Translation and Inclusion: Why They Go Together

John Bowen

How would you describe C.S. Lewis? A writer of wildly successful children’s fiction, a brilliant Christian apologist, a top English scholar, a popular broadcaster? He was all of these and more. 

One role that he himself valued more than some of the others, however, is less well-known and somewhat different. He believed himself to be a translator. “My task,” he once wrote, “was … simply that of a translator.”

What on earth does he mean? He is referring to the fact that he encountered religious people who could only speak about their faith in religious language. And his concern was for those outside the church, for whom religious language was meaningless, but who were curious about Christianity. What language would communicate to them? Lewis became a model of how to do it. 

We may ask: why does this matter? The answer is that at the heart of Christianity is a message of Good News, good news for all people of the love of God and the power of Jesus Christ to “make all things new.” Yes, people need to experience it and feel it as well as hear about it—of course. But we also need to be able to explain to them in straightforward language what it’s all about, without resorting to church talk that causes people to feel ignorant or on the outside of the group. We cannot pride ourselves on being inclusive when our use of language is exclusive!

I learned an important lesson about this a few years ago, when I was meeting with a group of young professionals and grad students in downtown Toronto. They had been talking with evangelical friends about their faith, and called me in to discuss their questions. 

I asked them, “What have you learned from your friends about the heart of Christian faith?” One said, “Oh, it’s all about accepting-Jesus-Christ-as-your-Lord-and-Saviour.” (He made it sound almost like a single word.) Another said, “Well, we’re all sinners, but Jesus died for our sin, so if we confess our sins, we’ll be forgiven.” A third said, “Well, it’s all about worshipping God. [This was said with a roll of the eyes.] Though why God needs to be worshipped, I really don’t know.” None of them sounded very excited about what they had heard. None of them seemed to have heard it as “good news.” 

Then they asked me, “So what do you think Christianity is all about?” I said, “Actually, I think it’s all about joy. God loves us and wants to fill the world with joy. But every day, you and I do things that mess up God’s plan, so that the world is not filled with joy. But God says, If you follow Jesus, I will begin to fill your life with joy, and through you the whole world.”

There was a silence, and then one said, “I’ve never heard that before.” Another one said, “I kinda like it.” 

It was as though, when I replaced “salvation” with “joy,” and “sin” with “messing up,” and “repent and believe” with “follow Jesus,” a light was switched on. And it rekindled my desire to be a translator—even a fraction as good as C.S. Lewis.