“Culture shapes language. Language shapes culture. And stories have the power to redefine or create new language.”
The True Story
When learning a new language, you study vocabulary (words and their meanings), grammar (how to structure the words into meaningful sentences) and culture (what the words actually mean in context). When you’re a child, you learn a language orally in the culture where you are brought up, and that culture plays a very significant role in your understanding and speaking of the language. In fact, some of the dictionary definitions of words do not always line up with the cultural meanings of those words because the cultural context has given them new meanings.
For instance, one dictionary defines a cat as “a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws. It is widely kept as a pet or for catching mice, and many breeds have been developed.” I, on the other hand, grew up believing that cats were actually little demons looking to take the lives of small children if they could, while also giving me significant breathing problems due to my allergic reaction to them—which I, of course, understood as God’s way of protecting me from the evil spirits!
That’s a little extreme, I know, but you get the point.
Then, through hanging out with some of my African American friends, I learned that a cat is actually an adult male who is highly skilled in a particular craft—such as music, the spoken word, sports or preaching. “Listen to that cat! He’s dope!” (not referring to something you smoke, of course).
So culture shapes language.
Likewise, language shapes culture. Do you want to change a culture? Change or redefine the language. You change or redefine language through story. If you want a new or redefined language, tell a new story.
Story gives meaning to language. Every word we know has meaning because of the story in which that word was defined. If I say “Aslan,” some of you think of a Christlike lion king.
And when you read The Lion King, some of you think of Simba and start singing, “I just can’t wait to be king!” Some of you don’t know what I’m talking about because you’ve never read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis or viewed Disney’s animated movie about a cowardly young lion growing up to be the courageous king of the jungle. And it’s very possible that after reading these sentences together, some of you are now looking for parallels or divergent themes as you compare both stories.
The stories of our lives are especially powerful in shaping how we understand and interpret language. For some, the word father is a wonderful term that conjures up all kinds of tender emotions—love, care and feelings of provision and protection. When others hear the word father, they feel abandonment, emotional disengagement, rejection and fear.
Culture shapes language. Language shapes culture. And stories have the power to redefine or create new language. Our words have meaning because of the stories in which they are used. And we understand our words from the story we find ourselves in.
So how do we become a gospel-centered culture full of gospel-fluent people? We need gospel language that is correctly shaped by the gospel story.
All of us are living our lives under a dominant story. We perceive the world and human interactions through the stories we know and believe. For most of us, that is our story of origin, our family story. This is a much smaller story inside the larger one, and often it leads us to wrong perceptions of God, ourselves, others, and the world around us. In some cases, we believe outright lies.
But there is a true story. It’s the story of God found in the Bible. It’s the story that redeems, heals and completes our personal stories—the smaller stories within the true story.
Content taken from Gospel Fluency: Speaking the Truths of Jesus into the Everyday Stuff of Life by Jeff Vanderstelt, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.