Language Of Zion
The other day I came across Ben
Myers’ post on Daniel Radosh’s book ‘Rapture
Ready! Adventures in the parallel universe of Christian pop culture’. The
very title (which seems, from an Amazon
search, to be based on quite a few books) came the same day that somebody
had sent me an email, where the sign-off was something I hadn’t previously seen
in my sheltered Methodist upbringing: ‘Stay rapturable!’ It doesn’t quite fit
with my eschatology, but I suppose it’s better than being rupturable.
Which made me think about the ‘language of Zion’ that we
employ. Any specialist field or discipline has its own language, or uses common
words with a different meaning (think ‘factor’ in Maths, for example). We have
just had Trinity Sunday, and few Christian doctrines have more technical words
than the Trinity. And I certainly don’t want to diminish the importance of ‘the
language of mystery’.
But we get a bit daft in the church. Do I need all those
letters that begin, ‘Greetings in the precious name of the Lord Jesus Christ’?
I know what they mean, and some of them are sincere. Why, a few are even from
friends. Yes, the name of Jesus is precious, but over-use and reduction to
catchphrase diminish that sense of value for me.
I know a fair few of the Protestant (and especially
evangelical) words and phrases. I’m less familiar with what my friends who
climb burning candles and inhale pungent incense use. Or is this just an
evangelical disease? Can anyone help on this question?
I’m not blameless myself. Often, I end an email with the
words, ‘Grace and peace’. No, it’s not that I fancy myself as the Apostle Paul,
but I do like his use of those words in greetings. They convey something
important to me. I end some letters with ‘Yours in Christ.’ Prepare your
charges of hypocrisy to lay against me!
So why do we do it? Perhaps we need a secret code. On this
understanding, it is Christian undercover spy language. It is our equivalent to
the ICHTHUS symbol in the catacombs, before we made the fish badge something to
market. PTL and WWJD are the combinations that crack the code and let us
But if it is that, it is quite worrying. Although things may
be going against Christians in western society, we have not reached the level
of persecution that many of our sisters and brothers have. So we hardly need
the equivalent of the secret handshake. It therefore becomes a marker of who is
‘in’ and who is ‘out’, and our society is sensitive to issues of inclusion and
exclusion. Of course, some fundamental degree of inclusion and exclusion is
inevitable by virtue of positive or negative responses to Jesus Christ, but a
form that implicitly suggests superiority, and thus contradicts grace.
On another level, perhaps it indicates the difficulty we
have in translating the Gospel into what the Book of Common Prayer in its day
called ‘a tongue understanded of the people’. Are we so caught up with church
stuff and so unused to enjoying the company of non-Christians that we have no
language for mission, apart from slogans? Does anyone remember the Christian
policeman characters on ‘The
Fast Show’? They had some of our religious clichés down to a tee.
In fact, what may seem to be a facetious subject is a missionary
question. It is indicative of our failure to heed the dictum of Helmut Thielicke that
the Gospel must always be forwarded to a new address. It is about the
assumption that people need not only to be converted to Christ but to our
culture. It thus denies incarnational mission.
Of course, maybe we shouldn’t get too po-faced about this.
Maybe the best account I’ve ever seen of this comes from the time when Ship Of Fools was a printed magazine in the
early 1980s. They published ‘The Ship Of Fools Dictionary Of Sanctified
Jargon’. It contained such gems as, ‘Suffer the little children’: see Sunday
Why do you think Christians do this? And do you have any
amusing examples? Let’s have a bit of fun here.
I was going to end the post with that last paragraph, but as
well as having fun, we need (without getting po-faced, as I said) to think
about some solutions. Some are inherent in what I’ve written already. We need
to be careful about the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, especially when it is
couched in terms of persecution. We need to be more comfortable around those
who do not share our faith: rather than being petrified of them, 1 John reminds
us, ‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.’ We seem to
function more with an Old Testament fear of ritual contamination than a New
Testament faith in which all those understandings have come to an end and
fulfilment in Christ.
But what do you think? As well as sharing some examples of
Christianese, what do you think we might do in order to kick the habit?