What many U.S. Christian authors write about today has little or no application outside of the U.S. It’s why the majority of Christian books are not exported or translated into other languages. Most often it is not the theology holding it back, but the theme of the book.
A simple example would be homeschooling. It is illegal in quite a few countries of the world. (Germany, Sweden, and many other countries ban it outright.) Don’t be surprised when your homeschool books are not exported or translated into German or Swedish, or a number of other languages.
Another example are books related to the church or small-group Bible studies. Many countries heavily regulate churches. In addition, many countries are dominated by certain denominational or even state/church organizations, which further limit use of materials giving a differing perspective.
The next layer of this issue is the tendency of writers to use examples describing things when the substantial majority of people globally don’t know what they mean. Idioms requiring deep knowledge of American culture limit understandability. Often, we don’t even realize when our writing slips into American “code.” (Think football versus football.)
A third layer of communication is simply language related. The reason why we find humor in someone trying to explain something to a non-English-language person by speaking the words louder and slower is because it happens frequently.
“DO YOU HAVE A FRAGRANCE-FREE SEATING SECTION IN THIS RESTAURANT?”
“I SAID SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT!”
People involved in Bible translation run into these issues all the time. There are languages and cultures that have no words for certain concepts that might be important in English Christian vernacular. (By the way, I hate to disappoint you; but the Bible was not originally written in English.)
So, how should we respond?
Take great care to write to people in a way they can understand. Communication occurs when the reader understands. Some writers think far more about the point they want to make than first considering whether an audience understands or even cares. Failure to focus on the audience might be the primary reason most messages never get through.
What does it mean to focus on the audience?
- Know them. Have an idea to whom you are writing. If the audience doesn’t change the way you write, you probably aren’t thinking about them.
- Focus on outcomes. Write with the end in mind, such as eliciting an emotion or a call to action.
- Think of different ways to get a point across than what first comes to mind. First thoughts might be fine, but often they are not. One suggestion is to practice writing something as if it’s going to be read by a person with English as a second language. This exercise not only makes you think about the audience for your message, but also forces you to communicate for understanding, which is different than writing whatever you want.
All this might bring to mind only language and cultural considerations when writing. But the issue is deeper still. Maybe at some time in the past, Christians could write and speak and generally be considered wise, but no longer. There are worldview considerations.
Writing to a reader who thinks you are at best foolish and, at worst, personally offensive, is quite challenging.
Christian writers should now consider themselves as exiles, like being a stranger, writing to a strange audience, requiring some translation in order to be understood.
Carburetor’s what I call the thing,
but you say carburettor;
although now fuel injection’s king,
I think my way is better.
You fill your tank, a petrol load,
while I fill mine with gas;
head-on, now, same side of road,
which way do we pass?
A nice car park is what you’ve got
(sounds like a place for cars to play!),
while me, I have a parking lot,
and so I see the way
that a single people have become
divided by a common tongue.
Fun poem, and on the mark. 🙂
Carol, thank you! It was fun to write.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Ha ha! One of my favorites, Andrew!!!
Thank you, Kristen!
Nice poem, Andrew!
Thank you so much, Roberta!
Jesus told memorable stories in simple words that speak across cultural differences: sowing seeds, helping your neighbor, taking care of sheep. Sure, it helps when we understand the basics of gardening, the tension between Jews and Samaritans, and shepherding. But the lessons make sense without the cultural context. I want to be like Jesus.
I asked a friend who immigrated from South America to read my Bible study lessons. She picked out words and phrases that might be confusing. They were easy fixes.
Damon J. Gra
Dan, I frequently ponder this subject, but from an entirely different angle. I believe the same barriers exist in social media. When I look at my Twitter follower map, it is all over the globe, yet I find that my Tweets are very US/Canada-centric. I have not done much to address that, but I do note the challenge.
Some metaphors have become so familiar to us that we just don’t think about them. I’ve often wondered what nonbelievers think of the phrase, “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Do they know tht it means that Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross brought salvation for all believers? Or perhaps they just think, or say, “Ewww. Gross.”
When people of other persuasions visit our churches, do we communicate to them clearly that God so loved us that He gave of Himself (as the second person of the Trinity) to save us from our sins? Or are they just plain mystified?
Thank you for the reminder!
Jan Rogers Wimberley
I like your example! I love hymns and the great range of different melodies and theology they teach. But, there is a need to be “consciously communicating culturally”.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Thank you, Dan! This is so good to remember. To learn to write with humility, with out audience in our minds and hearts. An important lesson for me as I seek to write for children. It’s been a while since I was a child, ha!
This has the ability to be transformational if we take it to heart. (See what I did?)
Good points. As a retired ESL instructor with a Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, those aspects of writing stand out to me. And you’re absolutely right, culture is meshed with language. Even within North America, there are many subcultures. Case in point: a middle aged friend of mine, born here in Canada, heard a Christmas carol played in a store and remarked, “What is that all about? Cattle lowing, a manger? What does any of that have to do with Christmas?”
Jan Rogers Wimberley
I will have to go back and re-read my whole almost done manuscript that I hope I get your help with ‘down the road’.