We recently began attending a church that recites The Lord’s Prayer each Sunday as a part of their liturgy. We have never been a part of church that practiced this weekly–participating more in communities that place spontaneity over ceremony. While I do appreciate the intentionality of a liturgical church, there is something specific that bothers me every time we pray these words together.
The English translation which we use is based on the text of Matthew 6:9-13 that depends on an outdated form of language, namely the “King James” English. See the chart below for words and phrases no longer in common usage:
which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Not a single sentence can be understood with contemporary usage!
1. The dominant connotation for King James English is Shakespearean literature. This is where the thee’s and thou’s exist in our cultural imagination– an era far removed from our current life and representing the “high culture” from a bygone era of European art.*
By uncritically assuming this translation and giving it a primary place in our worship, we may unwittingly be perpetuating the assumption that Christianity belongs to the history and expression of Europe, rather than see the Christian faith finding dynamic expression in global and historical diversity. In this assumption, Christ gets wrapped up inextricably into the story of Europe and the “whiteness” of Jesus is perpetuated and normalized.
“Language is the framework in which we live; it is the structure that gives meaning to our existence.” (Blount, Cultural Interpretation. 1995, 4)
We know that Jesus didn’t speak with a British accent, but on Sunday mornings that is the image presented in many congregations. By extension, as we are leading people in discipleship, the image of Christ can become conflated with the Western European cultural definition. This type of combination is referred to as syncretism (or, contextualization with a negative connotation. Read more about contextualization methods here.)
2. If The Lord’s Prayer (or any text or prayer) has a prominent place in the public practice of the Christian faith, any barriers that would distance people need to be removed. For people outside of the church or these traditions, the negative connotations (old-fashioned, irrelevant, fictitious) outweigh the positive** and represents a cultural adaptation that is necessary in order to become a full member of the Christian community.
Regardless of personal opinions about inspiration, we must recognize that all English translations are distinct from the original written texts and oral traditions which preceded them. Nearly all translations represent a deliberate effort to engage critically with the collection of surviving manuscripts in order to make them useful to the Christian community, so to perpetuate a sub-par (in understandability, scholasticism, and textual quality) text conveys a disinterest in sharing a clear and clarion message.
Within the confluence of these two concerns, the danger is that the gospel which we proclaim gives a privileged place to particular Euroamerican cultural expressions, which by converse devalue the full participation of others. In this environment, to become “Christian” means jettisoning a personal cultural tradition or perspective in order to be accepted as genuine in your faith. Essentially, the non-Euroamerican must repent of their (neutral or positive) cultural identity in the same way that we consider the repentance of (negative) sin. In a related fashion, the thoroughly-contemporary person is forced to travel back in time several decades (if not centuries) to have this text fit their burgeoning Christian identity.
In so doing, we have either placed low ceilings on the fullness of expressing Christian identity or erected barriers to the entry points of discipleship, neither of which seem compatible with the gospel that is presented by the authors of the New Testament.
*Nevermind that to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, his plays and sonnets were considered vulgar. Yet as an artifact to survive that period, it has come to define the era in which it originated.
**In writing this post, I ended up with material for a second, a counterpoint to this one exploring some of the potentially positive associations. I plan to post that later this week.
Michael Shepherd is the editor of GlobalTheology.org. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and Hope International University in southern California, USA, where he lives with his wife and son.