Language Matters: Speech and Christian Formation

How we speak about God and the Christian life matters. 

I would hope that this isn't a real jarring assertion, but it is my intent to explore in the coming days the ways in which, too often, the church does not actually speak and act as if this is true. 

What I want to explore is a way to think about the implications and consequences of the language and practices of the church as we use them. I imagine that most churches have some expectation of the language and practices that are either not allowed or not recommended, at least in large doses. My goal to illustrate the ways in which things taken for granted, the things that "we" (whoever that is) understand as underlying convictions and assumptions, and the way in which we speak or practice without evaluating their implications or consequences is something that has the potential to be both unwise and destructive. 

First an extreme example. Imagine hearing this at church this coming Sunday...

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose this morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop into hell. 

Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God (1741)

If this was the regular content of the language and practices of the church you attended how might you expect to be formed? This sermon, at almost 200 years old, still in many ways captures the ways in which many understand God's feelings about themselves. These kinds of images, the ones that misshape, that embed and give birth to fear, anxiety, and instill a lack of value are pervasive and difficult to uproot. 

But not all Christian language and practice is so explicitly frightening and intentional in portraying Sinners (who we are) In the Hands of An Angry God (our relationship to Godself). I have no doubt that we are not without numerous examples of churches and individuals who spread messages and practices in the name of God and the Church that are harmful to someone's spiritual formation. 

The problem is that sometimes the most harmful and misshaping language in the church is the language that we assume is harmless, neutral, or even useful in talking about God and the Christian life. 

The Reality of Interpretive Divergence

Interpretive Divergence is language that is sometimes used to describe the multiplicity with which laws and legal opinions can be interpreted within a range of meaning. Its import for a conversation about theological reflection and spiritual formation is incredibly important.

We find the reality of interpretive divergence to appear across all kinds of communication. Any time you find misunderstanding, ambiguity, or a diversity of opinions about something someone has said or done you are faced with interpretive divergence. Interpretive divergence is the reality that all forms of communication (written, spoken, nonverbal, art, poetry, etc.) have the potential to be interpreted and understood in a whole range of ways. It is the reality that language has the tendency to "walk around on us." Understanding the complexities and importance of this reality are absolutely essential to any community of faith who wishes to positively form people into the image of Christ for the sake of the world. There are a number of places where interpretive divergence is on display within the very core of the Christian faith. 

Interpretive Divergence in Scripture

This paradigm is a helpful way to think about the kind of diversity and ambiguity that we find in the Bible itself. Why four Gospels? Why does Paul say things in one way to one church and seem to say something very different to another? How do we deal with the texts in the Old Testament that simply cannot be reconciled with one another? The answer is found in recognizing and embracing the reality of interpretive divergence in all human communication. Some might retort that Scripture is not "human communication," but this in no way removes the inescapable reality of interpretive divergence because even if the Bible is "inerrant" (a deeply problematic claim I believe) it is still read, interpreted, and understood by human beings. 

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Language

This is perhaps the place where our language and practice most clearly "walk around on us." The church has a remarkable depth and beauty from which it can draw for language and practices that are formative for people seeking to follow Christ for the sake of the world. But the church has also repeatedly demonstrated a remarkable ability to participate and even sponsor and support systems that are antithetical to the gospel message. There are the obvious examples in things like the Crusades, Apartheid in South Africa, slavery in the West, and the Church's deafening silence about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. But there are more seemingly benign examples with equally destructive consequences which have the capacity to misshape individuals or lead them to a rejection of their experience of the Christian faith. (One might object that what an individual experienced was perhaps not representative of Christianity, but this not only minimizes the persons experience, it also fails to address the truly (mal)formative nature of that persons encounter.) Specific examples of this kind of interpretive divergence will be the subject of future posts in this series.

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Perception

There is no doubt that often times the portrayals of Christianity in mainstream culture are extreme, sensational, and contrary to the best of the Christian tradition both in its past and in its contemporary expressions. Undoubtedly, one will find many more stories of the church's failures and flaws than of moments of beauty, redemption, and grace. And while we are quick to say, "I'm not Westboro Baptist Church." or "I never said I was okay with Apartheid, Slavery, or the Holocaust." this does not change the reality that the cultural perception of the Christian faith is a reality with which we must contend. It is a formative reality that plays in to both our own formation and in our mission in the world. The suspicion, skepticism, and sometimes even the victimization that is pointed at the church is not something to be ignored or overcome, it is something that must be confessed, heard, and taken seriously by the church. You are not Westboro Baptist Church... Good. But to people around the world whose lives have been shaped by interpretations, language, and practices of those claiming association with the Christian tradition (whether we would identify them that way or not)... that (whatever it is) is what Christianity means. 

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Life

This to me is the most intriguing location of interpretive divergence. This is the place where Christian language and practices is confronted by the realities and complexities of life that stretch Christian language and practice sometimes beyond the breaking point. Think about it like this...

Pick any of the following "Christian" anecdotes that are commonplace and sometimes even (loosely) based on biblical texts...

"God won't give you more than you can handle."
"All divorce is adultery."
"God works everything out for the good..."
"I'm so blessed to have an iPad/SUV/Enormous House..."

On the death of someone close: "God just needed them to be with him now..."
"The Bible is simple enough that anyone who reads it with an open-mind and a pure heart can come to the right interpretations on things that really matter."

Here's the thing, not only are these things theologically problematic, but for countless people who's experience of life runs counter to these anecdotes, they are actually harmful. 

God won't give you more than you can handle? So what happens when I have reached the breaking point and I cannot handle it anymore? Also, why would this God "give me" these kinds of things anyway? 

God works everything out for the good? How does this square with the reality that the vast majority of suffering for the vast majority of people throughout human history has not received some form of redemptive turn in this life? This assertion is both contrary to their experience and damaging to any kind of possibility that they could look to Jesus as one who enters into their suffering in his life, death, and resurrection. 

All divorce is adultery? How does this shape people who were divorced outside of their own choosing, or because of behaviors and patterns that were deeply harmful and destructive? What does this do to people's perception about redemption when an action that is functionally irreversible is portrayed as an ongoing, egregious sin? 

These are the kinds of places that Christian language and practice can be harmful for both Christians and non-Christians. The language that so often goes unexamined, or the assumptions and beliefs that are implicit but never named have immense capacity to distort or destroy our perception of God and his work in the world. 

We don't need to imagine that this is an isolated issue, one that doesn't effect each and every community of faith who has ever existed throughout time. The truth is that there is not a gathering of human beings, nor a congregation, denomination, small group, sermon, or family that is unaffected by the reality of interpretive divergence. And this is particularly true when we are talking about the language and practices that are intended to articulate and embody the Christian faith. Our inability or unwillingness to take this reality with utmost seriousness will inevitably result in the (mal)formation of people with whom we engage. It is possible that the unexamined, unarticulated, and sometimes even the explicit messages and practices in our religious communities have devastating formational consequences. 

How we speak about God and the Christian life matters.