Friday, February 11, 2005

Christian-ese

Every group, be it a profession, subculture, religion, or social group, has its own collective lexicon of unique jargon, understood and appreciated only by its members. To them, it gives a sense of belonging, identity, and even superiority over outsiders. We computer geeks are notorious for that. Often in front of normal people at a social gathering (if we manage to get invited to one, that is), we blurt out useless things like,

"Hey I optimized the server application code in the cluster web farm environment through the implementation of virtual data access functions in the base class which enabled the derived classes to polymorphically populate hashtables without running into the risk of memory leakage."

hoping to impress some women within earshot when in fact most normal and healthy people roll their eyes and groan in pain vowing never to invite us again. Well, but it gets me through the night.

During my twelve years in corporate America, I had to endure what I would like to call "Corporatese" which is a glossary of corporate buzzwords and phrases employed by management. Plain English was a long lost concept at the company where I spent most of my twenties.

Often times, within days after getting a memo from upper management painting a rosy picture of the company in Corporatese gibberish, would we first hear the news of a looming round of layoffs from news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and CNN, but seldom from our own management. Even as my co-workers vanished day after day, the flow of propaganda replete with clichés and platitudes from management never relented.

"Our employees are our most valuable asset"
"We are reorganizing to better serve our customers"
"We will produce the highest quality products, using empowered team dynamics in a new Total Quality paradigm."
"Streamline processes for maximizing propensities."
"Managerially balance data compilation with process ownership."

Much of this has been thoroughly satirized and discredited by Dilbert and movies like Office Space (I will not party with you if you have not seen Office Space. Not that you will take this threat seriously, but still), but yet Corporatese continues to flourish and torment. They must have not gotten the memo.

Clichés and platitudes are often employed by people who find themselves short on substance and/or incapable of putting together original thought, thus are forced to rely on canned phrases and terms. Just last year, we as a nation had to endure a long grueling campaign season replete with political rhetoric which amounted to nothing more than recycled talking points and sound bites tested by focus groups and put together by consultants. We heard virtually nothing of significance from the candidates themselves.

My fellow Evangelical Christians are no exception. We have our own glossary of fancy expressions spoken and understood only in our circles, which some derisively refer to as "Christianese." If you have been in and around evangelical Christian circles, you may have had exposure to our canned clichés and platitudes.

"How is your walk with the Lord"?
"Spiritual growth through trials"
"The Lord placed it on my heart to witness and win souls"
"Have you been in the Word?"
"I have prayer requests for my backsliding friend"

This web site does a pretty decent job of satirizing. It features popular Christianese phrases and a translation for each of them. Here is my contribution.

Christianese: "She is a godly woman with a soft heart for God"
Translation: "Dude, that chic is hot."


..... The Christian lingo ...... drives me ..... out of my mind .....

It has the exact same effect, if not worse, on my sanity as corporate and political sound bites and clichés do. At least Corporatese is in my distant past now that I run my own practice and the next major presidential campaign season is at least three years away, but there is no escaping from Christianese for me.

Please allow me to make a few points against Christianese

It creates an illusion that one's proficiency in Christianese is a measure of his/her spirituality

My own lack of proficiency has been a liability. I come across as "unspiritual," and consequently have a hard time fitting in. Of course other factors at play may be my social ineptitude and character defects, which I won't deny, but please hear me out.

More than on one occasion, have I seen so-called a "transformed life upon accepting Christ," but much of the transformation consists of one's newly acquired lingo and a few life style changes such as quitting drugs and alcohol. I would like to think that our faith is much deeper and profound than that.

Not only is it a false indicator of one's spirituality, but also it can often be abused as an effective facade behind which people hide themselves. I've heard and read countless stories from ex-Christians who admit to having done exactly that while feeling empty and miserable inside.

I myself at times have used the lingo. I did so primarily to stave off unsolicited sermons. A few years ago after losing my job, I confessed to feeling down and worthless to my group leader. Oh what a big mistake it was. My admission triggered an avalanche of sermons and Bible bullets about the importance of "growing spiritually through trials" and "learning to depend on God." (A week later when I ran into him, he had completely forgotten about my employment situation).

After that, I learned, as a pre-emptive measure, to say things like, "I lost my job, but I know the Lord is watching over me and teaching me to depend on him through difficult trials" to which people approvingly would respond, "Praise God," but spared me painful sermons. Ironically, the Christian lingo became my shield from the Christian lingo.

Christianese has become our de facto liturgy

A typical "born-again Christian testimony" goes like this. One grows up in a mainline denominational or Catholic church, which places a heavy emphasis on liturgy and rituals. Liturgy and rituals have become tired, lifeless, meaningless, and repetitive gibberish and God seems anything but "real" until a "godly person" comes along to share how they can have a "personal relationship" with God.

