Conventional and Peculiar

Michael Metzger

In 1928 Coca-Cola began to market their product in China. Legend has it that the Coke people recognized their peculiar name presented a significant language barrier. They kept trying to match the sounds "ko-ka-ko-la" to conventional Chinese characters, but with little success. Eventually, some Mandarin shopkeepers became impatient and hung up signs that matched the sounds phonetically, including one that read "bite the wax tadpole." Needless to say, sales suffered until Coke found a way to communicate in conventional Chinese language.

There’s a helpful lesson here for those desiring to connect Sunday to Monday. My observation is that most Christians are well versed in religious language that is peculiar to Sunday and church. For example, we’re grateful for "the blood of Christ that washes us clean" and circumstances that "bless us." And we should be. Peculiar language is vital for connecting with our history and Christian tradition; including such doctrines as the cross of Christ and Jesus’ resurrection. But we ought to remember that the value of peculiar language and doctrines is not in their ability to connect to those outside the faith. In fact, as sociologist Rodney Stark points out "…most people do not really become very committed to the doctrines of their new faith until after their conversion."1

Connecting Sunday to Monday – and faith with our friends – requires conventional language that translates transcendent beliefs into culturally coherent ideas. "The blood of Christ washes me clean" is good theology, but would sound incoherent at Proctor and Gamble. Being "a blessing at work" is likewise indecipherable at Microsoft. This could explain why, according to pollster George Barna, the typical churched believer will die without leading a single person to a life-saving knowledge and relationship with Jesus Christ. Just like Coke, we need to find words that communicate religion in conventional language. Conventional language translates the peculiar so that it’s understood inside the conventions of culture. We see this in the way the Apostle Paul connected faith to everyday life. At Mars Hill, he quoted the Greeks’ poets; not God’s prophets. This is one reason why the church grew to 50% of Roman Empire in 300 hundred years. Early followers of Christ did not use peculiar language to connect Sunday to Monday.

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.

Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other manners of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.2

A case can be made that we live in a cultural context remarkably similar to what the early church faced. In their day, a polyglot of deities was acceptable; embracing One God was intolerant. Sound familiar? If we spend any time in coffeehouses, listen to NPR, or read the national newspapers, it becomes clear that we live in a post-Christian age. In such a setting, "it is important to find words to express the common values of the West whose origins may be religious, in terms that are graspable by those who no longer go through the doors of churches or synagogues. It is necessary to express these originally religious concepts in non-religious ways."3

When the British film The Full Monty opened in China, the British producers overlooked the peculiar slant of their humor. Chinese translators scratched their heads and gave the film a new title: Six Naked Pigs. Needless to say, sales suffered. A great many of our friends are scratching their heads when it comes to understanding how faith connects to their Monday-Friday week. The lesson here is that we need two ways to talk – peculiar language that reinforces our religious traditions and conventional language that connects with the wider world. Otherwise the gospel can come across as "bite the wax tadpole."

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1 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), pp. 14-15.
2 The anonymous "Letter to Diognetius" paints a remarkably positive picture of the early Christians living in and among their unbelieving colleagues. This letter is a testimony to their use of peculiar and conventional language.
3 "North Atlantic Community, European Community: Divergent paths and common values in Old Europe and the United States," a speech delivered by Michael Novak for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003.

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