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Community-Specific Language

The other day I received an e-mail from a friend studying philosophy at the University of Victoria.  He wrote: “Kyle, I want you to help me prove the existence of God.”  .  My response to his question was:

“That depends on what God you are talking about.  Are you talking about a God who is intimately knowable, one who becomes incarnate in human flesh and history?  Or, are you talking about a mystical ‘god’ who exists in all transcendence and is removed from human experience and knowledge?  Or are you speaking more philosophically, where the concept of ‘god’ is good for conversation and thought-experiments but little else?”   

I hope he did alright on his paper.

This e-mail got me speaking about the language we use for our faith, and the need to be very specific in our expressions of it.   In a world where spirituality of varying sorts exists all around us, terminology such as ‘god’, ‘love’ ,‘heaven’, and countless others, can be thrown around in many different manners and ways.  What do we mean when we use these terms?  What is more, how does our usage of these terms differ from others?

This may seem like an odd thing to think about, but it seems to me that language we use helps define the very content of our faith.  Not only does it help define the content of our faith, but it immerses us in the very experience of it.  This is no different than how companies in the secular world spend millions of dollars crafting the language or phraseology that will be connected to their company or product.  For example, if you ever go into your local Tim Horton’s and ask for a “Tall, Non-Fat, Extra-Hot, Toffee-Nut, Americano-Misto” the person behind the counter will surely look at you like you’re nuts!    That would probably also hold true if you walked into your local Starbucks and attempted to order a ‘Double-Double.’  The language we use to order our coffees in each of these places is entirely unique to that place.  That language is not only part of the experience but it actually serves to further our understanding of what exactly our experience is.  The language brings with it a story.  We frame our experience by that language.  When we say that we ordered a ‘Pumpkin-Spiced Latte’, everyone (who immerses themselves in that story) knows exactly what our experience is.  Thus, the story in which we immerse ourselves by way community-specific language is a story that is shared by countless others.  Not only does the language detail our individual ownership and involvement with our experience, but it unites us with a host of others who belong to the very story we do.

Well that seems almost religious now doesn’t it? Yet it’s really nothing new.  God’s people have always gathered around a specific language.  This language has been important in defining the story of what it means to be the people of faith.  Probably the greatest example of this is the self definition of God as “I AM”.  The unique thing here is that God is revealed not through popular title or rank but through specific name.  God sidesteps the popular terms for ‘god’ or ‘lord’ and gives to Israel the most unique and cherished of names.  What is more, that name gave definition and expression to Israel’s faith.  The use of “Yahweh” carried with it the specific identity of God as the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ but also the story of their liberation from Egypt.  Israel could not do away with this name any more than they could do away with the defining moment of their history and faith.

We in the church carry this very rational to the name that ‘is above every other name’.  The very name ‘Jesus’ carries with it the very story of our redemption.  After all ‘Jesus’ means ‘the Lord saves.”  It designates him not as spiritual teacher or moral sage, but as the one from whom all redemption and salvation is wrought.  It is as much linked to the incarnation as it is to the crucifixion and resurrection, and thus it breathes into us the reality of what was accomplished through that great act of God.

It seems to me that is the purpose of such community specific language.  It serves to deepen our understanding and experience of the God who dwells with us.  God’s self revelation, first as ‘Yahweh” then as ‘Jesus’, occurs out of God’s desire to be connected.   It serves not to limit one’s understanding of God but to deepen it.   It defines the very experience that is found in the community of faith; it gives voice to what it means to be people created by God and redeemed by Christ.   Community specific language then, like the ones we see Starbucks, Tim Horton’s and the history of our faith, is not  touted for the exclusion of others, but actually as a manner to invite others in.  .

How do you think ‘community specific language’ aids or hinders the expression of our faith?  Do you think there are unique and distinctive terms in Christian faith?  If so, what are they?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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0 Responses to Community-Specific Language

  1. There’s a book “The Gospel According to Starbucks” that hints at the same idea, how the culture will adapt into the language of a coffee shop yet we still have times of difficulty when we engage in church-speak.I found myself getting into tea-speak recently at a lovely loose tea store while my friends gaped at me; they’ve not yet engaged in the nuances of tea the same way I have.  Imagine, however, if we all did try to engage in church-speak as deeply as we do in our caffeine orders… I think I’ll be pulling that book out again for a quick glance – thanks for the inspiration Kyle! (you’ve also inspired me to hit up the coffee machine again before Bible Study!)

