return to religion-online

The Language Gap and God: Religious Language and Christian Education by Randolph Crump Miller

Dr. Miller is Horace Bushnell professor of Christian nurture at Yale University divinity school. He is the author of The American Spirit in Theology (Pilgrim, 1974.) Published by Pilgrim Press, Philadelphia and Boston, 1970. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 1: Language and the Gospels

"How does one speak of God in a secular age?" This is the complex and difficult question facing all religious teachers and communicators. It is not a new problem, but today it cuts across all areas of religious education. In spite of many developments in educational theory and practice, the evidence of religious illiteracy is startling. In spite of the many people who still attend church school, parochial school, church, and synagogue, the results in terms of articulateness as well as commitment are unsatisfactory.

This stress on the verbal side of education cannot be ignored, although there are many ways of reaching people through appeal to senses other than hearing and seeing, and experiments with multi-media approaches are important. Christianity has historically been a verbal religion, relying on scripture, liturgy, and theology as means of teaching and survival. Life in community, drama in worship, and action in the world have been expressions of Christian living, but at the center has been "the word of God." Much routine teaching has been in terms of using words; it has been linear rather than multi-media; it has been logical and systematic rather than poetic and impressionistic; it has emphasized the givenness of the content rather than the discovery of meaning.

Even in the recent past, an emphasis on the right answer in the catechism, the proper Bible verse, the correct moral decision, or the acceptable behavior in worship has been considered at least a minimal objective for religious education; some teachers have been satisfied with this approach, but others have claimed that such results are a parody of Christian expectations.

Today, however, most teachers are aware that they do not have all the answers. Indeed, some of them are sensitive to the changes taking place in religious thinking, to the uncertainty about many traditional beliefs, and to the difficulty of speaking of God so as to be understood. They are seeking to be honest about their beliefs, to recognize myth and legend and poetry, to see the validity of festival and fantasy, to relate their faith to the secular world, and to speak to the new generation in language that can be understood. These teachers are charged with using a biblical faith as a basis for illuminating today’s world, and they are frustrated by the difficulty of interpreting first-century Eastern literature to a twentieth-century technological society.

The language of the early Christians fitted their culture. At first, they used the Jewish scriptures, which reflected the life of the Middle East. As Christianity moved into the world of the Greeks and the Romans, their uses of language changed to meet the new situation. After the canon of the New Testament was closed, they continued with their theologies and later their catechisms to adapt their language to the changing conditions. As long as there was a relatively close connection between the language of Christians and the culture, teaching was not difficult. Even the Reformation with its return to biblical language did not provide too great a strain.

However, whenever Christianity was introduced into a strange culture, difficulties emerged. Missionaries have always faced the problem of how to communicate their beliefs without at the same time introducing their own cultural presuppositions. They usually followed colonial invasions with the cultural accretions that accompanied them. If enough British culture, for example, was introduced in India or Kenya, then the people could become Anglicans at the same time. In countries where Westernizing influences were slight, the missionaries had more difficulty.

When a foreign way of thinking is introduced into a culture, the tendency is to form an antibody to dispel it (as with a transplanted kidney) or to disintegrate as the new form takes over. Unless there is a point of meeting that accepts the merging of the two, the results are disastrous.

A familiar illustration of this point is the failure of the American Indian to be integrated into the common national life. Clyde Kluckhohn spent many years studying the Navahos. He used all the tools of cultural anthropology to observe, classify, and evaluate his data. But he did not understand them. When, finally, he learned to use their concepts to describe the facts observed in their way, he was confronted with a philosophy that made sense of their way of living. The Navaho view at points is irreconcilable with the white man’s, and what seems just and fair to the white man is demoralizing to the Navaho.(See Clyde Kluckhohn, "The Philosophy of thc Navaho Indians," F. S. C. Northrop, ed., Ideological Differences and World Order (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949), chap. 17; also, F. S. C. Northrop. Man, Nature and God (New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1962), pp. 34-35) Every culture and subculture has a system of meanings that identifies it and becomes a basis for the thinking and behavior of its members.

