"Speaking Christian," by which I mean knowing and understanding Christian language, is in a state of crisis in North America today. I suspect the crisis extends to other parts of the world as well, but I write about the cultural terrain I know best. The crisis is twofold. For many, an increasing number, Christianity has become an unfamiliar language. Many people either do not know the words at all or, if they have heard the words, have no idea what they mean.
But Christian illiteracy is only the first part of the crisis. Even more seriously, even for those who think they speak "Christian" fluently, the faith itself is often misunderstood and distorted by many to whom it is seemingly very familiar. They think they are speaking the language as it has always been understood, but what they mean by the words and concepts is so different from what these things have meant historically, that they would have trouble communicating with the very authors of the past they honor.
So why do I express this crisis as a problem of language? Because language is the medium through which people participate in their religion. To be part of a religion means being able to speak and understand its language. Every religion has a basic vocabulary: its "big" words and collections of words, spoken and heard in worship, embodied in rituals and practices.
Thus to be Jewish means "speaking Jewish"; to be Muslim means "speaking Muslim"; to be Buddhist means "speaking Buddhist"; and so forth. By "speaking" I do not mean merely knowing either the ancient languages of these religions or their modern descendants. I mean something more basic: the way practitioners use the concepts and ideas from their religion as a lens through which to see the world, the way they use them to connect their religion to their life in the world.
To use an illuminating phrase from recent scholarship, religions are "cultural-linguistic traditions."1 What this means is both simple and important. Every religion originated in a particular culture and thus used the language of that culture, even if in ways that radically challenged it. If a religion survived over time, it became a cultural-linguistic tradition in its own right, with its own language, its basic vocabulary, sacred texts and stories, rituals and practices. These are often organized into comprehensive systems of thought-what Christians call theology, including doctrines and dogmas.
In this respect, being Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) is like being French (or Turkish or Korean). One of the criteria for being French is the ability to speak French. Another is being able to understand French. We would not think someone fluent in French if that person could only speak it, but not understand it. In the same way, literacy means more than simply being able to make sounds out of written words. It also involves having some understanding of what the words mean. Christian literacy means not simply the ability to recognize biblical and Christian words, but also to understand them.
Of course, being Christian is about more than words, just as being French is about more than fluency in French. One doesn't become French simply by learning the language. Being French also involves membership in a community and an "ethos," a way of life. So also being Christian is about being part of a community and an ethos, a way of life. It is about more than language, but not less.
Christian language is grounded in the Bible and postbiblical Christianity. It includes the words used, heard, sung, and prayed in worship, devotion, teaching, and community. To be Christian is to know, use, and be shaped by this language-to live one's life with God within the framework of this language.
1 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984).
From Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They Can Be Restored. Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Borg. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.