Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Churchy Language

Over the recent past I have been quite vocal in encouraging the removal of jargon from our public church life. If we use a word that has a particular nuance when uttered in Christian circles we ought to say so and explain. So I have said.

Now I have been grappling with James K.A. Smith's, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? It is an excellent little book although demanding concentration and careful thought the while. Probably no less than you would expect from a book sub-titled, Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church.

In chapter three, 'Where have all the metanarratives gone?' (I sense some of you closing down at this point) he draws on an analogy made by Quinn Fox in an article in Perspectives magazine called Liturgy and Starbucks. Coming to faith in coffee, they say, requires learning a new language. Let's call it Italiatte, I say. People who previously asked for a coffee now have to ask for a grande skinny latte or a tall mochachino with an extra shot.

They're right. From time to time I have taken people out for a coffee who have not previously set foot in a Starbucks and had to educate them. I don't have too much of a problem with this. Why am I so scared then that someone might encounter a liturgical language in church used without explanation. Is it off-putting? Or is it being invited into a different world? Rethink time.


Sam said...

coming to faith in starbucks coffee usually happens because "coffee" as a brand has a pretty good reputation, or because the people who you like say that starbucks is good for you. Similarly, trying out "church god" might come about because you think that "god" is generally worth your while, or because your friends vouch for the quality of church.

However, imagine that upon arriving in Starbucks, ordering a molto inter milano latte, and returning to your seat with the warm luscious liquid, the coffee was brewed with such a finesse that it only registered in the taste buds of people who had been drinking at Starbucks for three months. "This place doesn't help me in my search for a good coffee. I'm going to stick with instant Nescafe at home; it's cheaper anyway."

emma said...

But when I go into a coffee shop selling yuppie coffee I only ever buy a cappucino because I don't know what the others are and I am not about to ask. Therefore in a church context using church language that means little to anyone else is exclusive unless you are brave enough to ask what on earth anyone is talking about. I think I would be inclined to listen to and accept only what I could understand and would therefore be missing out on a huge amount of stuff that would be perhaps helpful and meaningful if initially explained in language I could understand.

(just surfed in from Mr Peatman's page)

Martin said...

On jargon, as a techie, I have to say I hate plain english computer magazines (such as Computer Active). To get computers to do certain things requires you to learn some of the new language instead of trying to step around it.

Then again, if the language is never explained, then I can imagine that things become inpenetrable.

There is happily a third way. Use the Jargon, but explain it.

david keen said...

as a 16 year old I plucked up the courage to ask my vicar (60-ish) what 'Hosanna' meant, as we seemed to say it every week. He had to go home and look it up.

Sometimes we use language as a boundary marker, to say that we belong to a certain set of people. Here in Blairs backyard (Darlington, next door to the PM's constituency, home of Alan Milburn), you have to be fluent in New Labourese to get on in local government and education circles. It has become a language system in itself, where meaning doesn't depend on anything in the real world, but on using the right words in the right places within a language system. Language in this context is not about meaning, it is about belonging, marking out 'one of us' from 'not one of us'. It's really interesting being on the outside of someone elses language system, and the sense of disempowerment (oops, a new labour word) that I experience from that.

Andy said...

Hmmm, I'm not sure I agree St. Coffee-speak has negative consequences too, and I know a few people who purposefully shun using it, or would rather someone else order stuff for them to avoid the humiliation of not knowing the lingo. In this sense, it hardly re-inforces the sense of belonging that a coffee-house (and, indeed, church) would prefer to foster.

Martin is right, if the lingo is not explained well, people on the outside are not "intrigued-in" but instead "perplexed-out".

The other problem with language is that it's easily mis-understood - especially if the words used have differing subtle meanings. For ages I assumed a "tall skinny latte" was a regular latte served in a tall slender mug. Similarly I have for years understood the "kingdom of God" in purely medieval/political terms (because that's the only framework for me to understand the concept) - without realising that Jesus' message was much more radical to his contempories.

And of course, the use of language in both coffee-houses and churches often has hidden agendas. "Skinny" is used so that people on diets can have calorie-laden coffees without feeling too bad, whereas words such as "Sacrifice" and "Sin" have become corrupted by centuries of particular 'brands' of theology.

Picking through all of these things is the lot of the post-modern. No wonder we have 'trust issues' when it comes to meta-narratives!

St said...

We seem interestingly divided. I wonder if, just as the division in Starbucks is between the askers and the scared-to-askers, there may be a division in chuches too. Are there some who are put off by our constant explanations because, if they wanted to know they'd ask?