None of us is asking how to think as a Navaho in modem society. The problem is similar, however, if we ask how to be a first-century Jewish-Christian Bible reader, with the accompanying concepts that made sense in that context, in today’s world. Or, if this jump seems too big, at least we are asking how we can think as a sixteenth-century follower of Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, or Cranmer in today’s world. Or, as the problem seems to emerge today, how one who thinks in terms of the Christian beliefs of the 1950’s can be relevant in the world of the youth of the 1970’s with their own subculture, of those who are developing a new sense of identity in the black subculture, or of the members of a technological society that has lost the sense of mystery and poetry.

This problem has become clearer as we approach new studies in religions language. Ian T. Ramsey suggests that when we see that

these biblical narratives and classical references were themselves interlocked with a contemporary culture and social pattern, and in this wider context had their point, then there is reason to hope that this original point may now break in on us as we bring alongside our own particular situation. We may then, using an obvious model, talk of God speaking to us in our own day.(Ian T. Ramsey, On Being Sure in Religion (London: The Athlone Press, 1963), p. 35.)

Ramsey’s diagnosis is probably correct, but the solution bristles with difficulties. Our Western culture has moved so rapidly in the past half century, our ways of thinking have been so affected by the scientific, technological, and secular advances, that our situation seems divorced almost completely from society as presupposed in biblical and traditional theological thinking. Achievements in terms of comfortable living, rapid transportation, mass media, and health turn people’s thoughts to technology, automation, and computers. The increasing urbanization, with its attendant problems, leaves little room for meditating on rural and nomadic scenes in biblical literature. Social changes, especially as demanded by blacks and students, point to new idealisms and new pressures. Poetry, mystery, and talk about revelation have more and more dropped out of contemporary life. Traditional moral sanctions are seriously questioned.

Biblical language might free us from some of these limitations if we were capable of thinking in such images, but we have become too literal in our thinking. Are we not like Nicodemus who, when Jesus talked about being reborn, wanted to know if one would literally return to his mother’s womb? What do we do with such phrases as "Christ lives in me" or ‘‘work out your own salvation. . . . but Christ works in you" or (from Ignatius of Antioch) "Jesus Christ, his son, who is his word proceeding from silence"? Christianity formed its own vivid, imageful, poetic vocabulary, and the question today is, What does it all mean?

Christianity a Speech-Event

As background for any approach to Christian education through the insights of the findings of the philosophers of language, we need to look closely at the uses of language in the Bible, and especially in the Gospels. Amos N. Wilder provides an analysis of early Christian uses of language which is extremely helpful.(Amos N. Wilder, The Language of the Gospels: Early Christian Rhetoric (New York: Harper & Row, 1964). This book provides the basis for many of the comments in this chapter.) It is the nontechnical speech of the common man, lacking in literary pretensions. It is a language with uplifting properties, speaking of new tongues and new songs, reporting on events and teachings that promise the coming of salvation. Because it was a new way of looking at God, man, and the world, it needed new forms of expression.

Ernst Fuchs has called Christianity a "speech-event," a renewal of myth. "Primitive Christianity," he writes, "is itself a speech phenomenon. It is for this very reason that it established a monument in the new style-form which we call a ‘gospel.’ The Johannine Apocalypse and, indeed, in the first instance the apostolic epistle-literature, these are creations of a new utterance which changes everything it touches."(Ernst Fuchs, "Die Sprache im Neuen Testament," Zur Frage nach dem historischen Jesus (Tübingen, 1960), p. 261; quoted by Wilder, op. cit., p. 18.)

The religion of Israel, even though it appealed to all the senses, had a special place for hearing, and as the oral mode became permanent, it was transferred to the written. It was not a scientific and descriptive language but a means of providing God’s commands for the hearers who are expected to respond. Thus Israel and after it Christianity became religions of the "book."

There was no holy language; it was the common everyday language translated into whatever tongue the listeners spoke and infused with the enthusiasm of the believers. The New Testament used the rich store of images in the Old Testament, interpreting them with great freedom and mixing them with new ones. Only occasionally were Old Testament prophecies used in a wooden way to underscore the significance of an act of Jesus.

The oral speech behind the written record seemed often to be extempore and immediately relevant. This was particularly true of the words of Jesus, whose use of direct discourse and dialogue led to confrontation not only with him but through him with the Father. Paul preferred oral speech and sent letters as a substitute, and even these letters preserved the occasional nature of spoken dialogue.

