Lewis on translating into the language of our hearers, and what we can expect, or not expect, people to understand.
4) We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use at all laying down a priori what the “plain man” does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience. Thus most of us would have supposed that the change from “may truly and indifferently minister justice” to “may truly and impartially” made that place easier to the uneducated; but a priest of my acquaintance discovered that his sexton saw no difficulty in indifferently (“It means making no difference between one man and another,” he said) but had no idea what impartially meant.
On this question of language the best thing I can do is to make a list of words which are used by the people in a sense different from ours.
ATONEMENT. Does not really exist in a spoken modern English, though it would be recognized as “a religious word.” Insofar as it conveys any meaning to the uneducated I think it means compensation. No one word will express to them what Christians mean by atonement: you must paraphrase.
BEING. (noun) Never means merely “entity” in popular speech. Often it means what we should call a “personal being” (e.g. a man said to me “I believe in the Holy Ghost but I don’t think He is a being!”)
CATHOLIC. Means papistical.
CHARITY. Means (a) alms (b) a “charitable organization” (c) Much more rarely--indulgence (i.e. a “charitable attitude toward a man is conceived as one that denies or condones his sins, not as one that loves the sinner in spite of them).
CHRISTIAN. Has come to include almost no idea of belief. Usually a vague term of approval. The question “What do you call a Christian?” has been asked of me again and again. The answer they wish to receive is “ A Christian is a decent chap who is unselfish, etc.
CHURCH. Means (a) A sacred building, (b) the clergy. Does not suggest to them the “company of all faithful people.” Generally used in a bad sense. Direct defense of the church is part of our duty; but use of the word church where there is not time to defend it alienates sympathy and should be avoided where possible.
CREATIVE. Now means merely “talented,” “original.” The idea of creation in the theological sense is absent from their minds.
CREATURE means “beast,“ “irrational animal.“ Such an expression as “We are only creatures” would almost certainly be misunderstood.
CRUCIFIXION, CROSS, etc. Centuries of hymnody and religious cant have so exhausted these words that they now very faintly --if at all--convey the idea of execution by torture. It is better to paraphrase; and, for the same reason, to say flogged for the New Testament scourged.
DOGMA. Used by the people only in a bad sense to mean “unproved assertion delivered in an arrogant manner.”
IMMACULATE CONCEPTION. In the mouth of an uneducated speaker always means Virgin Birth.
MORALITY means chastity.
PERSONAL. I had argued for at least ten minutes with a man about the existence of a “personal devil” before I discovered that personal meant to him corporeal. I suspect this of being widespread. When they say they don’t believe in a “personal God” they may often mean only that they are not anthropomorphists.
POTENTIAL. When used at all is used in an engineering sense: never means “possible.”
PRIMITIVE. Means crude, clumsy, unfinished, inefficient. “Primitive Christianity” would not mean to them at all what it does to you.
SACRIFICE. Has no associations with the temple and altar. They are familiar with this word only in the journalistic sense (“The nation must be prepared for heavy sacrifices.”)
SPIRITUAL. Means primarily immaterial, incorporeal, but with serious confusion from the Christian use of “spirit” hence the idea that whatever is “spiritual” in the sense of “no sensuous” is somehow better than anything sensuous: e.g. they don’t really believe that envy could be as bad as drunkenness.
VULGARITY. Usually means obscenity or “smut.” There are bad confusions (and not only in uneducated minds) between: (a) The obscene or lascivious: what is calculated to provoke lust. (b) The indecorous: what offends against good taste or propriety. (c) The vulgar proper: what is socially “low.” “Good” people tend to think (b) as sinful as (a) with the result that others feel (a) to be just as innocent as (b).
To conclude-- you must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning. A passage from some theological work for translation into the vernacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every ordination examination.