Language Rut

27 Jul

Coffee shops are weird places. The clientele is predictable. A graphic designer works on his latest piece. An old man reads a well worn book. Two moms chat about the development of their children and whose kid is getting better grades and achieving more. Almost always though there is the unmistakable pastor. He is deep in conversation with a parishioner. I must confess, I am an avid eavesdropper. It’s not that I am incredibly nosy, it’s that I have ADD tendencies and I can’t focus while there is a conversation going on. I have heard some interesting conversations recently. April is breaking up with her boyfriend soon because she’s just not feeling it anymore. Mom #1 is really concerned about her kid going through puberty. I digress.

The thing that I have noticed in all my coffee shop listening is that in the christian community our conversations are incredibly predictable. The language tends to be stale and detached from the concerns and questions of the “lost.” Pastors and Christians are in a language rut–this pastor included. We say the same Christian catch-phrases over and over ad nauseum. It borderlines absurdity. There is no life in our language. This is a travesty. Any Christian, especially a pastor, should be a teeming brook of awe-inspiring language that captures attention–not because of our pretension or expertise but because of our intimate relationship with the God that chose to reveal himself in words. To reduce the glorious message of Jesus and his Kingdom into predictable Christian slogans that resemble a car dealership’s model year-end blowout sale is a grievous sin. Language that would relegate the infinitely beautiful God-story into a stale set of bullet points breaks the heart of God and severely thwarts the mission of the church.

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Words have power. You cannot have a conscious thought without words. Sure you see things in pictures at times, but those images are associated with words. Your thought life is in direct relationship with your language. Here’s a scary thought: God can’t speak to you with language you don’t have. At the risk of being heretical, his communication to you is limited by the words you know and use.

We need a language revival. There are several authors I read that use language in a way that burrows into the soul. Eugene Peterson and Brennan Manning don’t write mere books, the write symphonies. Reading their work is like being caught up and carried by wave. Time passes but you don’t feel it. Their use of language is breathtaking. I want that to be said of my work one day–that my words literally had life in them.

The solution is not go learn 10 new words a day and start figuring out how to use them. Language doesn’t work that way. You can’t list out all the words you know. Your vocabulary is a product of your context. A language revival starts with putting yourself in a new environment. Immerse yourself in the biblical narrative. Start reading great books. Listen to deeply meaningful sermons. Stop watching Jersey Shore. When you catch yourself using catch-phrases, stop and communicate what you’re trying to say in a new way. Don’t be guilty of using dead language for a God who’s alive.

Check out Brennan Manning’s book “The Furious Longing of God” free on kindle. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

7 Responses to “Language Rut”

  1. Brian LePort July 27, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    My guess is that we say cliches and catch phrases because they are safe. We don’t risk being misunderstood, even if the cliche is so worn that we aren’t quite understood either. It seems that in the church those who risk saying things afresh are often those who find themselves on the other side of unjustifiable attacks.

    • pastorjosephphillips July 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

      Totally agree with you. If you question anything, even the way we communicate our message, you can get vilified.

  2. Doc July 27, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

    You framed Semantic
    Deceptions of spirituality so nice and succinctly. Love the blog blessings

  3. Ginger Bohannon July 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    Great Blog Joseph! Making me pause and think…just got the book too for my kindle and I’m looking forward to reading it! Keep the fresh thoughts coming!

  4. Pat Pope July 28, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    And when you immerse yourself in the Bible, remember your audience. It’s okay to use insider jargon if talking to another Christian, but to those who are nominal in the faith or outside of the faith, speak THEIR language. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to just speak normally to all people regardless of their faith. I think in some circles, it’s almost expected that as a Christian you’ll use certain expressions. Of course, no one ever says that, but I’ve seen the look in people’s eye if I don’t use certain code words to express a particular thought, feeling or idea.

  5. Andre Henry (@andrehenry) July 31, 2012 at 2:02 am #

    Hey Joe,

    I totally agree with what you’ve said. We need fresh ways of speaking about the Story of God as it continues to unfold around us. But I think that the fresh vocabulary flows from fresh encounters with what The God Story. I fear that many Americans have become so familiar with The Story, that we assume that we have understood all there is to know. Since we’ve limited God, and His Story, our vision and vocabulary is limited. But if we would allow God to pull us outside of the fences we’ve built, around what we thought were the edges of our faith, we would be forced to start finding new words to describe all that we encounter there. The writers you names are very good at helping us to see that there is “more”, but I’ve found many people are too “familiar” with the biblical narrative to approach it as though were something else to be uncovered there (I put “familiar” in parenthesis, because this felt familiarity is actually the source of their ignorance of the Story and the resulting contempt). Good stuff man.

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