Brothers and sisters in Christ: learn to talk like human beings

Orwell warned that the sorry state of the English language was damaging politics. The weird way Christians talk about their faith is doing the same to religion

The video above pokes gentle fun at some of the strange words and phrases that only Christians use. To be honest, many of them are specific to the Bible Belt. I’ve never heard anyone at Wesley Memorial praise something by saying it is ‘souled out’ – and thank goodness for that – but different churches and denominations each seem to have their own dialect of ‘Christianese.’

One example that seems pretty universal is ‘fellowship.’ A term that appears in the bible but has no other saving grace. It is broad to the point of being meaningless, covering loosely connected concepts like: friendship, solidarity, community, church membership and denominational affiliation. Using it completely obscures the distinction between these ideas.

The most obvious problem with believers having a language of our own is that it potentially alienates outsiders. However, my real concern with ‘Christianese’ is that it’s typically bad English. It’s replete with the flaws that George Orwell warns of in Politics and the English Language: overused metaphors and figures of speech, overlong words, padding, the passive voice, foreign words and jargon. And as Orwell warns bad English is a serious matter. A lack of clarity in communication can lead to unclear thinking. Conformist thinking is often betrayed by tired and clichéd language. And it allows for obfuscation which permits ‘the defence of the indefensible.’

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell thought of this triad of dangers in a political context but they can also be seen in a religious one. To see them all at once consider: penal substitution. This bizarre yet widely believed doctrine holds that despite being all powerful God is unable to forgive humanity without someone being punished for our sins. Therefore, Christ is offered as a substitute sacrifice to appease God’s wrath.

Using an expression like penal substitution with an unclear meaning rather than spelling out what one says serves a dual obfuscatory purpose. It prevents one having to dwell on the logical contradictions of the idea: an omnipotent God being constrained, a forgiving God demanding vengeance, and how the death of a single individual could possibly substitute for the sins of all humanity. And turning “a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed” into penal substitution is the religious equivalent rebranding massacres as pacification. In short what it allows us to accomplish is – to use another Orwellism – ‘doublethink.’ One can adhere to the notion and so remain faithful to the orthodox thinking of many churches without facing the contradictions inherent in it.

I think we can do better than that. To quote Orwell for the last time:

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy…when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Penal substitution, fellowship and ‘souled out’ belong in that dustbin too. There is a prize for jettisoning them and using the language of regular human beings: a Church less able to defend the indefensible, better able to examine its ideas and thus a more persuasive articulator of the gospels.

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