While working among the Kewa of PNG and trying to learn their language, I reflected on how difficult it was for us to understand certain aspects of their culture. They often wondered why I did not understand certain things about the way they lived and thought, especially the questions I asked about major events. Then I reasoned, “OK, How would I explain one of my own cultural events to an outsider?”
I chose the game of baseball and imagined various scenarios and the questions that I might be asked by an outsider. However, and first of all, I would need to give some background information on the game (where items in quotes are key terms): For example, there are “9 players” on each “side” and they play within “marked boundaries,” inside of a “diamond.” The goal is for the “batter” to hit a “ball” with a “bat”, thrown by a “pitcher” who does so from a “mound” in the center of a “diamond shaped field.” The goal for the pitcher is to make sure the batter gets “out.” If the batter hits the ball, he will then run toward the “first base” before the “fielder” can throw the ball to the man at “first base. ”The batter does not want get “out” and, if possible, run to the “three bases” in sequence, and then to the “home plate.” Each “fielder” is stationed at a particular “position” and has a “name” representing that position…. I won’t finish the example, but you get an idea of background data needed.
I realized that my explanation is loaded with key words. Building on the person’s limited background, my accomplice at a game might b ask questions like, “Was that a “hit?” or “Who are the men in blue and why is one standing behind the batter and making motions with his hands?” And so on, but the better or more germane the questions, the more detail I could provide in the answers. But what if the friend I was teaching suddenly asked me “Is the “umpire” married?” I would know immediately that something was missing in what my friend was thinking. I would have to provide additional background material.
As I reflected, I saw that “Is the umpire married?” was often the kind of question I was asking my Kewa friends at cultural events. I didn’t even know what questions to ask, and I didn’t know from whom to ask the questions? To get the relevant questions, I asked my Kewa friends to tell me who the experts were for a cultural domain, much like I had done the first time I saw a cricket match in Australia and went with an expert to the game. But I still didn’t know what questions to ask about the Kewa event. So, again, I asked my Kewa friends an additional concern: what questions should I ask the expert?
I think the same technique can be applied when we don’t understand a theological term or description. We need to find out who the “experts” are who can help us. There are many theologians in my church, and I have, upon occasion, asked them for explanations. However, I have found that most often a theologian cannot answer a question quickly or briefly. They have far too much information in their brains about the matter to simply answer in a sentence or two. They have an abundance of “key theological terms.”
I experienced a similar difficulty when I tried to explain to the Kewa men what certain key terms meant when we were translating the Kewa New Testament in Papua New Guinea. For example, when we came to the word “believe” I found myself floundering and resorting to looking ups some “theological” explanations.
Here is one such “explanation” from Internet (Evantell.org): “So what does the Bible mean by believe? The New Testament Greek word pisteuo (believe) means to “be convinced of something” or “give credence to.” We must be convinced that it is a historical fact that more than 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose the third day. Being convinced of those facts, however, is not enough. One must accept or personally appropriate them as being true. Note that we are not merely accepting as true that He died and arose. We are acknowledging that He did it for us. In a substitutionary “instead of us” death, Christ died in our place. The punishment we deserve, He suffered for us. Christ saved us by dying for us. The third day He arose, proving that as God He conquered both sin and the death.”
The online elucidation caused me to further reflect on what “convinced,” “credence,” “historical,” “2000 years ago,” “facts,” “personally appropriate,” “true,” “substitutionary,” “punishment,” “deserve,” “suffered,” “saved,” “proving,” “conquered,” and “sin” meant. If I wanted to clarify this online description of “believe” I obviously needed additional research.
My point is that we assume a lot when we use religious language. We become acutely aware of our shortcomings and biased background when we try to translate from one language into another, because each reflects different cultural assumptions.
Instead of gaining insight into the meaning of “believe,” a listener might be thinking, “Is the theologian married?”