Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Defence of Christianese

Since I haven't posted anything in a while, here's a quick thought. Anyone involved in Church culture is aware of a fear among Christians of using language that alienates outsiders because of its foreignness. We tend to call such language "Christianese". Reading T. F. Torrance's brilliant little book, The Mediation of Christ today, I came to a familiar passage in which he argues that there are certain concepts and words in the Old Testament that have permanent currency for the Church. These concepts and words have such permanency because they form the matrix through which Christ interprets himself to us through his apostles in the New Testament.
...only as we are able to appropriate and understand the Old Testament in its mediation of permanent structures of thought, conceptual tools, as I called them earlier, shall we be in a position really to understand Jesus even though we must allow him to fill them with new content and reshape them in mediating his own self-revelation to us through them.
Among these permanent structures let met refer to the Word and Name of God, to revelation, mercy, truth, holiness, to messiah, saviour, to prophet, priest and king, father, son, servant, to covenant, sacrifice, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, atonement, and those basic patterns of worship which we find set out in the ancient liturgy or in the Psalms. (Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, p. 18)
It seems like Torrance's lists here corresponds almost exactly with the 'Christianese' so many Christians are so desperate to avoid. But if Torrance is right, avoiding such concepts and language makes it impossible for us to speak the gospel in a meaningful way. Use of such language doesn't just make Christians awkward; it is part of what makes us Christians.

If this list of Torrance's really does correspond to the 'Christianese' we don't want to use, this might tell us something about Christianity's continuing discomfort with its roots in Judaism. This list, after all, represents the vocabulary Christianity inherited from Judaism. This language thus might be more appropriately called 'Jewishese' than 'Christianese'. Either way, the discomfort many Christians have today with the particular language we have inherited in the Church certainly mirrors Old Testament Israel's discomfort with their own cultural-religious-national peculiarity as the people of God.

We often speak of wanting to avoid 'Christianese' out of love for those we seek to reach with the message of Christ, and I'm not totally denying a measure of truth in this, but I am suggesting that the primary reason we seek to avoid 'Christianese' is because we don't like the peculiarity of being God's people, we don't like being different for God's sake. Somehow we got the idea that to be good representatives of God we should sound like everyone else; we certainly didn't get that idea from the Bible.