  2. Kyle Norman

    Thanks LauraMarie

    Len’s Sweet’s “Gospel according to Starbucks’ is perhaps his best – Definately ahve it on my shelf.  I remember reading it and thinking that he hints at distinctive language, but doesn’t actually give a big treatise on it.  But it seems to me that the language of Starbucks (and Tim’s) is crucial to the experience that is found in those places.  I actually asked my brother about this (who is a Starbucks Manager and trainer) – and he commented that the language is important to the company ethos and outlook.

    I sometimes get concerned when we in the church try to ‘do away’ with the distinctiveness of our language in order to make it more palatable to others.  Let’s not talk of ‘sin’ let’s speak of ‘unfulfilled potential’.  I often wonder if these subtle changes have an impact to the very fabric of our faith.

  3. re: your last paragraph ‘I sometimes get…’ Is this a reaction by you to the attitude of ‘Relevance’?  I think you have hit the nail on the head the impact to the fabric of our faith.

    There is a very old principle ‘Lex orandi,lex credendi”  — the (way) of prayer (reflects) the belief (of the pray-er) This principle is just  as applicable today as it was when it was first formulated. So sloppy, poorly thought-out language certainly reflects our approach to the  ‘Faith.’  Sin, salvation, redemption – whaddya mean ‘sin?’  ‘Saved’? Redeemed? gimme a break I’m just as good as the next guy….

    Wouldn’t have been that way a century ago; not even in say 1962 when the new BCP came out. There was a ‘dignity’ to worship and the faith which underlay it.

    (Maybe you can guess, I’m not a great fan of the BAS)

    Anyway Sin= unfulfilled potential suggests to me that for example; you stole $10,000 but with just a bit more effort you could have had  100,000. Now that’s “unfulfilled”.

  4. Sharon Harding

    Interesting post Kyle.. thank you.

    I also wanted to comment on your last paragraph. I understand your concerns, but do wonder how to make our church language understandable for those who are not familiar with theological terms or the imagery in our prayer books. It is interesting to talk to people who have no Anglican background. They find our liturgies quite bizarre and macabre. I do think we have to be very careful when trying to make the language understandable to others though. For me substituting “unfilled potential”l for “sin” does not honor the original meaning of the word, so it completely changes the meaning. That has the potential to lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

    Laurie Marie I’ll engage in tea speak with you anytime 🙂

  5. To piggyback on @sharon-harding‘s comment: I find that the words “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” are very powerful, especially in comparison to “forgive us our sins.” The imagery of crossing over boundaries we should not cross–boundaries of personal space, perhaps, really speaks to me. The word “sin”, on the other hand, probably means something different to all of us… and I sometimes wonder how people outside of the church would define it?

    And all that being said, perhaps the most appropriate translation for the current economic state might be to go back to talking about debts and debtors. 😉

  6. Afra Saskia Tucker

    Great post Kyle! You’ve presented a very compelling account.

    Sharon-Harding’s observation about the non-initiated finding Anglican liturgies “bizarre and macabre” really resonates with my experience.

    I also really appreciate Jesse’s comments about the currency of the language of trespassing and debts.

  7. Finally have a couple of moments free to respond. Kyle – this issue of language is absolutely critical for me in my work on campus – most students have either not encountered religious/Anglican language before – or if they have, there are some ‘interesting’ associations with some of the words (LOTS of damage from heavy evangelical doom & gloom preachers). I find I have to work hard to find language that allows for communication. But part of the key here is to be involved in dialogue – so that becomes a large part of what I do on Sunday mornings in the college chapel, with the small group who gathers for worship. In place of a sermon, we often talk about the language we use in the liturgy, or that was used in the scripture that day – and what it means for us now… and a lot of that needs to be fluid.