Working on Our Grammar: An Interview with William Willimon, part II

William H. Willimon
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Jan/Feb 2001

In last issue’s Free Space column, we sat down with the dean of the Duke Chapel, Methodist minister Will Willimon, to discuss preaching. As the complete interview was too long to run but too good to truncate, we saved a portion of that interchange that touched on catechesis and discipleship for this issue. -EDS.

MR: Professor Willimon, you have been critical of viewing preaching primarily as translation. This “translation mode” has long been popular in liberalism but we now hear of it all the time in conservative circles as well. Help us understand both what this model is and why you are critical of it. Isn’t it almost Paul Tillich’s method of correlation?

WW: That’s a hateful thing to say! Yeah, I’ve said that most of the theology I got in seminary was in the “translation mode.” You are supposed to take whatever happens to be the culturally approved mode of making sense. For us it was existentialism. And so if you’re [Rudolph] Bultmann or Tillich, you take the existentialism, you put the Gospel in this sieve, and then you shake it. And whatever’s left is what you can preach.

Well, I think we are learning-and [retired Yale theologian] George Lindbeck has been particularly good about this-that there is a sort of “intranslatability” (or I think he calls it “a lack of commensurability”) between one philosophy and another. It would be hard to take existentialism and sift it through Christianity and come out with something that’s fair to existentialism.

Or, when the traffic is moving in the other direction, you haven’t preached Jesus when you’ve basically first submitted to the language of Marxism, or feminism, or existentialism, or self-esteem, or capitalism, or whatever else. As we sometimes say, “something is lost in translation.” And what is lost may in fact be the very essence of the stuff.

People are always telling us that Christians have a language problem. Supposedly, we have this old, archaic, pre-scientific, pre-modern language about redemption and atonement, and sheep and shepherds, and all that. So what you do, in the translation mode, is you just find good linguistic correlation for that. Don’t say “God”; say “ultimate reality.” Don’t say “faith”; say “ultimate concern.” And then you go with that.

But I say that anybody who can understand whatever “ultimate concern” is ought to be able to understand what “faith” is. You know, stuff is lost. Well, as Lindbeck shows, becoming a Christian is a little bit like learning to speak French. And you just can’t learn to speak French by reading French novels in English translation. You’ve got to stick to the grammar. You’ve got to learn the vocabulary.

MR: Which is something “boomers” don’t particularly like to do. They just want to have someone “Net it out.”

WW: Yeah, I must say that one great thing about being a preacher in a university-maybe the only great thing-is that people are doing nothing but vocabulary most of the time. In fact, when you sign up for a course in, for instance, psychology, half the semester is spent learning words. And you can’t get to the psychology apart from learning all the terminology. If someone said she wanted to skip the vocabulary, the professor replies, “Hey, the terminology is the psychology.”

It’s kind of beautiful that nobody walks into a physics class, waits for the professor to start lecturing, and then raises his hand to say: “Wait a minute. I’m a North American. I’m living in California. I ought to be able to understand this. I have a right to be able to get this without any effort or work.” And the professor just says: “Shut up. Keep writing the stuff down. It’ll be on the exam.”

I think as Christians, there’s an odd sort of Constantinian, imperialistic notion that says: “Oh, I’m lucky enough to be born in North America; this is a Christian country. Therefore, I’ve become Christian by being born here. Therefore, I ought to be able to walk in off the street and ‘get it.'”

Preachers just need to say: “No, dear, you live in North America, one of the most violent cultures ever created. Christianity’s going to be a reach for you. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort. There’ll be stuff you won’t get at first hearing. We’ve got people in their eighties that still come out shocked on a Sunday morning. This is the way of the Cross, and it’s a narrow way. It’s not for everybody, but it just happens to be true.”

But being in the university is great because I’ve got a higher percentage of people who all day long are busy learning new vocabularies; they’re busy becoming different people because they’re majoring in chemistry. And so Christianity can kind of say: “Hey, we’re sort of like chemistry. You’re not born with it. We have to baptize you into it. You’ve got to fit, and we’ve got a weird language.”

But it’s no weirder than the language of, say, baseball. You can’t get baseball by being born in North America. You’ve got to learn about the vestments and the rules; you’ve got to learn about the expressions. My wife and I were recently watching a football game. She turned to me at one point and said, “I have not understood one word in the last fifteen minutes.” The commentators were busy analyzing the plays and talking about good execution in the backfield.

Well, Christianity’s a little bit like that. It just can’t be user-friendly-which is why we call it “conversion.” (Or, I like “detoxification”-especially if you’re from California.) Part of being a Christian means to take up a new language.

I know a student who said to me, “I’m really trying to discipline myself to use the right words for stuff.” I said, “What do you mean?” And she replied, “Well, I’m trying not to say, when I do something wrong, ‘Oh, I made a mistake.’ Rather, I try to say, ‘Gee, I’ve sinned’ or ‘This was wrong.’ And I’m trying not to say things like, ‘Well, I’ve decided what I ought to do is . . .’ Instead, I’m trying to say, ‘I wonder what God’s will is for me in this situation.'”

I love the way she called that discipline. It really is. It takes discipline to call things by their proper names.

MR: Speaking of calling things by their proper names, you and some of your “postliberal” colleagues have occasionally referred to preaching as “peculiar speech.” What does that mean?

WW: Well, a lot. And I wonder if, just perhaps, evangelical preaching, in its reaching out to speak to the world, sometimes tries a bit too hard to make Christianity look “normal” to the world. I mean, clearly, Jesus told us to “go out in the world and make disciples.” But how are we to do that, Lord? “Well, by baptizing, teaching them everything I’ve told you, and I’m with you always.”

Evangelicals have often been that wing of the church that has taken that Great Commission very seriously. We’re not to hunker down here with our own. We’re to keep getting out and trying to grab them, and baptize them, and teach them. Well, I wonder if sometimes-in leaning over to speak to the world-we fall in; we give away too much. It’s the kind of interpretative battle that is over before we get started because the world says to us, “Hey, you’ve got to use our language before we’ll talk to you.”

Well, if that’s what the world says, then it’s got a problem. That isn’t our problem; that’s the world’s problem. But I think a lot of preaching today acts like it’s addressed to people outside the church, to people who have never heard, to people who need to be enticed toward the Christian faith. And indeed, there is legitimately that kind of preaching-apologetic or evangelistic preaching. But I’m kind of concerned about what we say to those people who say: “Yeah, I’d like to follow Jesus. Here I am. Give me the stuff.”

I wonder what we then give these converts. I’m not sure we take seriously that they’re baptized, that they are being washed, that they are being born again, that they are being detoxified. How would we do that? The only way we do that is we give them a peculiar speech, the speech of the baptized, where we talk funny about the world.

So when I stand up and say “like Caesar,” or “like Bill Clinton,” or “like Bill Gates,” the world doesn’t know that that is a negative thing to say. I mean, these are not our favorite people. But to know why Christians are so negative about politicians and rich people, you’ve got to kind of know the story. Christians have a story. And people who use peculiar speech are those who have been formed by this peculiar story of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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