I'm taking a few days of vacation right now and am only at the computer in a very haphazard, hit and miss fashion. But, I still was wanting to get a post or two up while I was away so I thought I would recycle an old post from February 26, 2004 called the Language of Faith. This dealt with a few issues that I believed were important then and which still resonate with me now.
So, for those of you who weren't reading me back in Feb. 2004 this will give you an idea of what I was writing then and any feedback is welcome.
I'm still reading Marva Dawn's Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, this evening. She shares some thoughts on preaching that I think apply to all of life and the way we speak of our faith.
She says that rather than interpreting the Bible through the lens of the world, we need to interpret the world through the lens of our faith. That seems pretty self-evident on the surface, but it comes into play when we try to contextualize the message. I am not arguing that we not contextualize, but anytime we adapt the message to the cultural there is a sense in which we are letting the culture become our interpretive grid. She suggests that, rather than trying to put the Bible in the language of the world, we try to interpret the world in the language of the Bible.
This is not an easy formulaic thing. It may be easier said than done, because there is the matter of intelligibility. The Biblical message must be intelligible to the hearers. But, she suggests, and I think rightly so that the Biblical message is not as foreign to the culture as we might think. If the world doesn't understant what grace, faith and redemption are, we don't need so much to find new words to explain the concepts to the world, but simply teach the world what the concepts mean. Good thoughts!!
Also, in preaching the emphasis is to be on what God has done for us, not what we ought to do for Him. She cites the way a typical pastor might handle the story of the importunate widow in Luke 18:1-8. The typical preacher would use this story as a reminder to be persistent in prayer. Be persistent like the widow, until God gives what you ask for. However, the truth is that this story is not an exhortation to persistent prayer, it is a story meant to contrast the character of the unjust judge with the character of God. This is a story of what God is like, not what you must do to get what you want from Him. In contrast to the unjust judge, God is a gracious God, gracious and accessible enough to give us what we ask for before we ask Him.
As I look at the passage I am not sure I agree totally with her exegesis. Jesus opens the story by saying that this is to show that we should always pray and not give up. However, the story is not about praying for particular needs, it is about praying for justice. Jesus is exhorting eschatological prayer - prayer for justice for the people of God. What this is saying is that, in our prayers we must never give up our faith and hope that God will bring justice to us. God wants to give us justice, unlike the unjust judge, who simply wants to get rid of us.
So, though I quibble with her exegesis to a slight degree I think she is basically right - this is not a moralistic story exhorting us to pray to bend the will of an unwilling God. This is a story exhorting us to confidence in our prayers for justice for the people of God. The message is not "pray persistently," but "trust persistently." This trust will then enable our prayers of confidence.
She goes on to say, on page 237 that "A good language guide is to avoid all use of the words must, ought, should, or have to. Again, I'll have to demur slightly because in the passage she talked about, the word "should" is used. But in that case the "should" is an exhortation to trust and confidence in God. If "should" and "ought" and "must" are used in exhortations to trust and have faith in our great covenant God, then that is appropriate. But, if these words are used merely in a moralistic sense to motivate behavior then they, in effect, compromise the gospel. The gospel is not a message of "you should do," it is a message of "look what He has done."
And, it is obvious that this goes beyond mere preaching. This is the language of faith. Much Christian conversation uses the language of moralism, rather than the language of faith. As such, much Christian conversation is life-taking, not life-giving. The gospel brings life, so "must" our language.