Theological Language

By Keith Miller | March 30, 2009

Keith, the leaders in our church read and discuss the current theological theories of the ancient biblical message. I can’t really understand what they are arguing about, but I know my life has changed a lot. My wife says I’m a different person, and I am very grateful for all that has happened to me. I’ve been asked to speak to the men’s group at our church, and I’m very nervous about doing that. I don’t feel like I know enough about the theology of the church to speak about it. Any help you can give me or suggestions about books you’ve written (or read) would be appreciated.

I can really identify with the feeling of not knowing enough to speak and being asked to talk about the faith the first time before a sizable group of people. But a friend told me a story that helped me see how stupid talking in correct theological religious language can sound to non-theologically trained people.

A young theological student at a seminary I once attended was asked to speak to a sophisticated parish in a Connecticuton a specific theological subject.Although he had never spoken on the subject before, he was an “A” student, and with confidence in his communication skills he gathered all the books that he needed on the assigned subject and put them in a suitcase. His plan was to get on the train at New Haven, spread the books out on the seat opposite from his, compose his masterpiece of a sermon, then get off the train in New Canaan and preach (a plan which—given the short distance between the two towns—would take a lot of confidence).

He was running late that Sunday morning, but managed to run down the platform and jump on the train just as it was pulling out of the station. But to his surprise, it was a holiday train, packed with people, and he couldn’t find a place to sit down. With his suitcase of books clutched to his chest, he began to go from one car to the next in a state of rising panic. At last he came to an empty car. With a huge sigh of relief he sat down, spread his books out, and began to compose his sermon.

In a few moments the porter came through and said, “Pardon me, sir, this car is reserved. We’re picking up some people from the mental institution at the next stop and we’re taking them down toNew York Cityfor a physical Monday morning.”

The student looked up with a broad smile and said, “That’s all right, porter, I’ll take full responsibility. I’m a divinity student.”

The porter looked at him, then shook his head and said, “All right.” So sure enough, at the next stop a bunch of people got on the almost empty car and began to mill all around this young man. He pulled his books in as the car filled and the people sat down all around him. The last person to get on was a man in a white jacket with a clipboard who said in a loud clear voice, “All right, everybody, sit down and be quiet!” After they all settled down around the student, the man with the clipboard began to count the occupants in the car, pointing his finger at each person. “One, two, three, four, five, six . . .” and he came to the student and stopped, not recognizing him. He said, “Pardon me, who are you, and what are you doing here?”
The young man looked up with a confident smile and said, “Well, I guess you could say I’m a new-Kierkegaardian existentialist. Actually, I’m an Episcopal theological student from Berkeley Divinity School, and I’m preparing an address on the eschatological implications and general efficacy of the redemption as expressed in the atonement.”

The man in the white jacket looked at him skeptically for a few seconds, then, pointing his finger directly at the young man, continued: “. . . seven, eight, nine, ten . . .”

Of course, that’s an exaggerated story, but it is true that much of our religious language is not comprehensible to outsiders”—whether the terminology we use is the “neo-Kierkegaardian existentialist,” or “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord.”

It is also true that simple stories about real life told in everyday language can be very effective in communicating the gospel to very sophisticated people.

My friend Chuck Huffman, an ordained minister, tells a story about his first assignment in a large church after seminary. He was supposed to substitute for a professional speaker before a sizable group of people at the church. He was uneasy because in this group was going to be the eminent New Testament scholar, Dr. John Knox, who had been a professor of Chuck’s at seminar, and was his graduate supervisor.

The man for whom Chuck was substituting suggested that he just tell his own story of how he became a Christian. But with three years of top grades in theology in his pocket and with John Knox in the audience, Chuck was terrified. He just knew that telling his story would be ineffective and would appear naïve to Professor Knox. But after much anguish Chuck decided to go ahead and tell his story. After he spoke, Dr. Knox stood rather abruptly and walked out. Chuck’s heart sank.Mrs. Knox came up to Chuck and said, “John will tell you later how much your talk meant to him. He can’t now, because he was so touched that he’s still weeping.”
Lord, thank you that every time the apostle Paul got in a jam with powerful, educated people—judges in law courts or kings—who had the power of life and death over him, he simply told the story of how he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and how Paul’s life was changed by that encounter. Help me not to try to show off all the big words or current theological thoughts I have read, but to remember how you told stories to the people. In Jesus’  Name, Amen.

(Why tell stories to help all kinds of people?)

After telling the crowds a number of stories/parables:

“The disciples came up and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”

He replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.” (Matthew 13:10-14)The Message

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