Sunday, January 15, 2006

If They Don't Understand, Talk Louder: The Missing Double Hermeneutic

English speaker: "Excuse me. Can you tell me where the train station is? "

Spanish speaker: (Confused.) "Que?"

English speaker: (Speaking more slowly and loudly in an attempt to communicate across the language barrier.) "CAN YOU TELL ME WHERE THE TRAIN STATION IS?"

We've all seen television programs or movies where an English speaking person encounters someone who does not speak the language. After the English speaking person utters a few words and receives a blank look indicating their is no understanding, followed by what appear to be a few words of query in their own language, the English speaking person responds by talking much louder, and more slowly. The English speaking person recognizes that the other person does not understand the language, and no effective communication is taking place, but the assumption is that everyone should understand English, and if we simply keep repeating the same language with a different emphasis that the respondent will understand the message.

When we see an incident like this portrayed in television or the movies we laugh. We recognize that if two people speak different languages then the answer is not for the English speaker to shout a foreign language. We understand this, but the same thing is taking place in our evangelistic attepts with adherents of new religions, and in our churches across America.

In the first instance, when someone attempts to proclaim Christian doctrinal orthodoxy to an adherent from a new religion, and this does not resonate with them because this does not communicate within their spiritual frame of reference, and the evangelical continues on this track by proclaiming even more doctrines and Bible verses, this is the equivalent of shouting English at a Spanish speaker.

In my second example, when our churches construct new buildings and add new programs, or engage in church plants in various communities, and the well-meaning churches continue to send a Christendom culture message that is understood Christians but not understood (or ignored or disdained) by people in the community, this too is an example of shouting English more loudly to a non-English speaking person in the hopes of effective communication.

The missing element in both of this examples is the double hermeneutic. That is, evangelicals tend to emphasize the need for a sound hermeneutic or interpretation of Scripture, but we do a poor job or put no effort at interpreting the culture and subcultures in which we minister. Unless Christians in America recognize the vital importance of a sound hermeneutic of both Scripture and culture then we will continue to our church language at a culture that looks at us and shakes their head in misunderstanding. It's time to recognize and pratice a double hermeneutic.


Matt Stone said...

I like your analogy. Good post.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks, Matt. This came to me as I sat through the first two meetings of the intensive course on intercultural studies. The double hermeneutic is a missing part of cross-cultural considerations in the West.