Even though Christianity placed great emphasis on the word, and especially the oral word, it was not ‘just talk." The purpose was to portray a revelation and not to win an argument. Therefore, the writings were brief and to the point. One makes a different selection of points to bring about a new insight from those chosen to win a debate. The Gospels, written to reveal the nature of the Son of God, do not pretend to be biographies of Jesus. No inflated rhetoric was necessary, and the need for brevity led to both liberation and purification in the use of language.

Two other points made by Wilder need to be kept in mind. First, the significance and depth of the New Testament writings were "evidently deeply determined by the faith or life-orientation that produced them."(Wilder, op. cit., p. 34) Second, particular social patterns led to the formation of this literature, which is the expression of the faith of a community. A new society had been formed which used these materials in their worship and in their common life, and in turn these demands forged the materials prior to their final, written form.

These new forms cannot be identified simply as history, biography, oratory, or poetry, although these are elements in the writings. Partly because Christianity was a novelty in its own right and was a "speech-event," and partly because it arose out of a tradition of Judaism and the Orient, these categories do not fit. Wilder suggests that we use Gospel, dialogue, story, parable, poem, and myth.


The one new kind of writing is the Gospel. It does not fit the categories of biography, hero story, or tragedy. It is not a myth or saga. It is not the work of a single author. It is a community’s expression of the record of "a divine transaction whose import involves heaven and earth"(Ibid., pp. 36-37.) in which the believer finds himself a participant. Here is the meaning of life for the believer in community, as he himself is transformed into a new being.

Yet the four Gospels are not alike. Mark is something of a faith story. Matthew is more a tract of instruction. Luke -- Acts is written as if from a later perspective. John is more like a "sacred drama or oratorio." The major thrust of these writings is found in microcosm in the anecdotes of healing and exorcism, in the parables, and in the passion and resurrection stories as the "concrete dramatization of the power of God effecting what is impossible with men."(Ibid., pp. 37-38.)

The Gospels combine what Jesus said and did with the faith of the Christian community, and this community knew Jesus partly by remembrance but chiefly as a living, contemporary, and human-divine figure who needed to be interpreted in order that the community could live in terms of its divine commission. It not only needed to hear the Gospel; it also needed to weave the Gospel into its worship and life. The earliest liturgical forms grew from the soul of the Gospels; the earliest preaching recounted the Gospel anecdotes or summarized the whole story as did Peter at Pentecost. For a time this process was chiefly oral, partly because oral transmission was customary but chiefly because oral transmission provided the sense of immediacy that the Gospels intended. The expectation that God would bring an end to things made written words unnecessary. Even when the expectation of the end was postponed, the immediacy of the claim of God upon them was never lost. This note of immediacy remains today as an essential note of the Gospels.

It is not hard to believe that the early followers of Christ found this kind of reality in the Gospels. But the twentieth-century Western man has difficulty today in recreating the sense of urgency. Man has his own anxieties in the twentieth century, which may be as pressing as those of the first century, but he has difficulty in grasping the meaning of his life in terms of the Gospel. The Gospel as a "speech-event" forces modern educators to look to the analysis of language to discover how the basic meaning of the Gospel can be communicated in today’s world.


There is nothing new about the letter form, and in the days of the New Testament letters were sometimes unsigned or written in another’s name. Discourses meant for wide circulation were sometimes written as letters. The value of a letter is that it is personal and flexible and comes nearest to oral speech. Some of Paul’s letters were dictated and maintain an oral atmosphere. Letters, furthermore, can be relevant to a particular situation and may become part of a dialogue.

What is radically new about Paul’s letters is the way in which they are addressed, an opening which is Christianized and which presents the writer as one who speaks under God for the community. They serve a purpose different from that of the Gospels. They are more didactic, include some dogmatic statements, provide moral instruction, and even suggest forms of organization. Beneath these practical considerations, they express in ways that often approach poetry the deepest aspects of Christian faith. They seek to express in new ways the mystery of the transaction whereby Jesus Christ mediates salvation to those who believe.

Take, for example, Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 6:8-10: "As deceivers, vet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing all things." This passage has been full of vivacity and power for many believers, as it was for Paul’s original readers. Yet, if it is reduced to a logical definition, it is absurd. "A theological paradox," writes Charles Hartshorne, "it appears, is what a contradiction becomes when it is about God rather than something else, or indulged in by a theologian or a church rather than an unbeliever or a heretic."(Charles Hartshorne. The Divine Reality: A Social Conception of God [New haven, Conn,: Yale University Press, 1948], p.1.) However, the canons of logic may not be suitable for judging this statement; for this assertion, just because of its logical oddity or paradoxical form, may trigger a disclosure that is essential to the possibility of a religious commitment.

