Christian language

speaking-christian Marcus Borg, a well-respected Christian writer from the States who recently died, has stated that there is a deep problem with Christian language. In the first place Christians use words and concepts which have very little meaning for those who are not part of their community. There is a further problem that Christians themselves are using words in quite different ways from their meaning over past centuries. The people who first coined Christian language would simply not understand the way the same words are sometimes being understood today. Christian language, in spite of the problems surrounding its use and meaning, is of course grounded in Scripture. It also uses words that are familiar through the texts used in worship, hymns and familiar songs. In many ways our experience of God is shaped by the words that we use to talk about him, the language that we have been handed down from the past and which enables us to share and communicate with other Christians.

The first problem that Marcus Borg has identified is that the overall culture no longer understands the Christian and biblical language that is used inside our churches. We can no longer assume, as we once did, that children have a familiarity with the stories in the Bible. There is enormous scope for a distorted understanding of what Christianity is about from the outside. One student that Borg questioned made the following statement: ‘I don’t know much about the Bible, but I think there’s a story in it about a guy in a fish.’ With such ignorance about Scripture widely prevalent both here and across the Western world, exposure to Christian language is likely to produce massive misunderstandings in those who have never hitherto met it. The problem of ignorance is not confined to children in school. Even among those who attend church, surveys have shown that many struggle to name the four Gospels. In my blog I have often complained about the encouragement of passivity in conservative congregations. People listen but often without any curiosity which would challenge or question what they are being told. This is of course not just true in conservative congregations. Passive listening leading to distortions of understanding is commonplace among Christians of every tradition. There is, of course, something very unhealthy in a teaching method which allows one person to stand up in front addressing a group who neither wishes to question nor is encouraged ever to do so.

Borg goes further and spells out reasons for the distortions in the way that the Christian language is understood both within and beyond the community. The first reason for Christian language to be so difficult to share, is that most Christians have a very restricted idea of the overall framework of the faith. He claims that if most Christians were asked to characterise the faith in one sentence, it would be done in what he calls the heaven-and-hell framework. In other words Christianity is thought to be primarily about making it possible for people to have their sins forgiven and giving them access to heaven. There are four central elements to this belief system. The first is the existence of the afterlife. The second is the major part in Christian doctrine played by the ideas of sin and forgiveness. The third is a statement about Jesus’s death being to forgive our sins. Finally Christianity is about believing all this to make a place in heaven a reality. Borg makes the comment that the heaven-hell Christianity is one deeply rooted in a concern about personal sin.

All the big words in Christianity relate, according to Borg, to this heaven-hell framework. Salvation, mercy, repentance, righteousness and Redeemer all belong to this understanding of Christianity. He recognises that for many people such a framework works, in the sense that good lives are lived and the fruit of gentleness, decency and compassion can be observed. But the framework is for Borg and many others a stumbling block and an obstacle to taking Christianity seriously in our time. He claims that it is hard for outsiders to be attracted to the language of Christianity when it is presented in this way, let alone to internalise its meaning and concepts.

The second issue which impoverishes Christian language for Borg is that of literalism. I do not propose to say much about this as my readers will know from previous blogs the tendency for many Christians to believe that words in Scripture must be taken in a literal way. This, as we never tire of saying, strips all poetic, metaphorical and suggestive meaning from the words we use in the context of Scripture. The book which Borg has written is called Speaking Christian. It is his attempt to recover the rich, dense language of Scripture and allow it to speak for itself without the straitjacket of a modern conservative interpretation. Without literalism, without the heaven hell framework, Scripture takes on a totally new life.

Borg sets himself an ambitious project which is to redeem Christian language from its heaven-hell framework and its obsession that literal truth is the only truth. He maintains that Christian language is far richer and broader than is commonly supposed. Historically many Christian people from the past did not work within these particular frameworks and he mentions Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and even Martin Luther. In short Christian language needs to be rediscovered and reinterpreted afresh.

