners, upon hearing the statement, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life", immediately understand it as "Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"? Or do they hear something more akin to "The Man Upstairs/the Cosmic Watchmaker/the Old Guy with the Big Beard in the Sky/the Principle of Higher Consciousness/the Indomitable Human Spirit loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"? Failure to clarify the exact nature of the "God" of whom we speak, both in terms of who He is, and is not, will in many cases result in semantic noise rather than clear gospel communication.

Now, given this state of affairs, should we give up talking about "God", or yield to a linguistic agnosticism about ever speaking truthfully about Him? Not for a moment. But that's for my next post...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hot Dogs, Puppies and the Gospel, Pt. 1

It's a perfect summer day as you and your kids gear up to head to the ballpark to catch a glimpse of America's favorite pastime. The crack of the bats, the crunch of Crackerjacks, and the smell of a Ballpark Frank beckon you. Salivating at the thought of a juicy all-beef frank with mustard and relish, you remark offhandedly to your spouse, "I just can't wait to get a dog."

You and the kids head out for the day to enjoy the game (and acquire the aforementioned edibles). When you return home, your spouse greets you at the door with a huge smile. "Honey, I've got something for you!" they beam. They blindfold you, lead you into the living room, and yell, "Surprise!" as they uncover your eyes just in team to see a mangy puppy doing his business all over your brand new carpet. "Isn't he great?" your spouse asks. Seeing the shock and dismay evident on your face, your spouse glares at you and whispers icily, "You said you wanted a dog...".

Have you ever thought you communicated a message perfectly clearly to another person, only to have them attribute a completely different meaning to what you said? This failure to communicate is referred to in communication studies as "semantic noise." You may be asking now, what does this have to do with the gospel? Well, a lot, I think. But before we get there, let's explore the concept of semantic noise a little further.

The diagram below presents a visual depiction of the communication process. The model below, based on the work of Shannon and Weaver (1940s) is vastly oversimplified, but useful for this discussion.
Notice that the model includes an information source (you) encoding a message (a desire for a frankfurter with mustard and relish) into symbolic form (the words "I can't wait to get a dog"), sending the encoded message through a channel (sound waves in the air), to be decoded on the other end by the receiver (your spouse). Ideally, the intended message (I want a frankfurter at the ballgame today) would be interpreted by your spouse as you intended. So what happened?

Notice the box labled "Noise Source", located in the middle of the model. Every time we communicate, there's the potential for noise to obscure or obstruct the message. Noise comes in several varieties:

  • Physical noise: "I can't hear you - the music's too loud"
  • Physiological noise: "How can I concentrate on this sermon when I'm starving?"
  • Psychological noise: "I'm so mad at Rita for what she said - Oh, I'm sorry Donna, now what were you saying?"
  • Semantic noise: Confusing "dog = frankfurter" with "dog = puppy"

Semantic noise, in which communicators assign different meanings to the same word, is by far the most pernicious of these noise sources, because generally we're unaware that it's occurring. We know to turn the music down if we're experiencing physical noise, but we rarely consider the need to clarify our language so as to avoid semantic distortion of our messages.

So, what does our humorous example of confusion over the word "dog" have to do with the Gospel? Stay tuned...

Friday, July 10, 2009

TNIV Pocket Sienna

Kudos to Zondervan! At last, they've released a pocket-sized TNIV that doesn't scream "teeny-bopper." I had a chance to view the new TNIV Pocket Bible in Vintage Sienna Duo-Tone in Barnes and Noble yesterday. I think it's a real step forward in their attempt to market the TNIV beyond the youth group market. I realize the neon green and bubble gum pink covers they've previously offered may appeal to some Bible readers, but as a twenty-something guy, I wouldn't be caught dead with one. For that reason alone, I'm thankful for this edition.

The Vintage Sienna Dou-Tone cover will feel right at home to those of you familiar with the nice line of Trutone ESV pocket Bibles. It seems Zondervan has begun paying attention to Crossway's success in offering a wide selection of size and cover options designed with the user in mind. The Duo-Tone is soft and has good flexibility. While I haven't had a chance to test it out long-term, the construction seems solid.

Another really nice feature is the consistency in page numbering with other TNIV text editions. This makes the TNIV well-suited for public reading and Bible study, especially in outreach settings in which everyone may not know their way around the books of the Bible. This is one innovation that other Bible publishers should seek to emulate.

Finally, the decision to release this as an all-black text edition is a nice touch, in my view. I realize many readers prefer red-letter editions, but I find black-letter editions more exegetically useful (e.g., in John 3 - I'd rather decide on textual grounds where Jesus' and John's words begin and end, than have the publisher decide for me). Not to mention the fact that poorly printed red type can cause eye strain. Which leads me to...

The text size. I'm generally okay reading pocket-sized Bibles, but I really had to squint to read the 5.8 pt. font on this one. While my eyes aren't too bad, I think I'd struggle reading this for an extended period of time. Had they gone with a slightly larger font (see, for example, the HCSB Large Print Compact Bible - 8 pt. font), this would be an ideal edition.

The TNIV Pocket Bible in Vintage Sienna Duo-Tone represents a positive step forward in Zondervan's push to gain wider usage of the TNIV. This would be a great pick-up as a travel/backpack Bible or for someone wanting to try the out the TNIV before plopping down big dough for a premium edition. I love the TNIV for home study, and would like to be able to pick up a copy to read on the go. However, until Zondervan releases a pocket edition with a larger font, I'll be sticking with my HCSB Large Print Compact.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Sav Lasav..."

Welcome to my new blog, Sav Lasav. I'll be blogging about the things I'm passionate about, including theology, Bible translation, and human communication. Hopefully this blog will have the opposite effect that its name indicates (Isaiah 28:10). But if it seems like nothing more than baby talk, well, don't say I didn't warn you...