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Translating vs. Transforming

Millard Erickson, in his Christian Theology, speaks of two different approaches to contemporising the message of Christianity. One is to translate the message, and the other is to transform it.

Translators try to keep the integrity of the Christian message intact, but seek to translate it as far as possible to the culture, separated from the Bible not only by distance and language, but also by centuries of cultural change. Transformers, on the other hand, believe that the message itself must be changed to be applicable to the culture at hand. They believe that the message was so attached to the ancient culture in which it was given, that to merely translate it is to distort it. They believe the message must be ‘re-imagined’, re-invented and essentially re-written.

Of course, conservatives are translators. To be a conservative is to believe in timeless, transcendant, permanent things that exist in spite of any particular culture’s understanding of them. Conservatives believe that some cultures have had a better grasp of the permanent things than others. Therefore, conservatives believe that the very things we want to conserve are permanent things: the gospel, Christian doctrine, New Testament worship, appropriate affections for God and helpful expressions of these permanent things in the Christian tradition.

We do not believe we have the right to transform these things, because we believe that is an arrogant position to take. To completely re-write the Christian message, worship or tradition is to set ourselves up as authorities, and to demote to uselessness the things handed to us.

However, the more distant a culture is from the permanent things of biblical Christianity, the greater the work of translation. As our culture descends deeper into relativism, pragmatism, nihilism, hedonism, intellectual apathy and aesthetic decay, the very things people need are the things becoming more and more incomprehensible to them.

The response of many Christians is to resort to transformation. Since the gap between Christian affections and modern sensibilities seems like an unbridgeable chasm, they transform Christian worship into entertainment, use kitsch instead of beauty, turn Christian fellowship into yuppie-gatherings, replace slowly-learned Christian affections with immediate sentimental ones and end up with something resembling modern pagan culture with a lot of Jesus-talk.

However, the conservative’s approach has its own problems. The problem is especially acute in Western countries, where a transformed Christianity competes alongside with conservative Christianity. In the effort to conserve biblical worship, Christian affections, and Christian doctrine, we find we are often speaking a different language to the average Christian who walks through the church doors.  For many of us, the temptation is to just sing solid hymns, tout examples of the best music, art, literature, poetry and preach our meatiest sermons, ignoring the puzzled expressions of our hearers. What we soon find is that there are many who are trying to get on the conservative horse, but it is simply too high. The ambient culture has made us all midgets next to the stallion of the permanent things.

What is needed is translation, and a lot more of it. Before people are shaped to love what God loves, they have to understand it. The answer is not to dumb down the message, warp the affections or find short-cuts to popular comprehension. The answer is to slowly, steadily, patiently explain the meaning of the hymns we sing, the meaning of music, the meaning of culture, the meaning of biblical doctrine, the meaning of the affections, the meaning of helpful Christian poetry, theology, music, art or works of devotion. The answer is to take a very long view. Not months, but years. Not even the years of one pastor, but perhaps two or three generations.

If we do not translate true Christianity, we may as well be singing in Latin to peasants in 13th century England. The beauty might be faintly recognised, but it will not be appropriated and reproduced. I think we are only beginning to understand the scope of the translation project. We may need to sing less and explain more. We may need to do a lot of pointing, a lot more explaining, mixed in with a lot of patience. Transforming is quick and brings immediate results, but what you have may not be Christianity anymore. Translating is time-consuming, pain-staking work. However, for the conservative Christian – the steward of the faith once delivered to the saints –  there really isn’t a choice between the two.

(This article was originally published at Towards Conservative Christianity.)

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.