Borg in his final chapter illustrates well how different Christianity looks when it is liberated from the old straitjackets. He writes about the Lord’s Prayer and shows that there is nothing in it to do with whether or not we go to heaven. There is nothing about material success or possessions. There is nothing about belief in or an understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. What the Lord’s Prayer does contain is an understanding of the way the world could be transformed under the rule of God. It shows how Jesus had a passion for a transformed world where the needs of poor, the abused and the disenfranchised would take priority. It is not unreasonable to suggest that God is passionate about the same things as Jesus. In summary God wants a world of justice, peace and reconciliation, a world where people work together to overcome barriers of race, class and nationality. In summary Borg defines Christianity as ‘loving God and loving what God loves’. That sort of Christianity is indeed a challenging one but it would seem to be far more in tune with Scripture than many of the messages we hear from Christian teachers today.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

13 thoughts on “Christian language

  1. hi Stephen – nice to be able to check in again briefly. You’ve picked a central topic with this one!

    Here’s a thought:
    “One student that Borg questioned made the following statement: ‘I don’t know much about the Bible, but I think there’s a story in it about a guy in a fish.’ With such ignorance about Scripture”
    At least this person, though probably very ignorant, offers a starting point of some knowledge – it seems he may have heard about Jonah. At any rate, a conversation could start affirming his “guy in a fish” story, then maybe getting as far as linking Jonah to Jesus, and maybe why Christians often use a fish symbol. It seems to me that any interest, however ignorant, is a starting point, especially if it’s not hostile. Total indifference is the worst problem to overcome?

    1. This was an American student speaking. It seemed extraordinary that living in a country where a huge percentage claim to be ‘born again’ that such ignorance could exist. I am perhaps less optimistic than you that any interest in the deeper aspects of the Christian faith could be aroused. But like you I am making an interpretation on limited information. We will never know. Anyway haiku, it is good to have you back commenting.

  2. A fascinating and engaging, post, Stephen. Thank you. I agree with haiku that you can use where people are coming from, but as you said, not if the only teaching is done from the proverbial six feet above contradiction. Engaging with people on a one to one basis is the way, but the only way you can do this is to energise all Christian people. The few working clergy are never going to be enough to reach everyone.

  3. One point you don’t make directly in your post is, that some people understand and are content when we refer to God as “he”, but others need us to clarify that that means “he/she”.

  4. Another huge problem is that, often unfortunately we Christians don’t know what we mean when we say things.

  5. True. And don’t mean what we say. I don’t mean in a nasty way, nor anything profound, really. But most people aren’t really Trinitarian, for example, whatever they say on a Sunday with the Nicene Creed.

    1. I spent a long time repeating the Creed on Sundays without having much clue what it meant or if it was true, because I thought it was the right thing to do, and I still think that. But if anyone had asked me then what it meant or whether it was true, I would have said I didn’t really know. As Anselm I think said, “I believe in order to understand”. Or as Hamlet said something to the effect of to Gertrud, put on habits of virtue so that they may be realised within you.

      1. Act III Scene IV
        Good night: but go not to mine uncle’s bed;
        Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
        That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
        Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
        That to the use of actions fair and good
        He likewise gives a frock or livery,
        That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
        And that shall lend a kind of easiness
        To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
        For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
        And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
        With wondrous potency. Once more, good night:

  6. “They are spoon feeding Casanova, to get him to feel more assured,
    then they’ll kill him with self confidence, after poisoning him with words”
    ( Bob Dylan, Desolation Row, 1965 Cosmic Stuff!)

  7. I wanted to make clear that I was not criticising everything in the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’, merely the way that it takes on a kind of mantra quality, rather like the recitation of the Creeds. Borg suggests that we get back the perspective on the world that Jesus had, rather just spouting correct formulae. I follow him on that.

  8. Looking back over the years we, (I), were subject to a language of limited definition that confused us absolutely, and at other times a descriptive absolute that worked like a dye in our minds.
    Those who have known this technique used upon them, know the horror of the damage done.

    The exponents, who used this technique with strategic success, entered a mental plane where all moral responsibility was negated, in favour of a greater cause.

    How this was achieved without a word of protest is now part of the debate on this blog.

    I welcome more comments on this, as the survivors need a new road map for the soul?


  9. Learning to recite something is a learning tool. Normal enough, and well known. I think Chris, you are talking about perverting this? It figures, somehow, doesn’t it, that something either harmless or generally good can be used against people.

  10. Thanks E/A

    Yes, my concern is that you start with a historical figure Jesus, and the gospels that for the most part describe a man of compassion. The new age preachers and pastors build up a language around Him and rather like the old ‘three card trick’ they know how to win (Always). You end up with a cartoon character?

    They claim to be in the tradition of ‘reformed theology’ but not so in my experience, it power, when you are under them, you always pick the wrong card!



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