Communication can be a tricky thing, even between people who know each other intimately – a husband and wife, a parent and child, a pastor and deacon. No matter how well we know a person, we don't experience or understand a sentence, a phrase or a word in exactly the same way, even among siblings.
When we speak face to face with another, we give and receive visual and auditory clues that enhance the meaning of the words. Our gestures can emphasize a point, or our eyes might tear with sadness.
The further removed we are from the person with whom we are engaging, the more difficult communication becomes. Geography, culture, language, socio-economic disparity and experience can create that distance.
Video capability through technology such as Skype and Facetime has made it possible for us to speak face to face across distances. While we can see and be seen, technology gives us a way to hide from time to time. It limits our field of vision and we can turn away if we wish.
The telephone puts another layer between us. We can only hear one another's voice. Inflections add meaning but we miss the visual clues. Handwriting in a personal letter gives us some hints, and a typewritten one eliminates a few more.
Visual clues can help a great deal when interacting face to face in a language of which you know only a smattering or not at all. My husband and I were privileged to live and work in Tanzania. While the official languages are Swahili and English, a multitude of tribal languages also are spoken. Usually, sermons and Bible studies still had to be translated from Swahili. Sometimes when volunteers came, sermons had to be translated twice – from English to Swahili and then from Swahili into the villagers' heart language.
When we lived there, long distance calls had to go through the local operator. Often calls to the United States took a while, not for technological reasons, but because it took more time for the operator and us to understand each other.
Cultural and socio-economic factors often separate us from others. I'll never forget the look on a Tanzanian woman's face the first time she saw the ocean. Friends and relatives had described its vastness and power. But to see it and run along the beach with waves crashing at her feet gave a perspective she couldn't grasp from mere words.
Words – what English Pastor Malcolm Duncan describes as "the clothing thoughts wear" – hold for us the meaning we ascribe to them. Our communication begins as thoughts. Words become the vehicle for translating those thoughts and sharing them with another.
That person then translates those symbols into thoughts he or she understands. That interpretation will be colored by a number of factors. Was he or she proficient in the language used? Did he or she know the accepted meaning of each term? If the communication was audible, could the receiver hear well, or was there background noise? If it was in written form, was it lengthy and did the receiver read it all?
Did analogies or other illustrations connect to the receiver in some personal way? I will understand a news account of a crime differently if I have been a victim or someone I know has been a victim of the same crime. I'll admit that I tend to take offhand remarks personally and can easily interpret an innocuous statement as an insult when none was intended.
The receiver's understanding of the communication does not lessen the message's validity.
Our individual understanding of the Bible is based upon how we interpret the words and how the history, the parables and the teachings are filtered through our knowledge and experience. We didn't live during the time of Moses or the prophets. We didn't walk with Jesus or see his miracles firsthand. Our interpretation of their words can easily be partially incorrect or completely wrong.
Scholars, such as Christians for Biblical Equality President Mimi Haddad and Southwestern Seminary Professor Dorothy Patterson, have the advantage of having studied Hebrew and Greek. They've studied hermeneutics, systematic theology and other religious specialties. Yet, they interpret biblical passages about the role of women differently, and each expects the majority of believers to agree with them.
Take advantage of the tools available to assist with understanding. Use Bible dictionaries, read commentaries from different theological perspectives, even take a seminary extension class if you can.
Primarily, read the Bible itself, listen and let the Holy Spirit – the living God – help you live out the gospel.
Vicki Brown is associate editor of Word&Way.