Mind Your Language

My recent move towards a nonviolent understanding of atonement has heightened my awareness of Christianese: the meta-language of evangelical Christianity of which I am becoming increasingly critical.


The problem with this kind of meta-language is that there are doctrines and ideologies deeply embedded in the words and phrases that are never questioned because the language has normalised them. But words, really, are my job. I am in charge of language assessment; I am an English teacher and a poet. I know words. And it is because I know them that I do not trust them. I know how perilous it can be to assume that they are harmless. They never merely reflect our world; they shape it too.


What sparked this particular train of thought was a reference in a conversation to “spiritual growth”. The more I thought about that term, the more uneasy I felt about it. I grew up in a Christian culture of “quiet times” – specific time set aside to pray and read the Bible, in order to “grow in Christ”. It sounds admirable enough, but I don’t think evangelical Christianity has bothered to deconstruct the assumptions implicit in the term.


My first objection is that it generates the belief that “spiritual growth” is the primary goal of faith. Embedded in this is the assumption that salvation and sanctification are dependent on the degree to which one grasps key theological concepts. Faith becomes a form of becoming intellectually enlightened, as opposed to a response to the gracious actions of a loving God. Put more cynically, the more deeply one becomes entrenched in the ideologies of one’s particular church, the ‘better’ a Christian one is. After all, by what criteria do we judge whether or not “growth” has occurred? Who gets to make such a judgement?


What is more, one engages in this pursuit in an intensely personal way. One can be “Christian” in complete isolation. So long as one has a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and prays and worships regularly, one can be considered to be “growing”. To me, though, this sounds suspiciously like the Pharisaic practices that Jesus condemned so vocally. Jesus always challenged religious practices that valued personal holiness over the expression of love for others, especially the marginalised. But the evangelical notion of “spiritual growth” can be accomplished irrespective of one’s engagement with anyone else at all, let alone the marginalised of society. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but if you don’t see the problem there, then you really do need to read the gospels more carefully.


Furthermore, this way of looking at faith results in different classes of Christians; it is deeply divisive. It leads some people to believe that they are holier than others, better than others, more advanced than others. It removes love from the equation in any but a conceptual sense. If you really want to see loveless judgmentalism, go to the youtube videos of talks by, for example, Rob Bell or – to a lesser extent – N.T. Wright, who dare suggest that God might value love above vengeance, and see the vitriol expressed by fellow Christians. Christians who I am convinced have regular quiet times for “spiritual growth” purposes. I certainly don’t expect everybody to embrace everything that Rob Bell believes, but surely the responses from somebody who claims to know Christ is not to coldly condemn? I think that many of the evils of the Western world can be traced to a theology that has, at its core, a belief that faith is an individual and not a corporate affair, an intellectual exercise only.


Another Christianese word where this is manifested is “blessed”. I cannot tell you how many sermons, preached from pulpits of a variety of denominations, I have heard where the Scriptures were reduced to a series of actions that we need to perform or attitudes that we need to adopt if we want to magically unlock God’s treasure store. I have written about it before, so I won’t repeat myself, but it is almost certainly the result of prosperity preaching.


“Blessed” is not the only magic word we use. In certain churches, phrases like “washed in the blood of Jesus” or “I pray the blood of Jesus over you” are commonly used as a sort of talisman to ward of misfortune. As if Jesus’ assurance that “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) was used in reference to minor inconveniences rather than as a guarantee of earth-shattering, life-defining cross-bearing. As if the command to carry our crosses with him (Matthew 16:24-25) was only about having a few people laugh at you because you are Christian.


No doubt, I will come to be critical of much of my Christianese. As I challenge the theologies I have grown up with, and as I find alternative (and I believe better) ways of seeing Jesus, I will no doubt find a new language with which to understand my relationship with and my identity in him. But that is the beautiful thing about words: they are not permanent. We do not serve language; it serves us. And if the service they provide is no longer sufficient, we can let them go. And we must. A beautiful theology, one rooted in love, needs a language through which to speak. Let’s create one.

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