Columnists > Voices

Waiting for the translation

Religious Americans will not be understood without cross-cultural training

Issue: "California's total recall," Aug. 2, 2003

Ever since I became semi-notorious in 1995 when one of my books received a fair amount of attention, I've sat for lots of interviews for television news feature shows. Not much surprises me now, especially since just about all TV interviewers tend to ask the same superficial questions that their producers hand them; the producers then package snippets of my answers according to the script they've generally envisioned before the questioning ever began.

Recently, though, I was truly flabbergasted when Daniel Zwerdling, a senior correspondent for National Public Radio who was taping an interview with me as part of a joint PBS/NPR project, said that before he started his research for that project he had not heard the argument that evangelicals face bigotry in academic and media spheres similar to the kind African-Americans once suffered.

Mr. Zwerdling, a charming and experienced fellow who has worked for NPR for 23 years, assured me that he was not pulling my leg or playing dumb for the purpose of eliciting shocked or sarcastic comments. Four years of reporting from Kenya had given him an understanding of some African cultural tendencies, and he (with his producer William Brangham) had done enough pre-interview homework that he could quote sentences from a book I had co-authored 16 years ago and long forgotten. But American evangelical culture is clearly terra incognita to him.

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So I learned something from hearing Mr. Zwerdling cite passages from my old book, Turning Point, that he said some people found alarming. One troubling sentence-it followed statements that "the Bible views history not as cyclical, but as a line connecting creation and final judgment," and "the Bible shows us how good and evil are in immense struggle"-was, "The final outcome is sure-every knee will bow before Christ."

Many evangelicals would readily recognize that as a reference to chapter 2 of Philippians, where Paul the apostle writes that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth." Many Orthodox Jews, while disagreeing with the citation of Jesus, would recognize the derivation of the New Testament verse from chapter 45 of Isaiah, where God says, "To Me every knee shall bow." Paul quotes that Old Testament verse in chapter 14 of Romans, there as elsewhere using it in reference to the time when, as Paul tells the Romans, "we will all stand before the judgment seat of God."

Mr. Zwerdling is an intelligent man but knows none of these references. I do not know how he views or does not view God, but I've talked with many theologically liberal journalists who view God as illusion: They see anyone insisting on eternal standards of right and wrong as an interfering egomaniac. How dare you say that you know what's right for me? is their frequent reaction. The biblical belief that history is a line connecting creation and final judgment also seems arrogant. When a theologically liberal journalist reads a Pauline comment he is likely to consider it personally perilous: These religious-right fanatics will force me to bow before their god.

Shouldn't journalists-or college students, if only to understand a big chunk of American culture-learn something of what the Bible says? Mr. Zwerdling graduated from the University of Michigan at about the same time I was receiving a Ph.D. there, so I know how biblical religion tended to be either ignored or scorned there. For that matter, most of the students in the Journalism and Religion class I teach at the University of Texas have grown up in nominally Christian homes in one of the more-churched areas of the United States, but few can identify even biblical characters like Gideon, let alone key Christian concepts like substitutionary atonement.

Theological illiteracy shows holes in American education but also signifies trouble for evangelicals who hope to be influential on public-policy questions. While many in contemporary America have bowed the knee to the post-modernist concept that each person creates his own truth, biblical Christians believe in the existence of objective truth given by God. Such vastly different presuppositions, unless acknowledged, can make fruitful communication difficult.

What's to be done? Biblical Christians (and orthodox believers in Judaism and other faiths) need to remember that to most leaders in media and academia we are speaking a foreign language; we need to be bilingual and to offer translation services. Media and academic monolingualists need to realize that understanding evangelical language and culture requires at least as much work as understanding a foreign language and culture. They need interpreters and guides. And I need to remember to be patient.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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