We may use the epistles, then, for a variety of purposes. As occasional letters, they sought to speak to specific situations, and each situation required its own content and logic. Only on occasion did Paul’s imagination rise to flights of paradox and poetic forms. This is where the high poetry of the passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13 or the paradoxes on the nature of sin in Romans 7 have immediate cash value. A careful analysis of the use and meaning of his language is essential for using his writings today.

We may come to the same conclusions concerning the letters which are not so direct and personal in intent (e.g., James) and examine them on their own terms. These letters show more concern with the language of obligation as it is related to the language of faith. To be equipped for ministry in the world becomes an essential part of the educational process.


The preference for the oral as against the written tradition continued even after the New Testament was in written form. Quotations from the early Church Fathers often are variations of the written form and represent what they heard. Wilder believes that we now have tools for getting closer to the oral forms, for they also had their own conventions. ‘The perennial features of natural eloquence had been developed to a high art in the tradition that lay behind the parables and aphorisms of Jesus."(Wilder, op. cit., p. 51.) We find a combination of novelty and tradition so that images and forms were affected by the content.

There is much two-way speech in the Gospels: dialogue in the forms of question and answer, discussion, and story and comment. We see the background for this in the Old Testament, especially in God’s dealings with men, where men listen to God, argue with him, and submit to him. There are also many passages of dialogue between men. In the New Testament, this tradition is carried on.

The power of such dialogue is illustrated by the denial of Peter when he was accused of being with Jesus prior to Jesus’ arrest: "I do not know this man of whom you speak (Mark 14:71)." Wilder says:

We have here a plebian, low-life episode involving personalities that are nonentities -- a police court disturbance. Yet in our gospel context all the issues of world-history gather about it; issues of blessedness and damnation, whether for Peter, or for those to whom the early message was orally preached, or for us who read it after two millennia. This new plain rhetoric of the Gospel was what it was only because it was prompted by a new direct speech or word of God himself to men. What makes such stories and such dialogue so formidable is that in each one God, as it were, forces us to give him a face-to-face answer, or, to look him in the eye.(Ibid., p. 56.)

It is an illuminating experience to go through the Gospels seeking to identify genuine dialogue. Sometimes the questions are staged or inept, as so often in the Fourth Gospel, but there is a realism about most of the situations in which "radical personal challenge and encounter are primary." (Ibid., p. 61.) To discover who puts the question or what the situation is, to see the force of the answers or the point of the discussion, is to be drawn into the significance of the dialogue ourselves. This may be carried over into the responses in worship, antiphonal forms of prayer, and hearing the sermon.

The use of dialogue has become dominant in some theories of Christian education in recent years. Reuel L. Howe has defined it as "that address and response between persons in which there is a flow of meaning between them in spite of all the obstacles that normally would block the relationship."(Reuel L. Howe, the Miracle of Dialogue [New York: Seabury Press, 1962], p. 37.)

If we take a more verbal view of dialogue, as do the linguistic philosophers, we need to be sure of the agreed meaning and uses of the words. Jesus is portrayed in dialogue with enemies who have not sought an interpersonal relationship with him. Their questions are meant to trap him into indiscreet or treasonous replies. He needs to understand the implications as well as the direct meaning of their questions and to answer in a way that will safeguard his meaning. But in his discourses with his disciples, Jesus is portrayed as having a sound interpersonal relationship and yet the disciples have difficulty in understanding what seems to us, from our standpoint, as the plain meaning of his replies.

One purpose of dialogue is to get people on the same wave-length, to establish the way words are being used, to agree o which language-game is valid for the particular purpose. For example, when a seven-year-old asks, "Is it true?" his language that of the one who wants to test the assertion by an appeal experience; he is uninterested in more sophisticated theories the nature of truth, and he considers myths, fairy tales, legends, parables, and poetry to be "untrue" even if useful. But the dialogue does not clarify anything unless we can operate terms of his view of truth, which establishes the form of his language-game. The problem is similar when a child asks "Which came first, Adam and Eve or the dinosaur?" He has already mixed his language-games and it is necessary to establish the proper categories of language before either Adam and Eve or extinct Mesozoic Saurian reptiles can profitably be discussed. The dinosaur belongs properly to the scientific language of the reconstruction of biological history, and the Genesis story be longs to a biblical category of mythic thinking. The proper us of question and answer can help the student to make distinctions on his own, and the art of conversation is an excellent tool for eliminating misconceptions based on category mistakes.

