Same Words, Different Worlds

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

Have you ever been talking with someone and just feel like you’re not communicating? You’re speaking the same language but somehow you’re not understanding each other and the whole conversation feels like ships passing in the night? You are on the same page, reading the same words, but getting totally different things out of it?

One of the challenges of communicating the Gospel in Thailand is what I am going to call the “definition gap”. The definition gap occurs when two people are speaking the same language and using the same words but loading totally different meanings into those words. It’s as if I start telling you about a guy named “Bob”, meaning my next door neighbor. But you think I am talking about Bill Murray’s character named “Bob” in the movie “What about Bob?”. We are both talking about “Bob” but meaning two totally different things.

In Thailand, both missionaries and Thai Christians use words like “God”, “sin”, “heaven”, and “hell” to share the Gospel but what Thai Buddhists understand by these words is usually completely different. The word used for “God” (พระเจ้า) is also commonly used to talk about the king, not to mention any variety of other gods or spirits. “Sin” (บาป) is popularly construed as killing animals, and is not defined in relation to the Creator God to whom we are responsible. Heaven and hell are sometimes not understood as being literal places as seen in the idiom, “Heaven is in your chest, and hell is in your heart” (สวรรค์อยู่ในอก นรกอยู่ในใจ) which means that this life is either heaven or hell depending upon what you make of it. Even when heaven and hell are seen as literal places, they are not final destinations in Buddhist thinking. Once you pay off enough karma in hell, you can be reborn in the human world. And when you finish paying off that last little bit of karma that has followed you along to heaven, then you can move on to the next spiritual rebirth and finally blink out of existence by reaching Nirvana. Can you see how problems of understanding can, and often do happen when Christians use words that Buddhists understand in a totally different way? The tragedy here is that well meaning Christians assume that when they use certain words, that the Buddhist listener will automatically fill in that word with the Christian meaning. However, it is completely unrealistic to assume that someone completely unfamiliar with the Bible and the Christian faith will assume the Biblical meaning of sin when the word “sin” (or บาป in Thai) is employed. Would it not be a better assumption that my Buddhist listener will think of the Buddhist concept of sin when the Christian starts talking about sin?

If I fail to explain the Biblical meaning of sin, comparing it and contrasting it to the meaning of sin presumed by my listener, then I have no idea what my listener is really understanding. And sharing the Gospel is not about using certain words as if those words magically create understanding of the Gospel when used. Even in English, if I talk to a non-Christian about “being washed in the blood of the Lamb” or “the imputation of righteousness” or “the substitutionary atonement of Christ”, I am going to get a lot of confused looks. Those phrases all have specific meaning for me, but if the listener doesn’t know the technical and precise understanding that I am pouring into those words, then I am wasting my breath. Sharing the Gospel is about creating understanding so that the truth about God, the truth about self, and the truth about the world is laid bare in a way that is UNDERSTOOD. If understanding doesn’t happen, then true communication has not happened and the Biblical Gospel has not been heard.

The fact that there has been this “definition gap” in Gospel communication in Thailand has gone unnoticed in many parts of the church in Thailand. Christian amnesia kicks in and Christians forget how they thought and what they believed before they were Christians. Hence, they use common terms with a new Christian meaning and assume that their Buddhist friends and neighbors are going to “get it”. The problem is more severe for those who have grown up in the church, and have learned the Christian meaning of these terms from an early age. And then you have missionaries who presume that because they say baap (บาป), the Thai word for sin, then their Thai Buddhist hearers will know what they are talking about. I admit that I myself at times have fallen into the later category, not realizing that I was not communicating what I thought I was communicating. Actually, I may still be doing it at times because I am still learning what exactly it is that people are thinking and how their worldview works. And studying Buddhism in the classroom has not been the complete answer either because what is in the books and what the guy on the street actually believe and do are often different.

A number of missionaries have been concerned about this “definition gap” or problem in message contextualization as it may also be called. And now there are some Thai pastors and church leaders who are becoming concerned as well. At the upcoming Thailand Protestant Congress on Evangelism, the following video spot will be shown, inviting Thai church leaders to come discuss the problem of communicating the message of the Gospel in Thailand in ways that create understanding.

The speaker in the video above is Rev. Bantoon Boon-it of Suebsamphantawong Church in Bangkok. For non-Thai speakers, the gist of the video is this: Communication is made up of information and relationship. Pastor Bantoon says, ‘If I ask my wife for a glass of water but don’t have the right tone of voice, I might get a glass of water but she might not be so happy about it. If I ask a stranger for a glass of water, I might get the water but not as I would like because I don’t know the person. However, if I ask for a glass of water using the Latin word AQUA, it is not going to matter if I have a good relationship with the person I am asking because they are going to have no idea what I am talking about it they don’t know Latin.’ The point he is making is that although the Thai church has done a decent job of relating to people, yet somehow the Gospel is not getting through in many cases because of the ‘definition gap’ or a lack of message contextualization.

There are lots of contextualization issues to be addressed in Thailand (worship music, clothing, liturgy, architecture, etc.) but the most important is the Gospel. Is the content of the Gospel being preached, taught, and shared in a way that really creates understanding? Or are we creating confusion, or even worse swinging wide open the doors to syncretism and false conversions? Are we giving people the opportunity to paste Christian words onto their existing Buddhist animistic worldview, creating the impression of Christianity while leaving their former worldview intact? Form without substance. It is good to see this issue being brought up for discussion and I hope that a number of Thai Christian leaders will see the importance of getting the content of the Gospel right and taking the time figure out whether what they think they are communicating is actually getting through.


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