Posted by: Billy Marsh | February 9, 2008

Language Games: Christian or Follower of Jesus? (Part II)

About two years ago, I signed up for the Spring Revival Practicum at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and was sent to Craigmont, Idaho to preach a 5 night revival in an obscure SBC church in an obscure Northwestern town consisting of about 200-300 people (the city; not the church). Kim was able to go with me, and it was an incredible ministry experience for the both of us. However, there were a few unique encounters which we had with the citizens and the church folk that are not common for those of us familiar with the Bible belt. One story in particular stands out in my mind, and is relevant to this discussion on the issue of language analysis and the loss of meaning in everyday words, especially religious dialect. 

There was a student who had returned home for spring break after attending his second semester at an Idahoan university. Let’s just say that secular philosophy and academia had already begun to take its toll on him. One night, after one of the services and a brief Halo party with the youth group, he and I had an intense discussion with respect to his desire to remove the title “Christian” from use and reference, and that he only wanted to be associated with Jesus, not Christianity.

He kept correcting me everytime I would refer to him as a Christian by telling me to call him “a follower of Jesus”. He was adamantly against being referred to as a Christian and with the religious community known as Christianity. However, what was even more interesting was the fact that in doing so, his concept of being associated with Jesus consisted of a heightened communal longing. In all actuality, there seemed to be more of a yearning in him to function and live as a member of the body of the church than what is often seen in traditional Christian circles, who have not been shy from demonstrating our individualistic tendencies. But, what must be noted is that his concept of being a vibrant member of the body of Christ was rooted in the universal church, not the local congregation. For this confused, but well-meaning young man, he most definitely would have been proud to claim “Jesusanity” as his preferred religious demarcation of choice if that name had been available at the time (see Part I of this series for an explantion of this thought form and terminology).

Like most debates, we agreed to disagree, and unfortunately, I was not as up to date with Emergent/Emerging church movements and lingo as I presently am, which now as I look back, I recognize that he was probably influenced by those philosophies of ministry since they are more prominent in the Northwest; nor was I keen enough to recognize the presence of a deeper issue at stake than merely wanting to shrug off the baggage of Christianity’s seemingly bad reputation and generalized hypocrisy. Now, I am much more at odds with the current trends, which are growing in influence, that are persuading Christians, most of all young believers, to drop the traditional title for one that is less offensive and one that alludes to a supposed recovery of the person and work Christ, rather than being constrained by the imprisoning chains of orthodoxy and tradition.

Words

In order to properly evaluate this issue, one must determine if words have any inherent meaning that transcend time and context or are they only symbols that point towards some external object, thus, enabling the names to change while not losing the meaning. Well, I’m definitely not the guy to sort all of these philosophical queries out, but there are a few things that I’d like to comment on in order to, in some brief and very surface level way (in terms of “tip of the iceberg”; not shallowness with respect to the quality of the the content), argue that this shift in religious language should not be permissible.

In several of his major works, Francis Schaeffer surveys the change in the philosophy of using religious language, and in particular, he tends to focus on how the existentialist movement gave premission for liberal theologians to highjack traditional, historic Christian language and use it however they pleased. This point pertains to the discussion insofar as words are treated as empty vessels that can be filled with whatever substance the speaker or author chooses. All that seems to matter is what the word connotes rather than what the word ought also define. The separation occurs when verification of objective truth is dismissed, and therefore, the chair is pulled out from underneath us. Today’s Christians are, in a general sense, incapable of using classical religious language such as “catholic”, “apostolic”, or even “kingdom of God” without having to explain what they mean. The words themselves have been so violated that their original meanings can hardly be identified at first sight.

What has occurred that allows words such as “Christian” to be redefined, and in this case, silenced, is that since the modern period, we believe that we can only objectively define words that are able to be tested by science. These words also are perceived as indisputable in the sense that they can be proven and defined historically. Moreover, religious language has often been scrutinized by the scientific community inasmuch as terms such as “soul”, “heaven”, and “faith” are unable to be held under the microscope; thus, these words cannot encapsulate cemented meaning. This terminology falls outside the realm of the natural world; therefore, they are only good for connotation, and are viewed as virtually undefinable.

With reference to the aforementioned conversation between the student and myself, I would like to pose that his freedom in wanting to “put the word Christian to rest”–in the likeness of an old family pet who has meant a lot to everyone, but is very old, unhealthy, and becoming more and more inactive–is empowered from a worldview that has a misunderstanding of religious language’s historical context and a false view of scientific verification.

In Part III, I will continue this analysis hopefully with more help from my fellow brothers in Christ, Schaeffer and Lewis, and maybe even Kevin Vanhoozer.

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