As a Fish Defines Water

There are forces at work in our world that make basic communication more akin to communicating across cultures—even within our home countries. The continuously evolving world of technology offers just one example. With each new app or social media platform, a language and culture develops that for the uninitiated would seemingly require learning a new language. And most have had the experience of being in a conversation in which both parties speak the same language, but what is being heard and what is being communicated are worlds apart.

Sometimes, trying to talk about matters of faith can feel like walking across a broken bridge. And the one who professes to speak with clarity on issues of faith speaks into a world going deaf from a cacophony of spiritual and cultural languages. Is it any wonder, then, that blank stares are the all too often response to the particulars of a unique or particular vocabulary of faith?

Ironically, all those who speak what seems to them a clear message are also informed and shaped by their own cultures; for all language embodies a world of culture. Human vocabulary issues forth from experience, and ways of understanding that experience. In turn, the way in which individuals speak about faith is shaped both by a culture and by experience.

There are, therefore, particular difficulties inherent in translation from within one’s own culture. An ancient Chinese proverb highlights this difficult task: “If you want a definition of water, don’t ask a fish.”(1) In other words, on what platform does one stand in order to speak into one’s own culture? We are products of the very culture into which we seek to communicate, and we can never completely stand outside our own culture. We are, in the words of the proverb, like fish trying to define water.

Notably, Christians affirm that the heart of the gospel message transcends culture and language, just as surely as it was originally proclaimed within a particular culture and language. After all, the good news of the gospel is about “the Word made flesh.” Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin explains the dialogical nature of the gospel as a product of culture and yet as a trans-cultural communication when he suggests: “Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life. There can never be a culture-free gospel. Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied.”(2)

Newbigin uses the conversion and transformation of Saul into the apostle Paul as a case in point. His trial before King Agrippa, as recorded in Acts 26, illuminates this cultural dialogue. As Paul shares the story of his conversion with King Agrippa, he speaks the language of the Empire, Greek, and not his native Hebrew. Yet earlier, when he was blinded by “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun” and he heard a voice from heaven, it was not in the predominant Greek language. Paul tells Agrippa: “I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'” Paul then asked who was speaking to him, and the voice answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Newbigin suggests that this passage provides a means by which we can understand the challenges and the opportunities for gospel communication and translation from within a given culture.(3)

First, just as Paul hears the as yet unnamed voice from heaven in his native tongue, the “voice” of the gospel must be offered in the language of the culture into which it is spoken. The gospel must be communicated in a way in which it can truly be heard, and we must accept that the way in which we present it will on some level embody that which is understood and experienced in a particular culture.

Truly communicating the gospel, however, means it will also call into question the way of understanding that is inherent in our own culture. Saul truly believed his actions against the Christians were in keeping with the God-ordained desire to preserve and protect Jewish identity and purity of belief. Yet, the voice from heaven revealed that this devotion of Saul was a form of persecution against the very God he claimed to serve.

Finally, while Christians must be diligent to clearly translate and communicate the gospel, ultimately conversion is the work of God. No human persuasion, no lofty speculation ever accomplishes the work of conversion. This is God’s work alone accomplished by the Holy Spirit, and those who bear witness in multiple cultural contexts can depend on the work of the Spirit to accomplish what God desires. “[I]n the mysterious providence of God, a word spoken comes with the kind of power of the word that was spoken to Saul on the road to Damascus…it causes the hearer to stop, turn around, and go in a new direction, to accept Jesus as Lord, Guide, and Savior.”(4)

The communication of the gospel into every culture is filled with challenges and opportunities. Without the work of careful translation, Christians can sound as if they are babbling in a foreign tongue. On the other hand, they may immerse themselves so much in cultural study and experience that they only seek “relevance” and lose the prophetic power of gospel proclamation. Indeed, as culture-bound people, there is always a risk of proclaiming a version of the gospel that is more cultural than Christian. Christians must always be willing to hear the radical call to conversion in their own proclamations. Yet, making room in these proclamations for the transformational work of the Spirit, there is hope that the unique message of God’s deliverance in Christ will not be lost either on the one who hears or the one who speaks.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) Cited in Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 21.
(2) Ibid., 4.
(3) Ibid., 5.
(4) Ibid., 7-8.

"A Slice of Infinity" is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, truth, and hope. By stirring the imagination and engaging the mind, we want to share the beauty and truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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