On May 19, 2014

Translation: Don’t Translate Everything

Why has Christian language been co-opted by corporate America? Partly because the church doesn’t know what to do with her own stuff. We can’t figure out who to use it in this new world…We’ve lost the ability to teach old dogmas new tricks. -Leonard Sweet

Translation Picture

So for the past few months, I’ve been writing about Translation, and the reason that it’s so important for churches and Christians to translate the Gospel into the context and time that we are actually living in.

But now, I’d like to start turning this series by pointing out that translation has it’s limitations. Specifically, there is a sense in which we can over-translate.

In one of his books, Leonard Sweet talks about one of the first times he went to a Starbucks. He tried to order a regular cup of coffee, and the barista just stared back at him blankly, and then he handed Sweet a booklet called Make it Your Drink”

In giant font, the booklet read “Learning the Lingo” But what struck Leonard Sweet was that this book was not a training book for new employees, it was created for the customers of Starbucks.

Not only does Starbucks expect you to pay $5 for a cup of coffee, their genius is that they demanded customers to learn a lingo. Starbucks employees are trained to help new people comprehend a language we do not yet speak. They don’t say, “I won’t serve you until you learn our language.” But they do want us to learn the language of their community, and (here’s the part churches tend to be bad at) they give resources to help teach us.

Veni Sancte Spiritus

A couple of months ago, we had the Anglican priest and author Ian Morgan Cron come preach at the Highland Church. Ian’s written a couple of great books, but the reason I wanted him to come preach was because of something he’d done at a retreat for preachers I’d recently attended. He had taken a 5th century Christian hymn, and turned it into a contemporary song. I wanted him to do this at Highland.

So he did. He came in and preached about communion, and then he lead us in singing an ancient Christian hymn that he, and some songwriters, had translated into a great contemporary style.

The name of it was “Veni Sancte Spiritus”

I know that actually sounds a bit like I’m still talking about Starbucks, but it’s not about coffee. It’s Latin, and it just means “Come Holy Spirit”

But Ian didn’t fully translate that part, he told us what it meant, and then asked us to sing it.  That may just sound incidental, but let me tell you what not translating it did. In singing those three words, not translated, we were subtly reminded that this story isn’t an American one. It didn’t originate in English, or in the 20th century.

In singing those words we were reminded that this Jesus story is a story with some meat on it’s bones. It’s a story we’ve inherited from men and women, who at great personal costs have lived out the Gospel, and they did it in other language.

In singing that song, in that way, we were reminded that we stand in solidarity with the ages that have gone before us and a Gospel that belongs to the whole world.

The Words of God

Eugene Peterson (author of the Message translation of the Bible) once said, “In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.”  I think that’s right, I”m not asking for us to speak Christianese, but to use the words of God to tell the story of God.

In one of his several recent books, N.T Wright talks about it this way:

The enormously popular worship songs, some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaces, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul searching of the Psalms themselves. This I believe, is a great impoverishment. By all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their enduring charm.

I think that’s right on two levels, one the Church must continually write new songs, but she must also continually reach for the same story.

Some people will read this and immediately begin to grumble that their church doesn’t sing the songs they like, but that’s not my point at all. In fact, singing songs you don’t like, in styles you don’t like,  may be a great way of growing as a Christian, you may come to see your worship as primarily singing songs that really blesses other people.

But the worship songs themselves must always be for, about, and to God.

Greek Orthodox Funeral Censer

Greek Orthodox Funeral Censer

This past week I went to two very different funerals. They were both deeply Christian, but from very different traditions. One was the first Greek Orthodox funeral I’ve ever attended, it was filled with incense and liturgy that’s been used for thousands of years, the other was in a Church of Christ in the metroplex. The form was incredibly different. The words were not.

In fact, at one point both funerals sang these words: “Christ is risen from the dead, he’s trampled over death by death.”

These are words from an ancient Christian hymn and one sang it with drums and the other chanted it while swinging incense, but they both sang the same words.

Here’s the thing I don’t think we realize when we are talking about worship. Everyone of us is going to sing someone else’s words…I would love it, if the words were God’s words.

Because if Scripture is right, when God speaks He creates worlds.

I think they still do.

So let’s take a lesson from Starbucks. Don’t translate everything.

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  • Mark

    That is why in high church every Sunday, a psalm is sung by the cantor(s) with the congregation often singing the response or every other line. The old psalms still have lots of meaning.

  • Cathy Moore

    The service with Ian Cron was wonderful. Thank you so much for bringing him to highland.