Wretched Comprehension

By Ross Engel

In the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, there is a scene where Luke (played by Paul Newman) is working on the chain gang and is belted unceremoniously down the side of a hill by the prison captain. As he lies in the dust, the Captain stands over him and exclaims, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

This iconic quote has been used in a wide variety of places. It was quoted in the intro to a Guns N’ Roses song (Civil War) and even an episode of the cartoon show Darkwing Duck, just to name a few. I’ve had the quote in my head for the past few days as I was considering some of the conversations I’ve had recently about the faith.

When I teach, I typically do my best to take things slow and explain the difficult words and terms to the class. In confirmation class, I spend the fifth and sixth grade years just reading through the Bible out loud with the youth so that they get used to reading the Scriptures, learning the big words, and asking questions about what they are reading in God’s Word. In seventh and eighth grade, I break down some of the “scary” theological terms like justification, sanctification, vicarious atonement, and more. It is important for the youth to understand these words while they have a teacher so that they can carry the meaning of those words with them into adulthood. Then they’ll be able to grow in the faith and participate in the theological conversations of the church.

Except they’re not.


In my experience, there is an astonishing lack of understanding when it comes to the language of the faith and communicating the truths of God’s Word. Either the language and knowledge wasn’t there to begin with or, from lack of use, the understanding and comprehension has vanished. I can’t help but wonder if this lack of theological language is due to the fact that outside of church and Bible study, the average person doesn’t spend much time using the language of the Scriptures or the language of the faith. And so, when they come into contact with the language of the faith, they struggle to even participate in the conversation because they’re not sure what the words mean.

I’m reminded of an article I once read on the Federalist titled, “How to Nurture Children with Theological Language.” The following quote has always stood out from that article, “If our children do not regularly hear rich religious language that forces them to struggle with their souls, we are creating ears that are slow to learn and process.” The truth is, that it isn’t just children that are adversely affected by not hearing or participating in the rich theological language of the faith; it is adults, too, who find themselves struggling to learn and process the things of the faith that they are fed and nourished with.

Recently, I found myself in a discussion about worship, liturgy, and the hymnody of the church. As we discussed the various styles of music in worship, several individuals remarked to me that they just don’t like hymns and would prefer contemporary praise music instead. When I pressed for an explanation as to what it was that they didn’t like about hymns the response I received was, “I just don’t understand what the hymns are saying. I don’t even know what some of the words mean!”

I was dumbfounded. It wasn’t the style of music they liked or didn’t like. It wasn’t that they wanted to sing songs they heard on the radio. It was simply because they didn’t understand the language of the hymns, the language of the Christian faith, or the words of Scripture. The hymns just didn’t make sense to them because they didn’t have a clue what they were singing about. They couldn’t participate in singing hymns because they had no idea what the words meant! As soon as I took a hymn and broke it down, explaining what the words were saying and what the hymn was confessing, verse by verse, there was a sudden realization and understanding about what the hymn. There was appreciation for what we sing each week in the Divine Service.


What it seems like we’re dealing with here in the church is a failure to understand what is being communicated to us. People are out of practice with speaking and reading the things of the faith, and when they are presented with something of substance, they’re lost. There is a need to turn to a smartphone to Google what was just read, or heard, or sang in order for to actually comprehend what is going on. This makes me sad.

It is of vital necessity that we teach our children the faith from infancy on through life, but it is just as important that we continue to nurture and cultivate our children into adulthood with the language of God’s Word and the words of the Christian faith. Even as adults, we would all do well to continue being challenged and refined in the richness of the faith and the language of salvation. As the world communicates more and more with shorthand text messages and emojis, our need to speak the rich language of God’s Word and the truths of our faith will become both more challenging to accomplish and more vital a task to engage in as we pass on the treasure that is our Christian faith to generations that follow us. Let us pass on not just the faith but the language of the faith and the love of Jesus Christ, so that we never find ourselves failing to communicate things of eternal significance.