Thursday, August 11, 2011


Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

A friend forwarded me the article:  and I was intrigued.  It begins with a video repeating some thoughts from the book, Speaking Christian by Marcus Borg.

According to the video, Borg’s thesis is that words have a wide range of meaning and that the whole vocabulary of Christians (especially evangelicals) is based on a narrow usage of certain words, such as “believe,” “salvation,” etc.

The article then takes off on a different tack, citing buzz words used by Christians, before returning to Borg’s thesis.  It then goes on to speak of how politicians “speak Christian” and rambles on to certain Christian buzzwords.  It concludes with a quote from Borg, “Speaking Christian can become a way of suggesting a kind of spiritual status that others don’t have.  It communicates a kind of spiritual elitism that holds the spiritually ‘unwashed’ at arm’s length,” followed by the statement, “By the time, they’ve reached the final stage of speaking Christian – they’ve become spiritual snobs.”

The article raises a number of issues that I have had to deal with in the past, so I feel that this is a good opportunity to express my thoughts.  I agree with much that the article expresses.

I must confess at the start though, that I have little regard for Marcus Borg.  I have heard or read him quoted many times and I believe I have seen him interviewed on TV.  It seems ironic that he should accuse others of “spiritual elitism” or “snobbery,” when he usually is the one who comes across that way.  He appears to have a great disdain for us “fundamentalists” – those who hold to biblical literalism.

I agree that words do have a wide range of meaning and we often are guilty of using them in a narrow way without respecting this range.  But words do not have an infinite range of meaning; if they did, communication would be impossible.

The video/article uses the words “believe” and “salvation” as examples of how evangelicals use words incorrectly.  It shreds the English words without recognizing that they are based on Hebrew and Greek words.  It points out that the words “save” and “salvation” do not always refer to eternal salvation.  Surprise!  As if that weren’t obvious to most Bible readers.

Leaving the arguments that imply that most Bible believers are elitist ignoramuses, I do have a few things to say about “speaking Christian.”

Christians do have a special language and vocabulary, but this is nothing unusual.  Every interest group has its own special vocabulary or “shoptalk” by which those inside communicate with one another.  Single words and short phrases can convey large amounts of information.  Engineers, architects, computer wizards, military personnel – all have their jargon.  I have found “Christian” or theological speech a necessity, especially in the area of education.

But this special language brings with it a number of problems, some of which I believe are quite serious.

The first is that of obfuscation of the message.  Christianity is a religion of communication.  We have been given a message and have been commanded to communicate it.  Clarity should be one of our objectives.  And yet our jargon or (as I have called it for years) “Christianese” can make that message incomprehensible.

Jesus said, “Whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

Evangelical Christians say:
         “Let Jesus into your heart.”
“Walk the aisle.”
“Pray the sinner’s prayer.”

Now I recognize that there is a need to explain the meanings of the biblical statements, but our aim should be to communicate, not to obscure.  I fear that our attempts at explaining may sometimes actually shut off understanding.

Another related problem is that of division and misunderstanding between Christians, not only those of different theological or denominational persuasions, but even those of similar belief systems.  The College of Biblical Studies, where I taught for years, was open to believers of all labels.  Teaching there often required an understanding, not only of Greek and Hebrew, but also of the various dialects of Christianese.  Many of the expressions used were taken from the Bible, while many were apparently unique to particular groups.  All used their dialects as though they assumed everyone else understood them.  The words were often loaded with meaning for the user, but were gibberish to those who were not “in” (sometimes including myself).  Here are a few:
            “anointed preaching”
            “I receive that”
            “the Jesus in me”
            “positive volition”
            “receive the call”
(The reader can probably add many more of his or her own.)

And then there’s the matter of confusing language with reality, of thinking that learning and speaking the language is a sign of maturity.  When I became a Christian in my late teens, I was a fast learner.  I quickly began to pepper my speech with theological terms and King James’ words.  I deceived myself and others into believing I was maturing as a Christian.  Part of my real maturing process has involved dropping my Christianese and talking in normal English.

A fourth problem is that discerning and knowledgeable outsiders can pick up and use Christianese and God-talk and be mistaken for the real thing.  This is especially true of politicians.  It has always been so in America, though I believe there has been a great change in the use of Christianese by politicians in the past half century or so.

The Bible has always had a place in American speech, most likely because it was for much of our history, the most read book.  Writers and public speakers of the past mined it for quotes, and many could quote vast portions from memory.  The classical cadence and language of the KJV lent itself to this usage.  While those who used biblical speech and Christianese were not always Christians, their language may have unintentionally given that impression.  I suspect that that usage is one of the primary sources of “evidence” for those who mistakenly desire to prove that America was a Christian nation, at least in the past.

I believe that today, however, we have a new crop of political speakers who use Christianese cynically to gain a following.  Even some who make no clear profession of faith in Christ have learned to speak the language and have gained a following.  And of course the Bible and the flag are always good armor to wrap around oneself when one is caught with a hand in the cookie jar.

So what should we do?  Should we abandon Christianese?  I don’t believe we should completely, but we need to curtail much of it even when conversing among ourselves.  We should tailor our speech to those with whom we are attempting to communicate; when using Christian terminology with outsiders we need to explain ourselves.

“If … all speak in tongues and untaught or unbelievers enter, will they not say you are mad?” (1 Corinthians 14:23).

And we should be discerning.  We should not be fooled by those who simply use the language.  “See to it that no one misleads you” (Matthew 24:4).


Sandy Cruz said...

Wonderful post, as usual. If I may, a good extension to it would be 1 Peter 3:15, which says, "But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." Those last seven words are the key, don't you think?

Bill Ball said...

Yes, Sandy, I agree with you! Those last 7 words are the key! Thanks.

gary said...

Humpty Dumpty! wow bill, I thought I was the only one using this guy in references. I use him(the rhyme) when teaching children about the fall in genesis 3. seems appropiate here also as the apostle Paul describes the desire to keep the gospel clear and its effects upon those who belief it for what it really is, the word of God. 1 Thessalonians 1 and 2. oh,that we might live our lives for His glory.

lwmann said...

Thanks for re-sharing this blog Bill. It was well written and communicates the issue well. We do need to "think" about what we are going to say, in context to our audience, whether it be to a group or an individual. Clarity of though and intent is missing in so much of what is written or spoken today. Even in our personal relationship, it is important to know who you are if I am to be able to speak to your "heart" and mind. Avoiding vain arguments is the beginning of being able to look at differences of perspective in a productive conversation that maintains unity in Christ between believers. After all, we will be spending eternity with a great number of people with whom we probably disagreed in some aspect of theology or politics (to say nothing of the myriads of minor things that separate one man from another). That being said, I have always enjoyed your thoughts and look forward to a long lasting (in relative terms) relationship and the exchange of ideas and thoughts. Thank you and Uni for you prayers for our ministry for the sake of the Kingdom. May God richly bless you as you continue to impact lives with your thoughts.