The medium and the message

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Do you know what I really dislike these days? Being praised for my Japanese. That seems like a really odd thing to dislike, but I’ll try and explain.

As Christians we have this thing called the doctrine of incarnation. This means a number of things: it means that God revealed himself to humanity not through words but that His words became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ; this in turn means that Christianity has to be a lived, incarnated religion much more than a set of abstract principles or beliefs. One of the reasons that Jesus railed against the Pharisees was that they were hypocrites—that is, that their words and their lives did not match up. In a way Christianity is the ultimate Marshal McLuhan religion: the medium is the message. “God came into the world as a human being” is a major part of the Gospel message. Jesus was what Jesus preached.

But it also means a number of things for me as a cross-cultural missionary. Of course it means that the Gospel message needs to be lived out within the culture—that’s called “contextualization” and everyone else is talking about that so I don’t have to. It means I can’t just hit and run with my understanding of the Gospel and say “now you guys work out what that means in Japan.” Jesus showed the Gospel as well as told it, so I have to do the same.

It also means that I can’t hide. However much I would love to claim that my job is just to point people to Jesus—and of course it is—this is a Gospel which is communicated not just with words but through people. I am an inescapable part of the process of communication. And it isn’t just me—have a look at 1 Th 2 for an example of how Paul saw his own life and ministry as a significant part of his message.

And so most of all, it means that there could be, and probably there should be, significant confusion between who I am and what I say. I really wish that this wasn’t the case. I know that whatever I say here is always preceded in the minds of my hearers by the fact that I’m a foreigner. Sometimes I really wish I could give talks and sermons in translation so that they would hear a Japanese people hearing the same words, so that I could hide my identity a bit behind a Japanese speaker—in fact, so that I could separate out the medium and the message a bit more.

Why? Sometimes because my Japanese isn’t fluent enough to say things in the way that I want to say them; but equally often, I do manage to communicate something that I think I am happy with, and the only thing people think about is the improbability of a foreigner speaking Japanese. There’s a huge dancing bear effect at play here; Boye de Mente and others have noted that the standard Japanese assumption is that foreigners are genetically incapable of speaking Japanese. So when I preach my heart out and all the feedback I get is, “wow, you speak Japanese really well,” I tend to think, “thanks, but really, ignore the messenger and tell me what you think about the message.”

But I can’t do that. I can’t separate myself out like that. The messenger is, at least in part, inescapably the message, and that seems to be the way that the Gospel works and the way that God wanted it to be. When I speak about the one who is the Word made flesh, my own words are embodied as well. For cross-cultural missionaries it may feel like that embodiment is a hindrance one way or the other; sometimes it’s easier to read my life when the words don’t come out too well, but equally sometimes my words are obscured by the fact that they are “incarnated” by a foreigner. But that’s how it needs to be, firstly to keep our lives and our message in step, but also because “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”