Every criticism leveled against liturgy can be applied to Christianese. Lifeless. Tired. Meaningless. Repetitive. And Cheesy. While liturgy is confined to only Sunday, Christianese isn't since it is woven into our day-to-day conversations every single day of the week, not just Sunday church rituals.

"Unbelievers are too spiritually blind to understand the things of God,"

Said someone in defense of Christianese (it was beyond frustrating to have my concerns about Christianese responded to in, well, more Christianese. Words fail me). Can't liturgy be defended as "the things of God" as well which the irreligious are too unspiritual to appreciate? Just as every criticism against liturgy can be applied to Christianese, every defense can be as well.

Perhaps we Evangelical Christians should not be too quick to denounce and denigrate liturgy based on our unpleasant memories when we may be creating unpleasant memories for others as we speak.

It undermines our individuality.

I absolutely do not doubt that some who use the lingo mean it well with the utmost sincerity. The main problem is that people who do use it sound just like everybody else who uses it, which makes it exponentially difficult for me to get to know them as individuals especially considering the fact that I see my felllow church goers only once or twice a week.

Jesus is said to be our "Personal" Savior and Lord in evangelical Christian circles. The implication is that God knows each one of us as an individual and each person's relationship with Him is unique and special. "I have called you by name; You are mine...thus says the Lord. (Isaiah 43)"

Then, why do we have to sound so ALIKE as if we all tow the party line? Why do we need a collective lexicon besides the Bible? Some pastor or popular Christian author coins a clever and catchy phrase, and it spreads like a wild fire among Christians. It may serve us better to reflect on our high school English teachers' admonishment to use our own words.

"What Would Jesus Do?"

according to one of the more recent popular Christian slogans. It's on key chains, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.

Well, let's talk about that. What would Jesus do?

One of my favorite Bible stories involves a Roman military officer who approached Jesus about healing a sick servant of his. The officer was called a "centurion" since he was in command of 100 soldiers. When Jesus offered to come to his house, the Centurion respectfully declined and stated his reason for not taking up on Jesus' offer to see the sick servant in person.

The centurion asked Jesus simply to "just say the word" which he believed would heal the servant without an in-person visit. Drawing from his job in charge of soldiers, he explained that when something needed to be done, all he had to do was to issue a simple order to his soldiers and it got done. It couldn't get any simpler, he reasoned, and expected Jesus to do exactly that. "Just say the word."

Such is a simple statement of faith, completely devoid of pious clichés and heavy theological references. The centurion simply stated a fact of life and probably didn't think much of his eloquence. There was no grandstanding. And there were no lofty words strewn into his statement. Just simple and plain.

Jesus was floored.

While reeling from astonishment, he declared to the crowd, "I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel." Just as the centurion believed, Jesus said the word and the servant got healed.

Jesus' reaction to the centurion's simple statement of faith stood in stark contrast with his pronouncement of blistering condemnation against the religious elite, as evident in his scathing public tirades ("brood of vipers," "hypocrites," "children of the devil") and countless testy and acromonious exchanges. The religious elite in response remained unrepentent, defied his call to authentic faith, and orchestrated the murder of Jesus in the commission of the most heinous crime in history.

The centurion in the meantime went on to make headlines in the Gospels again. In the midst of the chaos ensuing the crucifixion of Jesus, and while his closest friends had betrayed and publically denied him three times in his hour of deepest need, the centurion made history by uttering the very first recorded public declaration of faith in the new era heralded by the Lord's death.
"Truly this was the Son of God"
While Jesus' closest friends' faith crumbled and faltered, this little known centurion's faith flourished and flourished abundantly.


11 Comments:

At February 15, 2005 10:06 AM, Blogger Just Rannin' Around said...

The industry which I currently work has an entirely different vocabulary. When I began years ago it was almost as good as learning a foreign language. I sometimes forget and when people ask me questions, they get this look on their face that immediately tells me that I forgot to switch into the language which they understand (translation is vital).

I also came to realize that religion is a foreign language. It wasn't until about 6th grade while talking to a friend that didn't have the same religious background as I that it occurred to me that she wasn't understanding what I was saying. It was almost like a child that was raised speaking English and Spanish in their home realizing that everyone else didn't speak Spanish.

I loved this post!

 
At February 15, 2005 3:41 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

Thanks for the comment.

I am not so worried about technical terms which are inevitable when one metaphores are employed to describe things that laymen can't relate to.

I am talking more about canned cliches, platitudes, buzz words that really do not have a lot of substance other than sounding good. So technical terms used in your industry as well as mine really do not belong in the same category as cliches do.

 
At February 17, 2005 1:15 PM, Blogger Jenny said...

