Lewis on Communicating Our Faith

Few modern writers have been able to communicate the truth of the Christian faith as effectively as C. S. Lewis. It only makes sense then, pay attention to a few of the things he had to say on the subject. In an essay entitled “Christian Apologetics,” he offers this observation:

Our business is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age. The bad preacher does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity.

As to how this might be done, Lewis offers the following strategy:

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.

It seems to me that Lewis here hits upon a skill—one might even say a virtue of sorts—that many of us often fail to demonstrate: genuinely listening. It’s by listening that we learn how the person across the table from us is accustomed to communicate, not to mention what he or she actually believes. And it surely follows that listening therefore helps us to determine both what ideas are appropriate to say in response, but also the most effective manner in which to say them. If we are truly to love our neighbor, then we’ll work hard at listening.

Then again, our neighbor is not the only one who benefits from translating biblical truth into more accessible language. In the essay “God in the Dock,” Lewis explains:

By trying to translate our doctrines into vulgar [i.e., common] speech we discover how much we understand them ourselves. Our failure to translate may sometimes be due to our ignorance of the vernacular; much more often it exposes the fact that we do not exactly know what we mean.

Those of us wishing to test Lewis’ assertion might consider the following question: would you be able, in conversation with someone quite unfamiliar with Christianity, to explain centrally important terms found in the Bible? For example, how might you explain the meaning of words like “redemption” or “atonement,” or even “grace,” “faith,” and “sin”? In asking ourselves these questions, might we find, as Lewis suggests, that we don’t know our faith quite as well as we should?

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