Should all Christian jargon be taboo?

by Kristin on January 24, 2012

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by bigbirdz

We’ve had some interesting discussions at our Bible & Beer group since we started talking about specific Christian jargon. Two weeks ago we tackled the term “born again,” and last week we looked at a rather heavy quartet of Christianese: sovereign, God’s will, revelation, and vision (as in “God has given me a vision”).

Although each of these terms has its own meaning, value, baggage, and issues, I’m beginning to think that the problems with these types of words are pretty consistent.

1. They carry great personal and enigmatic meaning, beyond their actual definitions. This is true of many words in our vocabulary. While a word like “door” tends to just be what it is to most people, a word like “mother” is much more complex—it carries memories, stories, and emotions (some positive, some negative), in addition to its technical definition: a woman in relation to a child she’s birthed. Most Christianese is complex in similar ways.

2. No two people see these words exactly alike. While a “door” in Tennessee is pretty much the same thing as a door in Vermont, terms like “born again” take on very different meanings, depending on where you grew up, if you went to church, what denomination it was, whether the words were ever used to manipulate you or generate guilt, etc.

3. Jargon causes miscommunication and confusion, and therefore division. And division is the opposite of what communication is supposed to do: create understanding (the Latin word communis means “share”). Unfortunately, jargon is often used for that very purpose—to cause division, to create an “us-them” dynamic. That Christians would purposely use words to create division, either with other Christians or with people who don’t share our beliefs, is completely counter to everything Jesus modeled in his relationships.

4. Even the innocent, genuine use of these words is problematic. In most cases, these words are not used to harm or divide, and in some circles—with people who share a similar belief and background—they can be safe to use. But I still think they’re always deserving of our closer attention. It’s not just the words that are problematic, it’s also what they take the place of. Too often, we turn to Christianese when we’re feeling lazy, when we don’t want to work hard to find a better way to say what we mean. They’re also fallback words when we’re feeling rushed—when we don’t want to take the time to tell the story behind it all. Take one of my favorite words: redemption. It’s definitely jargon, and it’s a word I didn’t care about at all until I had a personal story that went with it. Now I know exactly why I love the word redemption, but if I just throw it around without taking the time to tell my story I’m doing a disservice to the word, to it’s true meaning, and to my experience.

So where does that leave us? With a bunch of words that do carry important meaning and value in the Christian faith tradition, but that obfuscate and divide people more often than they communicate and connect. The words themselves aren’t bad (although there are some I confess to despising), it’s how we use them, and how they’re heard and interpreted, which makes me think we should challenge ourselves to not use them at all. Think of it as a game. Have you ever played Taboo? You’re goal is to get across an idea without saying any of the words listed on the card in your hand. It’s an exercise that stretches your brain and makes you see things from new angles, turning your focus away from yourself toward those who are doing the listening and guessing.

What words would you put on your Christianese “taboo” list? Would it be difficult to get across your ideas and experiences without them?

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  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    Awesome post, Kristin. I am thinking about this very topic all of the time. A year and a bit ago I posted this:

    http://shawnsmucker.com/2010/07/16/words-the-church-should-stop-using-sin/

    Yes, that’s right, the title is “Words the Church Should Stop Using: Sin” My point was not that we should stop talking about sin, but that the word “sin” has so many different meanings for so many different people that the original intent of the word needed to be addressed. Sometimes the continued use of certain words perpetuates miscommunication as opposed to understand (as you mentioned so elegantly in your post).

    Reading back through my post from that day, I’m not sure if I agree with myself, but this entire discussion about language and meaning is such a worthwhile one.

  • http://howtotalkevangelical.addiezierman.com Addie Zierman

    I think that you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that we all bring our own “memories, stories, and emotions (some positive, some negative)” to these words. I would add “baggage.” Not just our own baggage, but the baggage of a Christian culture that has failed the world in so many obvious ways.

    I think there are some words, though worn and thread-bare, continue to tell the essential truth of the story: grace, love, peace. But then there are others that just grate: on fire for God, the truth in love, witness, evangelize…I could go on and on (and I do, in my blog, How to Talk Evangelical, for anyone who might be interested. :) )

    I think Kathleen Norris says it best in her book Amazing Grace when she speaks of God-talk as a form of idolatry, “a way of making God small and manageable.”

    We need to re-imagine the way that we speak of these spiritual things: we need to find a way that is grounded in the Incarnate love of God, a way that a jaded world can hear.

  • Jen

    Yeah. Redemption. I like that you delineate the words and how we use them. Kurt and I have been talking about systematic oppression (you know, like people do) and this plays right into that. If you don’t know the language, as it were, you are easier to disenfranchise. Good thoughts here. I want to visit that group.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Shawn, “sin” is such a great example of this, because the word has so many complex, negative connotations, but when you think of it as “missing the mark,” it becomes something more of us are willing to ponder and discuss. I feel the same way about “repent,” a word that has a really negative ring to it but means a turning away from one thing toward something else—something good. I like that. As long as we’re truly reflecting and talking about the heart of these issues, I think the actual words can certainly go on hiatus.

    Addie, yes, baggage! Of course. And it’s important to realize that baggage come in both personal and corporate styles. I love how you put this: “We need to re-imagine the way that we speak of these spiritual things…” It’s really hard, though, isn’t it? Even the words we love, like “the Incarnate love of God,” can make the very people we want to have a conversation with shut down. We’ll have to be so intentional, and help one another along the way. I’m so glad you and your blog are a part of this conversation!

    Jen, it’s so great that you and Kurt talk about things like systematic oppression. :) We could do an exchange program—I could hang out in your kitchen for a while, then you could come to Bible & Beer. :) Anyway, you are spot on: “If you don’t know the language, as it were, you are easier to disenfranchise.”

  • Joi

    Re: Christianese. Yes! Right on, Kristin! I love the idea of forcing your brain to think as in the game “Taboo!” Great Christian discipline to sort these words out for yourself.

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