Dave, this was a really, really, really great post. I agree--I hate Christianese and I try not to use it, mostly because it never makes sense to me (since I consider myself not to have grown up in the church, I didn't learn this from a young age).

Also, Christianese is frequently spoken with meaningless intent, which I think is what makes it particularly aggrevating. I think this is precisely the difference between your nerd speak (that part of your essay was HILARIOUS to me--you are not invited to the next game night :)) and Christianese. Often, I think industry-specific terminology is used because that most clearly identifies with specificity what you're talking about, and it rarely seems dead (if you're in the industry) because chances are you're talking about those things with reason and love. I think Christianese seems dead because it is easy to say those things and be devoid of meaning and reason, other than it's just something to say.

 
At April 01, 2005 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, it's nicely written... and i can appreciate your view of "christianese" out there and the tendency for some to misuse the lingo. while at first it confused me and caused me to cock my head to the side (when i was a new believer), i am now a user of much of the christianese... and a genuine user, at that. as you are frustrated with those who over use it, it's a little disconcerting that you would be narrow minded enough to believe that all christians who use this "lingo" would be as insincere as you make us all out to be. i USE it and i say what i mean & mean what i say.

while i can appreciate your view of overused, insincere christianese, i don't see any room for the exception (which would be genuine users such as myself).

 
At April 01, 2005 3:36 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

anonymous, thanks for your feedback. I added the following paragraph under (it undermines our individuality) for clarification.

"I absolutely do not doubt that some who use the lingo mean it well with the utmost sincerity. The main problem is that people who do use it sound just like everybody else who uses it, which makes it exponentially difficult for me to get to know them as individuals especially considering the fact that I see my felllow church goers only once or twice a week."

I mean it when I say I don't doubt some people's sincerity, but my point about individuality still stands.

 
At May 14, 2005 5:32 AM, Blogger Max said...

David, I like your essay.

I grew up a pastor's son and found that much of the time, I seemed to be on the outside of acceptance of Christians at our Evangelical church. I called it as I saw it. Honesty got me nowhere. I continue to stand on the outside of the acceptable when it comes to Christianese and relationships in my current church. While my wife and I are the worship leaders, I still get some strange looks and find people not understanding my honesty. I like to be honest and expect others to be honest in the hope that we can "bear one anothers burdens".

Much of the time burdens get buried under a mountain of culturally correct language. We are never allowed to have a problem or need to deal with something more than once. Christianese is a detriment to the proper workings of the caring Church as Christ intended.

I will continue on the outside of the circle of acceptability because it is here I find the friendship and genuine relationship with a few others who count honesty and a relationship with God as more important than the approval of men.

 
At June 24, 2005 12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this post. Christian-ese can also be a form of manipulating people into conformity. Funny how Jesus spoke mostly against the religious leaders and their babble... and spoke frankly, directly and compassionately to the people that he came for.

 
At February 03, 2006 9:32 AM, Blogger Karen said...

Love this post..and your blog. Thanks for your honesty and humor.

 
At October 17, 2006 2:40 PM, Anonymous Amanda Baker said...

David,

I received your feedback on my "Christianese" article (http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6362-baker.htm)via Dr. Carol Percy.

Thanks for taking the time to read and commment. I agree with your stance and I actually considered the problem as I wrote. Ultimately, however, as I was writing for linguists rather than Christians, I could not afford what would have been a tangential explanation of the problem of the term "Christianese" to the Christian.

That being said, you are absolutely right and now I'm thinking that a footnote would perhaps have been useful. Again, thanks for your interest.

Best,
Amanda Baker

 
At May 19, 2007 11:00 AM, Blogger pilgrim said...

hey :)

thanks for blogging - loved it. I s'pose I use Christianese often enough when I cannot find my own words because others' similar experiences have validated the use of the term. Sometimes old terms are hard to rephrase because they're well put... But I can well imagine it puts off some people.

As a linguist, I know jargon comes with the job. And maybe it is slightly similar here - but since we're not really given the option of being an exclusive highly skilled band of Christians (;O) I agree that Christianese can be a block to the openness that the gospel (ah there it is again? lol) must have.

 
At September 11, 2007 1:44 AM, Blogger NeverAlone said...

Your post is a great reminder!
Often a person would have to speak slowly and carefully if they want to avoid using lingo, even when every word is sincere. Try saying some of your workplace technical wording in laymen's terms and it might be a laborious exercise.
Still, especially around anyone who can't be expected to understand lingo, the time and thought should be given to make communication clear and no matter how it's said, our words should always be heartfelt or authentic.
Shame on Christians, when we lack authenticity--insincerity is a lie, plain and simple; and truth is a hallmark of Christianity.

 

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