Theology, actualized to the nth degree slaphappy and cacographic 2

A few years ago I had a student writer who thought she could jazz up her writing by rewriting her plain language with the help of a thesaurus. Her prose ended up being utterly ridiculous and unreadable, or as her thesaurus might have written, her tongue came to a halt actualized to the nth degree slaphappy and cacographic.

As I’ve chronicled before on these pages, there’s a deliberate effort afoot to remap Christian language to make it more acceptable to the unsaved. To a certain extent, there’s wisdom in speaking in a language that a listener can understand, but many of the efforts have the same outcome as my wannabe writer’s prose. You can’t just replace words rich in meaning with another word that a thesaurus writer has determined is within some extended semantic family.

Nick Charalambous, in advocating that we put saved in our back pockets for awhile, pointed his readers to a list of traditional Christian words and their suggested replacements. While not everything on the list is disagreeable, there are quite a few that do a great injustice to the carefully cultivated meaning of the original word.

Let’s look at a few of the suggested changes:

  1. Converted becomes changed. Conversion implies a complete and radical change. I can convert my car from gas to biofuel, and in so doing I change the basic nature of the car. I can change my car’s fuel from 87 to 93 octane easily, but I can just as easily change back if it doesn’t suit me. Conversion talks of altered natures and character. Change is something one does to oil and underwear.
  2. Get saved becomes made a decision to follow Christ. The key difference here is who’s doing the doing. If I need saving, there’s going to be someone or something that was the agent of that salvation. If I’m on a sinking ship, I generally don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not I get saved. By emphasizing a decision to follow, we lose the emphasis and dependence on grace that is denoted in saved.
  3. Preach becomes talk about. Everyone can talk, few are called to preach. Talking is something that buzzes around me and invites me to ignore it; preaching is God’s Word directed at me that demands my attention and obedience. Who wouldn’t rather be talked to than preached to? Talking is casual; preaching is insistent, which is probably why it’s taboo.
  4. Christian becomes Christ follower. Belief is replaced with works. See a fuller discussion here.
  5. Sin becomes acting against God’s will and offending God’s character. Acting against God’s will is one way we can sin, but it ignores the doctrine of original sin. I sin without having to do anything at all. I am not God, so my very existence falls short and offends God’s holy character. If sin is about doing bad things, then I can become less of a sinner by doing fewer bad things. Sin, in its full original sense, nails me regardless of what I do.

In a related article, a sensitive evangelist also suggests that we not talk about sin.

Rather than talking about “sin,” discuss the nature of broken relationships with God and the need for healing.

Healing? We’re dead in our sins and need an entire new life, not a few therapy sessions. It’s a similar diminution in meaning as we see in the converted vs. changed redefinition.

Which points to a more profound issue in evangelism. From what I can tell from the Bible, conversion involves repentance and belief. If we’re resorting to creating Christ followers who haven’t heard us talk about sin, perhaps we’re dealing with people who have neither repented nor believed.

If so, would that be their fault or ours?

2 thoughts on “Theology, actualized to the nth degree slaphappy and cacographic

  1. Nick Charalambous Apr 21, 2009 8:35 am

    I think there is great merit to drawing out the subtle but significant nuances in the new alternatives to traditional Christian terms. I think the issue is very simple: Is the language and meaning meant for the saints appropriate for use with the lost. I obviously think not, but it is a great stretch to suggest I am advocating that we eliminate words from our Christian vocabulary forever and altogether. As our hyper-mediated online world puts us in the often accidental contact with the lost, i think it is wise to recognize that we may as well be speaking in Greek if the people we are speaking to have no context or understanding of basic Christian theology with which to grasp the power and the meaning of the Christian words we cherish. As a communications professor, I find it odd that you are refusing to tailor your message to your audience.

  2. James Duncan Apr 21, 2009 9:16 am

    Nick, welcome. It’s good to see you around these parts. You’re welcome to participate whenever you like, so make yourself at home.

    Two clarifications first. I didn’t say you were advocating eliminating words forever, just for “awhile.” Also, I didn’t refuse to tailor the message to the audience. If I call upon my communications professor power of recall, I think I said that “there’s wisdom in speaking in a language that a listener can understand.”

    I think it’s interesting and instructive how Jesus didn’t worry about making his language understandable on the first impression. In John 3 he totally confuses Nicodemus by telling him that he should be born again. Jesus explains it further for him after Nicodemus makes it clear he’s got the wrong end of the stick, but I wouldn’t say that Jesus made a witnessing error in using the granddaddy of all confusing Christian terminology.

    I also think that a mashup of 2 Tim 3:16 (All Scripture is … useful) and 2 Peter 3:16 (Paul’s letters are hard to understand) suggest that we have nothing to fear in using the original terms that Jesus (the Word, after all) left us.

    My main point is that when you change the message, sometimes it stops being the message.

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