A final point about dialogue is that it can be a means of in sight when the answer is unexpected or contains an element of distortion or hyperbole. This is evident in much of the dialogue given to us in the Gospels. A mixing of logically odd assertions from two language-games may lead to a disclosure. A statement, "Thou art the man," can convict David of his misdeed with Bathsheba.


Another important literary form in the Gospels is the story. Teachers have always used stories, often with certain aids to memorization such as rhythms, factual expressions, and gestures. Stories are living, oral speech.

The Gospel stories have some unique characteristics, according to Wilder. They have a simple, secular base that may be misleading, for they point beyond the immediate experience. They draw into themselves the great plot of God’s redemption of mankind, reflecting the overall drama of the Bible in many small subplots. They have a power to draw the listener into the meaning of the story. "Perhaps the special character of the stories in the New Testament lies in the fact that they are not told for themselves, that they are not only about other people, but that they are always about us."(Wilder, op. cit., p. 65.) The story may end, but our participation may carry on in terms of challenge, belief, and action.

One impression we get from the Gospels is that they are strung together from a number of anecdotes which are not necessarily in the order in which they occurred, even if they are historical. They probably circulated as independent units at first; they were sharpened and improved with constant retelling, although some may have been garnished with extra details and therefore became less clearly focused. Undoubtedly some were dropped from the repertoire, as the Gospel of John suggests. These anecdotes were fitted into the larger frame of reference, usually from the perspective of the post-Easter church.

Because of the post-resurrection viewpoint, anecdotes of healing and exorcism were combined with the passion story and the words of Jesus as the Son of God in a transaction that changed heaven and earth. The faith of the community was expressed by and undergirded by the Gospels.

Wilder illustrates this thesis with one of the healing stories.(See ibid., pp. 70-74.) We miss the point if we concentrate on Jesus the wonder worker or use the story to bolster our hopes when we go to a healing service or shrine. These things may or may not be suitable, but they are not the point of the story. The meaning of the event is seen in a post-resurrection perspective "as a manifestation of a general redemption for the whole people of God." Physical, moral, and spiritual distress were all one for the early Christians, and they were concerned with the redemption of the total person.

The place of the story in Christian education is of paramount significance, and we will return to this topic from time to time. A special form of it is the parable.


The parables are integral parts of the telling of the story of redemption. They have great variety of form but always speak of the purpose of revelation. They are more like a metaphor than a simile, for a metaphor provides "an image with a certain shock to the imagination which directly conveys vision of what is signified." (Ibid., p. 80.)A metaphor, as Ian I. Ramsey says, "yields many possibilities of articulation,"(Ian T. Ramsey, Models and Mystery (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 48. See his whole treatment of the topic, pp. 48-57. "A simile is a comparison proclaimed as such, whereas a metaphor is a tacit comparison made by the substitution of the compared notion for the one to be illustrated. . . . Every metaphor presupposes a simile & every simile is compressible or convertible into a metaphor. . . . It may fairly be said that every parable is extended metaphor & allegory extended simile." Margaret Nichcolson, A Dictionary of American-English Usage, based on Fowler’s Modern English Usage (New York: Oxford University Press. 1957), p. 520.) and this opens up the variety of interpretations some parables have received. Some scholars insist that a parable has only a single point, and to find other points is like pushing an analogy too far. Yet both Wilder and Ramsey assert that a metaphor, like a parable, stimulates the imagination and therefore evokes insight that it may not control.

Jesus’ parables reflect the places and times of his own ministry. They have a secular note about them. There may be some Old Testament allusions, which are also secular. As a result, the moral and religious applications or implications refer to the world in which men live. There is no precious religiosity in them.

