I had only known her for a few hours when she shocked me for the first time. We were walking in the park, chatting, and mildly flirting when she told me that she liked my pants.
Her words froze me in my tracks. I liked her, but this was too much, way too soon.
"You like my pants?" I asked.
"Yes..." she said. "Is that okay?"
I wasn't sure what to say. I opened my mouth to reply and then the realization popped into my head: Because she is an American and I am British, she uses “pants” to mean something completely different to my understanding of the word.
"Oh..." I replied, "You mean you like my trousers? In Britain, 'pants' means 'underpants.'"
She blushed, laughed, and hurriedly explained, "Yes, yes, I like your trousers.”
"Thank goodness for that," I replied.
What You Say v. What They Imagine
Words are slippery things. My conversation with the woman in the park happened on two levels.
The first level was all about the syllables that left our mouths. We both made similar sounds, albeit with different accents, when we said the word “pants.” On this level, we seemed to be communicating flawlessly.
The problem lay in the second level: The images in our minds. When she said the word “pants,” her mind pictured a pair of jeans. Mine envisaged boxer shorts. Our divergent cultural backgrounds had conditioned us to hear “pants” in amusingly distinct ways.
Language works well if a group of people experience similar mental imagery when they hear words like “pants,” “horse,” “tree,” or “apple.” Our imagery never matches up exactly with someone else’s, but it usually correlates well enough for us to hold conversations and understand what the other person is trying to say.
Our ability to understand what another person is saying breaks down, however, the further apart we are from one another culturally and the less we attach similar mental imagery to shared vocabulary.
This can happen when foreigners—like the woman and me—converse, and it can also happen with our own compatriots. My friend Matt, for example, purchased a mobile phone for his technophobic grandfather, who turned the device on, read the word “menu” on the screen and roared with incredulity "Menu?! Why on earth would I want a menu?" He had only ever encountered the concept of a “menu” in a restaurant and the word therefore seemed entirely out of place appearing on his telephone.
The Pesky Cultural Gap Called "Christianese"
One of the big cultural gaps that distorts the meaning of language is the divide between people grounded in the Christian faith and those who are discovering it for the first time.
Christians routinely use words like “sin,” “salvation,” “fellowship,” “sanctification,” and “the gospel” without realizing these phrases can leave their friends confused or even repelled.
We easily overlook this disconnection because, when we talk with our friends about most other things (relationships, television, sports, study), we are speaking from within a shared cultural context that makes understanding relatively straightforward.
But when we begin to use words related to the Christian faith, it is like we are from two different countries. Some people say that Christians use their own impenetrable language called “Christianese.”
If you don't believe me, try this experiment: Think about the word “conversion.” It is filled with meaning for you, from all the Bible studies, books, and talks you have absorbed. If you had never encountered the Christian faith, though, what imagery would “conversion” trigger in your mind? Take 20 seconds to see what comes to mind.
I usually hear it used to describe a building project that makes the attic habitable (a “loft conversion”), as a term for comparing the relative value of money from different countries (a “currency conversion”), or as a way of changing the format of a document on a computer (“file conversion in progress”).
Sometimes I hear it described in relation to religion. But, with a few possible exceptions, religious conversion in our culture is not viewed warmly or perceived as an inviting prospect for most people. In fact, it often has overtones of manipulation (“that person is trying to convert me”) or of desperation (as in “deathbed conversion”).
“Conversion,” then, is not the straightforward word for most people that it is for Christians.
Neither are many of our other Christianese words.
Becoming a Translator
None of this means we should ditch key Christian ideas like “conversion.” The linguistic divide between Christians and everybody else may be vast, but it is also easily overcome. We can bridge the gap by either explaining or translating.
How to Explain
We can easily bridge the understanding gap by providing explanations of concepts such as “sin” or “salvation.” This means that we can keep the previously misunderstood word, but infuse it with a new meaning for those with whom we are communicating.
Explanation actually happens all the time in Christian gatherings. Our talks and presentations are full of it. And our GIGs are aimed at collectively uncovering the true meaning of initially confusing concepts. We are usually quite good at explaining. That's why speakers love using illustrations.
While explanation is a very useful tool, it does have some drawbacks. If we try to explain every single unfamiliar word it can become time-consuming, as well as reinforce for our friends the sense of Christianity as something foreign and complex. Explanation may be a useful tool in a talk, but it needs to be used more sparingly in other contexts like conversations and when we are leading meetings.
How to Translate
In most contexts, translation is a great alternative to explanation. Translation occurs when we take an unfamiliar word and, instead of expending vast energy explaining it, we simply substitute it with a different word or phrase.
It's what we English speakers do when we go to France: We don't go around explaining the word “hello” to everyone. Instead, we smile and say “bonjour,” which is the French equivalent of “hello.” We translate. It's simpler.
So, if we were to translate “conversion”—a term explained in What Is Conversion?—we might say “turning toward God.” It's a phrase that is more likely to evoke the sort of mental imagery we Christians see when we hear the word “conversion.”
Here are a few ideas of how you could translate some common Christianese words:
"Repentance" --> "Turning back to God"
"Sin" --> "My rejection of God"
"Grace" --> "God's goodness and generosity, in spite of whether or not we deserve it"
"Born again" --> "God changing me from the inside out"
"Savior and Lord" --> "Forgiver and leader"
"Faith" --> "Trust"
"Non-Christians" --> "People who are discovering Jesus for the first time," "people who wouldn't describe themselves as Christians."
Some of these suggestions may resonate with you more than others. Don't feel you have to copy them. Instead, why not come up with your own language for communication about Jesus? The key is to be easily understandable yet also faithful to the biblical or theological reality you are attempting to convey.
Great Reasons to Bridge the Cultural Divide
The woman I flirted with in the park that day continued to be my friend. Eventually, we got engaged, married, and now have two kids. Who knows what would have happened if I had thought she was the kind of girl who wanted to discuss the boxer shorts of a guy she had just met? Thankfully, clearing up the confusing language paved the way to a lasting relationship. Maybe as we learn to do the same thing when speaking of Jesus to our friends, we can also open the door to an enduring friendship between them and their creator.
How to Play Christianese Taboo
A great way to become a better translator is to get together with a few other Christians and play Christianese Taboo. Here’s how it works:
Mix all the scraps of paper up and divide them equally among everyone.
Take turns trying to explain your words to each other. You have to use no more than a single sentence to describe each one. The only rule is that you can't say what is written on your scrap of paper, nor can you use any word written on any of the other scraps of paper.
See if you can guess what word each person is trying to communicate.
When all the words have been used, mix them up, redistribute, and do it all again.
What's a Christianese word that you've found trips up your non-Christian friends? How have you tried to explain or translate it for them? Share in a comment below.