When Jesus Says the Wrong Thing
David Mills on Qualifying Christian Language
The bishop of Oxford thinks that the Eucharistic language of eating the Lord’s Body and drinking his Blood so put off the modern man that Christians should stop using it. Jesus’ words in John 6:51–58 shocked and offended those to whom such language is utterly foreign. In his new book, Eating God, Richard Harries writes (as quoted in The Times) that
He told The Times that Christians do not
A Useful Warning
This is a useful warning. Christians often do not realize how they sound to others, in part because they speak of such things mostly to other Christians. They know the words so well that they do not see that the Christian vocabulary is a genuinely strange one to increasing numbers of their neighbors and that words that to them mean comfort and solace offend and frighten those who take them at face value.
They are sometimes like the traveler who speaks to the natives in English and never notices their uncomprehending stares, and sometimes like the traveler who notices the natives’ stares and speaks to them in English but very slowly and loudly. They act as if the natives are at fault for knowing their own language rather than English.
The Eucharistic language is, as Bishop Harries notes, especially upsetting today. The modern Anglican and Catholic rites are not quite so blunt as the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer, with its “so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood,” but they say enough to shock the visitor.
The bishop is right, but then he goes on, as one rather knew he would: “I think we should qualify the imagery in order to help people realize that this is metaphor. We should use images like ‘the food of angels’ and ‘the bread of life’ instead.”
Leaving aside what he means by the ambiguous word metaphor, in this, one recognizes an effective maneuver in mankind’s ongoing attempt to domesticate the Christian message. (Favored, the layman notes, mainly by those in clerical and academic office who wish to continue in it.) The speaker begins with a perfectly sensible statement about the gap between Christians and secular modern man and offers a useful warning that the secular modern man may not understand and may even be repelled by Christian language.
He describes a real problem we must try to solve. Heads nod in agreement.
But then, instead of suggesting ways the Christian language might be effectively presented to the secular modern man so that it does not lose its meaning in translation, he suggests changing the language to make the secular modern man happy. If this man does not like what Christians say, Christians must say something else.
But the speaker still speaks as if he were merely offering a new way to explain the old thing and not, in fact, offering a new thing. The maneuver works so well because it presents a doctrinal revision as if it were only an evangelistic gesture, and the unwary do not notice.
It is as if a traveler brought a cure for typhoid to a primitive tribe, and finding that they do not understand English, tosses the medicine in the river and helps them administer their own cure, knowing that it does not work. Upon his return home, he describes what he has done as “medical treatment,” so that the trusting assume he delivered the cure he had taken with him. The success of his report depends upon the trusting listeners at home never seeing the tribesmen who died because he “qualified” the treatment.
The traveler has not done his job. The man who cared for the tribesmen would learn their language, but he would not change the gift he came to bring them.
Crossing a Line
Now, Bishop Harries has not said that we must replace the biblical language with a secular one, as does the run-of-the-mill liberal. He does suggest that we use other biblical terms, including “the food of angels” and “the bread of life.” But he has still, I think, crossed a line. He has made what the modern man will accept at first sight the criterion for what Christians may say among themselves.
This is not the sort of thing a Christian really ought to say. We have the terms we do for a reason, in fact a divine reason, and we know—some of us from our own lives—that the fallen man resists Christianity because he does not like what it says, and it is best for him that he be forced to face its teachings full strength. They must be explained, but they must not be hidden.
For that matter, the bishop’s “qualification”—which seems from what he said to be a euphemism for “replacement”—is not a particularly useful one. “The food of angels” and “the bread of life” do not mean everything that the words he would replace mean. In “qualifying the images,” he gives up, or gives away, the central terms in which Christians have spoken of the Eucharist since the beginning, the ones St. Paul used in his own story of the Last Supper.
He has given up the words that tell us most clearly and inescapably that in the Eucharist we are actually united with the Son of God. He has not only “qualified” the thing in the hope of winning a hearing, he has effectively given up the thing we have to offer, for what one refuses to say because it offends, one eventually stops believing.
So much for Jesus’ words. They were as offensive to the people of his time as they are (assuming Bishop Harries is right) to the secular man of today. They horrified the Jews and drove away even some of his own followers, but he said them anyway. But then Jesus was not as sensitive to contemporary needs as the bishop of Oxford.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“When Jesus Says the Wrong Thing” first appeared in the April 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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