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GOBBLEDYGOOK (Views from the Abbey 5)

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There is a (hopefully mythological) story of some graffiti that appeared on the wall of a certain theological college which went as follows: ‘Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”  They replied, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.” And Jesus replied, “Do what?”’

The Bible has lots to say about the inappropriate use of bad language, and for the most part Christians have understood much of this as to do with profanity? For myself, I think that there is a much more common, dangerous, and damaging use of bad language than uttering the odd swear word – it’s to do with our constant use of gobbledygook in worship, witness, prayer, proclamation of the Good News of what God has done for us in Jesus, and so on. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘gobbledygook’ as ‘a language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of technical terms’. It is suggested that the word originates from the 1940s (in the USA) probably because when we speak gobbledygook, the reality is that we are simply imitating the nonsensical sound of a turkey’s gobble. When the Psalmist exhorts us to ‘Watch your language!’ (Psalm 141:3) he clearly has more in mind than vulgarity. He is concerned about the whole tenor of our language, words, conversation, etc.

There has been a lot written and said about preaching, teaching, witnessing and the like in recent years. In some quarters there has been a great emphasis on the importance of being theologically sound and true to the biblical record. In other quarters the emphasis has been on the need to know a certain anointing of the Holy Spirit, to be truly charismatic (in all the various meanings of that word) in order to be effective in these areas. I am ‘a bear of little brain’ but it seems to me that much of this stuff misses the obvious. Unless we are communicating our message clearly and concisely in language that others can understand, it won’t matter how sound our theology is, or how biblically accurate the message, or how charismatic we may appear to be, or what anointing we may claim to know – we will still be speaking gobbledygook for the most part.

I have long believed this language problem has been one the blights upon the face of the church (of all denominations and spiritualities) for many years and have tried, in my own way, to resolve this problem as much as possible both personally and in the various churches where I have served. The ongoing need, however, was brought home to me recently in several ways in a short space of time.   

I was shopping in our town centre recently where there was a street preacher giving it a good go, and I stopped and listened for a while. Now, let me make it clear right from the start that I am not against (what used to be called) open air work or street preaching – I have done it myself on occasions and used to enjoy (in my youth admittedly) going up to Speakers Corner in London on a Sunday afternoon to hear Dr Donald Soper (amongst others). On this occasion, however, I was the only one who stopped to listen even though the town centre was crowded with people passing by. I cannot fault the preacher for his enthusiasm (he certainly shouted loud enough) and he repeatedly quoted verses from the Bible (albeit as ‘proof texts’) to support his various arguments. The problem was the language. I understood what he was saying, but then I have been a Christian for nearly 60 years and have had the benefit of serious theological study for the last 50 years. Sadly, most of what he had to say was incomprehensible to ‘the man in the street’ because it was couched in what I call ‘Christian-speak’. Preaching at people is not the same as preaching to people. Endeavouring to communicate with non-Christians in this way must, at the very least, be done in a way that is both winsome and comprehensible. The real test of our effectiveness in terms of our preaching, teaching or witness is not found in reassuring ourselves that ‘I certainly let them have it with both barrels today!’ nor even in being able to say, ‘X number of people made a decision for Jesus today?’ but (I would suggest) in knowing that we did our best to speak clearly and warmly from the heart in a way that got to the heart of the issue. We must ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ when it comes down to communicating the good news of Jesus Christ. The UK is not a ‘Christian country’. Today, we live in a post-Christendom culture where most people are no longer interested in Christianity or church or the Bible … or sadly, even Jesus Christ. This is not to say that any of these things are irrelevant, indeed I would want to argue that they are more relevant than ever, but it does mean we have to work hard at getting the message across.

Personally, I believe we need to be more imaginative, as well as relevant, about the way we seek to communicate the Good News of Jesus in the market place. For example, making use of drama (in the style of the old miracle plays), story telling (in pubs and clubs), even buying into something like Prayer on the Streets where the vision is to take Jesus, and his church, out into the streets to pray for members of the public so they can experience the compassion and power of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I suspect that one of the reasons why we are so rubbish as church at communicating the Good News to the general public is because we are not very good at communicating amongst ourselves within the church. Christian-speak, holy gobbledygook remains the order of the day in many churches. The spiritual gift of ‘speaking with tongues’ (Acts 2:4; 1 Corinthians 12:10) should not be a controversial subject in today’s church because the reality is that we have been speaking holy gibberish for years! Listen to the language used so often in sermons, prayers, testimony, discussion at church meetings, contained in church constitutions and covenants, and the like. If you can’t hear the weird words, phrases, and expressions we all too often use amongst ourselves then it is primarily because you have become so accustomed to this holy gobbledygook that you no longer realise how nonsensical much of it must sound to non-church people.

I was reminded of this recently as when we held our annual Covenant Service at Abbey. As part of this Service church members are asked to recite together a shortened version of the original covenant drawn up by the church in 1779. It was revised in 1938 and again in 1949 and slightly amended in 1979 but essentially the language remains the same as when it was originally drawn up. It is very much a document of its day – rather long, wordy, inward looking, couched in 18th century jargon much of which (I suspect) makes it difficult for most of us to fully understand. Now let me make it clear that I like the idea of an annual Covenant Service in which those of us who have committed our lives to Jesus Christ, and to active membership in the local church, reaffirm those promises. The question of whether the first Sunday in the New Year is the right day for this we must leave to another time.

The point I am trying to make here is about the continued use of dated and largely incomprehensible language which is well past its sell-by-date in our churches. I love the theatre and have seen several plays by William Shakespeare, but I confess that I always try and read up on them in advance so that I get the gist of the story before I see the actual play because of the difficulty of understanding the language. I know that there are those who love Shakespeare precisely because the language is largely incomprehensible. They enjoy a play for the feelings it conjures up, the visual and sensory experiences it creates, even their own interpretation of the story being told that they have faithfully adhered to for years (which may or may not actually to be true). One suspects that for some people understanding the actual essence of the story Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the play would be an absolute disaster. If you don’t believe me a quick internet search will convince you otherwise – everything from the Beatles and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest and the 1950s cult sci-fi movie the Forbidden Planet, with lots more in-between. In much the same way too many of us professing Christians have become wrapped up in the deadly web of church speak … and if we are content to talk gobbledygook to one another what chance is there that we will speak anything other to those outside the church who really do need to hear the good news of Jesus?

Of course clear speaking is not the only thing required of us as Christians. We need to ‘walk the walk as well as talk the talk’ as someone once put it. Clarity of speech coupled with authenticity in life is a winning combination, however. As you would expect Jesus is our primary example in this. Matthew records in his account of Jesus’ wonderful Sermon on the Mount that ‘When Jesus concluded his address, the crowd burst into applause. They had never heard teaching like this. It was apparent that he was living everything he was saying—quite a contrast to their religion teachers! This was the best teaching they had ever heard’ (Matthew 7:28,29). No gobbledygook there then!

Jim Binney

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