Stewart said...

I remember once taking part in a youth group exercise (not one that you led Mr T) where we were challenged to explain our faith without the use of Christian jargon. Any time we used a word or concept that wouldn't be easily understood by a non-Christian, we were asked to provide an easily understandable definition of that word. What became apparent over the twenty minutes that followed was that a large percentage of the group couldn't unpack Christian jargon without using even more Christian jargon in the process.

I think this may be the most important point of your church/Starbucks analogy; you can easily acclimatise your friends to the wonderful world of coffee shops without needing to confuse them with terms like 'arabica', grind, 'crema' or 'tamping'. However many churches are unable to accomplish a similar feat.

Jonathan Potts said...

The thing is with Christain jargon is that Christians frequently don't have a clear idea what the meaning is of certain "jargonny" words. And when they do, their understandings are a far cry from the understandings of the Bible writers who used them. I'm thinking of "salvation", "kingdom of God", "Messiah/Christ", "righteousness", "justification" and so on. Devid keen's example of "hosanna" is also telling.

This throws another spanner in the works which may suggest eschewing all technical words. But it is difficult to explain some Biblical ideas without them. At least if you want to ensure people don't get the wrong idea. This, I think, was Martin's point.

So maybe the church needs to start with trying to educate its people in Biblical concepts. Then it is in a place to communicate these concepts well.

One of the main problems with explaining the Bible (or at least the NT) to people nowadays is that it is written in words that were common-place and common-sensical to the people at the time but are technical now - because they refer to concepts that are no longer fresh in our minds.

Caroline said...

sigh ...

Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault

why leave it with them?

Postmodernism has many more strands
and all their major work was done more than 20 years ago! Do people think that no new thinking has been going on since then?

It's not that there is no truth but that there are more interesting and helpful things to look for in life than truth. But sometimes to explore new worlds you need to re-create words and these can seem like exclusive jargon, PM writing and Churchy writing suffer the same problem.

and a whole load of people have been exploring the potential for life-giving ideas growing from postmodern critiques of old-science know-it-all

sorry rant over

Caroline Too
(The Other One -not the one now in Australia)

Caroline said...

life is so much easier in Italy, where getting Coffee is a simple task... no jargon there!

Caroline (the one who is about to go to South Africa)

Caroline said...

rats, I knew I'd get it wrong :-(

Caroline Too
(The Outsize One) who's not going to Italy, South Africa or Australia and is beginning to realise that this signature thingy is getting out of hand)

St said...

I think, Caroline, that James Smith is doing the new thinking but he does it by analysing older thinking and seing where it falls short. This seems to me how most academic prgress is made.

Very few Eureka moments happen unattached to other thinking. And even Archimedes was allegedly in water when he had his profound thought about weight, mass and displacement.

If you have suggestions about other reading we might do to explore the subject I'd love to hear them.

Ans as far, 'There are more ... helpful things to look for in life than truth,' Surely this is a false dichotomy. Stuff can be interesting and true; false and dull. And vice versa of course.

gone said...

ok i dont rekon its the jargon per se but like the attitiude behind it.

Being a new Christian and like coming from the sex industry language has been difficult this year to get my head around, Certain subjects i cant talk about but cant deny either. Phrases and descriptions that are hard to understand and some that are just a pile of pants when i do understand them.

I am mixed on this issue.

I dont like it when people are patronising and overexplain, i will ask if i need to know. I dont have a problem with churchy language, everything has its own language and i dont rekon we should pander to peoples lack of confidence to ask. People just have to say "ask, if you wanna know and we'll tell ya"

What gets on my tits is when theres an attitude behind it like the staff in Starbucks get impatient with a customer that dont know stuff and needs more time to decide or when people in churches either dismiss a newbie outa hand or overexplain, both need a slap i rekon.

i love finding out what words mean, (hahaha even if i can't spell them LOL)
enthusiasm = en (in) theos (God) amazing huh!?

Like Martin said, just explain and like ST said, they'll ask when they wanna know. Just ditch the shitty attitude.

St said...

Snow you keep all our feet firmly on the ground. Thanks.

Martin said...

One more thought. In a sense, it's a shame that church isn't in a written form. There you get the opportunity for (optionally read) box-outs to explain some elements in more detail, and for appendices and glossaries.

Then again, I think written down church might lack some imediacy. ;-)

St said...

Yeah but look out for the A-Z guide to St Paul's, coming soon, and explaining all that stuff you were scared to ask about.