Like many small town papers, ours features a Sunday pastors’ column with authors rotated through a list of those who desire to write something. A recent one was about salvation, more particularly about the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and isn’t that a wonderful thing. Here’s the problem. It assumed that column readers have some idea of what salvation is, or might be; an idea of who Jesus is in relation to God, if there is a God; and an idea of how it is that Jesus can offer this gift for free.
Come to think of it, they might be accurate assumptions because the likely readers are the pastor’s friends, family, parishioners, and other pastors eager to critique his theology. But to carry on from my previous article, an enormous portion of the population has no idea what any of that means. They have had no religious education, and precious little exposure to Christianity, or any other religion, other than what little they pick up in casual conversation or through the media, which bears so little interest for them that they pay scant attention. They do not possess knowledge of basic Christian vocabulary.
Salvation. What is it? Does it mean something like salvage, which is something like junk retrieved from the trash and piled up for for an unknown future use? You know, like a auto junk yard? If that’s it, it doesn’t hold much attraction. The dictionary says it means to be saved from harm, ruin, or loss, but who reads dictionaries these days? However, let’s suppose that the population we want to reach does know what the dictionary says. They may reasonably wonder what they need to be saved from, or saved for. Saved from sin? What an old fashioned idea that is. Saved for heaven? Saved from hell? What are they? There are two popular ideas about an afterlife. First, there isn’t one, so don’t worry about it. Second, the soul moves on to something all by itself, and doesn’t require any help from religion to do it.
What about Jesus? Christians have this guy called Jesus they say can give salvation as a gift, a free gift. With the question of what salvation means in doubt, adding Jesus as the giver of it as a free gift simply adds confusion to the issue. What does it mean to call it a gift? By what authority is Jesus able to give it? And why, for God’s sake, do they keep saying he can give it because he died a bloody death? That makes no sense at all. Who is Jesus anyway? In the short time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve it’s possible they will have been made aware that Jesus is the Bethlehem baby called the Prince of Peace, but there is no peace, so he’s not much of a prince is he. Then comes New Year’s Eve, and the bowl games on New Year’s Day, and all is forgotten.
Besides, Christians say this ill defined salvation is a free gift. Free gifts are for gullible people who can be lulled into believing that a Nigerian really wants to share his fortune with them. It sounds like a scam. What’s the catch? After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch!
That’s not far from the thought process of a large part of the culture in which we live. It may leave life long Christians somewhat bewildered since they remember a time when almost everyone was Christian, at least nominally, at least enough to have internalized the basic vocabulary of Christianity. We don’t live in that time anymore. The pastor’s column that joyfully celebrated the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ was well intended, but as a way to tell the story of Jesus and his love to the pagans of our time, it had nothing to offer. What would?
We need to begin with the recognition that we are not up against a population of hard core unbelieving atheists. Most people believe in gods, lots of them. They may not look like Athena or Zeus, but Paul’s proclamation in Athens sets a helpful example of the way in which the story can be introduced to an audience that does not know the vocabulary of our faith, and isn’t very interested in hearing about it.
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
If you get a chance, take a look at Peterson’s version of Paul’s speech in Acts, chapter 17 of The Message. He brings it closer to home by paraphrasing it into contemporary English. Telling the story of Jesus and his love requires that we find ways to use the vocabulary our intended audience already has before we begin to introduce them to the vocabulary that has has special meaning for believing Christians.