In a recent book, prolific author and Bible scholar Marcus Borg tackles the subject of Christian language. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words have Lost their Meaning and Power, and How They can be Restored (2011), makes the argument that “Christian language has become a stumbling block in our time. Much of its basic vocabulary is seriously misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike… ’Speaking Christian’ is in a state of crisis in North America. The crisis is two-fold. For many, an increasing number, Christianity has become an unfamiliar language. Many people either do not know the words at all or, if they have heard the words, have no idea what they mean.”
I think Borg’s right, partly anyway. For example, when was the last time you used the words “sanctification”, “righteousness”, “salvation” or “justification”? These, and many more, are words with centuries of common usage behind them, at least common usage in the Church, which for many centuries meant the culture as well. Most are Bible words, in fact, going back millennia. But let’s face it – we just don’t hear such words anymore, whether in Bible study or at the grocery store. Still, what do we do with them? Discard them? Alter them? A slippery slope, it seems to me, I mean altering or changing certain words. This is why I usually don’t allow “The Living Bible” to be read at worship (because it’s a paraphrase rather than a translation, and far too much latitude has been taken in paraphrasing the text in that paraphrase). It’s also why I was quite disappointed to sing “Be Thou my Vision” at worship a few weeks back and discover that the inclusive language police of the UCC had butchered the song’s original and deeply moving poetic brilliance by changing the words.
A few years ago a member of my congregation at the time suggested after worship one Sunday that I should stop using the word “sin.” I may have mentioned this recently. Instead he preferred the word “nature”, our human nature. He reacted negatively to something about that word, didn’t like to hear it spoken at worship, couldn’t connect with it. I suppose some of you may have similar sentiments as well. Perhaps this is why so many churches now have deleted the prayer of confession/words of assurance portion from worship, in a desire to be more positive and encouraging in public worship and to avoid the guilt-inducing confessional prayer (at least as it is often wrongly perceived). So “sin” is gone from many churches. What is put in its place? Often nothing. But is this all faithful? True? In deleting confession from Sunday worship, a practice dating back perhaps 50 years, we have in many cases quite easily, in some cases flippantly, overturned accepted worship orthodoxy spanning denominations, and going back to the origins of Christian worship. Is this a good thing?
So what about salvation, righteousness, even sin, even the word love? Borg suggests we ought to discard the more literal renderings of these words in favour of the metaphorical. Borg is a metaphor enthusiast, that’s for certain, a metaphor junky! He’s inclined to see metaphor in almost every part of Scripture, every tenet of the faith. While that may be popular with critics of Christianity and even some Christians, I’m not sure it is faithful. I’m also not sure it’s accurate – salvation, redemption, righteousness, sin as metaphor. Traditionally “salvation” has been understood within the Christian framework as an actual saving, rescuing, salvific reality brought about by the literal grace of God for humankind, to be experienced (as is almost always the case with Jesus’ most popular topic – the kingdom of God), both in this life and the next. Realized Eschatology is the term given to describe this reality (particularly as it is found in John) – the notion that in Christ somehow the promise of eternity reaches into the present life of the believer. Thus there is a “both now and not yet” element to a word such as salvation, or redemption, or eternity. By transforming the word into the realm of metaphor alone, which Borg suggests, may we not be eliminating the eternal dimensions of the word for the sake of humanizing the concept? And is this faithful? Helpful? True?
Borg always asserts that God primarily cares for and loves this world, the one we live on – now, in the here and now. Yet is it not possible that God cares as well for the world to come, and for what happens to those he so passionately loves now in the next life too? Seems logical. Why would the love stop at death? And we are not deists, are we?
I believe there are larger questions at stake here, questions of identity, questions of discipleship. For if we continue to water down the church’s vocabulary, either by changing supposedly offensive words or deleting their literal meaning in favour of a more palatable, metaphorical meaning, who precisely are we? The church of Jesus Christ or something else, I know not what? Is it better for the Church to embrace its current state of basically being in palliative care mode, continuing to use the vocabulary of the church’s history, or, in the hopes of reversing the trends, change its language or its understanding of its language, become more contemporary, do away with justification, sin, salvation, resurrection?
The words we use matter. Not everything is metaphor in the Christian story. Therefore perhaps the onus is not upon us to change our language to meet with the current common expressions of our day, or to redefine the words metaphorically. Rather perhaps our task is to rediscover the rich, spiritual blessings to be found through the words of our heritage, and share what they mean with others, leaving the ultimate fate of the Church, numerically speaking, to God.
Maybe I’m old-school, primitive, living in the Dark Ages, out of sync with the times, a bit of a prude, but it seems to me that salvation is a powerful, wonderful word of faith. So is redemption, righteousness, sin, and grace.
Food for thought.
God of the ancient and the contemporary, God who is above time as we know it, grant us insight and wisdom as we discern how you wish us to serve, where you wish us to go, what shape you wish the Church to take in bringing your Love to bear in a world in need of a better Way. May we always strive to share our faith in fresh and vital ways, yet not losing contact with the core and foundation of who we are, who we have always been. May your light shine forth from us. May we give glory and honour to you through the worship of our living.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.