Posted by: Billy Marsh | February 15, 2008

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

As I said in Part II of my series on “Language Games,” I’m definitely not an expert literary critic and am by no means the guy who can answer all of your questions or objections to my argument, much less the whole topic at hand. Furthermore, I listened to a podcast this week where a man, who is a very respectable and reliable theologian/philosopher, critiqued the blogging world for being such an open forum for too much opinion that is presented as fact, but normally goes untested, unquestioned, and often, not substantiated by credible research. So, I don’t want to fall into that camp; I do, however, believe that blogs can be used properly and effectively so long as those of us who are blogging for the cause of Christ remain humble and careful. As one of my favorites Bible verses to quote says, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (Proverbs 10:19; NIV).”

Thus, in attempting to address this very serious issue, I do not propose to be the rightful one to throw down the sledge-hammer argument in ultimate refutation. However, I am in full assurance that the issues which I am trying to raise and answer are convincing, supported by reliable sources (not only those that I cite in the posts), logical, valid, and are backed by Scripture. In addition, hopefully some of the apologetic arguments that I provide in these posts are geared towards the same end as anything else which I write on “Joy in the Journey” is aimed, namely for the equipping of the saints. So, I pray that these will assist you all in developing a foundation for answering some of today’s lingering questions.

It isn’t surprising to see postmodern church movements taking orthodox Christian language and retaining the word symbols along with their basic connotations, but refilling them with a distorted substance without remorse or reservation. When only objective truth is believed to be substantiated within the scientific community, that is, pertaining to the natural world, then any type of religious language is left emptied, and is placed on the market for subjective reuse. However, doesn’t the word “Christian” have more inherent meaning and objective content to it than merely to function as a title of a certain religious community? The word itself not only identifies someone with a particular group (Christianity) and a specific person, namely Jesus Christ, but also a whole world of theological presuppositions and doctrines that do much more than simply serve as connotation for an external object; the term ought to also have the ability to define, not just induce certain affections.

Here’s an example of the kind of things that are being said in some of the current trends today:

To know Jesus is not an event, a ritual, a creed, or a religion. It is a journey of trust and adventure. We don’t believe in any religion anymore–including Christianity–but we do believe in following Jesus. . . . Why do we need a name and address to be a church? We’ve come out of religion and back to God. ~ Emerging Churches, Gibbs & Bolger (2005), p. 47

Now listen to Francis Schaeffer’s prophetic words that describe the influence of secular existentialsim on theology in Escape from Reason from 1968:

One hears the word ‘Jesus’, one acts upon it, but it is never defined. The use of such words is always in the area of the irrational, the non-logical. Being separated from history and the cosmos, they are divorced from possible verification by reason downstairs (rational world), and there is no certainity that there is anything upstairs (non-rational world) (53).

Schaeffer’s critique is almost identitical to the declaration of the man quoted in the first quote. In the statement from Gibbs and Bolger’s book, referencing “Jesus” is utilized in order to conjure up a certain response or idea in the reader’s mind. This is how the pastor who made the statement is able to disconnect “Jesus” from being attached to any ritual, creed, or religion. “Jesus” by himself is presupposed to have the force to cause the informed reader to think certain thoughts.

For example, if I were to say that my friend plays basketball like Michael Jordan, I wouldn’t have to fill in the blanks as to what connection I’m trying to make in your brain concerning the skills of my friend (within this culture of course). Just by mentioning Jordan’s name, many thoughts and affections are stimulated without giving a specific definition not only of who Michael Jordan is, but also of specifically what it means to play like Mike. Thus, his name can be used as a connotation word and utilized in many different scenarios or converstations that wish to say someone is the best or extremely good at what he or she does. However, we don’t proceed to say that we want to play like Michael Jordan the person, yet deny his unseverable connection to basketball, the NBA, and all the many stats and records that manifest just how incredible of a player he was.

