Friday, January 23, 2009

Lost in Translation

I've just been thinking about some of the challenges inherent in communicating the gospel. I guess they start with identifying what the 'gospel' is, what is the good news of Jesus Christ? Already some of the more eager among you are raising your hands, "I know this one - Jesus died for our sins, right?"

Well, I'm not going to say that you're wrong but here's a few things to consider:

1. The message that Jesus died for our sins is only useful if people believe that they are sinful. This isn't the starting point for a lot of people today and I'm not sure the right response for us is to try and get them there by telling them how bad they are or trying to scare them with Hell.

2. A significant number of biblical scholars now suggest that a better translation is that Jesus died because of our sins. That is, a God-infused presence like Jesus of Nazareth who challenges the powerful and stands up for the disenfranchised will always end up dead. The aspect of sin emphasised here is the corporate seduction of power and influence that reacts violently to any threat.

3. Even in the New Testament, there are a number of opinions about what the most important thing is for Christians to remember. The gospels tell us that Jesus identified loving God and your neighbour as the essence of his religion.

4. It seems that Jesus was critical of the sacrificial system of his day. Isn't it strange then, that Christians created a sacrificial understanding of Jesus to replace the sacrificial understanding of the temple?

Now I realise that this is a highly divisive issue and that some of you have already lost my point about communication because you think that I'm questioning the idea of Jesus' sacrifice. Actually I don't have a problem with Jesus' death being understood as a sacrifice but that's a topic for another day. What I'm trying to illustrate is that even the most simple, apparently central aspects of Christianity are open to a number of valid interpretations and should be able to withstand rigorous questioning. If you lost that point, then you just proved it because it demonstrates the difficulty of communication. Of course, it's possible that communication is much easier than I think and that I'm just not very good at it. I'm open to that possibility as well.


Anonymous said...

What exactly do you believe, Jason?

Have you taken all the mumbo-jumbo out of the Salvation Army Doctrines, or is there still a little bit remaining?

JDK said...

Hi David,

So far this blog has recorded 279 entries on what I believe, but if you hang in there I'm sure there will be more to come.

Our doctrines are an important part of The Salvation Army. In the past, I've wanted to revise them, update the language, be more gender inclusive, reflect 21st century concepts and language but I'm no longer sure this is the right thing. The doctrines as they are reflect an important part of our heritage as a 19th century evangelical movement. They remind us of a past, which we neither want to idolise nor easily dismiss.

A historical examination of the development of The Salvation Army doctrines will reveal that the number and content of our doctrines changed for a while and perhaps this reflects in some way the reality of our current situation with regard to the core beliefs of most Salvationists. For example, though the doctrines don't include mention of Jesus' resurrection, it's a vital component of Salvation Army preaching and corporate life. Also, a contemporary Salvationist theology of social service would acknowledge Jesus' ongoing presence in the poor and the marginalised, though this is ommitted from our doctrines.

Just a few thoughts for the moment, more to come...

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

A less personal way of expressing this might be more helpful. So then the question could be put:

What is the central or essential message of the Christian faith that is being communicated? And where does it wander off the track, from the observably possible into the metaphysical realm of wonder and make-believe?

It's easy to see a character like Jesus ending up dead because he stood for the weak against the powerful. However, that might also be construed as someone who was simply not very politically astute. Others have behaved similarly and achieved different results.

More than all that, it's the add-on metaphysical qualities that are included in the Jesus story, such as your "God infused" description, or the once-for-all sacrifice for sins aspect. What's all that for? It looks as if a faith, like Christianity, needs an "unbelievable component" to enforce commitment on the believer's part. If that's the case, why not just believe in humanism, or some set of ideals that can be more universally agreed upon?

Because of the believe hurdle, Christianity, in spite of the good stuff, tends to tribalise peope, tends to create a "with us" or "against us" split.

JDK said...

Hi David,

Some good observations and essential questions. I will continue to try and address these in this blog. Just a couple of responses for the moment:

I suspect that Jesus knew exactly what he was getting himself into, just as more recent figures like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero did. He could have avoided a political execution by watering down his message but it seems that he deliberately chose not to do so.

The tribalism of Christianity continues to be a challenge for both those on the 'inside' and the 'outside'. Homogeneity can be very seductive and few of us enjoy the challenges of diversity as much as we might like.

Regards, JDK