Talk Like C.S. Lewis
The advice C.S. Lewis offers on how to communicate the Gospel to the man on the street in light of the difficulties in communication is invaluable. Our modern age has more channels for communication than ever before, but that means the scope for misunderstanding and confusion increases also. Furthermore, given human nature, if a statement can be misunderstood in a negative way, you can bet someone somewhere will do so.
It can be difficult to communicate even simple things with clarity, but to communicate the Catholic faith is a complex task — not only because of the vast nature of the faith, but also because of people’s assumptions about the world, religion and Catholicism.
The difficulties and the complexities, however, only make it more necessary to tackle the job at hand. Our society needs effective evangelization now more than ever.
C.S. Lewis was a master of communicating difficult concepts to a general audience. His book Mere Christianity is a classic success story in attempting to do just that. Lewis wrote an essay in 1961 about the basic principles of communication for those trying to talk about the Christian faith with ordinary people. He says those who are specialists have to "translate" the faith into everyday language. Catholic priests, theologians and scholars use specialized "insider" talk. Even ordinary-in-the-pew Catholics use a special language when talking about the faith. Non-Catholics don’t understand our lingo, and an increasing number of Catholics don’t either.
We use five categories of religious language, and the good evangelist and apologist will understand them and not only avoid the special language, but will translate it for his reader or listener. The first category of religious language we use is theological. We toss terms about like "Immaculate Conception" and "double procession of the Holy Spirit" or refer to the filioque clause. This won’t do. We need to use simple language and explain what these terms mean.
The second category of language we use is liturgical language. People don’t know what an ordo is and don’t much care about the difference between a tunicle and a dalmatic. They don’t know what the "epiclesis" is and don’t know what we’re talking about when we spout words like ad orientem or versus populum. When we talk about our worship, we need to use ordinary language. The same is true when we use devotional and spiritual talk or the jargon of canon law and the intricacies of the Church hierarchy.
In addition to getting rid of insider jargon, Lewis says we must watch out for highbrow language, academic references and literary and cultural allusions. It’s not much good trying to communicate the faith if we quote Jean Paul Sartre in French, refer to "the Greek text" and refer to the novels of Dostoevsky. These references are often included so the communicator can show off, and when he does, his listeners are intimidated and put off the message.
Lewis says we must try to translate all this religious talk into a language that the plumber or house cleaner would understand. I might add that if we get the plumber or cleaner to understand, the banker and the lawyer might just understand as well.
I have recently rewritten a book where I have tried to take Lewis’ advice to heart. In Catholicism Pure and Simple, I set out to explain the existence of God and move through the story of Jesus Christ, the Church and sacraments in a way that everyone can connect to. I avoided "churchy" jargon, theological lingo and highbrow references. There are no footnotes or academic references. It’s Catholicism straight and true.
As I wrote and rewrote, something happened, which Lewis pinpoints: He says that this process of "translating" the faith in a "pure and simple" way helps us to understand how communication works. First of all, it makes one grateful for the jargon and specialized lingo. The lingo has a vocabulary that is useful, and one can answer the question briefly and simply. Translating and explaining takes up a lot more words. So, for example, the term "Immaculate Conception" properly understood says in two clear words what you might need two paragraphs to explain simply.
Secondly, in the process of "translation," you come to understand and appreciate what you are communicating in a much deeper way. They say the way to learn something is to teach it. So it is with translating religious language for others: As you go through that process, you come to know what you’re talking about. Lewis says, "If you can’t explain what you believe to a sensible, ordinary person, then you don’t really understand it very well yourself."
Lewis observes elsewhere that it is comparatively easy to study a bit and learn the insider jargon and have discussions at an academic level about theology, liturgy, spirituality and church life. The real challenge is to translate all that for others in a motivating, encouraging and down-to-earth way. It’s complicated and messy. It’s difficult to communicate without being misunderstood. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the effort to make Catholicism pure and simple is rarely pure and never simple.
Father Dwight Longenecker
is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in
Greenville, South Carolina.
Check out his book
Catholicism Pure and Simple at
- December 30, 2012-January 12, 2013