Daily Archives: September 1, 2017

‘Language games’

Until yesterday I had never flown with FLyBe, a relatively small company that has many domestic routes in the UK and also serves some European destinations. The price was right and I decided to book a flight with them for a 36 hour trip to Manchester, where (as their advisor) I was to meet the group of students in the special MA Leadership program offered by Andrews University through Newbold College.  I was expecting a non-eventful short trip, and the new Brazilian Embraer 175, which seats almost 100 people, is as comfortable as small planes can be. I suppose it was not the fault of the airline that the flight was first delayed for an hour and a half because of the heavy rainfall at Schiphol, and then was delayed for another half hour because the crew that was to provide the push-off from the gate had gotten tired of waiting and had disappeared.

Seated besides me in seat 19d was a young fellow–I guess of around thirty–and behind me in 20c and 20d were two middle-aged men. The three clearly worked for the same company and were engaged in intense conversation while we were waiting to depart and during the flight. I tried to read my new Grisham novel and to shut myself off from their conversation, but I was not entirely successful. As they were talking, I tried to determine what kind of firm they worked for. It was quite clearly something high-tech and they were going to some business in Manchester to talk about developing some new piece of equipment. However, I never found out what they were actually talking about. They might as well have been talking in Russian or Chinese. Their conversation was loaded with technical terms that all three were totally familiar with, but that were complete gibberish for me.  So, here you had four Dutchmen sitting close together, having Dutch as their common language, where one was totally excluded from the communication.

Language philosophers speak about ‘language games’, meaning that groups of people with similar backgrounds and interests invest many words with a particular meaning that is only readily understood within their group. I was given a small-scale demonstrations of this during my flight to Manchester. The three engineers (I guess) are part of a tribe of technicians who are involved in such a ‘language game’. For them a whole gamut of specific words has a very clear meaning, while for me these terms remain a deep mystery.

When as Christians we want to speak about our faith and use God-language, we have a similar situation.  We are involved in a ‘language game’ which leaves large groups of people guessing what we are talking about. Large groups of people have no idea what is meant by evangelists and prophets, the book or Proverbs or the Apocalypse, let alone that they understand the difference between justification and sanctification.

The communication gap between those who believe, and who use biblically inspired language, and those who do not believe and have never opened a Bible becomes ever greater.  And the problem gets even more acute when the element of denomination-specific terminology is added.

In the context of preparing for a new book I have been studying the concept of the ‘shaking’.  It is one of these mysterious terms that are part of the Adventist ‘language game.’ Not all Adventists could give you a clear definition of what the shaking is all about. Most other Christians–let alone non-Christians–would have no idea what Adventists are referring to when they say they expect a shaking.

Remnant, time of trouble, spirit of prophecy, latter rain — these are just a few terms, that would be totally mysterious to almost anyone outside our faith community. And all other denominations have their own ‘language game’.

Just as I was thinking about this topic for this week’s blog, I received an e-mail with the weekly news-update from the North American Division. Interestingly, it contained an article about a very relevant aspect of any information endeavor: a very careful strategy is needed to fit the message to a very specific audience, especially when using the social media.[1] To enter into the ‘language game’ of the intended audience, and to use concepts that will ring a bell, are absolute requirements if any real communication is to take place.  Admittedly, that is not easy. But the most difficult part is, no doubt, to faithfully ‘translate’ our sacred language into the lingo of the twenty-first century secular person we want to ‘reach’.  The extra bonus is that it forces us to rethink what we actually mean when we use the terms that are so familiar to us and may have become rather meaningless for us when we used them routinely.

[1]  See http://www.sdadata.org/blog/creating-a-persona-social-media-personas-101