Christianese

In a church girl’s group I attended as a teen we would sometimes discuss the perceived problem of “christianese” — how the language spoken in church is not the same as the language spoken by the general population of outsiders, and that makes communication difficult. At the time I argued that all of that was rubbish: those outsiders are ignorant, not impaired; they can learn the language. I’ll stand by that assessment for those words I had in mind: justification, sanctification, telos, grace, and so on. On another level, however, I was in the wrong — as were the those who wanted a more popularized language in church. The difficulty, it turned out, was that our language was neither understandable by those outside the church, nor even by those inside it who experienced a different emotional range. We had neither the precision of theological terms, nor even the obviousness of the lowest common usage. Instead, we were trying to articulate experiences that the theological language was invented to communicate, without the words that would force us to decide exactly what we meant. Instead we spoke in emotional slogans. We spoke of how what we wanted was a relationship, not a religion, without any of the words that could clarify for us what we meant either by “religion” or “relationship.” We spoke of “giving God the steering wheel” or “the whole enchilada;” giving over our entire life to God, without any clear articulation of what that actually involved — was it an action, an attitude, a promise, a feeling? If a promise, what were we promising? If an action, of what kind?

Because of this I would now say that there is a communication problem, more difficult to navigate than that of vocabulary. If I don’t know what “theotokos” means, I can learn, and once I’ve learned it is very clear and definite and knowable. If I don’t know what consubstantial means, I can learn. If, on the other hand, I don’t know what you mean by religion, there’s no cure except that you and I have a philosophical dialogue about the different things we mean by that term. Which is delightful, but I was too shy and awkward. It is more difficult to ask what someone means by a word that everyone knows and uses, because it is not immediately obvious that we mean different things by it. If I and a liberal mean different things by “justice,” or “freedom,” or “rights,” then we might argue past one another for years and never know what the other’s real concern is. I once went to a creation vs evolution debate that suffered this kind of miscommunication — it was painfully obvious to a bystander that the evolutionist was arguing in favor of “micro evolution” (that a pigeon can become a very different kind of pigeon through mutation), while the creationist was arguing against life out of non-life (pigeons might become as weird and different as you like, but how do you get a pigeon out of primordial goo?). They went on like this for several hours, and there never was a moment where either came right out there and insisted: but we’re concerned about different things! Why don’t we first find out what we disagree on, and then what, precisely, we disagree on, and why?

That is the real problem of “christianese.” An outsider — even an outsider who knows all the words and has been attending the church for a decade — does not have access to the precise content of a statement, and has no way to access it apart from finding someone who knows and prodding them doggedly into aporia like Socrates. That would solve the dilemma, but most of us aren’t Socrates, so the confusion continues, no matter how many words are spent in sermons and small group “discussions.”

The most common form of Evangelical Christianese I’ve encountered is overhype, or as Jacques Barzun says of education, “verbal inflation.”  I suspect it comes from marketing and revivalism; its aim is to sell something by raising the emotional content of the present activity. Now is the time for a life-changing decision; this could be the most important moment of your life; now is the time for you to hear God; this is the speech or book or event that will give you a whole new direction in life; this is the place for your epiphany. This verbal inflation is powerful because it echos truth — but as Chesterton remarks, heresies are truths that have broken loose from the paradoxes that keep them in their proper place and proportion. It is true that the moment is important, and that this moment intersects with eternity. It is true that we are free beings who might — and do — at each or any moment choose in favor of heaven or hell; who at any moment may choose good or evil, and become more like God or the demons. It is also true that we go about with these existential questions that desperately want an answer: what is the Good? How do I recognize Truth? how do I participate in Beauty? how do I live? what should I do with my live? We go about hoping for an answer, an epiphany. Verbal inflation takes advantage of this, but then fails: so now I’m a Christian… now what? To which the answer of the overhyped experience or event is to live in a constant state of revival, giving up everything, recommitment – but the content of these actions is much weaker than their immediacy. I know that I am being asked to do something with emotional and epiphany, in this moment — but I’m not quite sure what it is, or what it promises and involves.

