Friday, December 14, 2012

"You keep saying that word..."

Somewhat in a similar vein to my comment on "Christianese", last Sunday I was treated to a video, "Shoot Christians Say", which will likely either make you laugh for its entire duration or make no sense whatsoever. It's a brilliant bit of fun-poking at the evangelical Christian subculture which I arguably still have one foot (or a few toes) in. Sadly, it seems to have been removed, but luckily I typed most of the idomatic words and phrases and, as anyone in my situation would do, categorized them into three groups:

1. Often-vague allusions to Biblical language:
  • "Fruit"
  • "Blessed"
  • "In the world, not of it"
  • "Brings/teaches the word"
  • "Guard her heart"
  • "Testimony"
  • "Saved"
  • "Released"
  • "Fellowship"
  • "Accountable"
  • "Believer"
2. Ambiguous words behind which much of significance can be hidden:
  • "Backsliding"
  • "Struggling/Wrestling"
  • "Pursue"
  • "God thing"
  • "Purpose-driven"
  • "Passion"
  • "Witness"
  • "Intentional"
  • "Secular"
  • "Words guy"
  • "Relevant"
  • "Brought the word"
  • "Watered down"
3. Christian "memes" that aren't necessarily ambiguous, but are highly idiosyncratic and may have a different meaning within a Christian context than without:
  • "Bless his heart"
  • "Slippery slope"
  • "How's your heart?"
  • "Safe for the family"
  • "Unspokens"
  • "Echo"
  • "Small"/"D-"/"cell"/"community"/"access"/"accountability"/"Acts 27 group" (note: Acts 27 is the chapter in which Paul is shipwrecked on Malta)
  • "Seeker"
  • "Non-denom"
  • "Bounce your eyes"
This all got me thinking: what does it mean when you say a word or phrase has been used so much that it has  "lost all meaning"? Perhaps we've said this of so many things that the expression has...well, you know. Obviously these terms don't simply have no meaning like nonsensical gibberish. People use them in real conversation, more often than not to get a point across. Here is my theory.

I see two extremes when thinking about language. On one hand, you can see a perfect, one-to-one mapping between words (in your language) and underlying meaning. This view holds that when used properly, language is clear and unmistakable, to the point where you can think of meaning as being inherent to the words, On the other, you can think that words have no real meaning and language is whatever you make of it. Having set up that dichotomy, I, of course, think the answer is somewhere in between. Words are imperfect tools for accessing the world of real meaning, and the linkage between them can be complex and subject to change over time. Words come into and out of fashion or shift to take on unexpected new meanings.

In the case of "Christianese" words like in the video, I think there are two trends at work. One, terms like "in the world, not of it" or "relevant", due to their relative trendiness, are being used extensively so that their meaning becomes broader and broader until, on their own, they only give a fuzzy, "feel-good" sense of the speaker's original meaning. So the powerful, radical, razor-sharp intent of Christ when saying He and His disciples were not of this world (John 17:16) is replaced by a vague, blunted sense of detachment or "being different" that can mean different things to just about everyone: spending 15 minutes every morning in devotions and prayer,  spending an hour a week starting spiritual conversations with people in the street, listening to "Christian" music instead of "secular" music...the list goes on. In another sense, the term, while it may be continually repeated verbatim and straight from scripture, becomes detached from its original meaning and replaced with whatever it means to the speaker at that moment or what they want it to mean.

And two, terms like "seeker" and "servant", while they may be better-defined in Christian circles, have taken on meanings that may be completely unrelated to their common usage in the English language at large. (A comment on the post by my pastor linked at the beginning of this post has a story about this clash of meanings for "servant") This is an extension of and contributing force to the tendency of American evangelicalism to form "parallel institutions" that resemble those of the world, only separate and "Christian". To authentically connect as Christians to the world at large, it's essential to speak the language of those you are trying to reach (a fact that was powerfully, miraculously, and literally demonstrated at Pentecost).

I worry that Christianity in America is doing increasingly poorly at this. On the one hand, many people still connect Christianity with arcane, KJV-esque "thee and thou" language or dense theological terms like "propitiation" or "supralapsarianism". On the other, as the video showed, there is a whole new set of counter-jargon associated with "hip" Christianity which I even see to a limited degree at my church, which strongly desires to reach young people who may encounter barriers to faith at other churches but can end up being just as confusing.

I've pretty much given up on making this old blog a hub for dynamic conversation, but I recommend checking out and possibly contributing to the discussion on my pastor Cor's blog above.

No comments:

Post a Comment