God Talk  

As a young man I went to work doing PR for a big multiline insurance company in Hartford. I was put through an intensive three-week training program designed to teach me the fundamentals of the business. The first day we were introduced to the old standard fire insurance policy, which we studied line by excruciating line. There and then, I gained a valuable insight into the PR problems of the insurance industry: Insurers charged a lot of money for a product that nobody could understand.

An insurance policy is basically a legal contract that spells out what the insurer is obligated to do under what circumstances in return for the payment of a premium. The circumstances are almost an invitation for disagreement when cold, hard cash is on the line. Is the loss covered? Who as at fault and to what extent? How much is a house or car worth? A human life? When I naively asked why the policy couldn’t be written in plain English, I was told that every comma and semicolon has been tested in court – and there were a lot of commas and semicolons.

Insurance is hardly alone in its embrace of arcane terminology and insider jargon. (Do you really have to go to medical school for four years to learn to call a bruise a contusion?) Any business that employs armies of actuaries, underwriters, loss prevention engineers, computer programmers and attorneys is bound to resemble the Tower of Babel, especially to those who haven’t been initiated into its holy mysteries. Indeed, much of my job in public relations, and later in government affairs, was to translate the language of insurance into layman’s terms.

The phrase “in layman’s terms” is often used condescendingly in connection with those who lack the expertise to understand the intricacies of a particular profession or body of knowledge. The pattern was set by the priesthood and laity of the Christian church, who after a certain point did not speak the same language at all. Until late in the 20th century, the business of the church and its worship services were conducted in Latin – a language understood by few, if any, in the congregation. Even Protestant churches still rely on theological concepts that are derived from Latin or Greek terms. You need an advanced degree to minister in most Christian denominations, partly so you can master terminology that Jesus himself never used.

Jesus’ followers called him “rabbi,” but he didn’t hold an advanced degree, or any degree for that matter. He wasn’t a theologian and didn’t make theological statements. So far as we know, he never wrote anything down. All we know about what he said or did came from the accounts of his followers. The four gospels differ on details of his life but agree that he was essentially a storyteller. When asked about God or matters of faith, his usual response was to tell a story or to reply with an aphorism. He was obviously well versed in Jewish law. But his answers would invariably draw on the experience of his listeners and use language that anyone could understand.

We now live in a secular age when growing numbers of people are “unchurched,” meaning that they live outside a faith community and are unfamiliar with religious practice or even the stories Jesus told, never mind those theological concepts you have to pursue an advanced degree to understand. Lay people once again find themselves speaking a different language from the clergy, only this time there is little cultural backing for the basic Christian message. An unchurched person who walks in off the street is likely to find a worship service to be a disorienting experience. The uninitiated are easy to spot in my particular denomination, because they don’t know whether to use the prayer book or the hymnal at particular points in the service, much less whether to sit, kneel or stand. They are likely to be mystified by parishioners who reflexively genuflect or make the sign of the cross. And this is to say nothing about the prayers and rituals or the sermons that assume a working knowledge of events that took place many centuries ago and half a world away. Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations, but that is hard to do if you are only talking to yourself.

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