So why is it that we think we can be like Jesus apart from all the many things that make up who he is and what he has done? The name “Jesus” must not be reduced to only a connotation word that evokes ideas of goodness, charity, and caring for the poor and social outsiders. “Jesus” must connote those things as well as encapsulate the theological definitions that represent who he is in terms of his humanity, deity, sovereignty, and so forth and so on. We can only lean so hard on “Jesus” the word symbol to initiate certain ideas about who Christ is before we have to start answering people’s questions who want to go beyond the surface that he was a good, moral teacher. As soon as you begin to explain what it means to be a follower of Jesus, experiential definitions will only get you so far. The above quote almost gives the understanding that to know Jesus is purely through experience, namely, “a journey of trust and adventure.” Though I would agree with that statement in part, I must go on to ask, “In whom am I placing my trust? And moreover, why should I trust him with my life?” These type of questions demand a definitive response. When only experience is stressed as the necessary components for “knowing Jesus”, immediately one is left with the feeling that a person could have incorrect ideas about Jesus and his being, and that would be completely permissible. However, to pass over major doctrines which our forefathers who risked their lives to defend Christianity, often by means of creedal statements, could result in many people not following the “Light of the world,” but instead “an angel of light” (Jn 8:12; 2 Cor 11:14; Mt 7:21-23).

I sympathize with the postmodern observation that recognizes the bad repute that the word “Christian” can at times connote; however, that is not sufficient warrant to give up the title and create something new and fresh that hasn’t been tainted by the corruptness and hyporcisy of men’s hearts. Like in the Gibbs and Bolger quote, I too am a follower of Jesus. But I settle myself under the nomenclature of Christianity in order to, in general, define and connote what I mean by aligning myself with the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Cross

The name “Christian” has too much historical bearing to be considered only a meaningless word symbol that now needs to be deconstructed and rebuilt to stand for a less contaminated Christian theology. From a Christian point of view, we know that language can contain objective truth and content because the natural world is not all that exists. Even still, scientific laws cannot be tested exhaustively and cannot be known in totality due to man’s finite epistemology. However, we can have true knowledge without having to have exhaustive knowledge, and this goes for both the seen and unseen world.

Furthermore, the word “Christian” has been historically known not only as a marker for a religious community, but also as a concept that defines and distinguishes a particular type of theology from all other belief systems. In fact, the word originated in Scripture and was more than likely coined by non-believers in speaking of 1st-century believers (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16). Thus, what has been commonly held and believed to be true about Christ since the early church, has been referenced in the term “Christian”. The word itself has developed a sound, foundational meaning that has been shared across time and across borders, handed down through generations and translated into other languages.

From the observation of the postmodernist, we ought to acknowledge our failure to live up to what the title “Christian” means, and use this critique for a chance to humble ourselves and repent. Still, changing the name simply will not fix the problem. Once again, language is not the issue. We must not give in to the temptation to place the blame on someting external to ourselves. Christianity, and even Jesusanity at that, will not have a better reputation in the world until men’s hearts are what is changed. To see what C. S. Lewis has to say on this issue, be on the lookout for Part IV in this series.

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Responses

  1. This word game reminds me of politically correct attempts to reengineer how we think of certain conditions by giving them a new name. For example, “differently abled” for handicapped, gay for homosexual, mentally challenged for retarded, etc.

    These attempts always fail because the connotations attach to the underlying meaning of the term, not to the term itself. And if the older term had negative associations, it is only a matter of time before the new term has them too. You can’t change how people view certain situations simply by renaming them; it fools nobody.

    Great blog, btw.

  2. That was a very thought-provoking article. Excellent background on language and postmodernism. One of the most important “contributions” made by postmodern theologians has been the redefinition and expansion of words etc. The simple task of changing a belief system starts by tampering with hymns – making God, for example, gender neutral.
    We would like to feature this article on our blog. Consider joining the Christians Against Leftist Heresy blogroll at http://christiansagainstleftistheresy.blogspot.com/

  3. Thanks for the affirmation and encouragement. I was hoping I’d get some reponses from these posts. Their subject matter is very relevant and quite prominent. I believe it is D. A. Carson in his book on the Emergent Church who says that the main issue at stake in postmodernism is epistemology. I agree wholeheartedly, and this truth has been evidenced in the breakdown of language, especially religious language. Thanks for the invitation to your site. I will look into it. In Christ, Billy


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