Biblical truth and Russian vodka

One of the keys to effective communication is to not merely express your idea, but to ensure that the idea you express is received with clarity by whoever you are talking to. If you say all the “right” things, but the understanding of your audience is something rather different from your understanding then it does not matter what you said or how accurate your description was. I recently stumbled upon an amusing illustration of this phenomenon.

The British minister speaking in Moscow at the height of the Cold War … declared in a speech: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. He was surprised to see the speech translated into Russian as: We have lots of vodka, but we’re rather short of meat.

Biblical Archeology Review

At Hope’s Reason there was a recent article on the importance of using scholarly resources when studying the Bible; resources like commentaries, dictionaries, lexicons and more. Is that really necessary? Can we not simply read it and understand? Why did God have to make it so difficult? Well, as Stephen Bedard describes,

The people who first read these books, spoke the language they were written in.  They lived in the culture that Paul was writing in and alluding to.  They understood all of the cultural background that these books presuppose.  We don’t have any of that.  We rely on translations.  We read genres of writings that we are unfamiliar with.  We come across images and cultural symbols that are foreign to us.  We are separated from the Bible geographically and chronologically.

Just as the Russians misunderstood a common English phrase, so most English speakers are likely to misunderstand ancient Greek and Hebrew unless the translation involved the utmost care and expertise. And even after the language has been translated, has the culture been translated? Often times commentaries are needed to help us understand the implicit subtleties behind the explicit message.

In Arguing with Friends I describe the need to be very careful when presenting your ideas – whether sharing your Faith, describing your job or other mundane examples from everyday life – in such a way that the person you are talking to is most likely to understand the concepts you are describing and not merely the words. Linguistic and cultural translation is necessary to bring the ancient Bible to a modern audience. Similarly, even today we need to carefully understand not only the language of whoever we are talking to, but the cultural heritage and philosophical presuppositions they bring to the conversation. How do we do that? By getting to know them. Listening to them. Asking them questions. Engaging in a two-way dialogue instead of merely attempting to hit them over the head with truth.

When we have a reasonably good understanding of where our friend is coming from will we be better prepared to accurately present our ideas in a way that is coherent and meaningful for them. The last thing you want to do is give a impassioned presentation of the Gospel of Jesus and have your friend think you were describing Russian culinary trends!


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