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What Christians Believe: The story of God and people in Minimal English, by Anna Wierzbicka

05 February 2021

Richard Greatrex finds that Minimal English gives familiarity a jolt

THE ostensibly simple heart of What Christians Believe, encapsulated by the book’s subtitle, The story of God and people in Minimal English, is surrounded by a more complex, but illuminating, introduction to the concept of “Minimal English” and a concluding commentary on the core text. Anna Wierzbicka is a multi-disciplinary academic with specialisms in linguistics, anthropologym and religious studies, and is a champion of Minimal English and its possibilities for making faith accessible to all.

Early in the book, Wierzbicka explores the varying uses of language in diverse cultures, highlighting some of the perils of cross-cultural communication, especially with respect to Western interpretation of Jewish texts. This leads to an explanation of Minimal English per se: a linguistic system that relies on a core vocabulary of just 400 words, of which the majority are directly translatable into any language. While some specialist non-universal words are included — such as “sheep” and “shepherd” — because they are vital within scripture, the chief focus on directly translatable words exacts a severe discipline on the linguistic palette: for example, “right” and “wrong” aren’t available as exact semantic equivalents in many languages, while “good” and “bad” are.

The central section features “The Story” itself: 40 chapters, each consisting of a double page of text presented in Minimal English, introducing the grand themes of the Bible from Genesis through, almost, to Revelation, addressing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (chapters 8−35), before concluding with Christ’s impact on the Apostles.

Characterised by starkly unmusical and repetitious phrasing and vocabulary, the narrative is, not surprisingly, devoid of poetic imagery, literary devices, and colour. But where liturgists might be wincing, catechists and preachers may be more discerning about how such black-and-white simplicity could be employed for communicating fundamental truths of faith, the heart of the gospel, to a culture whose connection with language is very different from that of former generations more closely familiar with the giddy phraseology of church life.

In the concluding commentary, Wierzbicka gives a welcome explanation of the theological reasoning behind her linguistic choices, relying heavily on the work of Alexander Men, John Polkinghorne, and Benedict XVI. But it is “The Story” itself that will have lasting value, as an opportunity to re-evaluate our relationship with key biblical texts, and as a foundation for conveying key elements of their message to those who find the intricacies of scripture bewildering and the language of faith alien.


The Revd Richard Greatrex is Associate Priest of Barrow Gurney, in North Somerset.


What Christians Believe: The story of God and people in Minimal English
Anna Wierzbicka
OUP £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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