About four years ago I had the bright idea of writing an article (or short book) about the language unique to churchy Christians, and about how one needed to use and understand a minimum of a couple dozen terms to feel truly part of “the Body” and to enter into “fellowship” with “the brethren.” It was meant to be a whimsical, semi-serious collection of musings about the language one hears and uses in contemporary ecclesiastical circles and how that language impacted me and presumably other “hearers of the word.” I termed this special vocabulary holy talk.
Fifteen years ago the opaque vocabulary of church people made about as much sense to me as the old King James Version of the Bible–the one written in Elizabethan English that I gave up trying to read as a teenager. The thought also occurred to me that this special jargon is not only a reflection of belief but in some way helps shape or channel how one thinks about God, and God’s red-headed stepchild, religion.
Language conditions our view of reality but the meaning in words is very idiosyncratic. For instance a simple word like apple can mean many different things. Some may see a Red Delicious, others a tart green Granny Smith. For some its a computer; for others it may conjure up the image of the apple–the one Eve offered to Adam, etc. Apple is a fairly innocuous word, but consider the effect on the listener of a very hot-button word like blood.
My fascination with language began when I was an undergraduate and took a class in General Semantics. The textbook was S. I. Hayakawa’s book Language in Thought and Action. It was taught by my favorite prof and eventual mentor, Dr. Edgar Garrett. It was one of those mind-expanding classes that every college student should experience at least a couple of times before they graduate. Semantics has to do with the meaning of words and how a given word means quite different things to different individuals. It has a few basic tenets like: the word (the symbol) is not the thing (the object) and the map is not the territory. We all have unique maps in our head and confusing the map or the symbol with the real thing can cause all sorts of emotional reactions and flaws in our logic. Hayakawa and Alfred Korzybski (semantics founder) believed that language usage needed to be very carefully analyzed.
Well, I wrote a couple of paragraphs and then sort of put the idea on the back burner. I decided that someone had likely already written that article or book and had done it much better than I could. However, before I shelved the project I came up with was a list of words that are pretty much solely used by Christians. I proposed that whereas the 80s rock group The Bangles taught us to “walk like an Egyptian” I would endeavor to teach the pre-anointed how to “talk like a Christian.” My quick list: (1) anointed; (2) supplication; (3) gainsay; (4) idolatry; (5) exegesis; (6) hermeneutics; (7) apostate; (8) backslider; (9) the elect; (11) rebuke; (12) deceiving spirit; (13) bondage; (14) prayer warrior; (15) prayer closet; (16) tithe; (17) Offertory (18) talking in tongues; (19) Pentecostal; (20) atonement, etc. These are all terms one is likely to hear exclusively in church these days.
That was compiled in just a few minutes. Obviously, the list could easily be several times that length. Even simple common words like “grace” are used in a special way. Grace to me was something said before meals or perhaps a woman’s name. It was years before I fully understood and appreciated the real Christian concept of grace, that of unmerited favor. Likewise, the word “victory” has all sorts of special meanings in Evangelical Christianity. Victory for me conjured up images of one gladiator holding his sword to the throat of another gladiator, or perhaps the more innocuous image of the winning pitcher in a baseball game. The phrase “living the victorious life” is still not something I’m comfortable with. Just saying it causes me to feel like a player in the theater of the absurd. Satan undoubtedly uses language to suit his purposes and perhaps that accounts for my reaction to the word victory.
“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). It took me a long while to become comfortable with the shedding of Christ’s blood and with the emphasis placed on blood sacrifices in the five books of Moses. The whole concept seemed somehow both archaic and barbaric. Even the term “worship” set off all sorts of unpleasant images in me, like grass-skirted heathens bowing down before some graven idol in a jungle clearing. The emotional loading of particular words for me was conditioned over the course of five decades. Perhaps, my discomfort with “holy talk” was due to not attending church for nearly thirty years and the fact that even before I stopped attending I stopped paying attention. Around the age of 12 or 13 it all became irrelevant to me.
To this day I remain uncomfortable praying aloud in groups. I do it from time to time and I’ve become okay with it in small doses. It’s listening to other people’s prayers that bothers me. I recall one lady who used the term “Father God” around a dozen times in about three short phrases. I’m sure God didn’t mind but I found it distracting. Some people are so inarticulate and others too repetitive and so I stand there like a prayer critic and I know that’s not right. It has to do with the semantics of holy talk, Satan and my own sinful heart. Perhaps fortunately, I’m hard of hearing.
Beyond the veil of human language lies God’s immutable, unchanging reality.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”