Chuck Smith’s visit to Tucson last fall illustrated this weakness very clearly. I was disappointed in the evening not only because I mostly had to keep my head down and eyes closed for the music on account of overstimulation, but because the sermon showed all the communicational strengths and weaknesses of evangelicalism. Pastor Chuck is a charming speaker, well prepared, sincere, with good things to say, amusing anecdotes, and focused stories; but his examples hadn’t grown since at least the time I first heard them as a child, and the center of his message to those who are already Christian was, in this moment, at this event, to give everything to Christ — to immediately do something vague but existentially powerful. When Pastor Chuck was in college he had a moment beneath a tree on campus where he had to choose between ministry and a football scholarship, and he chose ministry, and a commitment to serve God however he felt called. He is glad of that, and would like this moment to be that moment for the rest of us, but that’s where the communication breaks down and the vagaries of overhype set in. What if this moment is not that moment, but something different? What if what I need, and am really looking for, is not an epiphany, but something else? What might the something else be? What other possibilities does this moment, this event, this day hold? Supposing I’ve prayed that prayer, made that commitment: what then? What do I do in that period between the moment and the reality of living in communion with God?

*   *   *

At this point I had begun to lose the thread of what I was trying to say — what way I asking about? Was I asking about language? Or about the actual message communicated by that language? So I went and re-read the first chapter of The Purpose Driven Life. I was immediately struck by the way in which it seems aimed at about a fifth grade reading level. Right, language, that’s what I was thinking about. I was thinking about how the language of evangelicalism often obscures more than it illumines, and how Pastor Chuck’s sermon was an example of this. It was an example because the overhype involved in trying to convince us to make a decision in favor of giving everything to Christ obscures and leaves to the congregant’s imagination what Pastor Chuck sees as the actual content of that decision. It suggests that this decision is something like a blank check — but decisions don’t work quite like that, because when the time comes to cash that check the decision will come up again, and I’ll have to ask if my decision now (in the future) agrees with my decision then — and the marketing tactics and language being used obscures that difficulty. It obscures what constitutes the nature of this decision. It obscures all these questions by permitting the speaker to simply ignore them — by permitting the speaker to be vague about the content and consequences of doing as he suggests.

*   *   *

Ok, Dodd — you write about this, on and off, a lot. Why? Why is this question of language and evangelicalism important to you?

I had begun this essay thinking about short term missions and other church based outings, and how I felt that the overhype surrounding these activities can become debilitating for people of a precise and literal temperament, and that it would be a good idea to warn them about what’s going on before they wast hundreds of hours picking at your hyperbolic claims for the advantages of going overseas and building a house. You met neat people, spread friendship, and built a house. That’s great. It’s good enough for two weeks and a thousand dollars. Don’t proceed to go on and on about how it changed your life forever unless you are very clear that I’m hearing about you, not a universal template for the proper outcome of a two week mission. Otherwise I will spend a lot of time being confusedly disappointed about the failure to realize my unrealistic expectations. I say evangelical, but that’s mostly because of my own background; I have encountered the same phenomenon on Catholic retreat and in public educational standards.

To the youth leaders (and leaders of those leaders; and writers of educational standards) of our country I would like to say: you are driving your precise, literal listeners crazy with your vague, overhyped marketing tactics.

What might be done, without boring the resident extroverts? Here’s one suggestion: find a precise literal introvert; every now and again ask him to look over your next sermon: what confuses him most? Why? Have a conversation about where, exactly, the miscommunication or verbal inflation occurs, and what was underlying his confusion about it. Then, when you deliver your sermon address those questions, even if it seems dull, even if it seems unnecessary — when you say “it’s a relationship, not a religion,” say, as precisely as ever you can, what you mean by “it,” “relationship,” and “religion.” He might then disagree with you. Or he might be surprised to find that he agrees. But in either case, communication would have been furthered by at least that one phrase. In the process you may even find that you come to understand better what you did and didn’t intend by the words you spoke — and that you have yourself come nearer the precision and self-understanding of philosophy.

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