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Words Do Matter

By Published On: September 25, 20100 Comments on Words Do Matter

Scholar, Sallie McFague, begins her classic book, Models of God, published in 1987, with the children’s taunt, “Sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” She goes on to say that this childhood bravado has always been a lie. Names do matter and names do hurt, she explains, because “what we call something, how we name it, is to a great extent what it is to us. We are preeminent creatures of language, and though language does not exhaust human reality, it qualifies it in profound ways. It follows then, that naming can be hurtful, and that it can also be healing or helpful. The ways we name ourselves, one another, and the world cannot be taken for granted: we must look at them carefully to see if they heal or hurt.”

Although McFague was primarily concerned in this book in the ways we refer to God in our churches, her critique challenged the whole of Christian spectrum calling the language we use as “anachronistic and hurtful.” This book was written nearly a quarter of a century ago and in spite of prophets and sages like McFague, with some wonderful exceptions, it seems little has changed when I visit churches across the country.

A few years ago I attended a conference being held in a progressive Episcopal Church on the West Coast.  The keynote speakers were well known, published progressive Christians.  One scholar in particular is considered one of the most important leaders of the progressive movement.  After the two day event, several of us attended the Sunday worship service in the church the next morning.  I happened to end up sitting next to this same scholar and was surprised when he stood up at one point, along with the rest of the congregation, and recited something that sounded like the Nicene Creed to me.  After the service, while standing with him in the hallway I asked him if it made him feel uncomfortable reciting things that he had refuted in his own scholarly publications. He explained that for him the creeds were just metaphors. He added that there was something very special about reciting words that had such a long and powerful history.  I seem to recall that he said that it made him feel connected.

I was stunned frankly and did not know how to respond. I remember saying something like: “What about your six year old grand child who is holding your hand and listening to you. Do you explain to her that it is just metaphor? What about the new couple who walked into the church for their first Sunday. Do you put it in the bulletin; ‘“We don’t really mean it folks. It is just metaphor?”’  Our conversation ended there.

Admittedly, I have spent most of my life attending something other than “high church” communities but it was a little baffling to me. Language matters, and when we are speaking, we cannot use footnotes with our words, letting people know that we were being “metaphorical” or that we were just connecting to the ancients of the past. It seems to me that when we start off with “we believe” in a church, what follows is something that we actually believe, without footnotes or explanations.

The facts are Christian creeds were created to divide Christians into those who were right and those who were deemed “wrong” about what they believed. Christian creeds represent some very serious battles throughout history and if you ended up on the losing side, you may have ended up dead, tortured or in prison. These may have been meaningful metaphors for my scholar friend, but they were never a metaphor for hundreds of thousands of innocent people who died because of them throughout history.

Unfortunately, I do not find this issue only in Anglican churches that are bound, to some degree, by the Book of Common Prayer.  I visit a lot of other “mainline” churches that refer to themselves as progressive but frequently find myself surprised by the language that is used throughout the service. Some mainline denominational churches may be progressive on social justice issues but that does not keep them from using language that is, in McFague’s words, “anachronistic and hurtful.” That does not keep them from using language that is theologically regressive, even when they claim to be progressive.

With some wonderful exceptions, I regular hear words like- Redeemer, Lord, Savior and sin, sprinkled throughout the service in everything from the call to worship to the benediction. I often wonder what the people in the pews are thinking when they hear me preach and then stand up and recite something that is completely contrary to the sermon they just told me was wonderful.

I attended an installation service for a dear friend this year and heard most of these words being used throughout the entire service, in readings, music and even by an executive of the denominational staff. The special event was attended by a several visitors and I wondered what they were thinking about the language and what it reflected about the nature of the church. My initial reaction was critical.

I have come to realize, however, that most folks in the pews have probably attended churches like these for most of their lives, and they do not hear their language the same way I do. For them, these words are familiar and comfortable sounds that may even bring back warm childhood memories, but these folks give little thought to the theological meanings or the sociological implications they represent.  For them, it is just “church” and church language that has always been there. For many of them, there is a separation between church and the rest of their lives. They probably do not want to spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning and derivation of these words, or their impact on society, the church, or their grandchild for that matter. It takes time and energy to educate oneself and education often demands a change. Few people come to church for change. Rather they come for comfort and community. But certainly these good people, both clergy, and those in the pews, intend no harm.

I do believe that if someone took the time to unpack these anachronistic words with many of these folks, they might very well be surprised or even shocked.  I have experienced this phenomenon often when teaching a class or doing a workshop. Talk to any of the progressive Christian scholars who speak in local churches across the country and they will probably share a similar story.

The reality is that many of these words and their theological constructs were created in large part by men struggling for leadership in the evolving Christian movements. These same words have undergirded and have even helped create patriarchal societies for far too long.  These societies were too often guided more by men seeking power, than by sincere spiritual experiences or even the teachings of Jesus.

Joan Chittister writes in her wonderful book, Heart of Flesh: “The downward spiral of woman in patriarchal culture, a culture given to the preeminence of father figures over mother-god of earlier civilizations dizzies the mind.” How many women have suffered or have been held back because we have used male terms for a deity that no one can really define.  How many suffer the consequences today?

I believe that same mindset led to the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the so-called witch hunts, misogyny and even the support of slavery, to name just a few of the obvious consequences of words that have taken on power over the centuries.

That may seem like ancient history to some. But what happens to a child who grows up believing that he or she was born flawed and some wonderful, perfect person had to suffer a horrible death to keep them from eternal hell, because of that flaw?  How did it occur that the man, who put his life on the line, in part to teach that we do not need a broker in order to have a relationship with the God within, ended up becoming the “only” powerbroker for anyone who wanted to be right with God?

The need to be “saved” or “redeemed” like a coupon at the store implies that we are incapable of having a direct relationship with the great mystery we choose to call God or always in need of someone else to fix our lives. I believe that this would have been repulsive to the Jesus I have come to know over the last forty years.

What does the twelve year old think when she hears her parents reciting that they believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God?  “The only son of God”-does that mean my Jewish, Muslim, Hindu friends are wrong? Does that mean that only a boy can be a child of God?

Almost any clergy person, who has been to a graduate seminary in the last 30 years, no longer maintains Christian beliefs that were based on Constantine’s and Athanasius’ the Fourth century “reformation,” or more accurately, the “hostile takeover.” But it seems that once they get into churches they tend to fall back to ways of the past and the customary language of the church. The comment that I usually hear is that there are few resources to explain the Christian story in a different way with new language. I suspect that this may be the task for progressive leadership over the next several decades.

In the meantime, I know that there are already some very creative, faithful and spiritually inspired people out there who are doing wonderful things with new interpretations and fresh language while telling the Jesus story. We will make every effort to feature some of these creative people over the next few years, at least until we run out of money, energy or we find that our job is done.

Maybe then we will have a better sense about “words the hurt and those that heal.”

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