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...

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