December 9, 2005

Living in Vernacular

1548 page30 caperhaps more than any other twentieth-century writer, C. S. Lewis has connected what he termed ?mere Christianity? with readers, both Christian and non-Christian. Lewis died in 1963, but his influence as a writer has continued to grow. His work consistently appeared on lists of the most significant Christian writing of the twentieth century put together around the turn of the century.

1548 swanson linkThe release this month of the movie adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--the best known of his Chronicles of Narnia--will be another chapter in this history. Many Christian and other fans of the book will be critically viewing the cinematic version of the story, hoping the deeper meaning in Lewis?s tale survives the ?Disneyification? process. (I must hasten to add that the movie is being made by a smaller production company, which is reportedly taking great pains to maintain the integrity of the story, including extensive consultation with Lewis?s stepson, Douglas Gresham.)

At times, in relation to his works of popular theology and indeed his ?allegorical? fiction, Lewis was criticized for being only an amateur theologian, too preoccupied with expressing Christianity in ordinary terms. In a way, such criticism must have pleased Lewis. His stated aim was just that: to explain Christianity so as to make sense in the common language, and to the ordinary people of his day. He explained, ?The vernacular is the real test. If you can?t turn your faith into it, then either you don?t understand it or you don?t believe it.?

1548 swansonIt?s a sobering challenge, particularly for a church that invests a lot in its theology and theologians. Are we able to express our important, unique, and sometimes complicated doctrines in our respective cultural vernaculars?

This question must apply to our personal witnessing, our regular church programs and worship, our public evangelism, and our evangelistic productions such as television, Web sites, and magazines.

Working as an editor of an evangelistic magazine--the South Pacific Signs of the Times ( face this challenge month by month. We must continually ask ourselves how best to present our beliefs to a casual reader, who may have no background in the Bible or Christianity. I?m sure we don?t always get it right and each issue brings new questions, but, as Lewis framed it, not trying isn?t an option. If we claim to understand it and believe it, we must continually seek better ways to express and portray our faith and connect that with our communities.

1548 swansonPerhaps Lewis provides a clue in talking about the process by which he wrote his children?s stories. He emphasized that his stories were primarily stories. ?Some people think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children,? he wrote, ?then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group to write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ?allegories? to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn?t write in that way at all. . . . At first there wasn?t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.?

Perhaps sometimes we need to focus less on being evangelistic and more on simply being. Lewis sought to create a simple story, and his faith bubbled into it naturally. Direct evangelism is important, but, paradoxically, it may at times get in the way of our being most real and most effective, as well as adding a burden of guilt to our daily interactions.

Instead, we should be prepared to share our lives with our families, friends, and colleagues, to speak the vernacular of our shared experiences and common humanity, allowing what is most important to us to bubble through those relationships. ?In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord,? wrote the apostle Peter. ?Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect? (1 Peter 3:15, NIV).

Nathan Brown edits the South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.