Several nations have recently banned non-Muslims from using Arabic words, including "Allah" for God. Does it matter?
Earlier this morning, I saw a tweet from @JesusofNazareth316: Blessed are they who stop using the word “#missional," which caused me to post something on Twitter and Facebook asking people what their favorite church jargon is — mine being “Missional Imagination.” The response was unbelievable and also quite interesting.
I realized upon reading the #meaninglesschurchjargon tweets that the responses tended to fall into several categories:
1. Mainline Protestant church consultant/bad seminary class lingo. (“Missional imagination”; congregations as “centers for evangelical mission”; pastors as “transformational leaders”; referring to members as “giving units”; and churches “doing life together”) this language has a commonality with corporate jargon and like corporate jargon, refers to the culture and practices related to an organization.
IDEA: Let’s make sure that in seminary classrooms and at church conferences and in congregational life when we use a term or a phrase, that it points to an actual thing or person or event and is not just a string of words that sound like something meaningful but, in fact, lack real meaning. There is a reason that my computer does not recognize the word Missional. Try it at home. Go ahead. Type that shit and see.
A few weeks ago, I asked folks on Twitter, and specifically, my colleague Amy Simpson, who has recently published a book on mental illness and the mission of the church:
What do you think about the way people use words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “manic” when they really mean “moody,” “energetic,” “quirky” and even “fun?"
It’s part of a pattern I’ve noticed lately — and maybe you’ve noticed it too.
People with beautiful head shots, flawlessly designed websites, and enviable accomplishments insist that they are really just a ‘mess.’ Or that their families are ‘crazy.’ Or that their homes and lives are every bit as complicated and frustrating as everyone else’s … meanwhile, their Instagram feeds show nothing but beauty; if ‘chaos’ is there, it’s only ever of the picturesque kind.
There are no birdcages sprouting stalagmites and stalactites of bird droppings. There are no snotty-nosed, unwashed, half-dressed, hungry children who’ve never visited a dentist in their lives. There is food in the fridge and on the table, and it isn’t even growing mold or crawling with roaches or undulating with maggots. In fact, it’s from Trader Joe’s and may even be organic! There is no broken glass or police officers showing up because the neighbors heard screaming. There is electricity and running water and indoor toilets.
Yeah, there’s raised voices and tempers and conflicts. But that makes you human. Not crazy. Not dysfunctional. Not “a mess.”
Until recently, I had always been in the majority. I am Caucasian, middle-class, healthy, and always did well in school. I had never had a personal label others would speak carefully about so as not to offend me. I had never been hurt by words people tossed around ignorantly to describe me. When taught appropriate ways to refer to a racial or ethnic group, I did not exactly understand why some words were preferable over others. Still, because I generally did as I was told, I followed the social rules. It certainly did not make much difference to me. In my preparation to become a teacher, learning “person-first” language (such as, “a child with a learning disability” rather than, “a learning disabled child”) was easy enough, even if I could not identify with the reason behind it.
I still cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be the subject of the examples I described above. However, I have come to a point in life where I am in the minority and the language people choose to use stings and isolates. I am 27, single, and my father has passed away. It seems everywhere I turn in the Christian world — churches, organizations, politicians — I am excluded, because I am not part of a family.
Since state legislators were taken over by the Koch brothers, many progressive clergy have spent our entire discretionary accounts on travel to our state capitals. We attend on behalf of equal marriage, the living wage, campaign finance reform, fracking, or low wage workers. While trying to be faithful, we are, also, in the great words of Joseph Sittler, “macerated” by our citizen involvements.
But an experiment is occurring in North Carolina to de-macerate and reunite our spiritual souls with our political bodies. Instead of episodic lobbying, on Moral Mondays, clergy visit with their representatives as chaplains. They change the language from the pragmatics of the political to the hope of our God. They pass through the wilderness of the secular and its optimism and arrive at the land of hope. They talk about the downtrodden in meaningful ways with state legislators.
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1
I often wonder how frequently people think about the impact their words have on others, specifically, on the development of human perception. The conclusion I’ve sadly reached is that when a language norm is established by dominant cultural forces —such as the news media, in our day – the truth seldom matters. Once something is spoken and repeated enough times people consider it to be true regardless of the real facts or circumstances.
One recent debate clearly illustrating the power of words is around which terminology the media should use when referencing immigrants who are in this country without authorization to work. Those outlets that use the word “illegal” defend this practice by pointing to the Associated Press’ Stylebook, which designates “illegal” as the appropriate term. Those using the term “undocumented” have noted the changing circumstances within the culture and recognize that using such inflammatory terminology only adds fuel to the proverbial political fire around the issue of immigration.
I love to receive letters. When I was a little boy, I lived on a long, straight street and I could see the mail truck coming from a long way off. After the mailman stopped in front of our house, I ran with hope in my heart down our front walkway, between our two giant maple trees and across the street to our mailbox. Would there be a letter for me? Was someone in the world thinking of me?
One day last year it was not the mailman, but a second-grader on the school playground, who handed a letter to me. I unfolded it.
"Dear Mr. Barton, hi it Odeth from 2th grade I miss you a lot I wanted to know about you so much I am being good I am in 4th grade Do you miss me. I live in __________ I go to school in __________ I hope you will come to my school … can you come visit me in school ask for my name…I am 10 year old I want you to come to my school.
Your best student,
What a wonderful thing, to be remembered by a student.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me."
I was sitting outside on the playground bench wiping the tears of a child when this proverb came to mind. It isn’t true, of course. Nancy was a second-grader going through an evaluation process to help us understand why she couldn't read. Kayla was one of her classmates. As they were climbing the ladder of the slide, Kayla yelled out, "Nancy is retarded!"
Words can break our hearts.
When people who have immigrated to another country through methods other than the official legal system are discussed, we hear quite a few words bandied about: “illegal,” “undocumented,” and “alien” just to name a few. The terms are often used interchangeably, but are these terms interchangeable? On NPR’s, Tell Me More, Professor Kevin Johnson, Dean of the law school at the University of California at Davis says no.
“I fear that ‘illegal immigrant’—the term—is a loaded term. It is not as loaded as some of its predecessors like ‘illegal alien’ or ‘wetback,’ but it still is a loaded term,” says Johnson.
I have been actively listening to the words that are used in popular and social media. Our words are used to convey messages, shape cultures, and promote agendas. This is not a criticism, as we all participate in this process. We use words, images, and metaphors to try to shape a preferred precept or concept when we communicate. Our words are loaded with meaning, not just literally, but culturally and symbolically.
Every week, I talk to young men and women who are shaped and guided by the language used in the hip-hop culture. Interestingly, these are not young adults of one ethnicity or socioeconomic background, but young adults from across the spectrum of ethnicity, nationality, and economic status.
It’s been a mind-boggling fortnight at the Internet water cooler. Kony 2012. Mike Daisey’s dubious portrayal of Apple’s manufacturing practices abroad. Questions of whether the “Christian Movie Establishment” is “out to get” Blue Like Jazz … and an Amazon petition to let Rachel Held Evans use the word “vagina” in her forthcoming book, The Year of Biblical Womanhood.
Running through each of these stories and the surrounding debate are similar themes: truth, storytelling, power, persuasion. The online conversation is often vicious and acrimonious, reflecting a trend that’s spurred some writers to leave reader comments unread.
Adding to the intensity of the discussions is that almost each of these controversies involves an effort to change something: the Ugandan geo-political scene; unethical manufacturing practices; ways of talking about religious experience; “Christian” expectations for women. That’s not to say these creators set out with those ends as their foremost goal, but their projects were certainly meant to be more than beautiful or useful.