Wilder helps our understanding of the parables of the kingdom. Because they arc clearly metaphorical, they stimulate the imagination in various ways, and so, from Wilder’s point of view, they may be misinterpreted as, say, parables of growth. They need a context in which the harvest is coming. The prophetic expectation is to be fulfilled in the here and now. Jesus combined the language of the coming kingdom and the language of the layman to make his point. He is not advising the farmer to "keep his chin up" because next year the rains might come. "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field (Matt. 13:44). Here the emphasis is on ‘‘the joy in the discovery’’ and not on the value or the sacrifice.(Wilder, op. cit., p. 94.)

Both parables and stories are essential in all teaching. The language philosophers, as we shall see, are happy with both, especially with the parable because it is never purely factual and therefore needs no verification. Yet a parable has a basic realism about it, which can be destroyed if it becomes too obviously allegorical. Perhaps this is the proper test for all parables: if the ornamentation is not necessary for the parable to make its points, then that portion of it should be eliminated. Jesus’ parables stand up under this test. Those who are teachers necessarily tell their own parables, and the penetrating realism of Jesus is a proper example of what teachers in their lesser ways are trying to do.


The poetry of the Bible, and especially of the Gospels, does not fit into our Western norms, except that rhythm is basic. In the New Testament, the poetic prose of the Greeks and the parallelism and accentuated rhythms of the Jews are apparent. We find aphorisms, prophetic oracles, psalms, and hymns, some of which reflect heathen patterns with a Jewish or Christian cast.(See ibid., pp. 103-5, 112; also Ian T. Ramsey, Christian Discourse [London: Oxford University Press, 1965], pp. 14-20.) It is not easy for the modern Western mind to distinguish prose from poetry, and one is not helped by the way many translations of the Bible have been printed. (See, for examples, Ephesians 5:4; I Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11a-13a; I John 2:9-11.)

The early Christian community had its own poetry and songs: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Col. 3:16)." The freedom and creativity of the speech-event are evident, especially when we remember that speaking with tongues expressed this same enthusiasm. Such poetry was naive and lacking in sophistication and sustained style, but it sang a new song in no uncertain tones.

As we will see in chapter 6, this use of what Canon Drink-water calls "poetic-simple" language is significant for the communication of religious faith. It is the language of disclosure, discernment, or insight; and its proper use may evoke a new way of looking on life. It is a language-game in a new dimension, and it has its own uses and meanings which point to a reality that includes a profound mystery, the mystery of life and death.


Western categories do not take adequate account of myth. Myth, ritual, and emotion interact in primitive religion, and they are necessary in any profound worship. This "mythic mentality’’ runs throughout the New Testament. Such pictorial imagery reaches a surrealist stage in the Book of Revelation, but this must not hinder us from seeing how mythic thinking permeates all the writings.

Wilder understands myth

in the sense of total world-representation, involving, of course, not only what we would call the external cosmos but man as well, and all in the light of God. . . . If the Word of God must necessarily speak with the mythopoetic words of men, it is all the more inevitable that this should be so where the ultimate issues of existence are in question.(Wilder, op. cit., pp. 128-29. A consideration of Bultmann’s approach to myth appears in chapter 4.)

We are operating here with a specialized language-game, a category of language that cannot be reduced to factual description, and yet with imagery that cannot be reproduced without assistance in the twentieth century. The early Christians formulated the myths of their time both to express their faith and to combat early or erroneous contemporary myths. Just as twentieth-century myths have to be combated, so did earlier ones. We have had Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority and the place of the Jews, myths that accept scientism as an accurate portrayal of the meaning of life, myths of the destiny of the American nation as a melting pot or as a guardian of the world, and the myth of Horatio Alger. But we have difficulties with the myths of the New Testament, and we need to learn how to use mythopoetic language derived from the biblical faith in the modern world. To this problem we will return in chapter 4.

Educational Implications

What this chapter has demonstrated is that insofar as Christian education is based on the Bible we have to see how much we rely on specific literary forms for teaching. These forms are sometimes alien to the modern generation, or at least they are not recognized as the forms being used and therefore the wrong questions arc asked of them. Any mixture of categories of language can be dangerous, and yet some mixing is essential if one is to gain insight into religious meanings. Further analysis of religious language is necessary if we are to clarify our verbal approaches to teaching.

But even as we begin this study, we can gain some educational insights from Wilder’s approach as it stands. He warns that "one cannot merely repeat the words of the Bible, or lay one passage of the New Testament next to another, and so pretend to communicate the gospel." Interpretation is essential. We need to discover what the images meant originally, within the life situation of the speaker and the hearers, and this opens up the possibility of interpretation for our own day.

