Plain not dull language
‘Plain language’ is one of those terms that sounds obvious, but it can be surprisingly difficult to describe. In whatever way we define plain language, at its heart is a desire for accessibility and understanding. This article sets out some of the
‘Plain language’ is one of those terms that sounds obvious, but it can be surprisingly difficult to describe. In whatever way we define plain language, at its heart is a desire for accessibility and understanding. This article sets out some of the characteristics of plain language with an emphasis on how versatile it can be whilst remaining accessible. Each characteristic comes with an example to demonstrate that plain language does not have to be dull.
Plain language comes in response to plain questions. When we come to the text many of us have one question in our heads, ‘What does it mean?’ But to start that way is like asking about the meaning of life on a first date. First date questions are ordinary questions that help us understand a person’s character and situation. We can ask ‘first date’ questions of a text, ordinary questions such as ‘What is happening to people?’ ‘What is their response?’
Text (Exodus 2:2): ‘She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she
saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.’
Plain question: How do you hide a baby for three months?
Plain language: The family take turns in looking after baby Moses. At the slightest whimper he is rocked, fed and comforted. He must not give away his existence to the neighbours who may inform the authorities.
Plain language speaks in specific terms. General statements can be vague but specific language resonates with our experience because we live specifically. No one eats desserts (general term) — we eat cake, fruit salad and apple pie (specific experience). Plain language translates general statements into specific expressions. ‘We each face death and loss in our lives’ is a general statement. Plain language translates that statement and makes it specific.
The disciples grieved on the Saturday,
the day after Good Friday.
We, too, have our Easter Saturdays,
the day after we have faced a death:
death of a relationship,
death of hope
loss of someone we love;
loss of health,
loss of job,
loss of pride or reputation.
Our Saturday can stretch through time;
At times it may seem that there is no Easter Sunday in our lives.
ADDRESSES THE WHOLE
Plain language addresses the whole person/situation. It enables the congregation to understand the physical and emotional aspects of a text, not just the spiritual. An instance of this is the story of the man by the Pool of Bethesda. If we are to understand Jesus’s actions, we need to recognise the physical and emotional situation of the man (John 5:1-14).
For thirty-eight years he had rested on his bedroll.
Over the years it had become shaped to his body,
he knew its lumps and its sags, its stains and its familiar smell.
Jesus came to the poolside and asked a question,
a question so basic that the man should have laughed in his face,
told him to get lost or refused to answer.
Fancy asking a man who had waited thirty-eight years to be healed
if he wanted to be well.
Did Jesus think he laid there for fun?
This is a man whose bed was his prison
but also his place of security,
the only bit of the world that was his,
where he felt in control.
This is a man whose enthusiasm to be well
had been exhausted by continual disappointment.
THE LANGUAGE OF EARTH
Plain language is the language of earth. When God wanted to reveal himself to humanity he came in flesh and blood (John 3:16). The incarnation gives preachers the freedom to speak of God using the language of earth. Jesus spoke of God in plain terms from everyday life; he spoke of muggings and lost money, of bread making and workers. Preachers can earth religious concepts in life. ‘Jesus identified with sinners’ is a theological statement. Images from everyday life can bring home what this means. The example that follows uses an image from housing.
His cross was not detached,
not placed at a distance from the thieves.
His cross was not at the end of the row,
His cross was in the middle,
a terraced death,
one with sinners to the end.
Plain language is not abstract. Unearthed abstract language can rob sermons of their power, making them feel distant from the realities of life. Saying, ‘Jesus was God incarnate’ is not enough; people need to ‘see’ something of his humanity as well as his divinity. Plain language does this by tapping into the senses that the text indicates but may not describe. It is sensed details that function as guy-ropes, stopping the sermon flying off into abstraction. Small physical details of Jesus’s humanity keep the doctrine of the incarnation before our eyes. The following extract refers to what is happening to Jesus’s hair and clothes during a storm (Matthew 14:22-33). The text does not describe these details, but it speaks of a storm and if Jesus was fully human we can draw on human experience of storms.
Jesus stands alone on the hillside
his eyes sweeping the grey waters of the lake.
The wind whips his hair across his eyes,
the rain plasters his clothes to his body
as he watches his disciples push the boat out onto the water.
DEEPENS RELIGIOUS WORDS
Plain language deepens the meaning of religious words. It is easy to slip into peppering sermons with words such as salvation, redemption, and faith. These terms are important and plain language can follow a religious term such as ‘faith’ to enhance understanding as in the example of Abraham and Sarah.
Abraham and Sarah left their family as an act of faith in God’s calling. They would not be there when family members died, they would not be there for the funerals. They would not be there to celebrate the marriages and births. They committed to being strangers in someone else’s land, never having somewhere they called home.’Faith came at a cost; it usually does.
Plain language has impact. Sermons can use plain language in the present tense to communicate biblical narratives. This can make language more dramatic and signal that the past has something to say to today.
It is 30AD, or thereabouts: Pilate rules Judea, Herod Antipas rules Galilee, and somewhere in an upper room in Jerusalem a dying man has shared a last meal with his friends. But he is not dead yet.
The present tense does not have to be maintained for the whole sermon; tenses can change as the sermon progresses.
Jesus knows Peter will change. He knows that at some time in the future someone will ask Peter the same question that the servant girl asked, ‘Are you with Jesus of Nazareth?’ and Peter will say yes. And die.
Plain language can be used to frame a sermon. A frame gives a sermon a real-world context rather than starting with a statement about the spiritual meaning of a passage. Framing gives concrete particulars that allow a congregation to imaginatively ‘see’ the context of a text.
It’s hot, its rugged, it’s the Judean desert. But this desert is not soft sand dunes; this desert is barren rock cut through with deep ravines. John the Baptist lives here, preaches here. At first, only the lizards and the birds hear him, but news gets around. There’s a strange man preaching in the desert.
Plain language can be imaginative. Word-images can be a feature of plain language without losing clarity. A word-image may be developed from one already in the text or a preacher may choose a new image. Sometimes short word-images are used, at other times an image or metaphor may be continued for longer. The example that follows uses a child’s game to help people understand how Pilate and Herod try to evade the responsibility of condemning Jesus.
The powers-that-be play pass the parcel with Jesus,
but no one wants to be holding him when the music stops.
But stop it does, and Pilate is the loser,
the one who must pronounce the death penalty.
Plain language can have rhythm. Much of the Bible is poetic, using rhythm and repetition to communicate its truths. (Psalm 124:4-5):
The flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters would have swept us away.
Sermons can draw on our sense of rhythm and preachers can use small amounts of repetition whilst remaining down-to-earth.
If it quacks like a duck,
swims like a duck
and looks like a duck,
it’s a duck.
If it speaks like a prophet,
acts like a prophet
and looks like a prophet,
it’s a prophet.
John the Baptist passed the duck test . . .
In conclusion, plain language is versatile; it gives preachers freedom to use many aspects of language whilst remaining accessible. It taps into the senses, is imaginative and draws on human experience. Plain language can address the whole person and deepen understanding so that the meaning of religious terms is enhanced. Language can be plain without being dull.
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