Wilder, like others whom we will examine, places emphasis on the story, for it is through the story that the Christian confesses his faith. Personages in stories can be identified with, and thus the purposes of the stories may be appropriated. In this sense, every Christian story is open-ended, leaving the future in the hands of the hearers. Furthermore, when enough stories have been told, the hearer begins to see the framework of the Christian view of life, with its emphasis on the work of God in the world and on the promise of salvation. Every form of Christian rhetoric derives ultimately from this world view.

Another implication is that the teacher must be able to move from theological to lay language. This is what parables are admirably equipped to do. To do this takes a combination of imagination, sensitivity, and skills that challenge any teacher.

However, the Bible remains a strange book. The more prosaic minds have not been happy with it, and some of the philosophers of language, in spite of their use of stories, have difficulty with the rich, mythic, paradoxical imagery. The daring assertions about the nature of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, man, and the world strain the credulity of the modern man. He finds the following statement made by Horace Bushnell in 1849 difficult to accept:

There is no book in the world that contains so many repugnances, or antagonistic forms of assertion, as the Bible. Therefore, if any man please to play off his constructive logic upon it, he can easily show it up as the absurdest book in the world. But whoever wants, on the other hand, really to behold and receive all truth, and would have the truth-world overhang him as an empyrean of stars, complex, multitudinous, striving antagonistically, yet comprehended, height above height, and deep under deep, in a boundless score of harmony; what man soever, content with no small rote of logic and catechism, reaches with true hunger after this, and will offer himself to the many-sided forms of the scripture with a perfectly ingenuous and receptive spirit; he shall find his nature flooded with senses, vastnesses, and powers of truth, such as it is even greatness to feel.(Horace Bushnell, God in Christ [Hartford: Parsons & Brown, 1849] pp. 69-70; reprinted in H. Sheldon Smith, ed., Horace Bushnell [New York and London: Oxford University Press], pp. 96-97)

Bushnell’s statement is fundamentally sound, especially when it is understood within the context of his theory of religious language, which we will consider in chapter 6, but it may mislead those who are caught up in some forms of biblical theology. Biblical theology has been helpful in clarifying some of the major themes of the Bible and in seeing that it has a complex unity. It is necessary that we think of the Bible as a record of the mighty acts of God, and it may well be understood as a drama, the five acts being Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, Consummation( See my Biblical theology and Christian Education [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956]). But within this drama, each portion of scripture must be examined on its own merits or it may be twisted out of its proper context in order to fit a prearranged scheme. Furthermore, there is no excuse to move beyond proper linguistic analysis in considering the meaning of terms.

It is at this point that James Barr’s warnings are relevant. There is a school of thought that advises us to "think biblically," and yet neglects "the social consciousness of the meaning of words," and "the exact contribution made by a word in its context and communicated between the speaker and the hearer, or the writer and the reader." (James Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language [London: Oxford University Press, 1961], p. 281.) They have their good words and their bad words, and they seek to fit their biblical materials into a "good word" theology. The objection, from the standpoint of language analysis, is that they have not paid adequate attention to the normal use and meaning of words. If the Bible is to speak plainly, it must not be subject to imposed patterns even if they seem to be theologically proper.

Wilder’s approach avoids this kind of distortion, and if we follow his approach in Christian education we will be on the right track. Within the broad scope of belief in a "God who acts," we are free to examine the speech and actions of men, and we discover that most of their language is nonspecialized and nontechnical, with occasional words that are specifically religious in their connotation. The ease with which the early Christians translated their writings into Greek and other languages indicates that they, at least, had no prejudice in favor of any language, even Hebrew or Aramaic, for communicating religious ideas. In Christian education, then, the translation that comes closest to being the language of the students is the one to use.

Yet this early Christian vocabulary was plastic, rich, poetic, logically odd, and in some eases novel. In our effort to show that there was no "holy language," we must not forget that the language dealt with such concepts as "holy," "glory," and visions of the future, and did so in such a way that enduring impressions were made on the total persons of those who came under its influence.

As we turn to consider the theories of religious language that can help us in the proper verbal uses in Christian education, we need to keep in mind that the "God-talk" of the early Christians was on the whole nonspecialized and secular, and yet such talk dealt with holy things and with the drama of the salvation of mankind.

Viewed 95204 times.